In response to a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions that was introduced at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), Chad Goldberg, an AEN faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spearheaded and circulated a letter emphasizing how a boycott of Israeli academic institutions would restrict the academic freedom of SSSP members. AEN leaders collaborated with Goldberg on the language of the letter and alerted the media about both the resolution and the growing opposition to it, leading to an article in the Algemeiner. The Algemeiner’s article included extensive commentary from Miriam Elman and AEN member Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.
AEN followed up on this by sending its own letter to the Vice President of SSSP, expressing its support for Goldberg’s initiative and detailing AEN’s own opposition to the resolution’s content. AEN also notified its members who are sociologists about the resolution and the multiple initiatives in place to oppose it, encouraging them (if they are members of SSSP) to sign a separate letter of opposition to the resolution, attend the meeting, or designate a proxy to vote in opposition to the resolution. On August 10, at the SSSP meeting, the resolution was narrowly defeated in a vote in which only 77 members of the SSSP cast ballots.
AEN members played an important role in helping to raise awareness about problems in an initial draft of an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), which was under proposal by the California Board of Education (BOE). The draft model curriculum had been the subject of growing controversy since its public release earlier this summer, as it 1) omitted mention of Jews and/or antisemitism, 2) included blatant, one-sided anti-Israel biases (including pro-BDS writings) in its proposed curriculum for Arab-American Studies, and 3) had serious problems of rigor, methodological flaws, and poor pedagogy.
AEN alerted its faculty members in California, as well as those throughout the country who teach Jewish Studies, Israel Studies, Education, and Women’s/ Gender Studies, about the draft model curriculum, encouraging them to provide critical feedback to the CA BOE during the public comment phase (lasting through August 15). In response to our call, at least 10 AEN members submitted comments to the BOE, highlighting the many flaws and shortcomings of the ESMC and suggesting needed amendments. Without exception, the comments submitted by AEN members were excellent, drawing on the members’ academic and scholarly expertise on issues ranging from pedagogy to history to Jewish and Israel Studies to ethnic studies. AEN leaders worked closely with the Executive Director of the California-based Institute for Curricular Studies (ICS) to provide timely feedback regarding the ESMC from AEN members. As a result of the significant number of comments it received, the BOE released a statement on August 12 that it would not adopt the draft ESMC, as it “falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.” One of the AEN members who wrote-in to protest the model curriculum published an op-ed which highlighted his concerns and reservations.
In response to a draft resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions which was planned for discussion during a membership meeting of the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association (APSA)’s 2019 Annual Meeting on August 31, AEN notified its members in Political Science and encouraged them to attend the meeting and voice opposition to the resolution and to its accompanying FAQ. AEN leadership also engaged extensively on this development with VERA (Committee of University Heads of Israel), including sending a letter to the leadership of APSA expressing opposition to the resolution and detailing the many inaccuracies contained in the FAQ document offered by the resolution’s sponsors. These early efforts were covered by the Algemeiner and commended by Zvi Ziegler, Chair of the Israeli Universities’ Forum to Combat Academic Boycotts.
Ultimately, the proposed resolution experienced a colossal defeat. Over 120 conference attendees attended the August 31 special meeting of the Foundations of Political Theory section where the resolution would be discussed, the large majority of whom were opponents of the resolution. Many speakers spoke out loudly and eloquently against BDS. AEN member and University of California at Berkeley Professor Ron Hassner worked with AEN leaders to organize a contingent to attend the meeting, where Hassner also spoke. During the meeting, the section chair noted that she had received some 360 emails regarding the resolution, of which some 80% were in opposition. She summarized those emails, listing the many reasons why members opposed the motion, and concluded the meeting by rejecting the proposed resolution as opposed to the views of the section. There will be no further action and no vote. This positive development, including AEN’s contributions, were covered by JNS and by AEN member Jonathan Marks in Commentary.
On April 23, the College Council at Williams College denied the request of Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), a pro-Israel student group, to become a registered student organization, AEN sent a letter to Williams College’s president, Maud Mandel, expressing these concerns and urging her administration to take swift action to reverse the College Council’s decision. In particular, AEN highlighted the discriminatory nature of the decision, the lack of transparency in the process, the potential effect of ostracizing Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus, and the damage to principles of free expression. The AEN letter was later published as an opinion piece in the Berkshire Eagle. An active faculty member at Williams also connected pro-Israel students to AEN as a source of support, and AEN members David Bernstein and Jonathan Marks condemned the College Council’s decision in articles for Instapundit and Commentary, respectively. Bernstein also filed a brief Title VI complaint against Williams with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The President’s office ultimately released a statement criticizing the decision and affirming that the “Williams Initiative for Israel…can continue to exist and operate without being a CC-approved RSO.”
AEN responded to a BDS campaign in which a resolution to encourage GSU to withdraw its police department from the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange Program (GILEE), end the program’s presence at GSU, and redirect its funding, was presented to student government. GILEE, which is directed by AEN member Robert Friedmann, seeks to enhance cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and those in Israel and several other countries.
Upon learning of the proposed resolution, AEN’s Miriam Elman liaised with Friedmann to discuss responses. Elman also worked intensively with several campus stakeholder groups to bring attention to the fact that the resolution was part of the “Deadly Exchange” campaign – which seeks to indict Israel for allegedly contributing to instances of police misconduct against minority communities in the United States – and not, as the organizations of the campaign claimed, a sincere effort to address police misconduct in the United States on its own terms. Elman provided links to in-depth articles she has written over the years on the issue, including most recently for the Algemeiner and Legal Insurrection. Elman also worked on a customized “talking points” document to send to students and campus leaders opposing the resolution, emphasizing the positive benefits of programs like GILEE and highlighting statements of support for GILEE among African-American, Native American, and Hispanic police officers’ associations. During the meeting, the resolution was tabled indefinitely.
A BDS resolution narrowly failed at Cornell on April 11, in part due to an unusual “sense of the body” measure whereby two votes would be given to undergraduates present in the room for the vote. Upon learning about the vote, AEN notified two of its faculty members at Cornell – these individuals worked with pro-Israel students to hone their strategies and provided regular updates through email and social media. The evening before the vote, they urged their own networks to attend the hearing, so as to help achieve a pro-Israel majority for the room.
On March 14, Pitzer College’s College Council approved a motion, originated by Pitzer faculty supportive of the BDS movement, to suspend Pitzer’s direct-enroll study abroad program at the University of Haifa in Israel. Immediately after the vote, AEN sent a letter to Pitzer President Melvin L. Oliver urging him to reject the College Council’s misguided decision and expressing continued support and confidence in Oliver’s leadership (AEN had previously communicated with President Oliver last Fall, praising him for his decision to condemn a preliminary vote by the Pitzer faculty to end the college’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa). President Oliver responded personally to Mark Yudof in an email, thanking him and AEN for their support. Within the same hour, shortly after the College Council vote, President Oliver released a strong public statement rejecting the Council’s recommendation and highlighting the flaws in the Council’s decision—including that it undermined core university values of academic freedom and open exchange. AEN thereafter released and disseminated its own public statement condemning the faculty vote and praising President Oliver for his forceful and eloquent response. AEN also signed on to a letter, initiated by AMCHA, thanking President Oliver for his moral leadership. When President Oliver faced pushback from certain quarters due to his stance, AEN collaborated with several organizations to develop the language for two separate petitions. The first, directed toward Pitzer’s Board of Trustees, thanked President Oliver for his courageous stance and offered him support in the face of opposition. The second affirmed the importance of academic freedom, dialogue, and exchange as central values, and expressed solidarity with Pitzer’s pro-Israel community. AEN circulated both petitions widely among its membership and within its social media channels.
Individual AEN members and leaders also engaged actively around the developments at Pitzer. The American Jewish Committee published an article, in which Miriam Elman was quoted as an expert, on the BDS movement’s strategic assault on study abroad to Israel. AEN member Jonathan Marks wrote a strongly-worded piece for Commentary in the aftermath of the Pitzer vote, highlighting the hypocrisy and ignorance inherent in the College Council’s decision; Marks had previously written about the importance of faculty mobilizing against BDS as a defense of academic freedom.
Seventeen faculty members signed on to a letter published in the Daily Californian warning about the BDS movement’s threat to academic freedom. AEN member Jason Wittenberg was the key author and organizer of the letter, and several AEN members were among the signatories. The AEN leadership team offered guidance and suggestions throughout the writing process. The letter voices support for the UC Chancellors’ statement against academic boycotts of Israel (see above) and also responds critically to an essay by other Berkeley faculty that had criticized the Chancellors’ statement. Additionally, In J. Weekly, Miriam Elman and Ken Waltzer co-authored a piece responding critically to the pro-boycott faculty letter. Elman and Waltzer emphasized that faculty “are not free to impose their own political views on the campus or onto their students, nor demand that UC depart from its steady support of open inquiry and free intellectual exchange,” and refuted the letter-writers’ misinformed claims about AEN.
After a University of Michigan professor caused controversy by refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad in Israel, AEN, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), developed model language on letters of recommendation for faculty handbooks. The proposed policy, which was distributed to major colleges and universities, emphasizes that the “decision to express or withhold support for students in the form of recommendation letters should not be influenced by political considerations,” and that “academic merit, knowledge, preparation, and achievement are the appropriate metrics that should guide faculty in making decisions to write and in preparing such letters.” The policy was covered by the Detroit Jewish News, the Algemeiner, and briefly in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In March 2018, the AEN national office contacted AEN faculty members at Minnesota soon after learning that a pro-BDS referendum question could be placed on the student election ballot. With the support of AEN staff, AEN member Oren Gross, a member of the law faculty who was also active against a failed BDS effort at the University in 2016, wrote an op-ed in Medium, “Say ‘No’ to Antisemitism on Campus,” where he detailed how the referendum question singled out Israel and thus contributed to divisions on campus. Thirteen other University faculty members signed the op-ed, including nine AEN members. Mark Yudof and Ken Waltzer also sent a letter to President Eric Kaler prior to the vote, urging him again to speak out against the BDS referendum as he did in 2016. Before the results of the vote were announced, President Kaler issued a public statement expressing concern about the referendum and invoking his public statement of last year. After the referendum passed by an extremely narrow margin (3,392 to 3,175 votes), President Kaler released an even stronger statement emphasizing his opposition to BDS.
In March 2018, AEN national office worked closely with AEN members Cary Nelson and Rachel Harris as well as with AEN Senior Consultant Richard Herman (a former Chancellor of UIUC) during a BDS referendum campaign. Ahead of a student government hearing on a resolution to strike the pro-BDS referendum question from the ballot, Harris and Nelson met with pro-Israel students and provided advice about responding to questions and framing arguments. Nelson also spoke during the hearing, countering a pro-BDS faculty member who was invited to speak by students supporting the BDS referendum. Once the referendum was on the ballot, Nelson wrote an op-ed for Medium (later published in the Daily Illini), “Another Acrimonious Debate About Israel?”, that argued for voting “no” on the BDS referendum question and exposed the many flaws in the BDS position. Seventeen additional faculty members at UIUC signed on to the op-ed, including Jeffrey R. Brown, the Dean of UIUC’s Gies College of Business (and now a member of AEN’s advisory board), who had previously written his own letter against the BDS referendum. Although the referendum ultimately failed by a very large margin (3,133 to 1,700 votes), University of Illinois President Tim Killeen still released a strong statement against BDS.