SPME BDS Monitor: Boycott Israel Movement on the March Across College Campuses
The academic BDS scene deteriorated further in November as American anthropologists voted to recommend an Israel boycott to the full membership. At the same time campus tactics are becoming more openly antisemitic and confrontational. European boycott efforts moved forward with the announcement of labeling guidelines for “settlement” products, but pushback, and the deteriorating security situations in the Middle East and Europe, produced hints of reconsideration. Overall the BDS news in November continued to demonstrate that the movement is most successful in institutions with weak leadership and values.
BDS in academia advanced in November on campus and in academic associations. Of note were two incidents intended to shut down at Israeli speakers and to portray BDS supporters as victims.
The increasing aggressiveness of campus BDS was displayed at the University of Texas, where ‘Palestine Solidarity Committee’ members disrupted a talk by an Israeli guest speaker. A loud confrontation ensued during which time the protestors unfurled a Palestinian flag and shouted ‘long live the intifada.”
The protestors later filed charges against the head of the Israel Studies program, Ami Pedazur, alleging he physically assaulted and defamed one of their members, and demanded he be fired. Their own video, however, proved the opposite, that they attempted to physically intimidate Pedazur. In return, upon discovering that the BDS supporters had used the names of well-known terrorists as pseudonyms, Pedazur also filed charges. After an interval, during which Pedazur hired a lawyer and was forced to enter campus in disguise, the university issued a statement of support for him and condemned disruption of the guest lecturer.
The leader of the protesters, a Palestinian-American law student, had previously published articles supporting violent Palestinian “resistance.” He had also appeared in a video produced by the BDS movement that claimed pro-Palestinian speech is being systematically shut down on American campuses and elsewhere.
A similar incident occurred at the University of Minnesota Law School. There, “anti-war” protesters supported by the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) supporters disrupted a lecture by a visiting Israeli scholar. They were the arrested by campus police. Their behavior was strongly condemned by the university and individual faculty members but the protesters claimed that the arrests infringed their freedom of speech.
The BDS movement’s complete disdain for the free speech of Israelis and others who disagree with them is matched by eagerness to claim free speech rights for themselves, including a “heckler’s veto.” These tactics are consistent with the BDS movement’s dual lawfare and victimhood strategies. They also build on the increasing hostility of Millennials towards free speech.
The coercive atmosphere that has suddenly erupted on campuses in connection to the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement has also affected supporters of Israel and Jews. A number of reports now indicate that individuals and groups are being coerced to support BLM but that pro-BDS forces are also singling out Jewish groups as unwelcome in campus coalitions.
Labeling Zionists and Jews as enemies of a unified progressive movement of blacks and Palestinians reached its climax in protests at Hunter College. A coalition of New York area SJP groups advertised a national “million student march” saying:
On November 12th, students all across CUNY will rally to demand a freeze on tuition and new contracts! We must fight for funding for our university, and for CUNY to be accessible to working class communities in NYC as the public university system. The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education. While CUNY aims to produce the next generation of professional Zionists, SJP aims to change the university to fight for all peoples [sic] liberation.
The demands included: “An End to the Privatization of Education!,” free tuition, “An End to Racial and Economic Segregation in Education!,” and that CUNY divest from “Israel, companies that maintain the Zionist occupation, private prisons, and prison labor.” The Hunter College administration failed to condemn the statements, although a CUNY official voiced disapproval. During the actual march BDS supporters chanted “Zionists out of CUNY!” and “Intifada, Intifada, long live the Intifada.” In response to this, Hunter College’s president and student leaders stated that they “strongly condemn anti-Semitic comments made at a rally last night seeking to exclude members of our campus community based solely on their identity.”
Exclusion of Jewish students from campus life was also in evidence in November. A Jewish student and member of the student government at the University of California, Santa Cruz was warned to abstain from voting on a renewed BDS resolution. The student, who was also president of the Jewish Student Union (JSU), received several text messages saying “You will be abstaining, as the president of JSU that is the right thing.” Another message stated, “There was also a comment tonight that you were elected by a…hmm Idk (I don’t know) if these are the right words but let’s say…a Jewish agenda.” In response the student abstained from the vote but called on the university to take action against campus antisemitism. The BDS resolution was approved.
This incident echoed one earlier this year at UCLA. The larger pattern of preemptively disenfranchising Jewish students for supporting Israel, opposing BDS, or for being Jewish, is ominous and reminiscent of British universities during the late 1970s and early 1980s. There, many Jewish student groups were banned on the grounds that they were “Zionist” and hence unacceptable during the period when the United Nations had declared that “Zionist is racism.”
The logic of preemptively banning Israelis was also displayed during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, DC. Netanyahu’s scheduled speech at the left-wing Center for American Progress (CAP) prompted a petition from more than 100 staff members and others who claimed the appearance gave Netanyahu unearned legitimacy. More telling were complaints that Netanyahu’s presence would make CAP staffers feel “unsafe.” These complaints were widely ridiculed and Netanyahu’s appearance proceeded without incident. But the complaint that an Israeli speaker violated a “safe space” is likely to be voiced in the future as a means of shutting out dissenting voices regarding BDS.
At the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting a BDS resolution was discussed at the group’s business meeting. It describes Israel as having denied Palestinians “their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination through ethnic cleansing, colonization, discrimination, and military occupation” and alleges “Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state’s systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians, by providing planning, policy, and technological expertise for furthering Palestinian dispossession.”
Importantly, the resolution states, “This boycott pertains to Israeli academic institutions only and not to individual scholars, and also that individual anthropologists are free to determine whether and how they will apply the boycott in their own professional practice,” and “that in implementing this boycott, the AAA will support the rights of students and scholars to engage in research and public speaking about Israel/Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.” The resolution thus authorizes discrimination by individual scholars against Israel and obligates the AAA to defend BDS activities by anthropologists. The resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority and will be voted on by the full membership next year. A second resolution calling on the association to reject any boycott of Israel was voted down by a large margin. One critic of the anti-boycott resolution described it as a “call for inaction.”
The resolution that will be presented to the membership in the spring is ostensibly aimed at Israeli institutions rather than individual scholars. It would require AAA to prohibit Israeli universities from advertising positions or being listed in association publications, and raises the possibility that the association could deny Israeli institutions access to AAA publications. Observers have noted that the AAA restricting access to publications would involve academic publishers in their boycott, in contravention of anti-discrimination laws. It was also noted that AAA’s major donors at one time included Intel and Yahoo, both of which have major research facilities in Israel. Other observers have noted that single-minded condemnation of Israel has been a feature of AAA policies since at least 1982.
BDS was also a centerpiece issue at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) meeting, where two panels comprised of BDS supporters publicly ‘debated’ the issue. No BDS resolution was officially considered. The strategy was to normalize discussion of BDS and create grassroots support within the organization in advance of any formal resolutions.
The tone of the MESA discussion was particularly revealing. The organization’s bylaws declare it to be non-political, but, as one participant put it, “We have no choice. We are political by being nonpolitical. And we are political by being political.” In this convoluted view the demand for BDS is, in fact, “non-political.”
The National Women’s Studies Association also adopted a BDS resolution in November. BDS support will be generated through panel discussions at the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association meetings in January.
Together, the AAA and NWSA votes and the MESA debate demonstrate again the extent to which BDS has been normalized within academia. Even if the associations reject BDS resolutions, or are legally prevented from adopting formal policies, faculty members at countless schools are already participants. Classroom content and tone, the treatment of individual students and colleagues, departmental decisions such as hiring, promotion and tenure, and the shape of scholarship as a whole are at least partially aligned with the BDS movement and its goals. Politicization of classrooms will also expand under the ostensible protection of academic freedom.
In the political sphere, the European Union (EU) announced its long-promised labeling guidelines for products originating in Israeli communities beyond the Green Line. These were presented as mandating products be labeled with their country of origin and cast in terms of consumer protection. Observers noted the guidelines were not directed at other “occupied” areas such as Northern Cyprus, and that rather than specifying geographic or even national origin, labels were directed at a single political situation, “Israeli settlements.”
Israeli leaders reacted furiously. The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned EU ambassadors from EU states, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to freeze contacts in order to reassess EU participation in the peace process.
As many had predicted, the vagueness of the guidelines also prompted some European retailers to withdraw all Israeli products, ostensibly to label products appropriately. In one case a German department store removed Israeli wines from its shelves, claiming it would return them after relabeling. After an outcry from German politicians and Jewish leaders the store apologized and returned the products. Reports also indicated BDS activists in Germany had entered stores on “inspection tours” in search of Israeli products.
Economic damage from the current labeling guidelines is not expected to be great but there continue to be warnings that the guidelines could be extended to other sectors of the Israeli economy, including banking, where the impact could be significant.
In response to protests, including from US Senators and from Germany, and unwillingness of other EU member states like Hungary to implement the guidelines, as well as the deteriorating security situations in the Middle East and Europe, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced that the labeling issue would be reviewed at the regular December meeting of EU foreign ministers. In contrast, the broader European impact of a French appellate court ruling, which found that Israel boycotts violate French human rights and press laws remains to be assessed.
Finally, in the political sphere, while on a visit to Israel, London Major Boris Johnson criticized BDS supporters as “corduroy jacket academics” who “have no real standing in the matter.” British BDS supporters immediately criticized Johnson’s remarks and his visit to the Palestinian Authority (PA) was cut short when a Palestinian youth group canceled a meeting in protest. The visit to the PA was also marred by Palestinian boycott of an Israeli journalist covering Johnson, a move he described as “perverse.”
This article was originally published by SPME.