It’s always a bad sign when a high official who worked to suppress free speech and activism begins an op-ed with a quotation from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.
Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California and a staunch supporter of Israel, penned his panic-filled article in Inside Higher Ed this week disparaging the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on US campuses.
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” Yudof quotes Orwell saying.
In Orwell’s dystopian future, free speech and thought are heavily policed by those in power who also reverse the meaning of words and rewrite history at will.
But the Orwellian logic is to be found in Yudof’s declaration that “the narrative surrounding advocacy for BDS is often anti-Semitic.”
Those who advocate for BDS, Yudof writes, “see their movement as a way of protesting Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, its efforts to defend itself in a dangerous neighborhood and its purported colonialism. Yet their rhetoric corrupts the language of human rights and expropriates the words historically used to demean the Jew, focusing instead on the Jewish state.”
Reducing facts amply documented over decades by countless human rights organizations to mere allegations, Yudof asserts that speaking of the real-life horrors Palestinians suffer in their homeland amounts to a “microaggression against Jews” on US campuses.
In doing so he also casually conflates Israel and its Zionist supporters, on the one hand, with all Jews, on the other.
Yudof repeats all the tired tropes of recent Israeli propaganda: that Israel’s military is exemplary in its morality and that Israel is being unfairly singled out while conflicts and abuses of human rights elsewhere are ignored.
His arguments echo the ostensible liberals who made similar complaints to defend apartheid South Africa during the 1980s.
“Why is South Africa so harshly condemned while completely different standards apply to black Africa?” asked University of South Africa lecturer Anne-Marie Kriek in a 1989 op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor.
Replace the place names and her complaint could come from just about any present-day apologist for Israel’s policies — including Yudof.
It’s likely that Yudof published his article to promote his new venture. He and other high-profile academics recently announced the launch of a $2-million organization, the Academic Engagement Network, which aims to fight BDS on US campuses.
Even the name is ironic and, well, Orwellian, given Yudof’s record discouraging engagement on the question of Palestinian rights and his failure to defend free speech on campus.
As chair of the new organization’s national board of advisors, Yudof will use his connections to high-level education officials in order to influence them on Israel’s behalf.
The Academic Engagement Network aims to involve sympathetic professors on up to 100 campuses in order to “prevent these things [BDS actions] from happening,” as Yudof explained to the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Climate of fear
During his time as UC president from 2008 to 2013, Yudof ignored a litany of assaults, vandalism and threats against members of Students for Justice in Palestine on UC campuses, but spoke out loudly against alleged “incidents of intolerance” when supporters of Israel were affected.
Yudof admitted he “sought guidance” from the American Jewish Committee, a leading Israel lobby group, following the 2010 divestment initiative at UC Berkeley and the UC Irvine protest by Muslim students during a university-sponsored propaganda event featuring Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.
The students — known as the Irvine 11 — were prosecuted at the instigation of the university administration and eventually convicted in September 2011 of “criminal conspiracy” for their decision to make statements of protest during Oren’s speech. The University of California also suspended the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine.
Rights groups warned Yudof that the University of California under his administration had “exacerbated” a climate of fear for Arab and Muslim students.
Before he left office, Yudof doubled down on his support for Israel and suppression of speech related to Palestine on UC campuses.
Three years earlier, Yudof had changed the university’s policy to make it much harder to divest. Had his policy been in place a generation ago, it would have prevented the university divesting from apartheid South Africa, as it did in 1986.
Yudof’s fears about the spread of BDS on campus are shared by the presidents of Israeli universities. They are demanding that the American Anthropological Association not move forward with a referendum to endorse its recent vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
Many in Israel already fear that a “silent boycott” is taking hold that is far more threatening to the status quo than even the visible boycott initiatives.
So it is no surprise to see Yudof’s new initiative at a time when Israel lobby groups are going into overdrive in their attempt to make campuses unsafe spaces for supporters of full human, civil and political rights for Palestinians.
Their efforts are fueled with new cash, including tens of millions of dollars from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is bankrolling the Republican Party.
The launch of yet another anti-Palestinian campus pressure group might place new obstacles in the way of solidarity organizing.
But the nationwide reaction to the firing of Steven Salaita, the most high-profile recent example of censorship and university collusion with big donors, has mobilized thousands more people in defense of free speech and academic freedom.
As the BDS campaign for Palestinian rights steadily gains support in academia, even someone as well connected as Yudof will not significantly slow the movement down.