Scrutinize protests of UT’s Israeli interests

Tracy Frydberg

In the Nov. 29th column “Draw the connections: UT, the US and Israel,” co-authors Christina Noriega and Jonathan Orta call for the University to “divest its interests in Israel” in an attempt to bring the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to the UT campus. While the authors’ arguments largely focused on U.S. government support of Israel’s military activities in Gaza in recent weeks, the linchpin of the BDS movement is the symbolic academic boycott of Israel because of its years-long dispute with Gaza and the West Bank. The latter is the cause of the BDS movement’s call for UT’s divestment of its own interests in Israel.

The BDS campaign is a churlish act of economic warfare to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state whose proponents hide behind inflammatory and misleading rhetoric. Supporters of BDS call for consumer, academic and cultural boycotts in the hopes of advancing Palestinian self-determination. Instead, the BDS campaign is a regressive step away from education, open dialogue and the actualization of peace for both the Palestinian and Israeli people.

Never mind the impracticality of asking UT students to give up their cellphones, laptops, voicemail, or instant messaging, all of which come from Israel — if the BDS campaign were implemented at UT, Israeli professors and students would be unwelcome on campus, students would be barred from studying abroad in Israel and productive partnerships between UT and Israeli businesses, scientists and academics would cease. Slashing all ties with a country that has given the world so much would be not only impossible to execute, but detrimental to an open and free learning environment.

The intent of the BDS campaign stands in stark contrast to all values held high in an academic institution. Geoffrey Alderman, a professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, explained why the academic boycott of Israel is counter to academic principles. “The preoccupation of the boycotters with Israel,” he writes in The Guardian, “gives away part of the game that the boycotters are playing — to attack Jewish rights and to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. But there is a much more sinister game that we are being invited to play. And that game has as its objective the acceptance of the starkly totalitarian and genuinely terrifying view that dialogue within the worldwide academy must be open only to those who agree, beforehand, to espouse a certain set beliefs, and to identify themselves with a certain political agenda.”

Further, by not calling out the opprobrious actions of other known human rights violators, the BDS campaign is not only hypocritical but anti-Semitic in nature. Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, explicitly stated that boycotts of Israeli academics are anti-Semitic, using the following framework for identifying anti-Semitism: “When Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is de-legitimized,” Rosenthal said, “These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.”

By singling out the entire state of Israel among every other country in the Middle East, the intent of the BDS campaign is revealed. Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, wrote in reference to academic boycotts against Israel, “I am made uneasy by the single-minded focus on Israel.”  She continued, “One might consider, for example, the Chinese government’s record on human-rights violations; South Korea’s lamentable sexism and indifference to widespread female infanticide and feticide; the failure of a large number of the world’s nations, including many, though not all, Arab nations, to take effective action in defense of women’s bodily integrity and human equality; and many other cases.”  Nussbaum concluded that, if there were boycotts on all of the countries mentioned, it would be quite different from a world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted. Proponents of BDS are silent when it comes to calling out the human rights violations taking place in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Sudan or Syria — in the latter, over 40,000 people have been murdered since March of last year, according to the Agence France-Presse.

In stark contrast to the countries mentioned above, Israel is a beacon of openness and tolerance in a region where there is little to be found otherwise. Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East; Israeli-Arab citizens have full voting rights, own land, hold important positions in parliament, the Supreme Court and the military.  Israel has a free and independent press, which is more than can be said for virtually all of its neighbors.  Citizens of Israel are active participants in democratic processes, such as the right to assemble, petition and strike (one that is perhaps used too often) and are free to choose from over two dozen political parties.  Israel is also the only country in the Middle East where gays are free to get married and serve openly in the military.

Noriega and Orta were right about two important points. First, social movements do have the ability to flourish on campus. But a social movement requires engagement, discussion and creative thinking. Unfortunately, the BDS campaign represents nothing of the sort. Instead, it represents a regressive movement that does little to try and understand the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It discourages initiatives that could bring the two parties back to the negotiating table or to promote coexistence between the people of the region.

The authors also correctly state that the path to peace can start here at the UT-Austin. But to get on that path, instead of initiating economic warfare, let us invest in education and productive dialogue that will truly bring us closer to peace for both peoples in the Middle East.

Frydberg is a Middle Eastern Studies sophomore from San Antonio.