BDS — Personal Encounters over 30 Years

To many, over the past few years, BDS has seemingly become the number one threat to Israel.  It is illegal in Israel to support BDS. Recently, we learned that supporters of BDS have been denied entry to visit Israel. The State of Israel has even supported a campaign to criminalize support of BDS in the US. Does BDS deserve to be considered such a serious threat? Is the cure worse than the disease? 

Last week, I had a brief personal encounter with BDS that vividly brought back an earlier event.

Among the variety of my other endeavors, I serve as an editor for the small, but growing “Israel Academic Press”. We publish a number of books each year researched and written by Israeli academician in the Social Sciences, which we attempt to make available at prices individuals can afford. A few weeks ago, we published a new book, titled: The Intellectual Discourse in Interwar Egypt. It is an interesting treatise for those in the field, but clearly not a book that will ever make the New York Times bestseller list. Last week, I was happy to receive an e-mail from the Middle East Institute in Washington expressing interest in the book and stating they had assigned a scholar from the University of Edinburgh to review the title for their respected Middle East Journal. They requested that I send that scholar a copy of the book. 

One day later, I was copied on an e-mail from that assigned scholar, Dr. Anthony Gorman, stating: 

“I support the BDS campaign as a non-violent protest against the continued occupation of Palestinian land and call for a just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When I agreed to take on the review I was not aware of the publisher of The Intellectual Discourse of Interwar Egypt. Given my position on BDS, I think reviewing an Israel Academic Press title would be inappropriate and therefore have to withdraw my offer.”

Dr. Gorman is a senior lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. While the Middle East Institute promised to assign someone else to review the book, a week later, I still await a follow-up response. Of course, this small incident will not affect the future of the State of Israel,(in fact, I doubt it will even impact the financial future of Israel Academic Press). However, it is symptomatic of larger problems; problems that have been going on for decades. 

The above-mentioned episode was indeed a vivid reminder of my own experience in academia over 30 years ago. In the fall of 1986, I was in my second year of an M.A./Ph.D. program in Political Science at Columbia University. I had heard that a class on Terrorism was going to be given by an Israeli guest-lecturer. I did not know a lot about the course, but having left Israel a few years earlier, the class certainly seemed interesting, so a signed up. I went to the first lecture and found the subject was indeed of interest to me and the lecturer, Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld was thought-provoking.  

Several days later, I was in a seminar class on the History of Israel, given by one of my favorite professors and author of The Zionist Idea, Dr. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l, when a friend came in and told me I had to attend a meeting right away. The meeting was with the head of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, Dr. Richard Bulliet. The year before, my first year in the graduate program, Dr. Bulliet was on sabbatical, so I had never met him. JC Hurwitz served as head of the Institute when I had been an undergraduate, a decade before.  

When I arrived at the office, I found most of the other students who were enrolled in Dr. Ehrenfeld’s class already waiting there. Dr. Bulliet was upset that an Israeli was teaching a class on terrorism and asked everyone present whether Dr. Ehrenfeld had appeared biased in any way. Of the eight students questioned, to the best of my recollection, seven shared very positive comments about the class and the eighth student raised a few questions. Despite the favorable feedback, Dr. Bulliet ended the meeting by indignantly stating he would not allow an Israeli to teach a course on terrorism at Columbia. 

It turned out that Dr. Bulliet had some sway on the matter, since he was the Chairman of the committee of instruction — and in theory, all courses required approval from that committee. I was assured by friends on the faculty that there was nothing to worry about — meaning, they had a sufficient majority of votes on the committee to approve the course. The committee met a few days later, (two weeks into the term), and voted against continuing the course. Cancellation of a course two weeks into the school term was an unprecedented turn of events. In my college days, I had been very active in the Zionist community, but until this point during my graduate studies, I had little connection with the organized Jewish community. Nevertheless, I still I felt I had to do something.  

I began by calling the ADL and a few other similar Jewish organizations. They were all sympathetic but said there was little they could do. So I decided to attempt a “Hail Mary”.  It was 11:00 AM in the morning when I called the office of Michael Sovern, then President of Columbia University and spoke to an aide. I informed him that if the course taught by Dr. Ehrenfeld was not reinstated, I was going to call a press conference in front of Butler Library (in the center of campus) at 4:00 PM to announce that Columbia would not allow Israelis to teach at the University. 

At 2:00 PM, I received a call from the Dean of the School of International Affairs, asking me whether I would consider it acceptable if Dr. Ehrenfeld’s course became an independent study class, using an existing class designation, and thus not needing the approval of Bulliet’s committee. After checking with Dr. Ehrenfeld, I agreed to the suggested compromise and the course continued to the end of the semester. However, that evening I received an anonymous call from someone who said, “You may have won the day, but you will never get a Ph.D. from Columbia.” Sure enough, I never did.

Naturally, my personal story was not the only example of bias against Israel at that time. The Middle East Institute would not invite any Israeli scholars to give a “brown bag lunch lectures”. (The “brown bag lunch lecture” was a Columbia tradition, where students bring their own lunches to eat, while an outside scholar gives an informal talk.) So I organized a series of brown bag lunches through the Security Institute and we brought Israeli and Indian scholars.  

As I said earlier, these events took place over 30 years ago. There was no formal BDS movement back then, there was just discrimination against all-things-Israel on campus. Truthfully, it’s not clear to me how much has changed over these 30 years. Today, the BDS movement is organized and has articulate spokespeople. But 30 years ago, Israel was economically weak and isolated. A mere 15 airlines flew into Ben Gurion airport back then, compared to the over 100 airlines who do so today. Intel was likely the only Multi-national corporation to do development in Israel back then. Today, over 350 of the world’s largest companies maintain facilities in Israel. Today, Israel has diplomatic relations with at least twice as many countries as it did back then.  

So is BDS a problem? On the individual level, I have no doubt that it is. I certainly learned that lesson well. However, is BDS a threat to Israel on the national level? I am not convinced. There will always be those who hate us, there will be those who oppose our policies (I often agree with at least some of the criticism), but sometimes we need to take a step back to realize that after 2,000 years of exile, we have a strong, free, independent state now —  as we have had for the past 70 years.  

Let’s not give BDS too much power. They are annoying and can inflict individual pain, but we should never confuse our fight against BDS with any sort of existential threat — that would only give them more credit than they deserve. Moreover, some of the measures we take, (making support of BDS illegal, barring entry, trying to pass legislation in the US) weaken the very democratic foundations of our state that we are so proud of.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diaries
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