SPME BDS Monitor: Strong Organizational Support Is Needed to Fight Boycott Movement
Though universities were not in session, January was an active month for BDS. Two incidents demonstrated how BDS activists are using violence against Israelis and Jews, then denying they had done so. In an important development, the Obama administration effectively joined the European push to label Israeli products from the West Bank. But the American Historical Association rejected a resolution censuring Israel and more states are adopting anti-BDS legislation. Overall January illustrates how organizations with clear leadership are resisting BDS while those without are being co-opted.
The outstanding feature of BDS activity in January was violence and intimidation against Israelis and supporters of Israel. In the first case, a speech at King’s College London by Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and commander of the Israeli Navy, was disrupted by protesters who repeatedly pulled fire alarms, threw chairs, smashed a window, and shouted at participants. One of the talk’s organizers was reportedly also assaulted. Police were called but no arrests were made.
In response to the incident King’s College launched an “urgent investigation” and stated that the university president would “also be writing to students to remind them violent protest is totally unacceptable and we expect them to be tolerant and respectful of others’ views and opinions.” The British Universities and Science Minister and other politicians condemned the incident, with at least one expressing concern about the lack of arrests.
The group “KCL Action Palestine,” which organized the protests, later stated that they “categorically condemn any aggression that took place,” but also claimed, “We refute any involvement with what took place.”
A second violent incident came at the annual Creating Change conference sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force. A Jewish LGBTQ group, A Wider Bridge, had been targeted by BDS activists with accusations of “pink-washing” – the claim that Israel’s gay-friendly policies are a cover for “oppressing” Palestinians. Giving in to BDS pressure, conference organizers banned A Wider Bridge shortly before the event, but reversed the decision after complaints and negative press coverage. A Wider Bridge’s event, a Sabbath service and reception, was then rescheduled for another venue.
At the event, approximately 200 protesters blocked the entrance and harassed participants. One participant described the “bullying, verbal abuse and threats” – a description confirmed by video of the protests – and complained that the lack of security was a deliberate decision on the part of the organizers who had been embarrassed into reversing their initial decision to ban A Wider Bridge. Another Jewish participant stated she felt physically threatened and “attacked as a Jew,” describing protesters’ efforts to forcibly enter into the hall and shut down the event. Israeli participants were removed for their safety. The violence was widely condemned by LGBT leaders, in the mainstream media and on the left.
The anti-Israel and antisemitic basis of the protests was clear. Among the slogans chanted was, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Organizers of the protests later defended this and their actions in a statement, stating it was “Zionists exited the reception, shouted at the protesters and pushed and physically intimidated several.” The chants, protests and accusations of “pink-washing” were also strongly defended by Jewish Voice for Peace. Both groups strongly explicitly defended the “right of return” – the putative right of Palestinians to return to homes within the 1948 borders of Israel – and thus the destruction or dissolution of Israel.
The propensity toward violence and then claiming that pro-peace opponents were in fact the guilty parties has become a BDS signature. Threats from supporters, including the BDS movement, of convicted murderer Rasmea Odeh as her appeal for lying on her visa and naturalization applications moves through federal court is another example of how intimidation and violence are coming to characterize the Palestinian movement in the US as a whole. Odeh’s celebration by the Black Lives Movement also illustrates how each movement capitalizes on the other.
Pro-peace advocates achieved a notable success in academia. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), a BDS resolution was defeated by a resounding margin. The resolution, presented by the group Historians against War at the organization’s business meeting, condemned alleged Israeli attacks on Palestinian academic freedom and demanded the AHA monitor the situation. In the past, such demands have been preludes to full boycott resolutions.
Opponents, however, were well organized and the resolution was defeated. Though widely reported as an important defeat for BDS, similar resolutions will be introduced in other organizations. The lesson from the AHA incident is that under some circumstances and with careful preparation, BDS resolutions can be defeated. In addition to the AHA decision, the American Association of Universities issued a statement opposing boycotts of Israeli universities.
Academic boycotts of Israeli universities were announced, however, in Brazil and Italy. In each, groups of academics issued public statements condemning Israeli universities, but specified that their boycott did not apply to individual Israeli scholars. In the Brazilian case, the move comes in the context of an ongoing crisis in relations with Israel regarding the proposed Israeli ambassador, Dani Dayan, whom Brazil regards as unacceptable since he was among other things a leader of Jewish communities in the West Bank, and in the context of rising Brazilian antisemitism. Recent reports that Trinity College Dublin had instructed faculty to report “formal and informal” contacts with academics in Israel and Palestine have also led to suspicion that the university is preparing a backlist of Israeli scholars.
BDS resolutions and anti-Israel protests continued at various universities. The student government at the University of South Florida passed a BDS resolution that was then vetoed by the body’s president and vice president, on the grounds that “it is not the role of Student Government to interject into international politics nor investment policies.” At the University of Waterloo, the student body at large rejected a BDS resolution that called for the university to sever ties with Israel.
BDS-led protests against Israelis and Jews also expanded. At Brown University, the local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter protested against a public discussion of Jewish identity by actor Michael Douglas and former refusenik and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky. At Oberlin College, a group of 200 alumni publicly complained about the rising climate of antisemitism instigated by BDS advocates, including verbal attacks on students, denigration of the Holocaust as “white-on-white crime.” The issue was of sufficient magnitude to be reported in the mainstream media. The college president will reportedly meet with alumni to address the matter.
Extremism at Oberlin was recently exposed by widely reported student complaints over “cultural expropriation” related to dining hall food and demands for racially segregated “safe spaces.” These types of complaints and protests, along with BDS, also provide the context for rapidly rising antisemitism on American campuses as a whole.
In the political sphere there was significant BDS news. In a stunning development, the Obama administration has directed the federal government that products originating in Israeli communities in the West Bank cannot be labeled “Made in Israel.” Though nominally in compliance with unenforced 1995 regulations, the new directive comes on the heels of European Union (EU) labeling regulations. Administration spokesmen stated the move was not technical and political, a claim that was dismissed by Israeli officials. Administration spokesmen defended the EU regulations earlier in January, but had admitted in November that while the US was opposed to Israel boycotts, labeling “could be taken as a boycott since it identifies products” and “could be perceived as a step on the way.”
Observers also note that the 1995 regulations were intended to differentiate products originating in the Palestinian Authority from Israeli ones. It is unclear whether the Obama administration was aware of the original intention when it shifted the regulations’ focus to Israeli products. Others have pointedly noted that the administration’s approach toward Israel is precisely the opposite of the strategy employed with Iran, where sanctions have been removed in part to support “moderate” elements.
In the past, US statements regarding fears of Israel boycotts and delegitimization, presumably intended to force Israeli concessions, have prompted European governmental and business entities to undertake boycotts. Reports indicate American Jewish organizations were divided over the significance of the administration move, which will almost certainly become an issue in the presidential campaign.
In contrast to setbacks at the Federal level, anti-BDS legislation has advanced in several states. Indiana and New York have passed legislation prohibiting state entities from investing in firms that have divested from Israel. Similar measures have been proposed in California and Florida. Mindful that BDS has been soundly pushed back at the state levels, a number of anti-Israel groups are particularly active in Florida opposing the proposed legislation.
Despite criticism, the European Union’s labeling rules remained in place in January. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid met the EU’s external affairs head, Federica Mognerini, who stated that the EU was opposed to Israel boycotts, but was “united on these technical guidelines on the indication of origin,” which “is in no way a boycott.” Observers note that Mognerini’s characterization of the labeling regulations as “technical” was an unsuccessful effort to sidestep political criticism.
After debate, EU foreign ministers reaffirmed the labeling decision and issued a statement saying “that — in line with international law — all agreements between the State of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.” The statement added that the decision “does not constitute a boycott of Israel which the EU strongly opposes.”
Individual European countries continue to publicly oppose Israel boycotts. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for example, stated at a meeting with Jewish leaders that “French authorities must change their attitude” towards BDS protests. He added “It is perfectly obvious how we have shifted from criticism of Israel to anti-Zionism and from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.” Shortly after this, however, France announced it was organizing a renewed round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and that in the event of their failure, it would officially recognize Palestine.
The contrast, however nominal, between opposition to labeling and Israel boycotts by individual European countries and the continued push by EU points to the power of unelected anti-Israel bureaucrats within the latter.
In another political development, the United Methodist Church removed five Israeli banks from its investment portfolio and sold small quantities of stock in Israeli corporations. The move came as part of what was claimed to be a reevaluation of the church’s investments in countries or regions with “a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights abuses.”
Finally, the group Human Rights Watch issued a report condemning Israeli communities and enterprises in the West Bank. The report describes Israeli enterprises, including employment of Palestinians, as abusive, illegal and and detrimental to the Palestinian economy. It calls for business to “stop operating in, financing, servicing, or trading with Israeli settlements in order to comply with their human rights responsibilities.” The organization’s hostility towards Israel is well-documented and long-