The recent BDS rally at UMass Amherst was a perfect storm of academic unprofessionalism.
The American Association of University Professors has guidelines stating that academics should exercise “appropriate restraint” when expressing their political opinions. The AAUP also suggests that professors voicing their viewpoint on a political controversy should not give the impression that they speak in the name of the larger academic units (department, deanship, university) of which they are part.
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions rally against Israel at UMass was organized by the chairman of the Communication Department, who also got his department to be a “sponsor” of the event. The same chairman preaches anti-Zionism in his courses. These courses are mass events in their own right, with a capacity of 800 students. Lectures are prerecorded, exams are multiple choice and graded by machine. Within this world of mechanical reproduction, the professor functions as a propagandist against Israel, even including questions on his exams in which the “right” answer is invariably the one most critical of Israel.
What would happen if the chairperson of political science organized a rally of conservative critics of Black Lives Matter? We know that radical academics would not do what they did with BDS – they would not sponsor the event and then claim they were merely expressing their support for free speech. Disinviting or shouting down speakers who question left-wing academic orthodoxies is common today. UMass professor Daphne Patai recently wrote in Minding the Campus: “We are living through an odd moment, characterized on the one hand by rampant censorship … and on the other hand by extraordinary license. It all seems to depend on which identity groups are to be protected and which aren’t. That is intolerable.”
However, there is an even bigger problem than this criticism suggests. The problem is the fact that anti-Zionism has become, in today’s universities, a new cosmology.
BDS offers a total worldview, configuring the Palestinians as the moral symbol of social injustice everywhere. The purveyors of this popular “intersectional” theory claim that the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank is equivalent to the plight of black people in the Unites States, which is equivalent to the plight of women suffering from patriarchy all over the world. The cause of these interchangeable evils is always the same, of course: American capitalism and Israel. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, commenting on anti-Semitism among today’s academics, notes that it’s as if “the human heart is too small to hold more than one sadness, more than one grief, more than one outrage.”
For the traditional Jewish academic, there is more than one sadness and more than one truth. Our religion teaches us that the rabbis almost always respectfully disagree with each other. Elie Wiesel wrote that while the opinion of Hillel is preferred, the opinion of Shammai must be preserved, because in a future world, Shammai’s answers may prove to be more valid than they appear to be now. We also learn that man, who is not God, cannot know God, or anything else, with absolute mastery. And finally, we learn that the world is filled with sufferings – in the plural. We can try to repair one area of a shattered world but it would be egomania to believe that one has a simple formula for gluing the whole thing together.
The traditional Jewish academic does not live to spread a single political or moral message in the classroom. For the new radical academic, in contrast, there is no God; there is no religion worth participating in. Religious freedom means being totally free of religion. Now, since religion is deemed to be utterly false, there is no check on the intellect, and the radically secular academic too often considers his or her beliefs about “social justice” to be absolutely true.
Not that all atheists fall into the trap of becoming gods to themselves. There are some who think deeply about the concept of a godless and contingent universe who arrive at a reasonable conclusion: that in social and political affairs, we can only expose students to multiple viewpoints. But BDS is an expression of the all-knowing side of academic atheism. Here in the classroom, the professor is the divinity to be feared by students. There is one truth and it is mine. We will not debate it, you will just identify it in a multiple-choice question.
When I’m inclined to be depressed by the thought of a professor indoctrinating hundreds of students in a course with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, I am consoled by the thought that 800 students, taught in this manner, cannot compete against the mind of one student who has grown up in the atmosphere of acute debate characteristic of Jewish learning.
But today, many young people, Jewish and non-Jewish, arrive at college with no intellectual sophistication. They have not studied complex moral dilemmas in small seminars. They have not experienced prolonged, unresolved debate about social issues over dinner at home. In their sudden intellectual awakening in college, they are easily seduced by simplified formulas that purport to explain the cause of every disaster and injustice.
Inside the university, we must advocate for the AAUP guidelines on exercising political restraint. But outside the university is where the most important education is, or ought to be, taking place. BDS will recede when more young people, Jewish and non-Jewish, receive a solid religious and ethical early education. Then they will stand up against the dogma of BDS.
Daniel Gordon is professor of History at UMass Amherst.