Signatories to the recent statement criticizing the University of Michigan’s decision to discipline Prof. John Cheney-Lippold for refusing to support a student who wanted to study in Israel framed the issue solely in terms of freedom of speech. In fact, two principles were in contention: a professor’s right to express his views and a student’s right to study at an institution of her choosing. Since the University believes its primary commitment must be to students, and since Cheney-Lippold’s freedom in other contexts is unaffected, the University chose to support the undergraduate. The signatories, however, ignored the student entirely. Their statement mentioned the professor’s free speech rights four times — the young woman’s thwarted academic aspirations, not once.

I suspect, moreover, that the signatories’ commitment to freedom of speech is not absolute, but conditional and qualified. Suppose a professor refused to write for a woman who wanted to study physics because women can’t do science. Or suppose he refused to write for a student seeking to attend a Muslim university because, in his view, Muslims are terrorists. Or if no letter were provided for an African university because, in the professor’s opinion, African universities are academically inferior.  All such actions are examples of free speech. But, if the University penalized the offending professor, I seriously doubt we’d see an outraged protest. Most signatories probably would stay silent or demand the administration chastise their ignorant colleague.

Insofar as this is true, the central issue is not freedom of speech at all, but political and historical analysis.  Not all, but certainly many signatories support Prof. Cheney-Lippold because they share his sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

If the political claims of the BDS movement are central to the entire debate, what then can be said about their credibility? In all my classes, and especially my course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I go to great lengths to introduce divergent views and historiographic debates. But, it is precisely because I oppose simplistic, politically inspired interpretations that I now critique the BDS narrative. I hasten to add that I would do exactly the same if faculty petitions circulated in support of an ahistorical, exclusively pro-Israel perspective.

The BDS movement makes two chief claims. First, it says that Israel must be boycotted because it violates international norms of human rights. Indeed, in demanding sanctions against only one country, BDS suggests that Israel has the world’s worst human rights record.  

To be sure, within Israel, which defines itself as an expressly Jewish state, Arabs are second-class citizens, with lower per capita funding and a pervasive sense of marginalization. Unfortunately, however, in privileging one ethnic or religious group, Israel resembles a great number, probably a majority, of U.N. member states. And if we consider not merely ethnic relations, but the totality of civic rights, Israel does far better than most. Arguably, the most respected global survey of minority rights and democracy is the Democracy Index compiled by the U.K.-based Economist Intelligence Unit. In this survey, which ranks countries from No. 1, most democratic (Norway), to No. 167, least democratic (North Korea), Israel ranks No. 30. Israel is in the same cohort as the U.S. (No. 21), France (No. 29), Belgium (No. 32), etc.

No other Middle East country ranks lower (i.e., better) than No. 69, and the great majority come in at No. 100 or worse. The Palestinian territories, No. 108, have been condemned by Human Rights Watch for systematically torturing political prisoners. Neither the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority nor Gaza under Hamas offers any semblance of free elections, freedom of the press or tolerated dissent.

By contrast, Arab citizens of Israel have exactly the same civic and political rights as Jews. An Arab party is the third largest in parliament. Arabs serve on the Israeli Supreme Court, in the cabinet and in the army high command. They have equal access to all public institutions. Christian Arabs have higher rates of university enrollment and lower poverty rates than Jews. None of this remotely resembles apartheid South Africa, to which BDS leaders routinely compare Israel. So why does BDS single out Israel for censure, rather than Middle Eastern autocracies? I say nothing about the truly appalling human rights records of China, Russia, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, the Philippines, etc.

The second BDS claim is that outside Israel proper, in the West Bank and Gaza, settlements and security controls constitute outrageous abuses of an innocent population. I readily agree that Israel’s ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements is morally offensive and politically myopic.

Palestinians themselves, however, bear significant responsibility for these conditions. Their leaders have had many opportunities to end the conflict. But for almost a century, a combination of chronic political fragmentation and deep-seated popular anger over the Zionist intrusion into Arab lands has made it impossible for any leader to accept a permanent Jewish state without risking his political, indeed physical, demise.  

All told, from 1937 to 2014, eight international proposals to end the conflict were made.  All would have given Palestinians control over substantial parts, in one case 100 percent, of the territories comprising modern Israel and Palestine, but all would have required compromise. Jews, not because they were more moral but because demographic realities curbed their appetite, accepted at least six, possibly seven, of these proposals. Most of what Palestinians now claim they want — including a West Bank state with its capital in East Jerusalem — was offered in these proposals. But opponents of any substantial Jewish presence rejected all eight proposals and accompanied those rejections with military and terrorist attacks.  Jews responded with military measures designed to prevent fresh attacks. Those responses and the ensuing, progressive deterioration in the Palestinians’ territorial and political position only deepened Palestinian bitterness, which inspired fresh rounds of violence, which led to further Israeli restrictions in a downward spiral to which no end is in sight.

As a result, virtually everything of which Palestinians now complain — refugees in 1947-49, the West Bank occupation from 1967, settlements after 1977, the 2002 security wall, the post-2007 Gaza blockade — came in direct response to Arab-initiated violence whose instigators, with extensive popular support, were expressly committed to destroying the Jewish state.

Gaza illustrates this dynamic all too well. Despite the blockade, Gaza Hamas has managed to inflict considerable financial and political damage. But, the West Bank is 15 times larger than Gaza, far closer to Israel’s heartland and far more open to Iranian troops and weapons. Israelis fear that if they withdrew from the West Bank, Hamas — which is allied to Iran, sworn to Israel’s extermination and arguably the most popular Palestinian party — would take control of the West Bank just as they seized Gaza after Israel left. A Hamas-dominated West Bank, with Iranian troops and weapons next door to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, would threaten Israel’s very existence. No Israeli government — right or left — could ever countenance such a possibility. More than religious or ideological imperatives, this deep-rooted existential fear now drives Israeli settlement expansion and suspicion of a two-state solution.

To be sure, Zionism presented the Arabs of Palestine with an extremely painful dilemma: In effect, they were asked to pay the price for European anti-Semitism for which they bore no responsibility.  Nonetheless, faced with hard choices, Palestinians during the last hundred years responded in ways that often proved profoundly self-destructive. To accept the BDS image of Palestinians as victims of entirely gratuitous repression is to caricature history. And to single out Israel from among 193 U.N. members as the country whose human rights record is most deserving of boycott is to defy impartial logic.


Victor Lieberman is the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Asian and Comparative History in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts


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