The growing controversy over Brooklyn College’s hosting of an upcoming panel discussion about boycotting, sanctioning, and divesting from Israel is just the latest episode of what is sadly becoming a familiar pattern. A pro-Palestinian student group plans a campus event that will be highly critical of Israel, some Jewish students feel offended and antagonized, soon individuals and groups from outside the university get involved and denounce the event, news of the controversy quickly reaches the media whose coverage then fans the controversy further, external pressure is then applied on the university administration to cancel or modify the event, and this pressure is then immediately denounced as a threat to academic freedom. Press conferences are held, public statements are issued, petitions are signed, and eventually the event is held. Organizers of the event proudly proclaim it as a victory against those who wish to silence all criticism of Israel. Whatever was actually said at the event is much less significant than simply the fact that it took place at all.
Although the details differ, a similar sequence of events occurred in March 2012 when the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University hosted a conference on the “One-State solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and when a national conference of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was held at the University of Pennsylvania in February 2012. In both these cases, the conferences went ahead, while attracting a lot of publicity and criticism. The same outcome is likely to happen with the panel discussion at Brooklyn College.
Let’s assume that those who are now trying to pressure the administration of Brooklyn College to cancel the event or force the political science department to withdraw its sponsorship are doing so sincerely, motivated by their political and moral convictions, and not by their personal or political ambitions. Let’s assume, then, that they truly believe that they are acting in defense of Israel. If so, they should ask themselves: how is this really helping Israel?
Rather than helping Israel, the attempt to curtail discussion on college campuses of the BDS movement, the one-state solution, or other highly controversial issues concerning Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only serves to help publicize these issues and the organizations that champion them—the event at Brooklyn College is now international news having been reported in the New York Times and in the Guardian newspaper in Britain. The organizers of this event could not have dreamed of this kind of publicity.
If attracting public attention to the BDS movement or the one-state solution is one problem for Israel caused by its over-zealous American supporters, another is the way in which supporting Israel is being pitted against defending academic freedom. When opponents of the BDS movement try to prevent universities from hosting discussions about it and university departments from sponsoring such discussions, the issue at stake immediately becomes one of academic freedom—not the legitimacy or wisdom of BDS. Instead of a debate about BDS, it becomes a debate about academic freedom.
This is not the kind of debate that Israel’s supporters should be encouraging. Turning the BDS movement into an issue of academic freedom is deeply misguided and counter-productive for Israel. Not only does it lead defenders of academic freedom to align themselves with advocates of the BDS movement, but also it suggests that supporting Israel means suppressing academic freedom. What kind of message does it send, especially to college students, when the most strident supporters of Israel appear to be trying to prevent discussion of certain subjects? If supporting Israel seems to require opposing academic freedom, then many people will choose academic freedom over Israel.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of trying to silence discussion of BDS on college campuses, Israel’s supporters should be joining the discussion. There are many strong arguments against the BDS movement that can and should be made. It is far better to make these arguments than trying to prevent the discussion from happening altogether. Such an effort is bound to fail, and it will only be bad for Israel.