First empirical evidence shows anti-Israel faculty members promote boycotts in their classrooms

University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold refused to write a letter of recommendation in 2018 for a Jewish student applying for a study-abroad program in Israel. Source: Screenshot.

By Jackson Richman

(JNS) — Faculty who support the academic boycott of Israel are actively promoting BDS directly to students in their classrooms, according to a report released on Jan. 8 by the campus watchdog AMCHA Initiative, providing the first empirical evidence of such activity.

The study, which examined 50 syllabi at 40 public and private colleges and universities over an 11-year period, revealed that academic BDS-supporting instructors had an average of 78 percent of their course readings authored by BDS supporters, whereas non-BDS-supporting instructors had an average of 17 percent of their course readings authored by BDS supporters.

The two groups of instructors showed themselves to be qualitatively distinct from one another with respect to the selection of course readings, with almost no overlap of the groups. All of the academic BDS-supporting instructors had a majority of their readings authored by BDS supporters, whereas only two of the 35 syllabi of non-BDS-supporting instructors had a majority of their course readings authored by BDS supporters, and none more than 60 percent.

“The stark difference between the average percentage of course readings with pro-BDS authors in the syllabi of academic BDS-supporting instructors (78 percent) and in the syllabi of instructors who had not expressed public support for any kind of BDS (17 percent) — with almost no overlap between these two groups — leaves little doubt that instructors who support academic BDS make a calculated choice to heavily weight their course materials with readings authored by BDS supporters,” wrote the authors.

They suggested that these results, in turn, imply that not only are academic boycotting instructors including pro-BDS readings, they are also “severely limiting or completely excluding readings that would provide a more balanced picture of Israel.”

‘Up to academic departments and faculty’

In their report, “Bringing BDS Into the Classroom,” the authors fully acknowledged that “freedom of speech protects faculty’s right to sign petitions and make extramural statements in support of academic BDS, and academic freedom generally protects their right to develop and teach courses as they see fit.” However, they also raised serious and undeniably harmful consequences of “politically motivated faculty weaponizing their course curricula.”

They noted that “distorting and blocking the flow of knowledge” is a violation of “the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry,” and undermines “the university’s academic mission.” The researchers also noted that “faculty who use their classrooms to give academic legitimacy to a wholly one-sided, anti-Israel perspective, in compliance with the guidelines of academic BDS, can engender among their students hostility not only towards Israel, but towards Israel’s on-campus supporters — sentiments that can easily lead to acts targeting Jewish and pro-Israel students for harm.”

AMCHA Initiative director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, one of the report’s lead researchers, stated that “signing a petition in your own name on your personal time is one thing, but substituting personal politics for sound pedagogy from a lectern in a university classroom is something altogether very different.”

The researchers called on college and university leaders to release public statement on the harm of BDS to U.S. students and faculty; establish policies against using the classroom for political advocacy; and urge faculty to establish and enforce safeguards against classroom abuse.

For example, following the refusal of a faculty member in October 2018 to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study in Israel, a University of Michigan panel appointed by the president issued a report the following March emphasizing that faculty members must make judgments and act based solely on educational and professional reasons, and not political motivations.

“Ultimately, it is up to academic departments and faculty senates to determine whether the promotion of one-sided, highly politicized course content is deemed a legitimate use of academic freedom, or an abuse of it,” stated the AMCHA report’s authors. “However, given the clear and present harm that such politicization can cause to our schools, our students and society, it is time for tuition and taxpayers, as well as state and federal legislators, to demand that faculty address this question forthrightly and to hold them accountable for their answer.”

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East executive director Asaf Romirowsky told JNS that the report is “concerning, but not surprising, given the significant uptick in BDS activism in the classrooms by professors who have used and abused the podium to disseminate their own politics.”

He mentioned the executive order signed last month by U.S. President Donald Trump to address anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses as a “window of opportunity in the universities that have Middle East centers,” funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, “to demand more accountability and transparency where these faculty are involved, and where federal funds are used for programs and teachings.”

The executive order requires the U.S. Department of Education to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in evaluating such incidents on college campuses and at other educational institutions in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

‘Course readings that vilify Israel’

“Syllabi are approved by department heads who are not necessarily subject-matter experts, but the professor does have control his/her classroom, which makes it more complicated as it is on the onus of the student at times to prove that the class is biased,” explained Romirowsky. “As such, department chairs, deans, as well as diversity officers require training to identify these kinds of biases to be able to spot them and act accordingly, and that is where we need to focus our efforts.”

Academic Engagement Network executive director Miriam Elman told JNS, “Most criticisms of academic BDS focus on the harm it causes to Israeli faculty and researchers, but what AMCHA’s innovative new study shows is that many pro-BDS faculty in the United States are also doing a disservice to their own students.”

She continued, saying “this study shows the pedagogical shortcomings of many virulently anti-Israel faculty. Israel studies is a rich field with a multiplicity of perspectives presented in the peer-reviewed literature. By only assigning course readings that vilify Israel, they are depriving their students a rigorous learning experience.”

Elman acknowledged that while pro-BDS instructors “have the academic freedom to assign material by fellow advocates of academic boycotts” (such material “is published in peer-reviewed journals and academic book presses,” and “students should be exposed to it”), faculty should be doing a better job of vetting these courses. Faculty curriculum committees, for example, could certainly suggest revisions to one-sided, skewed course syllabi.”

She said “the best response to the shoddy courses being taught by tenured faculty who promote academic BDS is one that ensures that there are other courses offered that can provide students with alternative perspectives. On some campuses, this might require hiring new faculty members who can teach a new set of courses. Instead of working to micromanage particular courses, which would run afoul of academic freedom, administrators should be ensuring balance across the university curriculum.”

Finally, noted Elman, “administrators always have the option to assign a pro-BDS faculty member to teach a different class, instead of one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Academic freedom doesn’t give any faculty member the right to teach a particular course.”