How to practice BDS in academe

A mock-up of Israel’s apartheid wall erected by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Benjamin Stone/Flickr)

I’m no world traveler, but I’m lucky enough to regularly discuss or debate boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) at various universities and academic gatherings.

Almost uniformly, somebody in the audience asks me about how he or she might broach the subject when the potential for recrimination is so great. This question is especially pertinent to tenure-track and contingent faculty.

It’s true that recrimination against supporters of Palestine is a legitimate possibility. It’s a longstanding reality, in fact. Universities are filled with students, faculty, and administrators whose primary focus seems to be policing criticism of Israel that oversteps their stringent preferences.

Through the years my answers to this question have varied. Situations are diverse. Conditions evolve. Minds change. I’ve thought much about it and finally feel like I’m in a place where I can offer useful feedback. What follows is meant to be a practical but fluid primer for practicing BDS in academe.


It’s important to put Zionist intimidation in historical context. We should keep two things in mind:

First, this sort of thing has been going on in American universities since their inception. For many decades, speaking in favor of marginalized groups has resulted in denunciation or termination, especially vis-a-vis African Americans and Indigenous peoples.

The denunciation is often implicit, articulated through microaggression, ostracism and debasement, but it can be explicit, too, in the form of tenure denial, censure, or outright dismissal.

Other groups affected by this problem include women, queers, ethnic minorities, Marxists, transgender people, Muslims and Jews, which makes the situation at hand both ironic and depressing.

It is myopic to explore the dangers of a pro-Palestine commitment without simultaneously considering the conditions that prevail around race, gender, religion and sexuality more generally.

Second, academe is inherently authoritarian and conformist. It’s difficult to develop this observation in a compact space, but I’m highlighting a particular culture – one that encompasses hiring practices, classroom conduct, standards of collegiality, funding, prestige, campus climate and tenure rituals – that rewards obeisance and orthodoxy. Many, probably most, workplaces are authoritarian and conformist, but universities bill themselves as bastions of innovative analysis and independent thought.

Those bastions have never accommodated systematic criticism of state power. Academe has long been deeply complicit in imperialism, military violence, corporate malfeasance and neoliberalism.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that universities themselves function as corporations, replete with fierce emphasis on branding at the expense of introspection and ethical responsibility.

Recalcitrant academics are often victims of this reality, but universities cannot function as corporations without a hegemony that constantly reproduces itself through governing practices. Fellow academics play a critical role in enforcing that hegemony.

These two points illustrate that Palestine’s supporters are not alone – in ways both good and bad.

Food and shelter

Being a professor involves many things: passion, gratification, innovation, mentorship, travel, flexibility. More than anything else, though, it involves livelihood. It’s difficult to proffer advice when livelihood is involved because the high-mindedness of counsel never quite matches the gravity of survival.

When we consider the implications of practicing BDS in academe, it’s essential to remember the possibility of termination, either through the denial of tenure or simply being fired, sometimes precipitated by the intense lobbying efforts of various Zionist outfits.

BDS is also a commitment that might preclude getting hired in the first place. For the safely employed, BDS is often an impediment to promotion or upward mobility.

Therefore, while my instinct is to tell everybody to practice BDS, I try to be sensitive to the realities of power in American universities. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my words can or should play a role in people’s life decisions, but being encouraged to act and subsequently deciding against it can evoke the fear of rejection. BDS aims only to make agents of the Israeli state feel rejected.

This is the conundrum inherent to practicing BDS in academe. It is a just practice; but precisely because it is based on a commitment to justice, it is precarious and can result in various forms of retribution.

Another major pitfall to practicing BDS is the harassment it entails. It’s not unusual for a supporter of Palestinian freedom to receive hateful messages and experience Internet trolling less coherent than what is generally produced by a toddler pounding a keyboard. Zionist groups have put spies in classrooms and aren’t shy to approach administrators (often receptive ideologically) to discipline the inadequately compliant.

Nevertheless, I adhere to my instinct and would suggest that if somebody has a sincere interest in advocating for BDS on campus, then he or she ought to do it.

Why do it?

The operative phrase in my suggestion is “sincere interest.” If BDS is an issue about which a person feels strongly (in the affirmative), then deferring to the opposition results in an unnecessary capitulation to larger forces of repression, corporatism, conformity and inequality.

People of conscience need to challenge those forces in order to preserve the ethical ideals of the university about which management publicly brags, but privately undermines.

From the standpoint of job performance, there is no good time to do something controversial. (To clarify: “controversial” in the sense that gatekeepers of respectability will dislike it, not in the sense of being morally or intellectually dubious.) There is always a reward to chase, a promotion to consider, an award to pursue, not to mention the pressures of collegiality, which tacitly demand compliance to authority.

I am skeptical about the notion that one should wait until tenure to raise her voice. Tenure is no panacea, and in many ways it can be the culmination of a six-year acculturation into the commonplaces of over-intellectualized timidity.

The plain reality is that any legitimate fight for justice entails personal risk. It is much riskier, however, to leave injustice unchecked.

How to do it

One needn’t be a firebrand or provocateur in order to support BDS. It’s possible to maintain a low profile and still contribute. Here are some suggestions I hope accommodate the shy and brash alike:

  • Endorse the call to boycott from USACBI, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

  • Attend relevant events on campus. Ask questions. The mere existence of supportive people makes the work of BDS easier.

  • Encourage your students and colleagues to attend panels and presentations that might provide less conventional points of view about Palestine.

  • Express support to student activists, even if only privately. They need faculty backing. They don’t always receive it.

  • Vote in the elections of scholarly associations. Various referenda about Palestine have been presented across numerous disciplines for member approval in the past ten years, with many more to come. A low percentage of membership traditionally participates in these elections. Voting is a virtually risk-free way to provide an impact. Also: help elect officers favorable to BDS.

  • Propose a boycott or divestment resolution to your faculty senate. It might not get very far, but it will force acknowledgment of the university’s complicity in the occupation and other Israeli abuses. You’ll also be amused by breathtaking displays of indignant dissimulation.

  • Work with the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter or its equivalent.

  • Organize an event to generate better understanding of why BDS is an appropriate response to Israeli colonization.

  • Investigate your school’s study abroad program. If there is an arrangement with an Israeli university, it may contravene your school’s anti-discrimination policies because Arab or Muslim students could be denied the opportunity to participate due to Israel’s systematic discrimination at the borders it controls.

  • Hold your university accountable to its inclusionary rhetoric as it pertains to the suppression of Palestinian voices.

  • Write an article for your campus paper, or for a national publication. There is much interest in BDS these days.

What not to do

Do not fear the Zionists. Yes, they have inordinate resources and influence. And, yes, their tactics can be vicious. But suppression is not a long-term strategy. It’s the tactic of one whose ideology has no merit beyond the force he can summon to impose it on those with less power.

Please do not misread me: Israel’s supporters, as they have illustrated for many decades, are perfectly content to rely on suppression as long as it can effectively preserve their colonial fetish, no matter how many constitutional rights they destroy.

In order to survive, suppression relies on the anxiety of its targets. It is sustainable, then, only in relation to our quiescence.

Nobody should stop you from articulating a principled critique of unjust power. When that unjust power is Zionism, the impetus to act is even greater, for in so doing we also respond to American colonization, restricted speech, racism, neoliberalism, militarization, ethnocracy and a host of related issues about which those in our profession should be concerned.

Zionists rely on our fear to embolden their tactics of intimidation. It is no small comfort that they fear BDS much more, however.