Friday, May 28, 2010

Separating Your Friends From the Dicks: BDS Loses, Institutions Pay the Price

As I noted recently, the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, sanctions, divestment) movement has suffered a string of major defeats even as it claims to go from strength to strength. These escapades would be merely laughable if not for the fact that the movement is doubly deleterious: First, it erodes rather than enhances prospects for peace and reconciliation. Second, in the course of doing so, it cynically exploits and violates the parties that it claims to embrace, for they are but a means to its own gratification (hence my earlier recourse to the metaphors of failed seduction and date rape).

To be sure, the scholar or performer facing boycott pressure may come in for some abuse from a shrill minority, but the consequences of either choice are limited, because s/he is just one person and the BDS movement is so marginal. By contrast, the educational institution is the collective victim of a sustained assault that callously sows discord among all members of the large campus community, setting activists against administrators, colleague against colleague, and student against student. It survives divestment attempts at the price of deep scars and continuing post-traumatic stress.

My friend and fellow-blogger Jon Haber made this general point sooner, better, and more persistently than anyone else (1, 2, 3). For example:
If their activity rubs ethnic and religious tension on US campuses raw, or puts UK unions in legal jeopardy, what do they care? All they want is the “brand” of one of these well-known organizations associated with their squalid little political program. And if Berkeley is turned into a war zone or a union gets sued over the position the boycotters forced into an institution’s mouth, it’s the institution (not the BDSers) who have to deal with the wreckage divestment has caused. (read the rest)
I have seen all this play out here at my own institution of Hampshire College, where the activists among both students and faculty have never forgiven the administration for its failure to accept their demands for "divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine” over a year ago. The situation is the more tragic because this administration, like most others, assiduously tried to avoid making a bad situation worse.

When the President tried to calm the campus tensions arising from the conflict in Gaza by urging all parties to practice “interpretive charity,” Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their supporters viciously denounced him for refusing to take sides (read: theirs). When SJP activists soon thereafter presented their demand for divestment, the Board of Trustees nonetheless received it politely and took it seriously. Then, when the Board reallocated some investments in keeping with its existing guidelines but explicitly rejected the logic and demands of the petitioners, SJP began to trumpet the false news of divestment. The administration, rather than denouncing the prevarication and prevaricators in the harshest terms, contented itself with soberly reaffirming the facts, in the anodyne language of lawyers and investment advisors. SJP exploited this weakness and tried to turn the tables on the College and claim that it was lying (a position they have maintained to this day). Outside opponents of divestment, for their part, criticized the College for its pusillanimity and timid, tortuous verbiage. Then, just a week ago, the student speaker at commencement used the occasion to denounce the College for its alleged oppression of divestment activists.  It’s for situations such as this that the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished,” was created.

Sadly, nothing that happened advanced the cause of peace or Palestinian rights by one millimeter, but here on the ground, the regression is measured in miles. The campus remains polarized, and far from “educating” the neutral majority in the middle, the hectoring “activism” has made many of them cynical or more apolitical. As recent events in which a colleague and I participated have shown (more on that another time), the atmosphere in some circles—not necessarily on the campus as a whole, mind you—is so toxic that the discourse around not just Israel, but Jews, as such, has crossed a red line. To its credit, the College, from the leadership of the administrative and academic sectors down through Student Affairs, has come to the realization that it is time to act. Many people, understandably, are asking why it has taken so long.

It’s a good question, though in one sense, the answer is fairly simple, I think. Decent people want to avoid conflict, and think that even their enemies can be reconciled if not converted. It’s also standard management practice. The responses tend to be bureaucratic-legalistic, for institutions are cautious by nature and believe they make the best case by addressing unimpeachable procedural principles rather than more subjective or controversial matters of substance.  Rather than risk fanning the flames with a forthright condemnation at the outset, administrations therefore lie low and attempt to play it cool, hoping that the crisis will, pass. Then, if the divestment effort fails, as it always has so far, they can skip over the injury and focus on “healing.” Unfortunately, as we here can attest, some wounds fester.

A modest exception was the response to the recent Berkeley divestment effort, by the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of Regents and the President of the University, who actually alluded to campus tensions. After dutifully referring to federal law and fiduciary responsibilities, they warned against inconsistent standards and declared, ”This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.” It’s still after the fact, and fairly mild, but nonetheless unusual.

No one should expect or want college administrators to take a stand on the side of either Israelis or Arabs, as such. One would hope they would advocate peace and fair treatment of both parties. But we can demand that they take a stand on the vital issues that are within their purview, namely the integrity of academe. Where are the college administrations that will denounce, in no uncertain terms, sooner rather than later, and at the outset rather than when standing amidst the ruins, the divisive practices of the BDS movement, and the cost that they exact by eroding the foundational community norms of civility and rigorous intellectual discourse?

College administrations, understandably enough, want to be friends with everyone. They don’t want to have to create a foreign policy or alienate any campus constituency, and they shouldn’t have to do so. They have to serve all. Still, how much humiliation will you put up with for the sake of spurious friendship? When is it time to do an “intervention” and tell your “friends” that they have a problem and need to straighten themselves out? Critics of Israel's policies often invoke the language of “friendship” as an entitlement to talk bluntly. Should not the same then apply to critics of Israel if they claim to be your friends?   If you want to be everyone's friend at any price, what are you, and what do you stand for?

It all reminds me of a recent "South Park" episode that lampooned the Facebook obsession with accumulating “friends”—whom one often barely knows—for the mere sake of . . . well, having more friends. The vile but always entertaining Cartman introduces Kyle to internet “chat roulette” in order to help him find more Facebook friends. The result is disappointing and disgusting:

Kyle: “Aw, that’s some dude jacking off.”

Cartman: “Aw, yeah, you get those sometimes. We’ll just click to the next person. There we go. Hello!”

Kyle: “That’s just a guy’s penis, too.

Cartman: “Okay, let’s try this one.”

Kyle: Dude, "I don’t want to see a bunch of guys’ penises!”

Cartman: “Hold on, Kyle, this is seriously an amazing gathering place where people from all over the world can share their thoughts and ideas. . . . Okay, that’s a dude jacking off. But, . . . okay, he’s jacking off; . . . penis, . . . penis, . . . penis, penis, penis, ah, here’s a guy [. . . ] aw, he’s taking out his penis. Okay, next guy.”

Kyle: “Dude, screw this, I don’t want to see any more!”

Cartman:  “Kyle, this is the way the world works: if you want to find some quality friends, you’ve got to wade through all the dicks first.”

If a couple of fictional fourth-graders can see this simple truth, how long will it take for our institutions of higher education to figure out who their true and false friends are?

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