On the way back from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport following a few weeks in Israel in 2016 I settled in expecting to doze off. As usual it was 1 a.m., and I was pretty well done in from nonstop travel. But every taxi cab driver, Jewish or Arab, wants to talk, and I always learn something from these nonacademic conversations. Before long I was hearing things I was not eager to know, but it brought home the human costs of nearly a century of conflict.
The driver explained that he worked nights because his wife could take care of his daughter then, whereas he could handle the day shift when his wife was at work. The daughter was now middle-aged, but she was a young woman in a café during the Second Intifada when a suicide bomber detonated his vest. She survived but lost both of her legs and lost her willingness to engage with the world thereafter as well. Stress and fear never left her. She could not handle being in the house alone. And her parents could not risk leaving her alone either, for she had made two attempts to take her own life.
They were now lifetime caregivers, and he worried what would become of her when they were gone. If she was grateful for their devotion, she did not show it. Instead her constant, accusatory refrain for more than a decade: “Why didn’t you let me die?”
I did not feel I was hearing a uniquely Israeli story. There would be hundreds of Palestinians with similar narratives. I expected anger and hatred toward Arabs from the taxi driver. Indeed I had heard such emotions from other Israelis often enough, typically from people who had not endured comparable losses. Instead he expressed sorrow and the need for both peoples to talk with one another. Of course the boycott movement seeks to end all such dialogue between human beings if they treat each other as equally capable of suffering and hope.
I couldn’t help thinking, once I had left my driver behind and was sitting in the airport, that I had never once heard a single BDS supporter express any empathy for an Israeli Jew. While I have witnessed mutual hatred from Jews and Arabs in Israel, I have also seen mutual respect, affection, and love. Such experiences give much needed hope to all. It is in short supply now.
It is often the Arab stories that are most telling, and some have an uncanny similarity. Several times I have heard Arabs talk about being involved in anti-Israel violence, being arrested, and spending time in prison. There they participated in hunger strikes and learned about the power of nonviolent protest as a result. A hunger strike would prove transformative, and they would combine civil disobedience against the state with dialogue with individual Jews and mixed groups thereafter. The compelling 2016 film Disturbing the Peace tells several such stories from both sides of the conflict; it is required viewing for those who cannot spend time in Israel with an open mind.
Despite BDS efforts to misrepresent and condemn them, such efforts at reconciliation do not entail accepting the status quo. They do not “normalize” current power relations. Instead they build a foundation for change based on mutual understanding. Those university students, faculty, and staff who want to contribute toward real change understand it cannot take place unless Jews and Arabs learn to talk with one another as equals. The more BDS is successful, the more it undermines such projects both within and outside the academy.
Of course academics often support academic boycotts out of frustration. I did so myself mistakenly for a few days in 2006. At the request of New York University graduate students and faculty I flew to New York to join the job action in protest of NYU’s president John Sexton’s withdrawal of recognition from the United Auto Workers graduate employee local. As requested, I participated in a stirring rally at historic Judson Memorial Church just off Manhattan’s Washington Square. Then we marched across the street to a planned civil disobedience site and were arrested. Together in jail we experienced the excitement of the group solidarity I had known as a teenager on the Washington Mall and later in Vietnam demonstrations.
Flush with that sense of solidarity I pledged to carry out a personal academic boycott of NYU. Later, back home, I thought better of my moment of excess. I was going to be in constant contact with NYU students and faculty. I would want to write university requested letters on their behalf or recommendations for their dossiers, as indeed I did. I would want to publish work by NYU students or faculty, as indeed I did. Moreover, my complaint was not with NYU as a whole. My complaint was with its president. I needed a more targeted weapon, not a blunt instrument. So I abandoned my boycott folly and never honored the pledge. That year the AAUP issued its classic statement against any and all academic boycotts, the discussions around which installed in me a principled opposition that has served me well since. The following year, 2007, I was active in the MLA movement to oppose a boycott of Israeli universities. It’s not the only time I learned from a personal political error. I can cite one from age 18 when I was an undergraduate as well.
It was in the mid-60s at Antioch College. I had been part of a small group that successfully interrupted a Lyndon Johnson speech at the Columbus, Ohio, football stadium, chanting what remains my favorite political slogan, the anti–Vietnam War chant: “LBJ, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” The president called out “You Fools!” while the crowd of 40,000 farmers yelled for our blood. We were wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents, one of whom whispered in my ear (slightly edited here to eliminate some of the profanity) “I’d like to get you behind bars you SOB and beat the shit out of you.”
I returned to Antioch determined to forge an organized stand to complement the growing national anti-war movement. My college roommate Winfred (“Win’) was a Vietnam War supporter, but I knew few others in town. The college president Jim Dixon was an outspoken opponent of the war, so I felt I would have his support. I organized a movement to demand that Antioch take an institutional stand against the war—just as BDS now demands that Israeli universities take institutional stands against Israeli government policies—and give it material reality by refusing to supply student records to the Selective Service System. Long hours of organizing obtained endorsements from many students and faculty. I went to see Jim Dixon alone with our demands. He felt the whole plan was a two-fold violation of academic freedom. It would compromise the freedom of those few community members who supported the war to take a political position without being coerced and pre-empted by the college and, worse still, would turn students into draft resisters whether they chose to be or not. At the time I knew very little about academic freedom, though I understood myself to be exercising it. I like to think I’ve learned a little more since. Not naïve enough to imagine I would abandon my moral certainty about the political campaign I was waging, Dixon instead told me he would appoint a “Blue Ribbon Commission” to study the plan and make a recommendation. Of course I would be a commission member. It was the last time I would be flattered by that administrative maneuver, but, in my defense, I was after all still a kid. By the time the commission was ready to issue its report, the Selective Service System had revised its procedures and no longer required colleges to supply student records. It was all moot.
But then it is no longer moot. BDS is still busy waging the sort of campaign I eventually understood—it took some years—to be in violation of academic freedom. Several hundred college and university presidents have taken stands similar to Antioch’s fifty years ago, but BDS isn’t listening any better than I did at the time.
My misguided and rather more short-lived promised boycott of NYU was replaced by continuing activism in support of graduate employee and faculty collective bargaining rights. For 30 years I joined union organizing campaigns across the country, wrote and did research about collective bargaining, and participated in strike actions at request. I also found ways to register my disapproval of John Sexton. When he and I later both delivered papers at a national conference on international terrorism, I walked up to the podium and the start of his keynote, turned my back on him and stood silently beneath the stage for the entire 45-minute talk. In 2015 I invited protestors carrying signs to do the same at an anti-BDS lecture I presented at Eastern Michigan University.
Because it helps graduate employees and faculty members represent themselves in collective bargaining and helps them plan strikes and other job actions, and because it opposes academic boycotts, the AUUP has predictably had to defend itself against right-wing claims that strikes and boycotts are the same thing. At least one national BDS spokesperson, David Lloyd, has now joined the chorus of far right lawyers and commentators who make that claim. Strikes first of all are initiated by majority votes of unions within universities; they are not aggressions against institutions by outsiders. Unions, moreover, do not initiate strikes with simple majority support. They vote by secret ballot and know not to go forward without at least 80–90 percent support. Yet the MLA is considering taking a destructive collective political stand with as little as 10 percent membership support. Unions, I should add, have legal status within the businesses or institutions whose employees they represent. Neither the MLA nor BDS movement has any such status within Israeli universities.
The AAUP clearly differentiates between AAUP censure and a boycott as well. Unlike BDS boycotts, AAUP censure does not call for individual faculty action against a censured university. It constitutes a public warning that the college or university cannot be counted on to honor AAUP standards for academic freedom. It is ironic that some elements with the BDS movement cite AAUP principles without honoring them, while other elements argue that their moral concerns trump academic freedom. How many BDS members can learn from their own political mistakes remains to be seen.
1. See David Lloyd’s reposting of a portion of a Mondoweiss column on the MLA Commons website: https://mla.hcommons.org/groups/mla-members-for-justice-in-palestine/forum/topic/cary-nelsons-support-for-boycott-of-academic-institutions/.