In recent years, Columbia University has earned a reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel agitation. Fed in large part by the activities and views of its Middle East Studies faculty, the Ivy League institution has become known as a place where virulent anti-Zionist activity has become commonplace. So it was hardly surprising when 40 faculty members signed a petition urging the university to divest from Israel. Released during the “Israel Apartheid Week” protests held at the school, the effort, which was organized by both the Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine groups, was seen as yet another indication that Columbia had become a hostile environment for pro-Israel students.

But rather than simply sit back and watch as a group of campus radicals were painting Columbia as a stronghold of anti-Zionism, another group of professors decided to act. The result was a petition opposing BDS that was signed by 235 members of the faculty. While the dueling petitions can be dismissed as just another episode of campus politics, the anti-BDS letter is actually a significant development. It showed that, contrary to the impression given by the loud support of some for anti-Israel activism, even a bastion of academic liberalism like Columbia — my own alma mater — shouldn’t be written off by those who worry about the spread of the BDS virus and the anti-Semitism that inevitably follows in its wake.

It should be understood that the pro-Israel letter was a moderate and rather mild attempt to point out the manifest unfairness of a policy that singled out democratic Israel for sanctions while ignoring the behavior of undemocratic, repressive, and violent states that truly do violate human rights on a massive scale. Organized by David Schizer, a former dean of Columbia Law School, it was careful to include language that made it clear you didn’t have to support the policies of Israel’s government to oppose BDS or to recognize that the Jewish state has tried to trade land for peace and received terror instead.

For too long many in academia have acquiesced to a dynamic in which left wing ideologues can control the discussion because of their greater fervor and willingness to be confrontational. Moreover, the uniformly liberal political culture of most American campuses — and especially at elite schools like Columbia — is such that standing up for Israel and Zionism is highly unfashionable. The dominance of anti-Zionist thinkers like the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who taught for decades at Columbia, created a playing field in which Israel is viewed through the distorted prism of anti-colonialism and distaste for “Orientalism” that damned Jewish nationalism as the one illegitimate expression of self-determination. Talking back to that frame of reference can be difficult for faculty members seeking to avoid controversy as much as it is for the even more powerless students.

But the anti-BDS petition is a signal that the assumption that mainstream academic liberals are willing to go along with the Israel-haters may be mistaken. Part of that revulsion for the BDS crowd may be an understanding — unmentioned in their letter — that there is more at stake here than just another argument about the rights and wrong of the Middle East conflict.

The salient point about BDS transcends the endless debate about the West Bank, settlements, or even terrorism. Fair-minded people can disagree about what an equitable resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would look like. But a fair-minded person cannot accept square the facts about democratic Israel and the war being waged on it by Islamist terror groups with the myth of “Israel apartheid.” Demonizing Israel and giving tacit support to the terror war against it doesn’t encourage peace. Nor can a fair-minded person ignore the notion that is implicit in BDS arguments that only Israel is at fault or that there is something inherently illegitimate about a Jewish state and its right of self-defense. Indeed, absent a belief that Israel has no right to exist, it is impossible to justify the notion that an economic war on the Jewish state whose ultimate aim is its dissolution is justified.

It should also be understood that the BDS movement has played a key role in the rising tide of global anti-Semitism. Indeed, wherever BDS goes, anti-Semitism incitement and invective trails in its wake. In an academic culture where a suffocating political correctness makes even the mildest form of ethnic or racial bias a capital offense, yet somehow it is still acceptable to target Israelis. While many foolish liberals are gulled into believing BDS is merely a protest against some Israeli policies, its purpose is clearly aimed at extinguishing the Jewish state.

While many in academia still cling to the myth that anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism that is a big lie that must continue to be exposed. Simply put, anyone that would deny to the Jewish people the right to a state in their ancient homeland or to defend themselves — rights no one would think to deny any other people — is engaging in discrimination against Jews. Bias against Jews is called anti-Semitism. That’s why it seems to be so easy for BDS advocates to slip into anti-Jewish slurs.

But even if campus liberals are unwilling to correctly label BDS as a form of prejudice, the manifest unfairness of this movement ought to make it easy to defeat it provided that both professors and students have the guts to stand up to the haters. As both BDS and anti-Semitism spread across Europe and seek a beachhead in North America on college campuses, the need to combat this virus is swiftly becoming one of the most significant moral issues of our time. Though students and faculty need to be armed with the facts to answer the lies of the BDS crowd, what is really required is the courage to refuse to acquiesce to left-wing orthodoxy.

That’s why the 235 Columbia faculty members who are ready to be singled out as friends of Israel deserve our admiration. If such a petition can happen at ultra-liberal Columbia, it can happen anywhere. BDS and its anti-Semitic campaign have no place in institutions of higher learning that are dedicated to the truth. It’s time for more academics to find their voices and to ensure that no matter what may be happening in Europe this virus of hate never gets a foothold on American shores.

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