Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois who is a leader in effort to counter BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), last week described BDS as a burgeoning political movement in the U.S. akin to the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era. The Gaza war has given impetus to the movement, he said in the video below:
We did not prepare for the level of uncontrolled hatred we faced since the war in Gaza. It has changed, and the level of hatred is tenfold what it was a year ago, and our job is very hard.
Nelson even conceded that Israel ought to change its policies so as to defang the BDS movement before it becomes a “security threat” to Israel — say by removing some settlements east of the wall — but the thrust of his speech at a Tel Aviv University panel on fighting academic boycotts of Israel, was that a group of Pied Pipers in the U.S. who hate Israel are bewitching students and faculty and bringing them into “alternative communities” that provide them with a social and political cause. This movement has so intimidated Israel supporters that they “stand down… in silence.” Innocent students and faculty derive meaning from the movement.
“We’re going to a drink after the BDS panel. Want to come along?” [they say]. You’re brought into a network of human beings and you begin to ground your identity there. Some of course are therefore persuaded that BDS should become their primary political cause, the center of their political life. Some become completely obsessed with BDS activism…
And “we’ve passed a Rubicon,” Nelson went on, where support for BDS defines some instructors’ “professional identity,” and they feel a moral duty to recruit their students in BDS promotion in classrooms.
And I think really we haven’t seen anything like that in any way comparable since the Vietnam War. It’s a large shift, if what it means to teach if instead of presenting views, you actually want to bring students in line with your own political convictions.
Nelson’s speech, which was sponsored in part by the Jewish Federations, the largest Jewish organization in the United States, contained a giant blindspot. Apart from his fleeting reference to the Gaza war and the settlements, there was no acknowledgment that activists in the U.S., including their young recruits, are responding to real events that disturb them. He mocked the appeal to which students respond: “Justice and equality– you don’t have to think beyond that.” It’s an “illusion,” he said. And as to the apartheid wall that activists constructed on his campus in Urbana-Champaign, Nelson said with a sneer:
“I’ve only looked at it once, I’m never going to look at it again.”
Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank cannot make that choice. But throughout his speech, Nelson identified himself with Israelis. He said he preferred speaking at Tel Aviv University to US venues because he gets heckled in the U.S. And he said that fighting BDS will surely shift Israelis’ “attention from more pressing military challenges.” And what could those military challenges be? Maybe the necessity of killing 2100 Palestinians in Gaza last summer, including 500 children, which shocked the world.
This was the insensitivity at the heart of Nelson’s speech. He seemed unaware of how much public opinion worldwide has been galvanized by the Gaza slaughter. Much as massacres in Vietnam helped to consolidate an antiwar movement inside the U.S. 45 years ago: People weren’t deluded, they were upset and needed to do something. BDS is a nonviolent movement aimed at isolating Israel and changing its behavior, and it has attracted great support from young people who don’t feel represented by their government’s statements, let alone the Jewish Federations. Of course, some in the movement are dedicated to ending the Jewish state, ending an official system of Jewish privilege. But its thrust is human rights, equality.
Nelson soon had the rug pulled out from under him by Dalit Baum, the Israeli feminist, BDS activist and leader of Who Profits. To the Tel Aviv University forum’s credit, Baum was granted an opportunity to speak from the audience at 13:00 of the video below. She took on the organizers’ cluelessness about what is shaping up in the U.S. The academic boycott of Israel targets a specific issue, she said: Israeli institutions are “complicit in the Israeli occupation.” (Big audience Yikes).
Now you may not agree with that but you have to deal with that. You have to deal with the facts.
Baum spoke of official efforts by universities to suppress BDS.
What we are seeing is a coordinated attack on any kind of criticism of Israel. Especially in the U.S., and now it’s creeping into Israel.
She addressed Israel’s policies and American support for them:
You ask why there is more criticism of Israel in the world? Because of Israeli policies! Read the news– seriously! Seriously! (Grumbles from the audience).
And still, the dominant views and the dominant hegemonic structures in the US are totally pro-Israeli. When it comes to the vote in the Senate, you get 100 votes pro-Israel, you get the tremendous support of the U.S., you get get the vetoing power.
Jewish students on campus have to face this growing criticism. It’s unpleasant. Young people have to hear that they live in a complex world. They live in a place where there is criticism over some things that they thought from kindergarten that there is no problem… This is part of education and freedom of speech ..This is what students are supposed to feel and hear and encounter on campus.
You have to deal with the facts. What a simple and powerful statement. Cary Nelson thought he was getting a safe place to speak, inside the Tel Aviv bubble. But nearly a half century of occupation and Gaza have shifted the ground under our feet.