We wrote earlier about the upcoming academic Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) vote at the New York University graduate student union.

In that context we mentioned similar efforts underway at the City University of New York (CUNY) and Columbia. Well, it didn’t take long!

The Doctoral Students Council at the CUNY Graduate Center has just announced that a vote on a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions will take place at their meeting on April 15th.

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I. CUNY Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC)

The DSC is the student government of CUNY’s Graduate Center, CUNY’s  doctoral institution.

Unlike the members of student government at most undergraduate colleges, who are often aspiring politicians, the DSC consists entirely of doctoral students. Most doctoral students have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved in student politics. This leaves the DSC as a fever swamp of frustrated activists and graduates of the Occupied Wall Street protests.

The DSC has a long history of politics combined with taking up ‘urgent’ issues of concern to students, such as calling for gender-neutral bathrooms and kicking blood drives off of campus, “in solidarity with students discriminated against by the FDA’s regulations about sexuality and blood donations”. The DSC’s newspaper, the Advocate, functions as a cheerleader for its activist constituency.

Last year, the editor of the Advocate got into hot water for penning an editorial “in support of violence” against police officers.

II. BDS at the DSC

Boycotting Israel and joining the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), however, has been an obsession of the DSC’s leadership for nearly two years (you can read the Advocate’s fawning coverage of last year’s resolution  republished here).

Unlike most colleges , whose BDS resolutions have been divestment initiatives, CUNY’s students went straight for the jugular, aiming at an academic boycott, something, which the Association of American University Professors, rightly considers to be a serious violation of  academic freedom.

A previous attempt to pass a boycott resolution failed at the DSC plenary meeting in October 2014 (the vote had been on the table since May of 2014. It couldn’t attain a quorum in the May 2014 meeting. In the September 2014 meeting, the vote, scheduled on a Friday night, was postponed and rescheduled out of respect for Sabbath observant Jews. No such intention seems forthcoming this time).

III. Background: CUNY, SJP, and Claims of Anti-Semitism 

The context and timing of this boycott drive couldn’t be more uncomfortable for CUNY, given the recent scandals and allegations surrounding incidents of anti-semitism on CUNY campuses.

The publicized scandals mostly surround the activities of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at CUNY campuses. SJP chapters at CUNY work closely with New York City SJP (NYCSJP), which splintered from the more “mainstream” SJP and BDS inc, accusing them of being insufficiently radical: too much focus on BDS, insufficient focus on the one state ‘solution’ and on politicizing the university in a crusade against Zionism.

NYCSJP likes to portray terrorists as ‘freedom fighters’, and it appears that they dictate messages and statements to the local CUNY SJP chapters.

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https://twitter.com/intricateizzy/status/665005194892206080

[Via @intricateizzy Twitter]

We’ve discussed some of the CUNY incidents here before, most notably the hijacking by SJP of the Million Students March at Hunter College with cries of “Zionists out of CUNY” and “intifada intifada”, as well as the petition by CUNY Prison Divest…These stories are just the tip of the iceberg, as radical Palestinian activism has been a nearly daily event across the CUNY system.

SJP Zionist Tuition Millions Student March page

A report issued by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) alleged anti-semitic incidents at four CUNY colleges.

Apart from the Hunter College incident mentioned above, the incidents also included SJP students disrupting a faculty meeting at Brooklyn College and referring to a faculty member as a “Zionist pig.” Additionally: a pro-Palestinian demonstrator told a Jewish student last November, “I don’t hug murderers.” That ‘protestor’ turned out to be Sarah Schulman, of “Pinkwashing” fame. The report prompted the CUNY administration to launch an investigative task force headed by attorney Paul Schectman and former Judge Barbara Jones.

This reverberated all the way to Albany, where CUNY was already engaged in a battle with Gov. Cuomo for funding. Legislators were more than happy to use CUNY’s lack of resolve to combat anti-semitism as a pretense to deny CUNY its funding, a matter that was ultimately resolved in CUNY’s favor.

Tensions have been high between faculty and the administration for years over a labor contract that has not been renewed in over six years. That has yet to be resolved. Additionally, Kingsborough Community College (a division of CUNY) is facing a lawsuit by a faculty member alleging widespread anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, New York State Assemblymen Dov Hikind (D) and David Weprin (D) called on CUNY to suspend SJP from CUNY campuses (letter here), which is referred to in the text of the resolution (bizarrely, and anti-semitically, as an extension of Israeli power). The feud between Hikind and SJP activists at CUNY goes back at least to 2013, when Hikind called out the Political Science department at Brooklyn College for sponsoring a BDS event.

All this served as a pretext for anti-Israel forces at CUNY to throw sand in the eyes of the CUNY administration: what better way to embarrass an administration already under public scrutiny over anti-Semitism than to get a BDS resolution passed, and a boycott in particular? .

IV. The Resolution

(1) Text 

The resolution is littered with cliches familiar to that those who are used to the more politicized corners of the humanities: “settler colonialism”, “structural racism”.

The resolution makes a point of condemning the United States as well (although, thankfully, no call to boycott us!) and then proceeds to accuse Israel of violating Palestinian rights, including the right to education:

by damaging Palestinian universities, colleges, and schools in military offensives; raiding students at those institutions and forcing the institutions to temporarily close for military or other reasons; restricting Palestinians’ movement to such an extent that it impedes their ability to attend and teach classes; and preventing students from traveling abroad to study or present research

We have covered these accusations extensively before.

Israeli academic institutions (all of them, apparently) are then declared ‘complicit’ in the “occupation and colonization of Palestine”. How? Military R&D and ROTC style programs (hardly something unusual for any university anywhere), then followed by a litany of unsubstantiated claims about “support[ing]” Israeli military offensives and discriminating against Palestinians. It’s amazing how all Israeli institutions are discriminated against on these flimsy grounds (and we haven’t even gotten started on Palestinian universities).

The resolution cites the support of a list of marginal academic institutions, as well as the American Anthropological Association, who have embraced or taken steps towards embracing boycott, as evidence that boycotts are no longer marginal (just as we predicted a few days ago!). They state, without basis, that the boycott does not discriminate against individuals, but is rather “constitutionally protected free speech” – a non sequitur if there ever was one. Calling for discrimination, of course, is free speech. Discriminating, well that’s another matter.

And then the “teeth”:

Be it RESOLVED that the DSC will endorse the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions for as long as the Israeli state continues to violate Palestinian rights under international law; and

Be it further RESOLVED that the DSC supports the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine at CUNY and all others engaged in the struggle to end the occupation and colonization of Palestine.

Well, apart from the obvious symbolism, it’s not clear what the impact of this is.  A student body is endorsing a call to sabotage academic cooperation and stands in solidarity with a student organization that endorses terrorists, but there’s not much they can do about it.

(2) FAQ 

In the FAQ that is featured on the resolution’s sponsors’ website, the resolution’s authors claim that this will prevent the DSC from cooperating with Israeli academic institutions. Apart from the fact that this is obviously illegal for a state institution to do, especially after New York’s anti-BDS laws, it’s not even clear that a resolution like this binds the DSC in the first place.

Interestingly, the FAQ tries to claim that the resolution is focused on Israel’s post-1967 ‘occupation’ only (rather than Israel’s very existence), but the logic of the resolution’s calling for boycott (you don’t boycott somebody you’re trying to reach a negotiated settlement with, and you certainly don’t oppose the process in place to do so) and standing in solidarity with SJP and BDSinc (PACBI) in general renders that suspect.

Furthermore, the FAQ misleadingly claims that BDS does not imply “an end to the Israeli state”, but rather the “end to the Israeli state’s occupation and colonization of Palestine”. It is telling that the ‘occupation and colonization’ referred to is of ‘Palestine’, rather than the 1967 territories referred to in the opening. If you’re not clear on what ‘Palestine’ refers to, the next sentence refers to Israeli Arabs as “Palestinian citizens of Israel”.

The text (both the language and the structure) of the FAQ suggests that much of it is borrowed from this page by the “US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel” (USACBI). Tellingly, in that FAQ, the following appears to the obvious question:

Does Academic Boycott Infringe on Academic Freedom?

It may; but whose Academic Freedom is being referred to within this context? That of Israeli academics. Are we to regard only the academic freedom of Israelis as worthy? Plus, the privileging of academic freedom as a super-value above all other freedoms is in principle antithetical to the very foundation of human rights…

And this:

Won’t BDS also hurt those Israelis who support the Palestinian struggle?

Israelis who oppose the occupation should be doing so on moral grounds and must be willing to accept that there is a price to pay to end the colonial oppression being perpetrated in their names and perpetuated through the complicity of most of their society.

Amazing how complacent BDS is with collective punishment when it is Israelis who are enduring it.

The Restolution’s FAQ ends with the question everybody’s wondering about: Why only Israel? The answer, which has become the excuse we hear over and over in BDS circles is the magical “call”:

The resolution is in direct response to a call made by Palestinian civil society. There is no call to boycott any other country’s academic institutions.

This claim has become very popular: we condemn all sorts of activities, but none of the victims of those activities have ‘called’ us! The logic of this is baffling. Perhaps a good reason no such calls have been made is because they are unconscionable?

 

V. Opposition

A group of students have mobilized in opposition. Their facebook page is here. In addition a petition that was organized in response to last year’s boycott is still available online and can be signed here.

VI. Traces of Palestine Legal

The resolution leaves traces of being the handiwork of Palestine Legal, who has been pushing the canard of the so called “Palestine Exception” to free speech.

Recently, New York State passed its own anti-BDS legislation. Clearly, a resolution such as this would stand afoul of this legislation and could jeopardize state funding for CUNY, or at least for the DSC. Palestine Legal has issued statements condemning both the anti-BDS legislation and the attempt to ban SJP. Palestine Legal claims that the anti-boycott law is unconstitutional and would like to put this to the test. We’d bet they’re going to get their chance as they walk CUNY and the students leading the DSC right into a lawsuit.

VII. Conclusion – Self-Destruction

The DSC has taken itself on a path of radical anti-Israel activism that seeks to destroy the academic freedom of all students for the political purposes of groups like SJP.

The damage done to CUNY from these efforts is mirrored in the damage to the Humanities and Social Sciences in general, which have become marginalized.  It is not surprising that there is a growing movement to “boycott the boycotters.”

None of this matters to the anti-Israel activists for whom pushing their agenda and usurping institutions has become their reason to be. Whether the academic boycott is adopted by the CUNY Doctoral Student Council, or more reasonable heads prevail, remains to be seen.

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The author is a graduate student who must write under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from pro-BDS faculty.