May 30, 2023

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.


  1. Nina Lichtenstein says:

    Wonderfully articulate statement, Janet. It is frustrating to see that the “progressive” liberal voices don’t see the wasted efforts of BDS in the polarization as expressed through the demonization of Israeli institutions such as the academy, the arts and commerce (which affect jobs for Jews and Arabs) as a recipe for cowardice and failure. All that energy should be directed instead toward opening up and supporting all the difficult dialogues already taking place.

  2. S. Lillian Kremer says:

    Vote against BDS resolution.

  3. audrey says:

    Dear Janet Freedman,

    Thank you for your articulate, heartfelt opposition to the endorsement of the BDS resolution. I was not aware of it until I received today’s email message from the Women’s Study Center at Brandeis University. I agree with your logic and your view of history in the very complicated Middle East. With your permission, I would like to share your plea with other interested people and do some consciousness-raising, too.

    Audrey Gottlieb

  4. Instead of promoting BDS resolutions, pressure should be placed on the Palestinians to stop denying Israel’s right to exist.

    Dorothy Werner

  5. Jewish groups, students and academic organizations have to stand together as one. Their voices have to be heard just like Black student groups at the University of Missouri. They forced the president to step down, critical of the way he handled student complaints about race and discrimination. By allowing the BDS movement on our university campuses we are allowing antisemitism power to thrive.

  6. myrna goldenberg says:


    You have articulated the opposition so beautifully that I think your voice should become a clarion call to Jews and non-Jews alike who work toward justice and peace. I hope you send your letter to the NY Times and other papers. What you say is sound and how you say it is eloquent.

    Be strong.


  7. Jacquelynn Abraham-Saslaw / Yairah Shalhevet says:

    Thank you, Janet Freedman! Your words are as powerfully insightful … and utterly out-of-fashion in today’s Newspeak world, where “up” means “down;” blame-the-victim passes as balanced reporting, and “murder” is renamed anything softer and more palatable and characterized as a justifiable response.
    What I find stunning is how recent and not-so-recent events are routinely re-framed as a narrative that (to my eyes) dismisses even the attempt to appear objective in relaying the basic facts of situations, then sanitizes the actions and motives of every violent assault by Palestinian Muslims on Israelis while simultaneously vilifying any defensive response by Israeli military, police or private citizen.
    While listening to a proponent of BDS “interpret and explain the ‘real meaning’ ” behind yet another violent clash, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if ….?”
    What if, just as an experiment, we took people at their word?
    What if we believed the earnestness of the ideas they themselves have written or expressed … ideas they endorse and encourage?
    Ask a Palestinian Muslim what his/her goal is regarding relations with Israelis … and then believe the answer s/he gives. YouTube is filled with videos expressing their vision of the future.
    What if we asked the “elected” leaders of Gaza and the West Bank what borders between themselves and Israel they support? What borders have they proposed? What boundaries would they welcome and respect separating them from their Israeli neighbors? Or, we could simply read their charters, previously published and often quoted … never denounced. In these we can read that the elimination of Israel is a central tenet; death to Jews is a primary tactic.
    While I disagree with and have criticisms galore of various Israeli policies, I am never concerned that voicing those opinions while visiting there will result my expulsion, arrest or execution. Is there any Palestinian Muslim living in Gaza or the West Bank who can say the same?
    On the other hand, here or abroad, trying to make a point that runs counter to the anti-Israeli/BDS catechism is universally met with angry glares, dismissive epithets and/or being “talked over” or booed into silence.

    Respectful dialogue that presumes both sides having good intentions and hearts and minds open to discourse … reflection and agreement on common goals … these died a death of neglect and contempt long ago.
    How sad, if not tragic, that this defining characteristic of a vibrant democracy, namely, the desire — nay, the NEED! — to hear a differing viewpoint … the commitment to protecting the right to express a dissenting opinion seems to be AWOL in the very places it is most urgently needed.

    Please keep speaking your mind, Janet Freedman! We need to hear what you’re saying, even as so many are trying to shout you down. And yet I can’t help but smile as I recognize the quintessential “Jewishness” of what you’ve written here; I trust the irony of that observation is not lost on you or the many posting comments here; if only “the other side” could catch a glimpse of it and be reminded of their heritage as Jews.
    B’kvod rav,
    Yairah Shalhevet / Jacquelynn Abraham-Saslaw

  8. Bette Elsden says:

    Thank you, Dr. Freedman, for your courageous and public stance. Academic boycotts not only polarize, but they attempt to silence many of the most progressive Israeli voices, including those of some Israeli Palestinians. I hope this resolution is defeated.

  9. ellen golub says:

    I applaud your committment and your vision. Go Janet!

  10. Yael Pedhatzur says:

    I agree with most of the writer’s statements and positions. I have issue with one item in particular; why even ask the question of “Israel’s right to exist”? Would that question ever be asked of France, United States, Canada, Britain?
    Why is mine the only country whose very existence is in question?
    For that matter why is the ” divide between the aspirations if the israelis & Palestinians, a source of despair for the entire world”? Are there no other tragedies, disasters, inhumanities, injustices anywhere else? Why is this relatively idiotic and simle matter the source of sadness & despair for all? Wouldn’t hunger, sickness, women’s rights etc. be more valid issues for world wide despair? I do no recall the troubles in Ireland as causing international grief. The mere statement was enough to make me mad.

  11. jill levine says:

    This boycott is blatantly anti-semitic as if the supposed “left” were to consider impartially its
    justification for the boycott, it would boycott the majority of countries in the world which do not have
    democratic process nor allow for difference and diversity as does Israel and where injustices
    and inhumanities run rampant.

    The state of Israel was founded to shelter a people who have been persecuted for thousands of
    years and whose genocide was nearly accomplished in the Holocaust, i.e. WWII. If you don’t believe
    that the conditions which produced the Holocaust exist and are indeed growing in our world, over
    populated and under-educated, and dominated by ignorance and greed, look again.

  12. Tamara Kupfer says:

    Thank you so much for writing this and making it public. We are not hearing from progressive voices of reason, and that is a huge part of the problem. BDS and SJP have taken over the progressive narrative with distorted facts and pure hatred. They have aligned with nationwide student demonstrations in support of affordable education and combating racism, and they have been accepted/embraced by this movement. History is being ignored and distorted and the academic community should be the first to object, but instead many academic groups are jumping on the bandwagon. As a women’s studies graduate (22 years ago), I can only hope that NWSA shows more courage.

  13. Alan J Weisbard says:

    Janet, thank you for this eloquent statement, and for your courage in presenting this perspective to a largely hostile audience.
    I would like to bring to your attention, and to that of those commending your statement, the existence of a group of fellow academics who share these views and combat academic blacklisting and other aspects of BDS, within the general framework of liberal or progressive Zionism. The structure is a bit complicated. It is hosted by Ameinu, the current incarnation of what was once known as the Labor Zionist Alliance. The project is called The Third Narrative, and generally regards itself as pro Israel, pro Palestine, and pro Peace, a line that also appears in Janet’s own statement. The TTN project includes two overlapping academic groups. The first, the Alliance for Academic Freedom, focuses on combatting BDS, with a primary focus on academic boycotts and other anti-Israel activities on campus. The second, Scholars for Israel and Palestine, mostly fights for a two state solution and for the end of the Occupation. It is more prepared to criticize current Israeli policies, while supporting the existence and flourishing of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. Individual academics, defined broadly, can associate with either or both AAC and SIP. There are a number of statements and resources available online that can be of assistance in combatting actions like the NWSA resolution, and similar ones in other academic disciplines. Let me also mention a different group, Partners for Progressive Israel, which is, loosely speaking, associated with the Meretz Party in Israel. PPI is generally to the left of the Ameinu groups and sharper in its criticisms of current Israeli policy. PPI also opposes academic boycotts, but supports boycotts targeted specifically at products produced in the West Bank settlements or as part of the Occupation.

  14. Kenneth Waltzer says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, animated, pointed, and rich response to the challenge of the BDS initiative now before the National Women’s Studies Association. Your statement speaks strongly to the erasure of Jewish history in BDS proposals, affirming complexity in the face of oversimplification, truth in the face of rhetorical obfuscation, progressive commitment to two states and the aspirations of two peoples instead of sloganizing demonization. It thrusts a defining finger at the explicit antisemitism in what is going on, and it mobilizes rich Jewish tradition for progressive ends. I am with Alan Weisbard in Ameinu’s Third Narrative and hope you will add your voice to our voices. I am proud to share your essay widely and thank Alan for bringing it to my attention.

  15. In 2013 I showed my film The Phoenix Effect at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Francoise Ouzan invited me to come. It was my first time I saw what the people of Israel had created in 60 years. I really cannot believe the level of antisemitism now aimed at the Jews, not just Israeli Jews, but those of us living in the USA. The University Professors who would vote to exclude Israel from the round table of thought, ideas, debate are fomenting the very reaction they seem to want to avoid.

  16. judith Bendor says:

    kol ha’kavod JF, excellent statement re BDS and the NWSA. The demonization of Israel is so unacceptable, to put it mildly, antisemitism in new left clothing it seems. Bravo to you for being articulately in the trenches.

  17. jmk says:

    I am a Jewish supporter of BDS, so I’d say “far left” within the Jewish-American community. But even I was troubled by the wording of the NWSA resolution. 1) I’m puzzled by the mention of violence against women by Israel: “We cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel.” With all of its faults and violations of international law, Israel does not have a higher rate of violence against women than anywhere else in world, nor is there significant Jewish violence against Arab women, inside or in the territories. The mention of violence against women is particularly puzzling given the relative regressive treatment of women in Gaza and the West Bank and surrounding countries relative to that of Israel. With all its faults, Israel remains a leader within the middle east of women’s rights. 2) “The discriminatory treatment, exclusion, military siege and apartheid imposed by Israel on its own Palestinian citizens as well as those residing in the occupied territories constitute flagrant breaches of international law, UN resolutions, and fundamental human rights.” While one can draw analogies with apartheid in the Occupied territories, only a few have accused Israel of “military siege” or “apartheid” policies toward its Palestinian citizens within Israel itself, as stated by the WSA.. Moreover, there aren’t any serious accusation of violation of international law for how Palestinian Israelis are treated (as opposed to non-citizens under occupation).
    While I continue to support BDS as a route to impose external pressure on Israeli policy, the WSA statement is factually incorrect, wrong in its focus, and poorly argued.

  18. Very nice!

  19. Diana J Fox says:

    I am reading this on New Year’s Eve 2020 and appreciating the articulation of what I felt when I was in the room during the vote, brought to tears by the complete lack of an opportunity for discussion and the knowledge that my opposition to BDS would not be heard, discussed or debated but silenced. Feminism’s commitment since the 1980s to understanding and thinking through differences among women becomes a pathetic joke when the founder of BDS refers to progressive Jews who reject BDS as progressives APB (all but Palestine). It simplifies, reduces, ignores, silences–exactly what they are protesting against with respect to the Palestinian cause. There was a crowd mentality at that meeting that was so distressing, I haven’t returned to NWSA meetings since. I’m still working through that experience.

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