Brainwashed at Bowdoin: Anti-Israeli Boycotters Miss a Teachable Moment

William A. Jacobson

This article originally appeared at National Review Online on May 8, 2015. William A. Jacobson has also written on Bowdoin's failed boycott of Israel at Legal Insurrection. 

Bowdoin College in Maine recently held a student-body referendum for a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Unlike more common student-government resolutions seeking “divestment” from a handful of companies, the Bowdoin referendum sought an unprecedented cutoff of all academic and cultural ties. The referendum was initiated by Bowdoin Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), part of a growing national SJP movement on campuses.

I have covered SJP antics at Vassar (the picketing of a classroom because a course involved a trip to Israel, and later posting of a Nazi cartoon), Cornell (a protest leads to physical and verbal harassment of pro-Israel students -- and me!), Northeastern University (a protest over suspension included chants of “Long live the intifada,” the bloody suicide-bombing and terrorist campaign), and New York University (the posting of mock eviction notices), and elsewhere.

Wherever I see SJP, I see a messianic absolutism directed at the deligitimization and demonization of every aspect of Israeli society. It is a view that presents Israel as uniquely evil, and Palestinians as uniquely pure victims.

The most messianic of all are some (not all, by any means) left-wing Jews who lead SJP chapters or are fellow travelers like the members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). For that sub-group of left-wing Jews, demonizing Israel has become a religion.

And not just on campus. The group trying to get the GreenStar Food Coop in Ithaca, N.Y., to boycott Israel is led by local JVP activists, one of whom says that the boycott movement is her religious duty. It’s hard to reason with people who are absolutist. Particularly when that absolutism turns into hate.

The anti-Israel hate is real, it’s raw, and it is absolute; which is why in Europe, at least, anti-Semites flock to the BDS (“boycotts, divestment, and sanctions”) movement. It is a dangerous symbiotic relationship, playing itself out almost daily on the streets of European cities where walking while Jewish is dangerous.

I don’t see that absolutism and hate on the “pro-Israel” side on campus. I put “pro-Israel” in quotation marks for a reason. Being pro-Israel means a lot of things on campus, and the label covers many who are sometimes highly critical of Israel. There are raging debates among “pro-Israel” students, particularly Jews, as to what being pro-Israel means.

At least in the world I live in, on campus, being pro-Israel doesn’t mean hating Palestinians the way the anti-Israel side hates Israel and Israelis. I never have heard a “pro-Israel” student on campus express hate for Palestinians. It may happen, but it’s not part of the ethos of the movement.

The backers of the Bowdoin referendum were absolutist in their writings, presenting a historical narrative in which Palestinians were devoid of any historical responsibility for their fate. The language of the petition that gave rise to the referendum reflected that view, as did opinion pieces in the school newspaper.

In that view, Palestinians have been historically infantilized. The absolution of Palestinian individuals and of the Palestinian people collectively for any responsibility for attacks on Israel has led the Arab world to reject multiple plans for a partition of the land, dating back even before the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan. It is a rejectionism that has achieved little for the Palestinians compared with what they could have achieved by accepting historical responsibility and compromise.

The Bowdoin referendum was defeated in an election in which a stunning 85 percent of the student body participated; 71 percent voted against it and 15 percent abstained. Only 14 percent voted in favor of the boycott.

Certainly I was happy with the result. But I would have been even happier had it led SJP leaders to reflect on why their absolutist arguments found so little traction with fellow progressive students.

The defeat of the Bowdoin boycott resolution was not just a “pro-Israel” victory but also a rejection of anti-Israel absolutism. The willingness to sacrifice the academic freedom of the entire community to score political points against Israel was a bridge too far even for the progressive Bowdoin campus.

That lesson has not been learned. I heard from one student on campus that SJP was spinning the loss as a victory because it caused the entire student body to become engaged on the issue of Palestinians.

That argument, that a loss is a win, is common when SJP loses divestment motions in student government. As long as the topic of campus discussion is how bad Israel is, the anti-Israel movement considers the experience worth the effort, because the goal is not to pass resolutions, although it’s a plus if that outcome it achieved. The goal is to raise a generation of opinion leaders who hate Israel.

So from SJP’s point of view, the fact that 200 Bowdoin students voted for the full academic and cultural boycott of Israel is a win. Those 200 can fill plenty of academic-tenure tracks, newsrooms, NGOs, and government agencies. And they will.

SJP continued its absolutism when on its Facebook page it posted a statement about the referendum result. The statement reads in part:

The results to Bowdoin’s boycott referendum were released yesterday, with the majority of those who voted choosing not to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions complicit with Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.#...#

While SJP is dismayed that the majority of those who voted were opposed, the referendum initiated one of the most intense discussions on campus regarding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and for a moment shattered the merciless silence that lies at the heart of Zionism’s power in the United States. Bowdoin merely saw the beginning to the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that will help bring about the end of apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Israel.

This was a missed opportunity for the SJP students to do something that actually will help Palestinians. Like helping to build bridges rather than tear them apart.

One “pro-Israel” Bowdoin student told me that the plan for next academic year is to push constructive, not destructive, solutions to the dispute. No doubt that SJP will be fighting constructive solutions to bring people together -- in boycott-speak, they amount to unacceptable “normalization.”

While SJP missed an opportunity, I’m not sure that opportunity ever really had a chance. The anti-Israel movement has brainwashed itself. And from that self-inflicted brainwashing, escape will be difficult.

— William A. Jacobson is a clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School and publisher of Legal Insurrection, a political and legal website.

Image: Audience members at a pro-Palestine event at Bowdoin in 2013, Bowdoin News

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