University Politics

BDS movement at Syracuse University thrust into the spotlight

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement gained attention on SU's campus last month, when The Atlantic reported an SU religion professor sent an email to an Israeli filmmaker disinviting him from screening his film for a fear of backlash by BDS supporters on campus.

Tula Goenka does not buy Sabra Hummus or SodaStream — not because she does not like them, but rather to support a pro-Palestinian movement called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

“It seems like ridiculous but I mean, you, at some level, you’ve … got to put your money where your mouth is,” said Goenka, an associate professor of television, radio and film in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

The BDS movement gained attention on SU’s campus last month, when The Atlantic published a story reporting that M. Gail Hamner, an SU religion professor, sent an email to Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan disinviting him from screening his film about the Israeli settlement movement because she had not seen it and was afraid BDS supporters on campus would “make matters very unpleasant” for Dotan and her.

The university acted quickly to extinguish the controversy, but the incident had caused a ripple: not only did it expose a rift between community members supporting and opposing the BDS movement, but it also raised questions over whether pro-BDS SU community members stand by the university policy that bans the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The BDS movement was founded in 2005 to urge boycotts, divestment and sanctions to impose non-violent pressure on Israel, according to its website. The movement stems from solidarity to express support for Palestine in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that contests the holy city of Jerusalem and Israeli settlement on the West Bank and Gaza.


The day after the publication of the article, Hamner made a public apology and SU Vice Chancellor and Provost Michele Wheatly circulated a memorandum assuring the community that SU embraces academic freedom and does not tolerate the boycott of Israel. About 45 SU community members who support BDS came forward to support academic freedom.

Robin Riley, director of LGBT studies, said the disinvitation controversy presented BDS supporters as bullies.

“It was fantasy of what the pro-BDS movement is on campus, you know, that we are bunch of bullies and we are opposed to free speech and so on,” Riley said. “I think we already are sort of disposed to feeling like we are being disrespected in a lot of ways.”

Another BDS-related controversy came a few weeks later when 37 SU community members, with sympathy to BDS, submitted a letter to The Daily Orange urging the boycott of an academic conference on conflict resolution organized by the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration. The group is housed under the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Signatories of the letter claim the conference’s partnership with Tel Aviv University in Israel is in violation of the Palestinian call for boycott. They cited “the Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel,” a document supported by BDS supporters, as reference to justify the boycotting.

The document states that even though it supports universal academic freedom, all Israeli academic institutions are “subject to boycott because of their decades-old, deep and conscious complicity in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights.”

Several conference organizers rebuked in a response letter, saying the conference was neither devoted to the study of Israel nor to the Israel-Palestine conflict. None of the faculty members who signed the original letter had reached out to conference organizers and participated in the conference, said Miriam Elman, a political science professor in the Maxwell School who is among the authors of the response letter.

“They chose not to attend, not to inquire what it was all about and then published the letter, which was a complete misrepresentation and made them look like quite foolish,” Elman said. “… It was disappointing to see colleagues do that.”

Even though Elman said she embraces academic criticism, the problem she felt was the faculty members who signed the letter used the conference as “a stepping stone” to make a BDS pitch calling for abandoning a joint institutional partnership with Israeli universities.

“That, we felt, was a step too far,” Elman said. “We didn’t want our conference to be a vehicle for that kind of infringement of free speech and academic freedom.”

Riley said organizers of the conference are faculty members who “routinely” defend Israeli actions and associate terrorism to Islam.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “You can be the advocate for these positions routinely, typically, over and over and over again, and then expect people to want to look for a nuance in whom you have invited to your conference.”

Riley added the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is described only from the point of view of Israel and anyone who tries to mention Palestinian perspectives are seen as radical, anti-Semitism.

Elman said not all BDS supporters harbor a hatred toward Jewish people. She said many supporters who are drawn to the movement are well-meaning and think a boycott would be a way to pressure Israel and eventually bring peace. Nonetheless, Elman said she is concerned BDS-supporting faculty members may not be providing “viewpoint diversity” in their classrooms.

“Our university policy says that an individual faculty can hold whatever views they want about BDS and they can be advocates for BDS,” Elman said. “But they can’t in their instructional practice.”

In response, Riley brought up what she called a hypocrisy in which BDS-supporting faculty members are seen as too biased to educate, while anti-BDS faculty members who take the opportunity to promote Israel and erase the history of oppression against Palestine people think they are fair in the classroom.

“The same worry could be articulated on both sides,” Riley said. “But they use it only against those of us who are advocates for the Palestinian people.”

Dov Waxman, professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University, said the BDS movement has created a lot of “noise” but yielded little success in disrupting Israeli economy.

Corri Zoli, director of research and research assistant professor at SU’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism and one of the conference participants, said not supporting any cross-cultural discussion about longstanding conflict abandons the scholarly approach to find solutions.

Zoli said she was surprised to see many of her colleagues and friends signing their names on the BDS support letter.

“They are good colleagues and friends and their research is very good, so I think that maybe BDS is doing a pretty good job at convincing smart, ethical people that boycotting others on the basis of national origin is a feasible practice,” Zoli said. “And I think that is just way beyond the pale.”

Brian Small, executive director of Hillel at SU, said in a statement that it recognizes some individuals and groups on campus have “legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.”

“My major concern, as the Executive Director of Hillel at Syracuse University, is that students are safe on campus,” Small wrote.  “I hope that dialogue remains civil.  No student should ever feel threatened or physically unsafe because of their religion, national origin, or political beliefs.”

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