Jewish Academics at Odds with BDS

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported on the growing momentum of a partnership between various nonprofit organizations and campus chapters of Hillel International, aimed at facilitating open and respectful dialogue among Jewish American college students concerning the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.  As a faculty affiliate of an organization on my own campus that seeks to promote similar conversations on a wide range of controversial issues, I am heartened by this development, but I am also ambivalent about its timing.

In a pending lawsuit before the U.S. District Court in Maryland, plaintiff Melissa Landa has alleged that the decision to discontinue her faculty appointment at the University of Maryland was driven by animus toward her public advocacy for the State of Israel and her celebration of Passover there, which ran contrary to the goals of the so-called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  A key contention in Dr. Landa’s complaint is that such basis for the uuniversity’s action would constitute unlawful religious discrimination against her.

Landa would not be the first Jewish academic to find herself at odds with BDS by way of a sojourn to her ancestral homeland.  Years ago, I had the privilege of serving as a member of the Teagle Foundation’s Working Group on Secularity and the Liberal Arts, which sought to promote religious pluralism on campus through interfaith dialogue, as opposed to suppression or compartmentalization of faith.  In many respects, the goals of our project mirrored those of the initiative profiled in the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, albeit with a broader purpose of promoting mutual understanding across faith traditions.  Through my work on this project, I had occasion to meet a campus rabbi who would subsequently gain national media attention by affirming her Zionist identity and standing by her decision not to participate in a national boycott of Israel, which was gaining support at her institution.  What was noteworthy about her experience is that support for the BDS movement on her campus had come largely from Jewish students, a pattern consistent with the more recent report in Inside Higher Ed.

This situation highlights the issue of how universities consider different segments of any given religious tradition in addressing matters of diversity on campus. For example, alignment of employee religious demographics with those of the corresponding labor pool could potentially be used by employers as an illusory defense against charges of religious discrimination, if no further distinctions were drawn within the Jewish population.  If those engaged in allegedly biased action against a Jewish academic such as Landa also happened to identify as Jewish, the challenges facing Zionist plaintiffs would be magnified even further. Thus, despite all good intentions, the unitive message of recent campus programming could actually mask the significance of Jewish Americans’ disagreement over the conflict in the Middle East. This could in turn generate antipathy toward Zionists’ calls for protection against discrimination on that basis.

The problem with generic characterizations of Judaism is that they fail to capture the scope of variation in what individual Americans even mean when they identify as Jewish.  In recently reported data collected by the Pew Research Center,  for example, a broad distinction is drawn between “Jews by Religion” (73%) and “Jews of No Religion” (27%), with further sorting across multiple denominations of religious Jews.  The report on the survey also includes an entire chapter devoted to “connections with and attitudes toward Israel,” where the data on Jewish identity is further parsed.

These more nuanced understandings of Judaism raise the potential for a shell game of sorts, with multiple places to hide religious bias and multiple ways to divert attention from it, for example by characterizing it as political.  In the Jerusalem Post’s coverage of Landa’s case, institutional officials at the University of Maryland highlighted its efforts to create a welcoming and supportive environment for Jewish faculty and students, including its sponsorship of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies and the Meyerhoff Jewish Studies Center.  In response, Landa likened these claims to saying “Some of my best friends are Jewish. How can anything I do be antisemitic?”  Depending on one’s definition of terms, “I’m Jewish myself. How can anything I do be antisemitic?” might serve as an even more insidious diversion.

With due respect to those who identify as pro-Palestinian or non-religious Jews, their issues are not the same as those of Dr. Landa and others like her.  The reason this should matter to all of us is because hostility toward traditional religion, or at least the perception of it, has been troublingly persistent in American higher education, as documented in our working group’s white paper and more recently in anecdotal accounts reported by one of my current associates.

Much of this apparent hostility seems to be related to political disagreements rooted in discordant worldviews.  Our Constitution is structured to manage these differences and to protect the fundamental rights of all, including freedom of religion.  Celebrating the cultures of other faith communities is a step toward religious pluralism, but respecting their theological and moral convictions, and the duties of democratic citizenship associated with them, is also necessary to the maintenance of a vibrant and religiously diverse society.

Image: Ted Eytan

If you experience technical problems, please write to