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June 4, 2015 6:43 pm

SPME BDS Monitor: US State Legislatures Fight Back, But Soccer Ban a Risk

avatar by Alexander Joffe

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BDS supporters. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

BDS on campuses ended the year with limited gains and important setbacks. The fight has also moved decisively into state legislatures, which are voting in favor of bills prohibiting agencies from doing business with firms boycotting Israel. But internationally European states continue to warn Israel of boycotts while a variety of small measures, including the pension of a Dutch Holocaust survivor living in Israel, have been subjected to sanctions. These small but painful examples demonstrate how BDS has penetrated European bureaucratic behavior. On a larger scale, Palestinian threats to have Israel expelled from international soccer point to more corruption at the heart of that sport.

Analysis

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In May the American academic year ended with a few BDS victories and a series of important setbacks. In California the General Assembly of the Student Senate of California Community Colleges voted against a divestment bill. The move stands in contrast to the approval of a divestment bill earlier this year by the University of California graduate student organization.

Equally important was the overwhelming rejection of a sweeping boycott bill in a campus-wide referendum at Bowdoin College. This unusual vote took the boycott proposal directly to students rather than to student government. It came after a week of pro-BDS events and the appearance of pro-BDS speakers from the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace. Bowdoin’s president had stated the college’s opposition to boycott in 2013 and noted after the vote “There was never any question about Bowdoin College joining this movement.”

It is unclear whether BDS supporters will rethink the high-cost and high-risk strategy of campus-wide referenda. Their traditional strategy of placing or supporting student government leaders was also undermined in May when the pro-BDS party was voted out at UCLA. A series of high profile scandals regarding antisemitic harassment of Jewish student candidates was followed by allegations that the pro-BDS party had sold drugs and alcohol and used student activity fees to fund its campaign. Documentation was also released showing the party had designed an elaborate plan to take over many other student organizations. The latest scandal suggests that illegal financial behavior is commonplace in student government. Predictably, the students voted out of office alleged they were victims of “racism.”

As evidence for antisemitic harassment of Jewish students on California campuses mounts, the state senate to unanimously passed a resolution condemning antisemitism. A coalition of groups and several hundred University of California alumni have publicly called for adoption of the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism by the university system. The definition regards denial of Israel’s right to exist as antisemitic. University of California president Janet Napolitano also commented on the problem, stating that she favored adopting the State Department definition.

Critics suggest that if used as legal guidelines by a state university system the definition could violate Constitutional protections on free speech. Palestinian and other pro-BDS activists

BDS on campuses ended the year with limited gains and important setbacks. The fight has also moved decisively into state legislatures, which are voting in favor of bills prohibiting agencies from doing business with firms boycotting Israel. But internationally European states continue to warn Israel of boycotts while a variety of small measures, including the pension of a Dutch Holocaust survivor living in Israel, have been subjected to sanctions. These small but painful examples demonstrate how BDS has penetrated European bureaucratic behavior. On a larger scale, Palestinian threats to have Israel expelled from international soccer point to more corruption at the heart of that sport.

Analysis

In May the American academic year ended with a few BDS victories and a series of important setbacks. In California the General Assembly of the Student Senate of California Community Colleges voted against a divestment bill. The move stands in contrast to the approval of a divestment bill earlier this year by the University of California graduate student organization.

Equally important was the overwhelming rejection of a sweeping boycott bill in a campus-wide referendum at Bowdoin College. This unusual vote took the boycott proposal directly to students rather than to student government. It came after a week of pro-BDS events and the appearance of pro-BDS speakers from the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace. Bowdoin’s president had stated the college’s opposition to boycott in 2013 and noted after the vote “There was never any question about Bowdoin College joining this movement.”

It is unclear whether BDS supporters will rethink the high-cost and high-risk strategy of campus-wide referenda. Their traditional strategy of placing or supporting student government leaders was also undermined in May when the pro-BDS party was voted out at UCLA. A series of high profile scandals regarding antisemitic harassment of Jewish student candidates was followed by allegations that the pro-BDS party had sold drugs and alcohol and used student activity fees to fund its campaign. Documentation was also released showing the party had designed an elaborate plan to take over many other student organizations. The latest scandal suggests that illegal financial behavior is commonplace in student government. Predictably, the students voted out of office alleged they were victims of “racism.”

As evidence for antisemitic harassment of Jewish students on California campuses mounts, the state senate to unanimously passed a resolution condemning antisemitism. A coalition of groups and several hundred University of California alumni have publicly called for adoption of the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism by the university system. The definition regards denial of Israel’s right to exist as antisemitic. University of California president Janet Napolitano also commented on the problem, stating that shefavored adopting the State Department definition.

Critics suggest that if used as legal guidelines by a state university system the definition could violate Constitutional protections on free speech. Palestinian and other pro-BDS activists have stated that their free speech rights are already being infringed. In response to the adoption of the State Department definition by states, Jewish Voice for Peace has called for them to be changed.

In other campus news the student government at the University of Texas at Austin rejected a BDS proposal while one was adopted at Earlham College. A Jewish student at Northwestern University has filed a complaint against Students for Justice in Palestine alleging harassment and verbal assault during a demonstration. The complaint alleges “bias against race and religion.” And in another effort to orchestrate Israel boycotts through unconventional avenues, the University of California at Riverside dropped and then reinstated Sabra brand humus after a request from the local Students for Justice in Palestine branch. The university characterized the initial move as a mistake.

In the political sphere the most important development has been a series of state legislative initiatives aimed at the BDS movement. In Illinois the state house and senate unanimously passed legislation that makes it illegal for the state pension fund to invest in companies that boycott Israel. The legislation appears aimed primarily at European companies. Similar legislation has been proposed in New York State. The legislation follows on earlier non-binding resolutions passed by the Tennessee and Indiana legislatures condemning BDS.

The Illinois legislation is also seen as a model for additional moves at the Federal level. With bipartisan support, anti-BDS language was attached to the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority bill that was approved by the Senate Finance Committee. The provisions were opposed by Jewish and pro-BDS activists who characterized them as endorsement of Israeli communities in the West Bank.

Remarks by retired Lt. General David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Iraq and CIA director, indicate that BDS is attracting growing attention at the national level. In a public interview Petraeus noted“You see growing worries about the possibility of a so-called ‘international intifadah’; the boycott, divestment and sanction moves. That may be coming back to a strategic issue that has to be resolved at some point.”

An interview with President Barack Obama made the same point in more abstract terms:

“I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind.”

Obama went on to comment that while antisemitism itself was irrational, Iranian leaders were more motivated by a desire to preserve the regime. Critics noted this discounted the fact that antisemitism is an all-encompassing and conspiratorial worldview that undermines regime rationality and the potential for negotiation and mutual understanding.

In other international news, the World Health Organization voted overwhelmingly to condemn Israel for alleged violations of the rights of Syrians on the Golan Heights and Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Palestinian efforts to have Israel expelled from FIFA, the international soccer federation, have also intensified. Palestinian officials allege that Israel routinely mistreats Palestinian soccer players and restricts their movements, and that several Israeli clubs based in disputed West Bank communities play in Israeli competition. Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Federation, proposed the resolution. Rajoub is a member of the Fatah Central Committee, the one-time head of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, and virulent opponent of “normalized” Palestinian relations with Israel. If Israel is expelled it would be ineligible to play in European competition.

FIFA officials lobbied against the proposal but until the meeting in Zurich the Palestinian delegation appeared determined to proceed. In response, Israeli groups sought to have Rajoub expelled from FIFA for his membership in Fatah, a terror sponsoring organization, and for incitement against Israel, both violations of FIFA regulations.

At the international meeting – which also witnessed a bomb threat and Palestinian protestors rush the podium – Rajoub suddenly dropped the resolution. Reports indicate the other countries had intensely lobbied the Palestinian delegation not to proceed. Rajoub then demanded an international committee monitor Israeli treatment of Palestinian players.

FIFA’s stance on Israel is influenced by an exploding bribery scandal that saw the sudden arrest of top FIFA officials in Switzerland on the basis of corruption indictments in the United States. FIFA had also long sought to divert criticism from its selection of Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup, where use of forced labor to build the stadium and sports complex has resulted in the death of numerous foreign workers and widespread labor and human rights abuses. It is unclear how these factors affected the debate on Israel. A former FIFA official, who resigned after 2011 bribery charges and who was arrested in Trinidad in connection with the new indictments, had previously blamed “Zionism” for the scandal.

European leaders also continued a series of boycott threats against Israel. Specific threats came from the“European Eminent Persons Group” in a letter to Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The group, composed of retired European diplomats, described American efforts a failure and demanded a specifically European policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace. It called for a United Nations Security Council Resolution setting a deadline for successful conclusion of peace negotiations and “direct efforts to persuade Hamas and other Palestinian factions intent on armed struggle to take a political and non- violent line from now on.”

The letter also called for “the EU- wide introduction of guidelines for correct labelling of settlement products, to be complemented by tougher measures to contain settlement expansion and steps to operationalise the EU’s policy of non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty beyond the 1967 borders across the full range of EU- Israeli relations.” The call echoed previous statements from 2013 and 2014. The “European Eminent Persons Group” has not commented on other policy areas.

Calls to ‘non-recognize’ Israeli communities in the West Bank appear to have already been internalized by European bureaucrats. In one egregious instance the pension of a 90 year-old Holocaust survivor was reduced by 35% when Dutch authorities became aware she had moved across the ‘Green Line’ to an Israeli community in the West Bank. After protests Dutch authorities reversed the decision but stated that new guidelines would be issued regarding pensions for residents in the West Bank.

Finally, in cultural news, American band Primus and singer Lauryn Hill canceled appearances in Israel. The latter claimed that it had “proved a challenge” to organize performances in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Both had been subjected to pressure by BDS activists. In contrast, British singer Robbie Williams appeared in Tel Aviv and, publicly repudiating BDS pressure, American singer Dionne Warwick has scheduled appearances.

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