SPME BDS Monitor: Active University BDS Scene Prompts Questions About Anti-Semitism
BDS activity in March was divided between academia and the political sphere. In the former, in addition to a variety of student government resolutions, backlash against the treatment of a Jewish student by the student government at UCLA has prompted discussions regarding the antisemitic nature of BDS and the treatment of Jews on campus.
Politically, the Israeli elections dominated the news, and the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party have brought renewed threats of European and American sanctions if negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are not renewed immediately.
March was an active month for BDS on campus. Two events stood out. The first was the backlash surrounding the cross-examination of a Jewish student by a student panel at UCLA who was asked whether “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community… how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
The questioner added “It’s not her fault that she’s a part of a community, fine… But she’s part of a community that is, like, very invested in [the Undergraduate Students Association] and in very specific outcomes that judicial boards make decisions on every year. And I can’t separate those two from being not together.”
Ironically, the questioner and other members of the student panel have been active in the BDS movementon campus. The mechanism of BDS supporters taking student government positions and approving BDS events and resolutions and providing financial support for student BDS organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine is well-documented.
The student panel subsequently issued an apology but not before the affair raised questions on campus and beyond about the antisemitic implications of the affair. A video of the event was removed from public viewby the panel but was widely circulated by other groups and subjected to unusually thorough media analysis. In the aftermath of the event as well, the UCLA student government passed a resolutioncondemning antisemitism.
In response to the controversy the UCLA chancellor stated in an interview that the effect of the BDS movement on campus had been “corrosive” and that “Of course we’re not going to divest. The regents have made that very clear. We’re certainly not going to boycott Israeli universities. We’ve all made that very clear. So there isn’t really an actionable agenda.” He added that the questioning of the Jewish student had “was intolerable” and “inappropriate” but that “we’ve got to get the word out that this really is a great place for Jewish students, notwithstanding that there’s been tensions.”
The other major BDS development is the growing controversy surrounding a conference scheduled for April at the University of Southampton entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” which will bring together dozens of leading BDS academics.
The purpose of the conference is to “focus on exploring themes of Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism; all of which are posed by Israel’s very nature.” Organizers describe it as “unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.” The conference is thus designed to create academic and intellectual legitimacy for negating Israel.
The conference was publicized only within BDS circles in order for it to go forward without attention and protest. Once it was noticed, however, it began to attract widespread attention in Britain and the US, focused on the one-sided nature of the speakers, the propriety of the university sponsoring (and financially supporting) the event, and whether it constitutes antisemitism. A recent protest at Southampton forced the cancelation of a talk by an Israeli researcher indicated the campus was already hostile to Israel.
The campus BDS scene in March also saw resolutions brought before several student governments. Resolutions were defeated at the Oxford University Student Union, McGill University and Northeastern University but approved at Loyola University. The student government at the University of California at Berkeley also passed a resolution condemning antisemitism in general. Ironically, this resolution was passed during Berkeley’s “Israel Apartheid Week” which featured fake eviction notices, a “security checkpoint” and theatrics celebrating Palestinian terrorists.
At SOAS in London students, along with academics and support staff, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution calling for a “full academic boycott“ of Israel. Prior to the vote Jewish students expressed concern regarding the antisemitic atmosphere and theatrics surrounding “Israel Apartheid Week.” One student also complained that the student-run Israel Society had been taken over by boycott supporters, which helped shape opposition to the resolution. Similar resolutions were defeated at the universities of Bristol and Liverpool in February.
A SOAS faculty member pointed out, however, that the vote was non-binding and that the school’s employee unions had a long tradition of radicalization. Underscoring this and highlighting student concerns, the university’s director stated that the institution had “an atmosphere of open inquiry, mutual tolerance and intellectual freedom. We will not tolerate behavior or activities that might compromise this.”
Finally, there were several examples of pushback by pro-peace students in student governments. At the University of New Orleans a pro-peace group launched a petition drive pointing at human rights abuses and antisemitic incitement by the Palestinian Authority and calling for ‘divestment.’ A resolution approved at the University of Georgia also called for more investment in Israel. And a resolution approved by the student government at Liberty University amended the student government constitution to prohibit BDS resolutions aimed at Israel.
It is unclear whether these resolutions reflect isolated examples or are part of a growing trend by pro-peace students. More indicative of growing community awareness, however, were conferences held inLondon and Los Angeles that discussed BDS and strategies to combat it.
In the political sphere, BDS has come to the forefront in the wake of the Israeli election, which saw a decisive win by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party. Reactions from the US and Europe were swift. Rumors circulated that the US could withdraw diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations, and that the US could support a UN resolution setting the parameters of a settlement. European threats have followed the usual pattern of implying that patience with Israel is running out but that relations with Israel could be closer if concessions for peace were made.
This joined European warnings that economic ties would be threatened unless swift progress was made in Israeli-Palestinian talks, which could include a UN resolution. Israeli policies in Jerusalem were again the subject of specific European warnings regarding possible sanctions. European threats have followed the usual pattern of implying that patience with Israel is running out but that relations with Israel could be closer if concessions for peace were made.
The new tone in US relations towards Israel, and the renewed emphasis from European leaders are in harmony with a Palestinian Authority push at the UN for a resolution demanding a 2017 deadline to conclude negotiations as well as a full withdrawal to the 1967 frontiers. Along with this international move, however, is a push from the Palestine Liberation Organization Council for a full economic boycott of Israeli goods within the Palestinian territories. These moves, which are consistent with “anti-normalization” efforts that are growing in the global BDS movement, contravene specific clauses on economic cooperation in the Oslo Accords.
At the same time two US senators have introduced legislation that would require companies to certify that they are not engaged in boycotts against Israel. The legislation follows a speech by US Senators Ben Cardin and Lindsay Graham at the 2015 AIPAC meeting in Washington where both specifically mentioned the BDS movement as a threat to Israel.
Graham also warned that, in his capacity as chair of the foreign relations subcommittee on appropriations “All the money that goes to support the UN, and the State Department, and Palestinians, and every other ally and enemy we have in the world comes through my committee. I promise you as chairman of the subcommittee, I will put the United Nations on notice. If they continue to marginalize, to delegitimize and accept the antisemitism that’s running rampant through Europe, we’re gonna cut their money off too.”