Michigan State University Jewish Studies Department Statement on BDS

May 2009

MSU Jewish Studies hails MSU’s decision to honor Archbishop Tutu for his important contributions to the freedom struggle in Africa, his Nobel Prize (1984), and his continued activism on behalf of the oppressed – in Sudan (Darfur), Zimbabwe, Timor, and elsewhere.  He is a deserving candidate.

However, MSU Jewish Studies also speaks against Archbishop Tutu`s contemporary position on Israel, which rests on a false analysis of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is antagonistic to academic freedom and the values of the university, and is counterproductive in the search for an end to occupation and the establishment of peace.

First, in his speech some time ago, “Israel Should Heed The Lessons of Scripture – and Apartheid,” given at Old South Church in Boston, November 27, 2007, Tutu expresses his affinity with the Hebrew people, their bible, and their tradition.  This tradition that aligns with the oppressed and downtrodden was an inspiration, he says, in the freedom struggle against apartheid. It is a prophetic tradition and a tradition of kindness, compassion, and caring.

But, Archbishop Tutu charges, it is a tradition from which Israel today is truant in dealing with Palestine. It is this tradition that Israel ignores in creating checkpoints, an “illegal wall,” and things even South Africa didn’t do, like “collective punishment.”

Subtly shifting focus back and forth between Israel the Jews and Israel the state, Tutu says: Israel should be on the side of the God of Exodus, Israel should be with the oppressed – this is “your calling” – to remember “what happened to you in Egypt and much more recently in Germany” – Israel should behave differently.

For Tutu, a Christian cleric, the Jews have a “divine calling” and Israel should act in accord with it in dealing with the Palestinians.

But while we share some of Tutu’s view, especially his desire for negotiations leading to peace and a two state solution, what sort of affinity and commitment to kindness and compassion, we ask, is it that constructs the Jewish people as having a calling for justice when they suffer but derides them when they take defensive measures or fight back against suicide bombing and terror?

What kind of felt affinity and kindness is it that acknowledges Israel’s suffering as its calling, but identifies not at all with Israel’s yearning and aspiration (like Palestinians’ yearning and aspiration) for self-determination and security?

Why is it that Archbishop Tutu does not acknowledge that Israel has seriously negotiated for years at Oslo, Wye, Camp David, Taba, and since, and that Israelis have consistently demonstrated that Israel would leave the West Bank if they will no longer be attacked.

Why is it that Archbishop Tutu does not acknowledge that a serious obstacle to peace is the drift among Palestinian leadership to viewing the conflict as a religious one?

Second, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel calls on people and institutions to one-sidedly boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions until Israeli occupation ends, Israeli Arabs achieve equal rights, and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, wherever born, is recognized.

In this boycott campaign, it is only Israel and it is Israel alone that is targeted -no other nation in the world, no other academic or cultural institutions, no other people. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is central but only Israel is seen as an actor – not Fatah, not Hamas, not others. Who opposes negotiations for a two-state solution? Israel or Hamas?

The conflict is also likened to the earlier conflict over apartheid in South Africa and Israel is demonized as evil by the false analogy.  Israel is not an apartheid or racist state and the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict between rival national movements for national self-determination, not a conflict between colonizers and the colonized. That is why the UN voted partition for Palestine and called for two states and the self-determination of two peoples in 1948.

The campaign for boycott also seeks to impose an embargo on academics and performers based completely on their national origins, and to limit academic freedom in American universities to hear all sides of the conflict from representatives of all viewpoints. It represents an attack on the idea of the university, as President Lou Anna Simon earlier emphasized, and would reduce a complex conflict between two peoples to a slogan.

The campaign for boycott also threatens what we do in MSU Jewish Studies, where among other things we study Israel and its region, have exchange relations with Israeli universities, send students to study there, administer scholarships to support students to study at Israeli universities, and regularly invite and host Israeli speakers, performers, filmmakers and films at MSU to inform about the conflict and about Israel (and Palestine) also beyond the conflict.

Finally, the call for boycott evokes the feel of similar boycotts in modern Jewish history, blaming the Jews and only the Jews (Israel) for complex issues in public life and spreading a discourse in which Zionism and the Jewish state are especially vilified.  True efforts for peace should and would do otherwise.

Kenneth Waltzer

Director-MSU Jewish Studies Department

Related Resources:

Jerusalem Post’s “An Open letter to Tutu