The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has been gaining momentum recently. Around two weeks ago, the student workers’ union of the University of California school system voted favourably on a ballot to support the movement, urging the university and the federal government to divest from stock associated with Israeli institutions. In the same spirit, students at Wesleyan University, a private institution in Connecticut, protested to stop selling Sabra brand hummus in its dining facilities, citing discontent that Sabra is partly owned by an Israeli group with past connections to the military.
As these events have turned heads, students of institutions that have maintained relative silence on the issue, such as McGill, were undoubtedly puzzled by their university’s reluctance to support the movement. This confusion has its roots in the sentiment that there is a moral responsibility for administrations to express their support for the Palestinians in Israel one way or another. However, from a university’s standpoint, it is hard to ignore the ineffective nature of the BDS movement.
The practice of academic boycotting highlights the types of problems that emerge when universities engage in BDS. In 2009, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a large trade union, called for a resolution for Ontario universities to ban Israeli academics from speaking, teaching, or researching at their institutions. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is very difficult to see the practice of academic boycotting as anything other than a blatant violation of academic freedom. This is probably why the proposal was met with strong opposition from politicians and professors on both sides of the political spectrum. If students were to support the BDS movement as a whole, it would make hurtful policies like academic boycotting more acceptable to the public.
This proposed resolution served to identify the general problem affecting the BDS movement. The movement harshly divides people on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by attempting to defame Israel as a whole instead of encouraging education and open discussion on the subject. No matter which angle one looks at the movement through, it is an open attack on Israel as a nation. It punishes Israeli scholars abroad who have little to no influence on the occupation of the Palestinian people, and it hurts Israeli businesses and institutions regardless of their stance or involvement in the matter. The purported goal of all this is to put pressure on the Israeli government. However, it comes at the price of trading constructive scholarly dialogue on the injustices being committed by the occupation for a knee-jerk movement composed of outraged picketers and equally hostile opposition. It goes without saying that universities should do all they can do to encourage meaningful education and help build an arena for academic discussions.
There is also great danger in pushing forward such an aggressive, yet popular, agenda. Students often join without being aware of the movement’s real impact. For example, the movement objectively provides a cover for the right-wing ultranationalists in Israel who support the occupation. Many of these ultranationalists accuse the movement of being anti-Semitic; needless to say, this claim helps them gain support from outraged Israelis who would otherwise be against the occupation. To make matters worse, the academic boycott penalizes the most open minded and progressive intellectuals who could otherwise influence the nation. Not to mention that the boycotts will hurt Palestinians employed in Israel businesses as well as subject them to further unnecessary resentment from the Israeli public.
While the ethical motives behind the movement are just, its effects and implications are neither reasonable nor constructive, and students should think twice before bringing it onto their campuses.