SPME BDS Monitor: Anti-Israel Activists Spring to Life on College Campuses
The 2016 academic year began with BDS activities moving into new areas on campus, Capitol Hill and within the progressive movement — spreading the rejection of Israel in both intellectual and academic arenas. The conclusion that BDS is a “settler colonial” movement that attaches to and overwhelms other causes is unavoidable. The manufacturing of “intersectional” connections does not serve the Palestinian or any other cause, but heightens the BDS movement’s inherent antisemitism, legitimizes antisemitism elsewhere in society and contributes to a conspiratorial environment. In this way, however, the BDS movement is in tune with the growing cultural mindset of intolerance.
BDS on campus was off to a quick start in September. Most notable was the appearance of an explicitly anti-Israel student-taught course at the University of California at Berkeley called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” After strenuous protests, the course was canceled, ostensibly on procedural grounds, but then reinstated by the Department of Ethnic Studies, after the student instructor, a BDS supporter and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) member, made what he described as “cosmetic changes” to the syllabus. These changes simply rephrased statements as questions. The faculty sponsor, Hatem Bazian, is the co-founder of SJP and a leading member of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). BDS supporters condemned the initial cancellation of the course as “censorship.”
Courses vilifying Israel and describing it as a “settler colonial” entity are common, but are rarely structured or marketed as blatantly antisemitic. The mainstreaming of the Berkeley course, with the explicit approval of multiple levels of the university faculty and administration, represents an escalation of political incitement against Israel within American academia.
In the wake of the Berkeley course controversy, antisemitic posters began appearing on campus, decrying “Jewish bullies” and alleging, among other things, Israeli government involvement in the initial course suspension.
The antisemitic orientation of BDS protests is becoming clearer, as is the utility of public shame. An example of this in September was the scheduled appearance of expatriate Israeli writer and BDS activist Miko Peled, recently quoted as calling Jews “sleazy thieves,” on behalf of SJP at San Diego State University. After Peled’s comments were criticized, his appearance was canceled, as was an earlier appearance at Princeton. Even Jewish Voice for Peace, a group with which Peled had partnered many times, felt compelled to condemn his antisemitic remarks. JVP later reversed its stance.
For now, classical antisemitic rhetoric still remains partially outside the range of accepted campus behavior, even for BDS advocates. But the findings of an investigation commissioned by the City University of New York, which found that SJP protests that included shouts of “Death to Jews” were protected speech indicates the boundaries of acceptability are shifting. In general, anti-Israel bias and antisemitism are increasingly acceptable under the rubric of “anti-racism.”
The effectiveness of shaming also depends on both vigilance and a cultural capacity for shame. Both become far more difficult when pro-BDS activists are deeply entrenched within student government and when the campus culture fully embraces ‘intersectional’ theories about the unity of all oppression and the a priori validity of all conspiratorial accusations.
This was confirmed in September when the Oberlin College student government condemned an alumni group that had complained about antisemitic statements from a faculty member and about campus BDS. The student government statement condemned the alumni “witch-hunt” against the now-suspended faculty member, Joy Karega, “to create a false image of Oberlin, damage the value of an Oberlin education, and then assert that the only appropriate response is that which they have already proposed,” and accused the alumni group of “surveillance, intimidation, marginalization and harassment of Oberlin students.”
The student statement was designed to push back against alumni at a time when there is increasing alumni mobilization against BDS. A recent example of this was the call from retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for alumni and donors to boycott and divest from universities that embrace BDS. Historically, alumni efforts have had limited success at individual universities against BDS, but the Oberlin statement demonstrates how threatening alumni pressure is to extremists and their cultural dominance, at least at small and financially vulnerable institutions.
The unacknowledged domination of anti-Israel bias and BDS at academic institutions was also in evidence at Syracuse University. There, an invitation to show an Israeli film was withdrawn after the sponsoring Syracuse faculty member was warned (as she put it in an email to the filmmaker) that “that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come.”
Public exposure of the incident in The Atlantic led to a cover-up from the university, including a statement from the Provost effectively blaming the sponsoring faculty member for impugning the university’s reputation, a mea culpa from the faculty member, and a petition from pro-BDS faculty members denying that any pressure to disinvite the filmmaker occurred.
Another Syracuse faculty member pointed out in an interview that there was no corresponding pressure to disinvite pro-BDS speakers, and noted that various units within the university were already carrying out “stealth boycotts” of Israel in contravention of institutional policy. Such covert and personal boycotts are difficult to measure, but are likely to be more widespread than generally realized.
At the same time, the impact of “anti-normalization” was demonstrated during an incident at Georgetown University, where protesters disrupted an academic event discussing the career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of the protesters was quoted as saying, “We want to bring visibility to the normalization of Netanyahu’s war crimes to campus and the oppression faced by the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state. We’re concerned that a conversation about the Israeli state took place without talking about it as an occupation and apartheid… Georgetown as a Jesuit institution needs to be held accountable for its complicity in this and all state violence.” The protesters, who were removed form the room, also chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Rejection of any mention of Israel that is not condemnatory, even in an academic discussion, exemplifies the BDS movement’s efforts to shift Israel into a uniquely demonic moral category beyond politics or intellect. It does so by creating a secular religious drama wherein conventional liberal ideals such as free speech, human rights, and intellectual inquiry are necessarily transcended by the absolute evil of Israel and the absolute good of Palestinians.
The Georgetown incident, and more violent ones that occurred in the previous academic year, demonstrate how the BDS movement is becoming more disruptive on American campuses. This pattern follows the lead of the anti-Israel movement in Britain and across Europe, where the existence of Israel, rather than “the settlements,” is the primary objection.
BDS’ opposition to Israel on the basis of its alleged “settler-colonial” nature instrumentally aligns it further with other left wing and indigenous movements, but also provides evidence of the movement’s own “settler-colonial” or parasitic nature, which increasingly usurps other causes. More evidence of the BDS colonization of other causes emerged when the BDS movement issued a statement supporting the Standing Rock Sioux’s protests against pipeline construction proposals in North Dakota. Other BDS and Palestinian groups quickly issued statements equating the Sioux cause with BDS and Palestinians, including appropriation of Native American terms and imagery such as “trail of tears.”
BDS colonization of new spaces also continued in the political sphere. The most important development was the announcement of a pro-BDS session to be held on Capitol Hill aimed at Congress, staffers, and the media. The session had minimal publicity but once it was uncovered, no member of Congress would admit to sponsoring the event. It was quickly revealed, however, that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was the sponsor, although her office claimed that it was a former staff member who had reserved the room without informing anyone.
Subsequent reports indicated that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had called Lee to demand the event be canceled. The session was later held at a Washington, D.C., church. A Jewish community representative was quoted as saying, “The leadership of the Democratic Party, and the vast, vast majority of Democrats across the country reject BDS as a fringe movement that spouts hatred and discrimination.” This statement suggests the Democratic Party leadership is sensitive regarding support for BDS from the party’s progressive wing.
Elsewhere in the political sphere, California Governor Jerry Brown signed an anti-BDS bill into law. The bill prevents companies doing business in California from violating the state’s civil rights laws regarding national discrimination. The signing came after a period of intense lobbying both for and against the bill.
The intensity of pushback against anti-BDS legislation and statements at the local level was also seen in the New York City Council. Dozens of pro-BDS supporters disrupted hearings on the resolution condemning BDS, which was ultimately approved by a margin of 40 to 6, with 6 abstentions. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had earlier urged progressives to oppose BDS.
Overseas, opposition intensified to Israeli soccer teams that are based in communities across the Green Line. Palestinians have long opposed Israeli participation in international soccer, both generally and more recently on the basis of “settlement” teams. The letter from 66 members of the European Parliament opposing “settlement” teams demanded the teams be relocated or banned and not, as some news reports suggested, that Israel be banned as a whole. A long report from ‘Human Rights Watch’ echoed the parliamentarians’ complaints.
Observers have also noted that international soccer has no guidelines regarding teams from “occupied” territories. If it did, the ruling body would have to judge international border disputes and potentially expel a number of states.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, British musician and BDS supporter Brian Eno denied an Israeli dance troupe permission to use his music. In response, the director of the group described Eno’s decision as a “a useless act” and called for “better ways to help the Palestinian cause.”