Mark Yudof had just gotten off the phone with Jewish community leaders in central Illinois, where a campus debate was raging over the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
It was one of many such calls Yudof gets as chair of the national advisory board for the Academic Engagement Network, one of the main groups pushing back against the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at U.S. colleges and universities.
As part of that effort, in September AEN published a guide to BDS for faculty and school administrators, which proponents say is needed to help support pro-Israel faculty members — and opponents charge is an admission by the AEN that “they are losing ground.”
Formed two years ago, AEN consists of about 480 faculty, administrators and staff members on more than 180 U.S. campuses. Yudof, who was president of the University of California from 2008 to 2013, chairs an 18-member board that includes former U.S. Cabinet secretaries Donna Shalala and Larry Summers.
The 111-page guide, “Academic Freedom, Freedom of Expression and the BDS Challenge,” lays out the organization’s opposition to BDS and its goal of “stirring robust conversation about Israel” on campuses.
It offers resources to faculty and administrators who seek help in their fight against BDS, a movement that according to its website aims to “pressure Israel to comply with international law.”
“For many faculty, it’s not in their wheelhouse how to deal with these issues,” Yudof said. “If you’re a chemistry professor, you might be rusty on your history of the Jewish people, or the history of the BDS movement.
“Or say you’re sitting there in a small liberal arts college and you think the deck is stacked against you and want to know what are your options,” he added. “There’s strength in numbers, and there’s strength in networks.”
The guide, which follows a similar AEN document for university presidents and chancellors, says faculty who oppose BDS on their campus should speak out publicly, write essays and seek legal help if necessary.
The guide provides suggestions on where faculty can turn for support, listing organizations such as Hillel International and the Israel Action Network. And it offers AEN as a place to seek guidance, such as in the Illinois case — where a campus debate ensued after Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sent out a campus-wide letter in September in which he referred to “anti-Semitic attacks hidden under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric.”
It also calls on senior faculty members to provide support for colleagues, such as graduate assistants, who often are reluctant to take a stand on such a divisive issue. And it says microgrants are available from AEN to encourage anti-BDS actions by faculty members, or to support faculty who feel they have been targeted by pro-BDS groups.
“It is our hope that this guide will serve as a resource for faculty who may face animosity from the BDS movement, assaults on academic freedom, or some form of anti-Semitic rhetoric or behavior in the coming year,” the document says.
Larry Diamond, a Democracy studies scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of the AEN advisory board, said BDS activity on college campuses has “reached a worrisome level.”
“There is growing sentiment on college campuses that Israel should be singled out and treated as a pariah state and be sanctioned,” Diamond said. “AEN has drawn people together to share resources and give them some tools to push back. There’s a need for a support mechanism for faculty, and students as well.”
The AEN guide says BDS activists are entitled to their say and that pro-BDS faculty members are fine as long as they keep their personal views out of the classroom. Yudof calls AEN “a pro-free speech outlet.”
But each side in the BDS debate accuses the other of threatening such free speech and of trying to stifle academic freedom.
The AEN guide says: “BDS represents the hard politicization of thought and a one-sided search for political orthodoxy which violates central tenets about scholarly inquiry, inclusive conversation and respect for intellectual pluralism.”
Noam Perry, who as an economic activism associate with the American Friends Service Committee works with students who are engaged in BDS campaigns, says the AEN guide attempts to curtail free speech on campuses — and that “the mere existence of this guidebook signals to me that AEN knows they are losing ground.”
“BDS actions on campuses are all about debate. AEN’s mission is to silence this debate,” said Perry, a former professor at San Jose State University.
“Students on several campuses have briefly interrupted speaking events to raise awareness of human rights violations,” he added. “There is something hypocritical in a group like AEN highlighting this as silencing in a guide designed to help universities suppress student organizing on campus. There is a clear difference between students interrupting a speaker and faculty/administrators silencing students.”
Yudof defends the guide as simply a tool for professors and other faculty who need resources if they feel targeted by BDS supporters or if they want to take a stand against BDS.
“This was really designed for faculty members, to say here are your lifelines, here’s who to call,” Yudof said. “Most professors want to teach, they want to do their research, they don’t necessarily view themselves as engaged in these activities, and this is designed to give them specific tools.”