Amid BDS Activism, Divestment Falters on College Campuses
It has become a summer ritual to predict that college campuses will erupt in anti-Israel activity, and, after 2014-15’s record number of antisemitic divestment resolutions, the fears were acute. It is too early to predict a trend, but indications are that this past year may have marked a turning point in discrediting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and erasing the perception that it is making headway among students on campus.
While this is not the full measure of the impact of BDS on campus, the record of divestment efforts in 2015-16 is both instructive and encouraging.
This past academic year, 18 divestment votes were taken (counting only the final votes), down from 27 the year before — a 33 percent decrease.
The resolutions were defeated in 11 of the 18 votes. I counted as defeats votes at Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Cal State Long Beach because the resolutions that were adopted were watered down so they were not focused on Israel. I’ve also counted as a failure the measure that was tabled at Portland State. Four graduate student votes in favor of divestment were also excluded because they have no impact on the campus, affect a small subset of students, and don’t effect university policy. Moreover, at least one, the graduate student union at NYU, was overruled by the UAW.
If we look at the results from 2005-6 through 2015-16, a total of 88 votes have been taken; opponents have defeated divestment by a 64%-36% margin, with this past year’s margin 61%-39%.
Another bit of good news/bad news, was that while nine new schools debated divestment, only four passed. There was a mix of major universities such as the University of Chicago and Minnesota, and minor ones such as Portland State and Grand Valley State.
Even more significant were the schools that did not vote this year. Those included typical hot spots such as Stanford, UC Davis, UCLA and Berkeley.
One other interesting tidbit is that only four schools — Michigan Dearborn, UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Davis — have voted in favor of divestment more than once. Only one of those voted this year, Michigan Dearborn, and divestment lost.
There is still no evidence that BDS has become a serious problem at elite schools. Last year, only two schools in the top 20 held votes and three in the top 50. Over 11 years, 16 of the top 50 schools (32%) have considered divestment and BDS lost 63% of the time.
Altogether, only 53 schools have considered divestment in the last 11 years; only 22 have passed resolutions (42%). To put this in perspective, these schools comprise fewer than 3% of all four-year colleges. Other colleges have anti-Israel activity and BDS rumblings, but those remain a small fraction of all institutions. The important statistic is that 97% of schools have not had divestment resolutions and the overwhelming majority have no anti-Israel activity.
Divestment votes are also taken by a tiny minority of students and should not be viewed as in any way reflecting the views of the majority. Most students don’t know or care about the BDS issue and when it is explained to them, their opinion turns more negative. Most students expect their student government to improve their financial and academic lives rather than engage in political grandstanding that does nothing for their welfare. Practically, the student government votes in favor of divestment are meaningless since they have no power to influence university investment policies and university officials have consistently said they oppose the antisemitic BDS campaign and have no intention of divesting or boycotting.
What BDS campaigns do is roil the campus, pit students against each other, and, to at least some extent, tarnish Israel’s image among a minority of students who are attuned to the debate.
Deterring and defeating antisemitic BDS resolutions does not happen in a vacuum. Students, supported by Hillel, an the alphabet soup of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations and philanthropists have educated themselves, rallied their classmates, and put in the time and effort to prevent their campuses from being hijacked by a handful of students committed to tarnishing Israel’s image.
Israel’s detractors are also determined to appropriate the language of the Black Lives Matter movement and to form coalitions with ethnic and religious groups. Pro-Israel students are encouraged to build coalitions, but have generally been less successful, in part because the BDSers have been more effective in communicating their specious narrative of Israelis as white, Jewish, colonial oppressors of people of color.
Sadly, many well-meaning students are misled to believe they are somehow helping the Palestinians by supporting BDS even while Palestinians themselves say the movement is hurting them. They have been bullied into hypocritically focusing on the plight of Palestinians in the disputed territories while ignoring the most serious human rights abusers in the world, including those in Syria who are slaughtering Palestinians and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees. More seriously, BDS advocates ignore the raison d’ê·tre of the movement — namely the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in their homeland.
Perhaps the most important trend this year has been the backlash against BDS on campus from students and professors and, more significantly, off campus. The University of California regents unanimously adopted a statement condemning antisemitism on its campuses, and it became the first public university system to do so, which may encourage other states to do the same. The statement could have been stronger, but opponents succeeded in eliminating language condemning anti-Zionism and opposition to the creation of a Jewish state.
Separately, more than 200 chancellors and presidents have made statements opposing BDS. At least 14 states have adopted anti-BDS measures with more likely to follow their example. Congress is also considering legislation to prevent discriminatory practices directed at Israel. These measures have put BDSers on the defensive. Instead of the image of a movement gaining ground, it is being discredited at all levels of government and increasingly recognized for what it is: an antisemitic campaign.
As I have repeatedly argued, focusing on students is misleading because the real menace on campus comes from faculty. As I will explain in Part 2, on that front, the news is less sanguine.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine. This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.