Enlisting faculty members at American colleges and universities as allies in the fraught battle against the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is the main objective of a new organization launched on Dec. 9.
The Academic Engagement Network seeks “to preserve and defend freedom of expression on university campuses,” said Ken Waltzer, its executive director — especially at a time when students are protesting against and preventing pro-Israel presentations and debates on campuses around the country.
“We want to promote a sane middle ground of support for a two-state solution, and embrace uncompromising support for human rights for Arabs, Jews and others,” said Waltzer, emeritus professor of Jewish studies at Michigan State University. “[We] are adamantly opposed to the BDS movement, and want to catalyze campuses in robust debate in matters regarding Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.”
“We’d like to have five to 15 faculty members [affiliated with the AEN] on each of 50 to 100 campuses,” said Orinda resident Mark Yudof, immediate past president of the University of California system and chairman of the organization’s national board of advisers.
“We’re well-connected with the leadership of higher education in America. There are strong relationships,” he said. However, he added, “We don’t delude ourselves. Most faculty don’t want to be involved.”
A constitutional law expert who also served as president of the University of Minnesota, Yudof said he would like to offer academics the kind of support he wishes he had when running those large universities. “When I had matters of BDS or controversies about Jewish studies, I had almost no outside help,” he said.
“It’s not enough to just express outrage or write letters of condemnation to administrators you’ve never met [when issues arise],” Yudof explained. “It’s much better to be constructive and prevent these things from happening.”
The AEN’s 14-member advisory council features an impressive array of veteran university and college administrators and experienced faculty, representing a variety of ethnic and religious communities. They include longtime Jewish community leaders Rabbi David Ellenson, formerly president of the Reform movement’s seminary and now associated with Brandeis University; professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University; Lawrence Summers, president emeritus of Harvard; and H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of Washington’s historically all-black Howard University.
The situation on American campuses is growing increasingly fraught for faculty members supporting Israel and other causes, say some of those involved.
“It is a new phase. This kind of violence and aggression is [part of] a larger trend of what’s happening on college campuses,” said Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, another organization that works with academics. He cited as examples the current friction between black students, their allies and university administrators.
Campuses are increasingly hostile to anyone who identifies as pro-Israel, but to bring about long-term change in this situation, Romirowsky asserted, lecturers and professors must be involved.
“Students are transient and faculty are forever… And the faculty feel as marginalized as students [do],” he said. “Faculty are not very willing to speak out [for or against BDS] for fear of not getting tenure, and not being invited to faculty parties.”
Lead funding for the AEN’s $2 million budget is coming from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and from another donor who wants to remain anonymous.
“We will encourage and persuade university presidents, boards of trustees, regents, as well as other administrators, to speak out against proposed boycotts and also to endorse forthright action against efforts to disrupt and deny free speech to others,” said a letter sent by the group this week to the approximately 200 college and university faculty members who have signed on to the project thus far.
“We will also provide support, advice and backup to faculty and students as they confront anti-Israel or anti-Semitic movements on campus,” the letter continued. “We seek also to illuminate the menacing shadows of anti-Semitism that too often accompany BDS efforts on campuses, and which catalyze deep intergroup suspicion and social division.”
The AEN will hold small regional gatherings in the coming months and a national conference next May, said Waltzer. It also plans to offer grants of $2,000 to $5,000 to enable faculty members to organize events on their campuses — for example, a discussion of Israel and Palestine beyond the conflict.
“We’re interested in promoting conversation,” he added, “not shutting it down.”
“I taught constitutional law. I’m really pro-free speech and academic freedom,” said Yudof. “My No. 1 aim is to have more robust conversations on campus where you can debate issues of Gaza or the settlements. But what’s happening on many campuses is that they’re increasingly closed [to that].”
Each campus, he continued, “will have its own set of circumstances and decide what members of the network want to do. We will encourage them to meet with provosts and deans to advise them if BDS or anti-Semitic issues arise. We’ll put out some educational materials.
“You may be a brilliant chemistry professor but not know the history of the whole Middle East,” said Yudof. “We want to be responsive to what they [the faculty members] need.”