Professor schools audiences on real goal of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is the anti-Israel approach of choice on college campuses across the nation these days. Framed as a pro-peace, pro-justice struggle, its proponents say it will level the playing field so Palestinians and Israelis can live together in peace.
But, according to Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, BDS is not about peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, nor about improving Palestinian life, but rather about delegitimization of Israel that whitewashes Israel’s enemies, contests Israeli national rights and promotes anti-Semitism.
Nelson termed BDS a “bait and switch” before an audience of 100 community members and students at Eastern Michigan University on Nov. 19. He also spoke at Michigan State University and University of Michigan.
Activism is nothing new for Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Coming from decades as a leading proponent of academic freedom, he sees BDS as a threat to academia as much as he sees it as a misguided and misinformed effort that discourages peace. Not one to shy away from controversy, he explained, “My virtue and my fault is I say what I believe.”
Nelson began with a plea to eliminate emotionalism.
“Powerful emotions get in the way of solving these problems,” he said, calling emotion a “war by other means.”
“I prefer cold reason toward achieving a just peace,” he said.
Listing legitimate grievances from both parties, he said, “I believe in empathy for both people, but I will not dramatize either side’s pain. I take all that for granted and more. There can never be a just peace without compromises on both sides.”
Nelson sees Israel’s security barrier — that roughly adheres to Israel’s pre-1967 borders — as a step toward peace.
“The Wall is a reason for hope,” he said, because it can lead to a division of land necessary for a two-state solution. He called for “political maturity” from Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel’s rights as a nation.
“West of the Wall should be considered politically irrelevant” to Palestinian leadership, Nelson said. “There is no reason to just go bonkers. They should focus efforts east of the Wall.”
The Real Results Of BDS
Nelson challenged the students, asking, “Do you know what you are endorsing?” and cautioning them against “ignorant political action.”
As an example, he quoted BDS principles calling to end “all occupation of all Palestinian lands” noting there is no definition of what are legitimate Palestinian lands or recognition of any Israeli land. It is not unreasonable, especially given the views of the top BDS organizers, to read the statement as calling for the elimination of Israel.
Likewise, he said every major BDS spokesperson not only calls for a “right of return” for Palestinians, but, in fact, “insists on it.” The idea that millions of descendents of Palestinians directly affected by the establishment of Israel in 1948 can take over Israel will never be accepted by Israel.
“They bait you with the idea of return of land, but give you a highly contested issue that will only lead to open war,” he said.
Challenging BDS’ insistence on spurning interaction with Israeli academics, educational institutions and political entities, he said it hinders academic freedom. Nelson ridiculed the idea that if BDS was adopted there would be no discrimination against Israelis as long as they disassociated themselves from Israel, and quoted BDS documents to restrict collaborations, publishing, travel abroad and even writing recommendations for students who choose to study in Israeli universities.
“When you close down programs you close down people’s options,” Nelson said.
Citing Israeli innovation on “drip irrigation” — a major agricultural achievement that grows food with less water — he noted that BDS does not allow for Palestinian and Arab collaboration or learning, which only harms their communities.
“BDS offers nothing of real value to the Palestinians,” Nelson said. “It offers no path to peace. It is a chimera. It does absolutely nothing for the people.”
Plus, it is counterproductive in that “it hardens Israeli hearts and discourages contacts,” he added. “They oppose all projects to build empathy and reconciliation. BDS rejects rational discussion.”
Nelson also called for open discussion about the role and impact of anti-Semitism on BDS and other anti-Israel movements.
“Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’s moral salvation. BDS supporters need to be investigating themselves on this issue rather than going ballistic whenever anyone brings it up,” he says. “There should not be a prohibition about investigating the anti-Semitic underbelly of the BDS movement.”
Even with pure intention “the promotion of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish hostility is the effect,” he said. “You get the feeling that they don’t really care about the fate of Israeli Jews.”
“This was an opportunity that was needed here on campus,” said Dan Morris, a psychology major from Ypsilanti who worked to bring Nelson to campus. “A lot of people are misinformed, and we were about to provide honest and unbiased truths. BDS truly has no positive end goal in sight.”
By Don Cohen, Contributing Writer