Over 1,000 professors at more than 300 American universities have endorsed a boycott of Israel, calling on academics to refrain from participating in Israeli conferences, scholarly partnerships, and study tours. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has also been approved by the American Studies Association and several other academic organizations.
But if a bill under consideration in New Jersey passes, anyone who supports BDS might become a criminal. And that’s criminal in its own right according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The bill, introduced on June 24 by NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Robert Singer, prohibits anti-Semitism in public schools and universities, which it says includes “applying a double standard to Israel” or “focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel.” That’s precisely what the BDS movement does in the eyes of its critics.
I’m one of them. I’m appalled by Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, but I’m also offended by the way BDS singles out Israel for special censure. I haven’t heard BDS advocates press for a boycott of China for its treatment of the Uighurs, or of Turkey for its oppression of the Kurds. If that’s not a double standard, what is?
But I also understand that many people disagree with me. The only way we’ll figure this out is if we can discuss it fully and freely. And the New Jersey bill would criminalize one side of the debate, quelling the discussion before it begins.
Ditto for the bill’s prohibition on “accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel . . . than to the interests of their own nations.” That would bar comments like the recent remark by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), who claimed that American Jews were promoting “allegiance to a foreign country.”
Omar later apologized for the statement, which echoed the longstanding anti-Semitic charge of dual loyalty. But I don’t want New Jersey — or any other government — banning such expressions in our schools and universities.
If that happens, a professor who assigns the 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, might be accused of violating the law. Mearsheimer and Walt argued that supporters of Israel diverted U.S. foreign policy away from “American national interests.” In response, critics like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said the book repeated the anti-Semitic dual-loyalty screed.
Was Dershowitz right? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: The government shouldn’t tell you or me if he was. That’s for us to decide. And we won’t be able to do so if the state chooses one side over the other.
Absurdly, the New Jersey bill also says that nothing in the measure “shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected by the First Amendment.” But the bill does precisely that, by declaring certain points of view out of bounds.
That’s not just unconstitutional; it’s un-American. If you think BDS is anti-Semitic — as I do — shout that to the hills. And if you don’t like something Omar said, raise your voice against her. But don’t look to the government to prohibit speech. One day, sooner than you think, it will come after your speech. And mine.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).
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