PROF ELLWANGER: BDS demands reflect students’ basic economic illiteracy

They seem to lack any basic understanding of warfare, politics, or history. And their naivete apparently knows no bounds: a recent video showcases their fundamental economic illiteracy.

Like many Americans, I’ve been shocked by the footage from college campuses across the country showing students protesting Israel’s military response in Gaza after the 10/7 attacks. My shock doesn’t stem from the protesters’ aggression, or even their anti-Semitism, neither of which are too hard to find in American universities today. I’m not even shocked at their entitlement when they ask that the university deliver food to their encampments. This silliness is characteristic of the current generation of students.

Rather, my shock comes from seeing the general ignorance of students on the nation’s elite campuses. They seem to lack any basic understanding of warfare, politics, or history. And their naivete apparently knows no bounds: a recent video showcases their fundamental economic illiteracy.

Before demonstrating their basic incomprehension of the rules of monetary exchange, some context is in order. Many readers will be familiar with the “BDS” movement. BDS stands for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions,” and the acronym refers to a longstanding campaign of left-wing activists on campus. BDS agitators insist that universities must boycott Israeli products, divest all university money from Israel-aligned financial interests, and lobby for national and international economic sanctions on Israel. These three aims are intended to maximize pressure on Israel to formally recognize Palestine as an independent sovereign nation – and to end any involvement in Gaza.

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BDS advocacy is not new on campus. But students at SUNY New Paltz showed me something I have not seen before – BDS advocates who suggest that they’re being financially swindled because the university hasn’t acquiesced to their demands. In a confrontation with the university President who wanted to end the protest on the New Paltz campus, students rehearsed a litany of demands that would need to be met before ending their encampment.

The President gently explained that BDS demands would be difficult to achieve and suggested that the students have a misunderstanding regarding how university finances work. At this, the protestors grew visibly agitated. One retorted as follows: “But it’s our money! We are giving you this money, and so we are paying your bills, we are paying your paychecks. It is your responsibility, President Wheeler! It is your responsibility to figure it out.” This statement is what I find shocking: is it boundless vanity? Total ignorance? Both?

I’d like to take the opportunity to explain some basic monetary principles to these students and to protesters on any other campuses who are equally naïve.

Imagine that I’m selling a service. You have a need for that service. Many people are offering that service at varying prices, and you look to find the best one available for your budget. You decide the service I offer is the one that has the most value.

Let’s say that service is lawnmowing. Your lawn will never stop growing. You will need this service until you move on to a new house or stage of life. You pay me as we go. I mow the lawn once; you pay me. You do not get to dictate how I use that money. Once your lawn is mowed, I have the sovereign right to decide how I will use your payment.

Now, let’s imagine that I decide to donate the money you paid me to Trump’s 2024 campaign. You cannot come and tell me that I must use that money in another fashion. If you don’t like the fact that I am donating the money to the Trump campaign, you have one recourse going forward: find someone else to mow your lawn.

College is just another service. As with lawnmowing, you pay as you go. You enroll in the fall semester. You pay tuition. You take the classes. If during final exams, you find out the institution has invested your tuition with Israeli capital, you do not have veto power over that decision. But there are other colleges. If you disapprove of those investments, you may choose not to enroll in spring courses and go to a new university that invests in ways that align with your values. Trying to force the institution to direct their money toward your preferences – money that they were rightly owed for a service they provided – amounts to a form of coercion.

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Forgive me if this explanation seems overly elementary. Admittedly, these rules of exchange are not complex. That is the very reason they must be explained in this way – if BDS advocates can’t grasp what are basic realities of commerce, then an even simpler demonstration is required.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most students do understand these rules. This makes me suspect that the young people in this video and in other campus demonstrations aren’t stupid. Rather, this is a feigned stupidity – a tactical stupidity – a kind of gaslighting that highlights the fundamental dishonesty of the protesters and their coercive techniques.

Toward the end of the New Paltz video, the students make clear that their protest will not end until their demands are met. University administrators should recognize this for what it is. It is not a request for a dialogue or for negotiations – it is an ultimatum that demands the surrender of the entire institution to the whims of a handful of agitators. “Do what we say,” they insist – “or else.”

A great president once built a plank of his foreign policy around the idea that our nation wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. Universities would be wise to adopt a similar approach.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.