To fight academic boycotts, we must mobilize the pro-Israel left

We need to connect professors to their communities in a systematic initiative. This will take serious work – and serious funding.

By Nora Gold / Jewish World blogger | Jan. 21, 2014 | 10:07 PM

Since the Association of American Studies’ decision last month to boycott Israeli universities, followed by the possibility of a similar action this month by the Modern Language Association, there’s been a lot of analysis and commentary, but not much written about what can be done to prevent further boycotts. The American Jewish community’s response to the ASA boycott was, typically, to enlist the public support of powerful politicians and university presidents, which was obviously helpful. But this was a reactive, rather than pro-active, strategy, and we need to start taking some pro-active steps.

One step we can – and must – immediately take is to create a worldwide, well-organized partnership between left-wing pro-Israel professors and their local Jewish communities, with branches of this initiative in every major city where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has a presence.

There’s reason to think this plan could be effective: It’s based on research. Six years ago I conducted a study of 80 pro-Israel Canadian professors (mostly left-wing), and the result of that research was to propose this partnership plan. What triggered this research altogether was my observation that the Jewish community’s main approach to fighting anti-Israelism on campus was to mobilize pro-Israel students, and this seemed incomplete. Students are on campuses just temporarily. The only people who are there for the long haul are the professors, and therefore only they can significantly influence the culture of a university. So I thought it was crucial to start mobilizing the professors. But not just any professors — specifically those on the left who are also pro-Israel. Why? Because real change only occurs from within, so if we want to change/educate the (anti-Israel) left, the only people who can do this are those on the (pro-Israel) left.

I conducted this research, then, to discover if there was, in Canada, a group of pro-Israel left-wing academics willing to be mobilized for this purpose. With the support of a committee of the Canadian Jewish community, I conducted one-hour, one-on-one phone interviews with 80 tenured professors, mostly Jewish, and coming from four universities across two provinces and from 28 different disciplines. In these interviews, I inquired about these professors’ experiences of anti-Israelism within their disciplines, departments, and universities, and what, if anything, they had done in response.

Their answers were interesting. These professors’ experiences varied both by university and by discipline. At the two older, more conservative universities, there was relatively little anti-Israelism, and this was also true in disciplines like science, medicine, law, and management. But in the other two universities, or in the social sciences and humanities, many professors described an uncomfortable, even fearful, atmosphere. (This atmosphere is vividly depicted in my forthcoming novel, “Fields of Exile,” the first novel about anti-Israelism in the academe.)

It was heartening, though, to hear that many of these left-wing professors had taken action against the anti-Israelism in their departments or disciplines. And heartening, too, that the overall answer to the question behind this research was positive: Yes, there was a group of politically progressive, pro-Israel professors in Canada who were willing to get involved in fighting anti-Israelism on their campuses. On one condition, though. They needed help. Among other things, they needed workshops (or “crash courses”) on Israel so they could respond more confidently and effectively to their colleagues’ anti-Israel critiques. To me this made sense. After all, why would a Jewish professor of linguistics automatically be an expert on the geopolitical history of the Middle East?

So in the final section of my research report, I recommended that the Canadian Jewish community establish a network of left-leaning, pro-Israel professors that would span Canada’s six major cities, in essence erecting a line of intellectual defense across the country. This recommendation was not implemented. Some in the Canadian Jewish community were skeptical about investing in professors’ groups, claiming that professors should self-organize on a volunteer basis. Obviously there are some self-organized professors’ groups that do excellent work, like the longstanding Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) in the United States and ENGAGE in the United Kingdom, and the one-month-old International Grass Roots Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Integrity (IGRFCAFI).

What I recommended six years ago, though, and am recommending again now in expanded form, is something far too large for professors (being full-time employees) to organize in their spare time. What we need is a systematic, worldwide initiative with branches in every major city where BDS has a foothold. Such a project requires serious funding. The proponents of BDS, unfortunately, are well-enough funded that they can support a network of well-trained BDS activists on campuses around the world, and unless we match their level of commitment to this struggle, we have no chance of winning it.

Another barrier six years ago to implementing the recommendation of this research was the mainstream Jewish community’s mistrust of, and disrespect for, left-wing Jews. This attitude, luckily, has recently begun changing, with some communal leaders now appreciating that pro-Israel Jewish lefties are a valuable resource for them. Simultaneously, some left-wing pro-Israel academics have started recognizing the values they share with the mainstream community.

So the time is now ripe for some serious collaboration between left-wing pro-Israel professors and their local federations. If these two groups can reach out to each other and build strong local partnerships, these partnerships — as part of a worldwide initiative — can be a significant force in fighting the BDS movement and future boycotts.

I hope this happens. Because in the BDS war so far, we are not winning, and time is not on our side.

Dr. Nora Gold is an activist, fiction writer, and former professor, and the creator and editor of the online journal Jewish Fiction .net. Her forthcoming book, “Fields of Exile”, is the first novel about anti-Israelism in the academe, and will be published this May. For more information about Gold, visit her website or her pages on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.