An Israeli diplomat tried to persuade a leading New York college to cancel a course about the growing debate over whether the Jewish state practices a form of apartheid in Palestine.
The Israeli consul for public diplomacy in New York, Yuval Donio-Gideon, took the highly unusual step of contacting Bard College earlier this year to object to the course, Apartheid in Israel-Palestine, on the grounds that it breached the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
When the college defended the course, it came under pressure from pro-Israel groups and from at least one major donor. Robert Epstein, the property developer and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, resigned from Bard’s board of trustees in protest at Bard’s refusal to cancel the subject.
The course was designed and taught by Nathan Thrall, a Jewish American writer and researcher who lives in Jerusalem.
“The Israeli consulate contacted Bard and said they would like the course to be cancelled. There was mention of the IHRA definition of antisemitism which is the standard means of attempting to silence criticism of Israel,” said Thrall.
“When the consul spoke to Bard they explicitly said that we fear that if we do not make an example out of this class then classes like this are going to sprout like mushrooms all over the US.”
The president of Bard, Leon Botstein, confirmed that Donio-Gideon “called to inquire about the course and to object to it”.
“The consul hoped he could talk us into cancelling it. He argued that the course was somehow inappropriate but there was a very polite conversation and it ended there,” he said. “We stood up for academic freedom. The course was excellent, high level and not at all ideological preaching.”
Botstein said he did not find anything untoward in the Israeli consulate’s intervention. Asked if other foreign diplomats had ever called to object to the content of Bard’s curriculum, he said: “I’m sure they have, but I can’t recall.”
Bard, which runs a joint-degree program with a Palestinian university, Al-Quds in the West Bank, awarded Thrall a writing fellowship which he used to complete his recently published book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. The college also invited him to teach a course and Thrall proposed one on Israel and apartheid for the spring semester.
The basis of the course was the growing evidence that Israel is in breach of international laws against apartheid, including reports by Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, and from a prominent legal organisation, Yesh Din, which concluded that “the crime against humanity of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank”.
In September, a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, joined a rising number of prominent Israelis in comparing the occupation of the West Bank to South Africa’s defunct system of racial oppression.
Thrall said there was no opposition to the course until shortly before it began when a tweet by a human rights group drew attention to it.
At that point, Donio-Gideon approached the college, initially through its rabbi. Thrall said the Israeli diplomat “said the course meets the IHRA definition” of antisemitism. Among IHRA’s examples of antisemitism is “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
The consulate’s intervention came at a time when the Israeli government was threatening to “publish a ranking of the most antisemitic campuses in the US; to shame institutions that promote anti-Israel positions, where Jewish students feel unsafe”.
The Israeli consulate in New York said in a statement that it had a “moral imperative to alert academic institutions about content that defames Israel and could incite antisemitism and jeopardize the safety of Jewish students on campus”.
“We hold academic freedom in high esteem and respect decisions made by universities. However, the recent surge of antisemitic incidents on campuses demonstrates that our concern is both grounded and urgent,” the consulate said. “We will continue to share our concerns for a fair and accurate representation of Israel, and vigilantly oppose any form of hate speech that puts any student community at risk.”
Botstein, a renowned conductor who is music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, said that there was pressure from other quarters. Epstein, the former Bard board member, “had very strong objections”.
“After a conversation with him, he chose to resign from the board. He made a very strong statement about the course in resigning. I failed to convince him that this was the wrong thing to do. I invited him to visit the course but this is an issue where people’s emotions run high and those emotions often blind them from looking at the issue more dispassionately, or hearing another point of view,” said Botstein.
The Bard president said he did not know whether Epstein would now honour a $2.5m pledge to the college.
Epstein, who did not respond to a request for comment, is a national commissioner of the strongly pro-Israel pressure group, the Anti-Defamation League. His wife, Esther, is a past chair of the ADL’s board.
The ADL’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, also sought to pressure Bard. Botstein described their conversation as tense.
“He was not open to a free discussion. He was not civil. And he did not accept our invitation to visit the course and see for himself. He called already intent on trying to pressure us to cancel the course,” he said.
The ADL said in a statement to the Guardian that Greenblatt spoke to Botstein “to convey serious concerns over the course”.
“The entire premise of this course slanders and delegitimizes the democratic state of Israel,” it said. “At a time of surging rates of antisemitic incidents in the United States, some of the most inciteful taking place on college campuses, ADL is unapologetic in our advocacy for Israel and the Jewish people. We will continue to work tirelessly against efforts that delegitimize Israel and vilify Jews and we stand by our belief that courses like this should not exist because of the fallacies they are based upon.”
The course was also denounced by local Jewish groups. The Ulster County Jewish Federation wrote to Botstein calling it a “detestable example of antisemitism masquerading as academic freedom”.
The UCJF’s executive director, David Drimer, told a local newspaper, the Daily Freeman, that Bard was influenced in its decision to hold the course by a $500m endowment to the college from George Soros who has been at the centre of antisemitic conspiracy theories on the right.
Drimer wrote to Botstein attempting to link Thrall to Hamas.
“This class is wrong in its inception, and we are ethically compelled to point out why: Nathan Thrall is heavily financed by the government by Qatar, a leading funder of Hamas and other officially designated terrorist groups,” he said.
Thrall previously worked for the International Crisis Group which received a donation from Qatar after he left.
“Must we accept as coincidence Mr Soros finances Mr Thrall and Bard?” Drimer added. “I am compelled to connect the dots.”
Botstein responded to the UCJF letter saying that “as a child of survivors of the Holocaust I am more sensitive than most” to antisemitism.
“There is nothing antisemitic about the course in question. It explores questions that have been the subject of debate in Israel for years. Why should the Jewish community in America be afraid of the same debates and arguments taking place in Israel?” he said.