In April 2013, a little-known academic group called the Association for Asian American Studies approved a resolution to boycott Israeli universities, on the grounds that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians placed the nation’s academics outside the bounds of decency. In so doing, the Association was striking a blow on behalf of the so-called BDS movement—the effort by activists to impose boycotts on Israeli goods, force divestments from Israeli companies, and impose sanctions on Israel internationally. The AAAS adopted its boycott after a “secret ballot vote” that included about 10 percent of the group’s 5,000 or so members.
While the AAAS measure was viewed as a modest victory for Israel’s detractors, it garnered little attention outside of the Jewish press. And though there were expressions of concern, the backlash from pro-Israel groups was all but nonexistent. In the first place, the subject of Asian-American studies had little or nothing to do with Israel or Israeli academics. In the second place, Israel advocates know that imposing “academic boycotts” against other scholars because of the conduct of the nation in which they live flies in the face of nearly a millennium of Western tradition regarding academic freedom. That tradition was the basis of the “town-gown” distinction, in which scholars (those wearing “gowns”) may live within a political municipality but exist somewhat outside of it when it comes to the studies they undertake. Surely no serious academic institution or gathering could pursue such boycotts—which have a slightly comic tinge in any case, since Israeli professors are almost certain to support leftist opinions about their country’s politics and the Palestinians.
But what Jewish organizations and other pro-Israel groups failed to see was that the effort to drive Israel from academia was just ramping up. It wasn’t until the American Studies Association, a much larger and far more prominent academic group, overwhelmingly approved its own boycott in December that the threat posed by this new approach at isolating Israel became clear—and people began to fight back. What is more, the counterattack was far more successful than anyone could have anticipated.
How it happened—how the Jewish community and pro-Israel groups worked against this egregious effort to isolate Israel in a way no other nation on earth is isolated—provides a guide map to the ideological war that must and will be conducted over the coming years against a relentless and inventive foe.
The American Studies Association resolution had been brewing in the backrooms of the ASA for nearly a year, yet pro-Israel activists admit to having been caught off guard when it sailed through the group with widespread support. “Tons of people were asking right after the ASA resolution, ‘Where is the pro-Israel community?’” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which aims to galvanize pro-Israel college students across America. Pro-Israel groups were not, Baime acknowledged, prepared to “counter the onslaught” of the ASA.
“I started telling them this was coming,” added Edward Beck, co-founder of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. “They pooh-poohed me and then, wham bam, everyone got caught with their pants down.”
“I think they [Jewish and pro-Israel groups] were horrified by the boycott because they were about 10 years behind the time,” said Charles Kupfer, an associate professor of American studies at Penn State Harrisburg and longtime ASA member.
In part that was due to an earlier embarrassment. In 2012, a group called PennBDS organized a conference at the University of Pennsylvania. Pro-Israel activists quickly mobilized to shut the conference down. They fiercely antagonized BDS supporters, and in an op-ed in the school newspaper, Penn Professor Ruben Gur went so far as to compare BDS supporters to Nazis, and Jews among the BDSers to Nazi collaborators. “The Capos in the extermination camps is about to be replayed here at Penn,” Gur wrote. The pro-Israel tumult eventually led Penn to boost security at the conference in expectation of a violent confrontation.
In effect, pro-Israel activists were demanding that Penn’s leadership take unilateral action to shut down the conference, a position that many university professors viewed as censorship.
That idea was stirred up by the BDSers themselves, who framed the debate as one of free speech and claimed that Zionist activists were out to stifle the open exchange of controversial ideas.
Penn president Amy Guttman agreed. Though she said she was opposed to boycotts, her press spokesman slammed pro-Israel groups for undertaking efforts that were not “consistent with the value of free expression.” The conference went off without a hitch. The damage here was twofold: Jewish BDS opponents lost the battle and were made to look as though they opposed the free exchange of ideas rather than the BDSers they were criticizing. Jewish leaders came away singed from the confrontation.
When the ASA boycott threat eventually came around, these same Jewish leaders chose to work behind the scenes. Kupfer thinks this was due to naiveté.He says that some thought, “Oh, American Studies scholars like to listen to all points of views and weigh what they hear and decide based on merit.” But they were wrong. “Of course, that’s not what the ASA does. It has been, for the better part of the decade, a uniform, hostile, closed-minded outfit.” The ASA’s resolution, having been unanimously approved by the group’s committee, was sent to a floor vote at the association’s annual meeting, where it handily passed with 66 percent support.
The reaction was one of horror in the pro-Israel community and a sense among anti-Israel groups that they had widened their wildly successful new front. The question now was which other academic associations would follow suit and continue the conversion of Israel into a pariah state in influential quarters inside the United States.
And then something happened: A new, grassroots coalition of American professors launched its own full-court press to turn the ASA into an academic pariah. “When [the boycott movement] broke out from the Asian Studies association to a much larger group, that got everybody’s attention,” said William A. Jacobson, a Cornell Law School professor who has relentlessly hammered the academic-boycott movement on the website Legal Insurrection. “I think the difference was the adoption of the boycott as an organizational act,” Jacobson explained. “That from my end got me more interested. Now it’s forcing their boycotts into our world.”
This new approach was markedly different from past anti-BDS efforts: The issue the grassroots coalition raised wasn’t Israel, Palestine, or border checkpoints. It was freedom—the freedom to engage with academics everywhere. “This isn’t a conservative or liberal issue,” said Simon Bronner, an American Studies professor at Penn State Harrisburg who serves on the ASA’s executive council, where the boycott resolution was first considered. “It’s not even just an American Studies issue. And it goes well beyond any Israel–Palestine issue. It raises questions about the role of academics in public life.”
Within days, Jacobson and a handful of other academics began bashing the boycott in virtual venues like Twitter, Facebook, and a number of blogs. They also called hundreds of university presidents to request that they publicly denounce the ASA. “Most of them didn’t need any convincing,” said Jacobson. “It wasn’t an opposition that needed to be forced on anybody. They just needed to know what’s going on. The best thing that happened was the sunlight was being shed [on the ASA]. And once the information got around, the opposition took on a life of its own.”
At the same time, establishment groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America issued alerts, mobilized a global network of more than 60 pro-Israel institutions, sent out mailers, and wrote to every university president listed as an ASA member, according to the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein.
“The response was immediate,” Hoenlein said. “It was really quite remarkable how quickly [the universities] mobilized to this, and the response was also quite remarkable.” By early January, the ASA boycott had become front-page news. The New York Times ran an article on January 5 headlined “Backlash Against Israel Boycott Throws Academic Association on Defensive.” Numerous other newspapers, websites, and new-media outlets also picked up on the controversy.
Within weeks, more than 200 universities—including every Ivy League school and most top-tier institutions—had publicly condemned the ASA boycott. A few institutions even went so far as to pull their financial support for the group. The outcry against the ASA became so pitched that even Congress entered the fray. “On its face [the boycott] was gratuitously anti-Semitic,” Rep. Peter Roskam, the House’s chief deputy whip and co-chair of its Republican Israel Caucus, said in an interview. “But beyond that it is significant in that it is having an impact on American academic institutions.” Roskam easily convinced 134 lawmakers, or about a third of the House, to sign a letter condemning the ASA and its president, Curtiz Marez. The goal, Roskam said, was to “put the organization on notice and call them out on it.”
A combination of Jewish communal pressure and grassroots activism in the new-media world had effectively transformed the ASA’s boycott into a fringe act.
The next front in the boycott battle began to emerge just as the efforts against the ASA were bearing fruit. The Modern Language Association (MLA), with some 30,000 members, was considering its own boycott measure. This time Jewish groups were prepared. On January 2, just one week before the MLA’s 2014 convention, four pro-Israel insiders gathered at a seafood restaurant in downtown Washington to map out a strategy.
ICC’s Baime arrived at the bar with Etaiy Shisgal, the group’s director of research and analysis. They were joined by Omri Ceren, senior adviser for strategy at the Israel Project (and a contributor to Commentary), and Melissa Weiss, who helps coordinate outreach for the group. The idea was to develop a sophisticated media strategy that relied on the advantage discovered during the ASA brouhaha: putting the boycotters on the wrong side of academic freedom. The only question was how to sidestep the lingering reticence in some segments of the Jewish world.
“Parts of the pro-Israel community drew precisely the wrong lesson from the PennBDS debacle,” explained Ceren. “The approach to that particular conference had been very aggressive and somewhat wrongheaded. When BDS activists managed to characterize boycott opponents as anti-dialogue and anti–academic freedom, that was the ballgame.” As a result, “people walked away from the controversy thinking that the problem with aggressively wrongheaded tactics was the aggression rather than the wrongheadedness,” he said. “But sometimes, though, it’s worth very publicly reinforcing just how marginal the [boycott] movement actually is.”
With the ASA still reeling from the onslaught of negative publicity, the time seemed ripe for a very public stand against the MLA. The two groups hashed out a plan to release a series of targeted statements and hold counter-events on the weekend of the MLA’s conference. The campaign was not designed to be subtle.
“The response [to the ASA] had been very valuable, but was largely defined by talking and less by action,” Baime explained. “I think there’s more to do in terms of actually showing the ASA, MLA, and other organizations that there’s a tangible consequence to adopting this sort of action. This is a political movement that has to be countered on that basis.” As the MLA conference took place, the ICC and other Jewish campus groups such as Hillel held counter-programs at a nearby location. They invited professors and others to speak out publicly against the MLA’s boycott resolution. The MLA’s governing body ultimately passed a watered-down resolution that criticized Israeli policies, but rejected all boycotts.
The question raised by the new activist approach is whether the old ways of doing business in the pro-Israel world have any bearing on the current landscape. What the grassroots effort against the American Studies Association seemed to prove is that quiet backdoor strategies won’t work with bare-knuckle brawlers like the BDSers. But the fiasco at Penn means that the fight has to be conducted strategically and not just by swinging wildly at a clever and agile foe.
Now, William Jacobson has begun what he calls “phase two” of the anti-boycott campaign. He and others plan to tail the BDSers across the country to “insist that universities and that municipalities apply their local anti-discrimination laws to these events.” Wherever BDSers go, Jacobson and his crew, which includes an investigative news outlet called the Capitol City Project, will be following them. “If they’re going to hold an event that’s going to discriminate on the basis of national origin, we want the laws enforced as to them just as they would be to any other group,” Jacobson said in a recent radio interview. He and his crew are committed to chasing these BDSers for the next several years.
And some new laws are already in the pipeline. On February 6, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would deny federal funds to American academic institutions that boycott Israel. The “Protect Academic Freedom Act” states: “Attempts to single out Israel for discriminatory boycotts violates the principle of academic freedom guaranteed by the United States.” Additionally, the New York State Assembly is considering legislation to cut public funding to any educational institution that supports an Israeli boycott.
If they pass, these laws will come at a critical time, as more BDS battles lie on the horizon. In fact, the group’s persistence is one of its hallmark features, as evidenced in the movement’s bid to boycott the Israeli beverage company SodaStream, which produces an appliance that allows consumers to make their own soda and seltzer at home. BDSers have long had it out for SodaStream, but their outrage was amplified last month when the bombshell actress Scarlett Johansson signed on as the group’s newest spokeswoman. Johansson filmed a much talked about SodaStream ad that was slated to run during the Super Bowl. Almost instantly, the BDSers began hammering Johansson, accusing her of aiding the oppression of Arabs in the West Bank, where SodaStream operates a factory that employs around 500 Palestinian workers.
Johansson faced the onslaught with poise and has even punched back. She continues to praise the product globally and has gone so far as to sever ties with the pro-boycott group Oxfam International, where she had long served as a celebrity ambassador. At one point, the Fox Broadcasting Company cancelled that ad, though not for the reasons you would think. Fox objected to the ad’s snarky reference toward soda giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
BDSers savored Fox’s decision, but SodaStream got the last laugh. An edited version of the ad ran during the Super Bowl after all. What’s more, in late January, the company released an “uncensored” version of its ad on YouTube, where it quickly racked up more than 7 million views. SodaStream also has seen its sales soar since the uproar broke out. Standing firm—and intelligently—against these morally barbaric efforts to isolate the Jewish state is already paying unexpected dividends.