SPME BDS Monitor: Fighting Boycott Movement Begins to Show Results
The year 2015 ended with BDS supporters co-opting more campus governments and causes to discriminate against Jewish students. At the same time, more BDS resolutions were defeated and steps taken to prevent student governments from adopting Israel boycotts. These signs suggest that the BDS movement’s overreach is producing backlash, at least in terms of energizing campus opposition. A similar dynamic is apparent in the political sphere, where efforts to isolate Israel economically have been met with local legislation prohibiting Israel boycotts. The lesson of 2015 is that grassroots opposition to BDS can work, both on campus and in the political system.
The fall semester ended in December with several incidents where BDS supporters used student government to harass Jewish students and organizations for supporting Israel. At the University of Michigan a Jewish member of student government was exonerated after an investigation found he “did not engage in unethical behavior or engage in conduct unbecoming of a representative” by verbally challenging BDS supporters. The BDS group — “Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE)” — had accused the student of abusive conduct. The use of campus disciplinary mechanisms against individuals who challenge BDS has been seen several times, most notably at UCLA in the spring of 2015.
At Vassar the local branch of J Street University was initially denied the right to apply for event funding by the student government on the grounds that “Zionism is an inherently racist ideology.” The funding was eventually approved. A pro-Israel group at San Diego State University was also excluded from a student statement against Islamophobia after the local Students for Justice in Palestine objected. Efforts to exclude Jewish and pro-Israel groups and individuals from campus life are likely to expand in 2016.
Straightforward harassment was also evident in December. At Connecticut College posters placed around campus by BDS supporters accusing the Taglit-Birthright program of being “settler-colonialism.”
Other notable developments are deepening connections between BDS supporters and unrelated causes. One example of this was seen at Columbia University where a sexual assault awareness group called “No Red Tape” collaborated with Students for Justice in Palestine, condemning Zionism on social media and condoning anti-Israel speech on the theory “that its anti-Israel position stems from commonalities between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This theoretical approach, “intersectionality,” essentially claims that all forms of ‘oppression’ are intrinsically related. Anti-Israel activists have used the concept in order to attach BDS to mainstream causes like feminism and to vilify Israel.
Another example of how BDS has been folded into campus protests was the “Stop the Sellout” letter sent to the president of Ohio State University by the “United Students Against Sweatshops.” The letter demands a “fair, humane, ecologically sound, community based, and transparent food system that prioritizes student voice,” an end to “all current future endeavors to privatize our public university and cater to corporate interests,” and “withdraw its investments in entities (ie. Boeing, Caterpillar, etc) complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories until they are no longer engaged in the violation of human rights and other practices that fail to adhere to the Ohio State’s endorsed Principles of Responsible Investment.” Connections between the BDS and other far left movements like “Black Lives Matter” have also grown substantially over 2015.
But in December backlash against BDS cooption of campus life was also seen, for example at UCLA. There the Undergraduate Student Association Council adopted a resolution restricting the council to “matters directly and substantially pertaining to student welfare issues.” These were defined as “issues pertaining to student (health), resources, education, safety.” Political issues such as Israel boycotts were thus put off limits, an outcome predictably condemned by pro-BDS students. One pro-BDS student complained that the restriction negatively affected “student wellness.” The resolution came in the wake of several incidents at UCLA, including adoption of a BDS resolution and harassment of Jewish student members of the undergraduate council.
At Indiana University the student government passed a resolution condemning antisemitism. The statement also specified that the “Indiana University Student Association recognizes that the Jewish people, like all peoples, have a collective right to self-determination, and considers attempts to undermine these rights, including the global BDS Movement against Israel, to be a form of bigotry.” A boycott resolution atLancaster University was defeated, but only because a large number of students abstained from the vote.
In other campus news, a BDS resolution adopted by the union representing University of California graduate students, Local 2865, was stuck down by the parent United Auto Workers International Union. The reversal, brought about by an appeal from a group of concerned students, is a major defeat for BDS at California universities.
Faculty support for BDS will be tested in January when BDS resolutions will be debated at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association. Legal scholars have recently pointed out that boycotts likely violate the corporate charters of academic associations, exposing them to lawsuits from members.
Finally, in a shocking example of the pettiness and venom of BDS supporters, a retired faculty member and BDS supporter at Cambridge University refused to answer a 13 year-old Israeli girl’s query regarding the domestication of horses. Her response was to state “I’ll answer your questions when there is peace and justice for Palestinians in Palestine. I am a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. I support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. You might be a child, but if you are old enough to write to me, you are old enough to learn about Israeli history and how it has impacted on the lives of Palestinian people.” In response to a press inquiry she added, “The Jews have become the Nazis. Jews are behaving just like the people who treated them. It’s not all Israelis or all Jews.” The incident received widespread attention and publiccondemnati
There were a number of important developments in the political sphere. Despite dissent from member states the European Union pressed forward with labeling guidelines for products originating in Israeli communities across the Green Line. Greece and the Czech Republic have joined other states including Hungary in rejecting the guidelines. In Germany, however, the government announced its support for the guidelines while the president of the Bundestag rejected them. Similarly, in response to a question, French Foreign Minister Manual Valls stated to the Parliament that he condemned “all boycotts” of Israel, but declined to characterize EU labeling guidelines as discriminatory.
Fears continue that the labeling guidelines lay the groundwork for more widespread boycotts of Israel. These fears are given support by reports of German stores removing Israeli products, ostensibly to be relabeled. Other reports show that the EU’s guidelines have given license to BDS activists to place their own labels on Israeli products.
Legal scholars have shown that the EU is applying labeling guidelines only to Israel, as opposed to other “occupied territories” such as the Western Sahara. These and other discriminatory actions are likely to be challenged legally and in setting such as the World Trade Organization. Interestingly, one observer has also noted that a 1995 ruling by the US Treasury stipulates “Goods which are produced in the West Bank and Gaza … shall not contain the words ‘Israel,’ ‘Made in Israel,’ ‘Occupied Territories-Israel,’ or words of similar meaning.”
In the United States a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the US House of Representatives condemning European Union labeling guidelines as discriminatory and accusing the EU of promoting Israel boycotts. Presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio also condemned the guidelines as “antisemitic.” In a speech at a Washington gathering Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also repeated her condemnation of the BDS movement, but did not address the EU labeling guidelines.
In Britain, the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed it was writing guidelines that would forbid local councils from engaging in boycotts or sanctions against individual states and industries, such as arms or fossil fuels. The rules are cast in terms of reaffirming national control over foreign policy. They come after several local councils passed resolutions condemning and boycotting Israel. These now face legal challenges.
Anti-BDS legislation also gained steam in the US. Proposed legislation in New York would prohibit the state from doing business with companies that engage in boycotts specifically of Israel. The town of Bal Harbour, Florida, also passed similar legislation, making it the first municipality to do so.
Similar legislation has been proposed in California, which would forbid the state’s enormous pension funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), from investing in companies that boycott Israel. The two pension funds have assets of approximately $500 billion. The New York State Comptroller, the chief investment officer for the state’s pension fund, also visited Israel, partially as a deliberate rebuke to the BDS movement, and to demonstrate continued confidence.
Internationally, BDS did not fare well in December. Spain’s National Court overruled a lower court and quashed arrest warrants for a number of Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An Israeli reserve military officer was, however, briefly detained at a London airport on the basis of a war crimes complaint lodged by Palestinian organizations. He was released with an apology. The officer’s name had been included in lists of Israeli personnel who had participated in the 2014 Gaza conflict which have been circulated to European governments. Efforts to use European human rights laws against lower ranking Israeli officers represents a new area of harassment and intimidation.