Influential academics organize to counter boycott movement on college campuses

Influential academics organize to counter boycott movement on college campuses

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by what they called “Orwellian efforts” by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to link Israel with a multitude of free speech issues roiling college campuses across the United States, a group of influential academics launched the Academic Engagement Network.

Led by Mark G. Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California System, and Kenneth Waltzer, former director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, the Academic Engagement Network has taken it upon itself to combat “Orwellian efforts to link Israel with a multitude of issues, from the shootings in Ferguson to high levels of student tuition.”

“In the face of activities aimed at vilifying Israel, AEN members will facilitate robust and civilized discussions relating to Israel on campuses, promote academic freedom and freedom of expression, stand for human rights for Arabs and Jews, and engage colleagues and students to better understand these complex issues,” Yudof, the network’s chair, said this month in a statement.

Network members, including several past presidents of Washington-area universities, will act as resources on their campuses and provide advice to their academic colleagues on how to address anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities without trampling on free speech.

A manual titled “Academic Freedom and BDS: A Guide for University Presidents and Administrators” is in the editing stages with a release date of early January, in time for the spring semester.

Stephen J. Trachtenberg, president emeritus of the George Washington University in Washington, described the group as concerned academics who “have devoted themselves to making it possible for people from all points of view … to speak candidly and without disruption.”

During the last few years, some members of pro-BDS groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine have taken to shouting down invited Israeli guest lecturers.

In early November, Assi Azar, an Israeli television personality and LGBT rights advocate, was interrupted during a discussion of his film “Mom, Dad, I have Something to Tell You” at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Last winter, masked protesters wielding electronic noisemakers and carrying signs reading “Ferguson, Pittsburgh, Gaza, Fight Back,” disrupted a talk by a former Israel Defense Forces medic on gender roles during wartime. Campus police eventually intervened. The event was co-sponsored by a pro-Israel student group at the University of Pittsburgh.

Preventing invited guests from speaking, and providing misinformation, are among the methods BDS employs that Trachtenberg and his fellow AEN board members describe as “anti-intellectual” and as harmful “for peace and for academic freedom.”

“On some campuses, certainly, issues that are either popular or unpopular off-campus in the larger community sometimes find a way to the campus and it causes no small degree of indigestion, if you will,” said H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of Howard University in Washington. “But I’ve never been one to be persuaded that silence or simply just going along [is the right path].”

Swygert, who has been an academic for nearly four decades and has taught in Israeli universities, said he has heard “obvious untruths about the State of Israel with no rebuttal.”

It is a university president’s duty, he said, to “be clear in the sense that the university has values and one of them is free speech in contrasting and opposing ideas.”

There is a space for serious debate on Israel if “the president is able to articulate what the reality is of Israel as an open democratic society in a volatile part of the world,” said Swygert.

Trachtenberg agreed, saying that he would like to see robust debate, perhaps in the same vein as the Oxford University debate on BDS that pitted liberal American lawyer and staunch Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz against British human rights activist Peter Tatchell. Dershowitz was declared the winner of the November 2015 debate.

“We ourselves are critical of Israel. We don’t claim perfection for Israel and no one expects us to do that,” said Trachtenberg. “We’re not afraid of fair criticism of Israel. … We simply think that the kind of advocacy, behavior that BDS advocates is bad for universities, bad for scholarship, [and a] bad way for advocating their position.”

For Trachtenberg, his affiliation with AEN “transcends the issue of Israel.”

“It has to do with what I’m focusing on, which is the American university,” said Trachtenberg. “[We need] to enable deliberations which are based on facts rather than opinion.”

AEN national advisory board members include: Gabriella Blum, Harvard University; Scott Cowen, Tulane University; Larry Diamond, Stanford University; Rabbi David Ellenson, Brandeis University; William “Brit” Kirwan, University System of Maryland; Deborah Lipstadt, Emory University; Rachel Moran, UCLA; Geri Past, Israel Action Network; Steven Pinker, Harvard University; Dan Rodrigues, Northwestern University School of Law; Ricardo Romo, University of Texas at San Antonio; Steven Davidoff Solomon, University of California Berkeley; and Lawrence Summers, Harvard University.

Melissa Apter covers politics for Mid-Atlantic Media. She can be reached at