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January 1, 2015 10:53 am

On College Campuses, Semester Ends With Big BDS Push

avatar by Alexander Joffe

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A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the fall semester saw continued BDS successes in academic organizations but failures in other areas. In political terms, recognition of Palestine continued among European countries. Coupled with American comments about possible sanctions over Israeli construction activities, the symbolic European recognition votes implies sanctions should a negotiated settlement not be reached.

The most important BDS development took place in an American academic organization. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) held several panels on BDS at its annual meeting. While no pro-BDS resolution was proposed, a resolution opposing BDS was defeated. As expected, discussions were dominated by pro-BDS speakers. The organization has also appointed a task force, made up of BDS supporters, to advise the executive committee on how to proceed with BDS and is distributing pro-BDS materials to members. It is widely expected that a BDS resolution will be introduced and approved at next year’s meeting.

The AAA decision to endorse ‘further debate’ and thus lay deeper foundations for future BDS resolutions follows a similar decision by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) at its annual meeting in November.

The support of these academic associations for BDS is significant. Unlike the much smaller American Studies Association, the AAA and MESA are both large and may be said to represent the public face of their academic disciplines. The process by which diverse opinions are stamped out in academic disciplines and political conformity is enforced is well-documented (as is the procedure of holding political votes in association business meetings).

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But the role of academic associations in this process, as clearing houses for personal contacts, forums for acceptable theories and attitudes, information regarding jobs, grants and other elements of disciplinary practice, has not been studied. The implicit endorsement of BDS by two major academic organizations will certainly intensify implicit pressures to comply within each discipline.

In this regard, in contrast to the passive-aggressive approaches taken by the AAA and MESA, the American Historical Association rejected a BDS resolution in part on the grounds that it went beyond areas “of concern to the association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

In another development with wide-ranging implications, UAW Local 2865, which represents 13,000 University of California graduate teaching assistants and graduate student workers, has adopted a BDS resolution. A total of 2168 votes were cast; 1411 favor and 749 opposed. Opponents complained both before and after the vote that the union had invested considerable resources in support of the resolution and had even harassed anti-BDS members at the polls.

National UAW officials had warned the local in advance that the resolution was inimical to the local’s interests and that “we would find it difficult to ask our members to support your union in a labor dispute with the University of California so long as you are engaged in activities that are fundamentally hostile to their interests.”

The resolution calls on teaching assistants not to “take part in any research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the settler-colonial policies of the state of Israel.” Discussions organized by the union’s BDS caucus before the vote featured speakers who made it clear that the goal of BDS was the complete elimination of Israel.

In response to the union vote, a California state assemblyman, along with a coalition of Jewish groups, demanded and has received assurances from the university administration that anti-Israel bias in University of California classrooms remains formally forbidden. The union vote demonstrates, however, the extent to which current undergraduate education and future faculty members are compromised by BDS.

Two other incidents showed the willingness of BDS supporters to politicize mundane aspects of university life. At Wesleyan University Israeli-owned Sabra brand hummus was briefly removed from campus stores at the demand of the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. A university official denied the move political but claimed that the university was “looking into stocking multiple brands of hummus to give students a choice of products.” BDS activists had targeted Sabra hummus since at least the spring, and had recently begun placing stickers on containers. In May the student government had passed a resolution urging the university endowment divest from firms involved in the “Military occupation of the West Bank.”

As with earlier BDS efforts aimed at Sabra, the Wesleyan ban was swiftly reversed by the university. Sabra will be stocked by university stores along with other brands of hummus. BDS supporters decried the decision as politically motivated.

In another more symbolically important development, Harvard University’s dining services temporarily removed Sodastream machines from dining halls. The Sodastream company makes carbonated water devices and is located in an Israeli industrial zone across the Green Line but will be relocating to the Negev. It has been the subject of intense BDS protests.

News reports indicated that during the spring the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Islamic Society “noticed that the filtered water machines in certain dining halls had Sodastream labels on them.”  One of their supporters was quoted as saying “These machines can be seen as a microaggression to Palestinian students and their families and like the University doesn’t care about Palestinian human rights.” After meetings between activists and university’s dining services, the latter “agreed to remove SodaStream labels on current machines and purchase machines from other companies.”

The story was widely circulated and the Harvard decision was subjected to considerable ridicule. In response, the university president, Drew Faust, and Provost, Alan Garber, announced that the dining services decision would be investigated and that “Harvard University’s procurement decisions should not and will not be driven by individuals’ views of highly contested matters of political controversy. If this policy is not currently known or understood in some parts of the University, that will be rectified now.”

Harvard officials then backtracked and claimed that they were unaware that the university dining services had dropped Sodastream products. A statement from the dining services claimed they had “mistakenly factored political concerns raised by students on a particularly sensitive issue into a decision on soda machines. As the president and provost have made clear, our procurement decisions should not be driven by community members’ views on matters of political controversy.”

Noted Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker also released a letter he had written to Faust and Garber in which he expressed his objections and decried “the idea that students are to be protected from “discomfort” or so”called “microaggression” when they are exposed to beliefs that differ from theirs.” This type of public expression of opposition to BDS is unusual.

The Sabra and Sodastream affairs show that BDS supporters are willing to politicize areas such as university food services and represent temporary successes as outsized victories. But while these specific decisions have been reversed, the larger BDS success is inculcating the idea among students that every choice of hummus or carbonated water is a supreme ethical decision that must be made against Israel in order to fit into university culture.

In the political sphere comments attributed to the State Department suggested that the Obama Administration was considering a variety of sanctions on Israel over continued building in Israeli communities across the Green Line, and particularly in Jerusalem. These leaks were quickly denied by the administration. The message behind the leaks has been interpreted as giving license to European states to consider their own sanctions against Israel.

European states also continued to adopt symbolic resolutions recognizing the state of Palestine, moves also intended to pressure Israel regarding negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. These should also be juxtaposed with the growing trend among European cities to condemn Israel, end relationships with Israeli counterparts and to ban Israeli goods. While these moves have been rejected by political organizations such as Britain’s Labour Party, the larger implication is the ongoing criminalization of Israel in Europe and acceptance of Palestinian calls for its destruction, in part through BDS.

This article was originally published by SPME.

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  • Adam Goldstein

    I think this article is an overreaction to BDS. Most of the votes were not passed by the deciding bodies.

  • Vittore

    I would advise anyone who’s read this article to read the blog DivestThis. It’s author suggests a much less hysterical look at the BDS.

    • Robert Weintraub

      Thanks for your comment. Of all the problems facing American Jews such low birthrate, low rates of affiliation and sky high intermarriage BDS is small potatoes. Every poll shows Israel far more popular than Palestine.

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