BY RUTH WISSE, WALL STREET JOURNAL—
In 1948, when the Arab League declared war on Israel, no one imagined that six decades later American universities would become its overseas agency. Yet campus incitement against Israel has been growing from California to the New York Island. A conference at Harvard next week called “Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution” is but the latest aggression in an escalating campaign against the Jewish state.
The sequence is by now familiar: Arab student groups and self-styled progressives organize a conference or event like “Israeli Apartheid Week,” targeting Israel as the main problem of the Middle East. They frame the goals of these events in buzzwords of “expanding the range of academic debate.” But since the roster of speakers and subjects makes their hostile agenda indisputable, university spokespersons scramble to dissociate their institutions from the events they are sponsoring. Jewish students and alums debate whether to ignore or protest the aggression, and newspapers fueling the story give equal credence to Israel’s attackers and defenders.
A featured speaker at Harvard’s conference is Ali Abunimah, creator of the website Electronic Intifada, who opposes the existence of a “Jewish State” as racist by virtue of being Jewish. A regular on this circuit, he also keynoted a recent University of Pennsylvania conference urging “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) of, from and against Israel. Ostensibly dedicated to protecting Palestinian Arabs from Israeli oppression, BDS has by now achieved the status of an international “movement,” some of whose branches exclude Israeli academics from their journals and conferences.
But the economic war on Israel did not start with BDS. In 1945, before the founding of Israel, the Arab League declared a boycott of “Jewish products and manufactured goods.” Ever since, the Damascus-based Central Boycott Office has tried to enforce a triple-tiered boycott prohibiting importation of Israeli-origin goods and services, trade with any entity that does business in Israel, and engagement with any company or individual that does business with firms on the Arab League blacklist. Although the U.S. Congress took measures to counteract this boycott, and the Damascus Bureau may be temporarily preoccupied on other fronts, the boycott momentum has been picked up by Arab students and academics.
Freedom of speech grants all Americans the right to prosecute the verbal war against Israel. But let’s differentiate toleration from abetting. Harvard may tolerate smoking, but its medical school wouldn’t sponsor a conference touting the benefits of cigarettes because doctors have learned that smoking is hazardous to health. The avowed mission of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, host of the upcoming conference, “is to strengthen democratic governance around the world by preparing people for public leadership and by helping to solve problems of public policy.” How farcical that instead of seeking to strengthen democratic governance, its students hijack its forum for “studying” how to destroy the hardiest democracy in the Middle East.
The pattern of anti-Israel attack, administrative embarrassment, Jewish confusion, and media exploitation of the story will continue until all parties realize that the war against Israel is fundamentally different from biases to which it is often compared. Once Americans acknowledged the evils of their discrimination against African-Americans, they abjured their racism and tried through affirmative action to compensate for past injustice. Arab and Muslim leaders have done the opposite. Having attempted to deny Jews their right to their one country, they accused Jews of denying Arabs their 22nd. After losing wars on the battlefield, they prosecuted the war by other means.
Students who are inculcated with hatred of Israel may want to express their national, religious or political identity by urging its annihilation. But universities that condone their efforts are triple offenders—against their mission, against the Jewish people, and perhaps most especially against the maligners themselves. Smoking is less fatal to smokers than anti-Jewish politics is to its users. Remember Hitler’s bunker.
Ms. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007).