‘Underhanded Tactics’ of BDS Movement Unnerve Jews on College Campuses Worldwide
At the University of Michigan, anti-Israel students erected an “apartheid wall” in a central location on campus to confront Jewish students walking to services on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
At the University of Indianapolis, a resolution to boycott, divest and sanction Israel was presented to the student senate at two separate meetings, both on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. When Jewish students objected, university officials offered that they could participate by video conference — a use of electricity that was an obvious nonstarter for the Sabbath observers.
At Oregon’s Portland State University, the student government took up a BDS resolution against Israel at a meeting the day before Yom Kippur and passed it on the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
The timing amounts to a pattern aimed at preventing Jewish students from countering Israel’s increasingly professionalized, sophisticated and well-funded on-campus critics, Jewish leaders say. And it’s just one of a series of “underhanded tactics” that are concerning Israel’s advocates on campus.
“It’s not a coincidence. It’s not an accident,” the executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Jacob Baime, told The Algemeiner. He said he sees about one example every month of anti-Israel actions on campus timed to the Sabbath or Jewish holidays.
“It is a fairly common tactic,” Baime said. “Israel’s detractors have an interest in shutting out Jewish voices.”
At the City University of New York, a divestment vote by the Doctoral Students’ Council was scheduled for 6 pm on a Friday in September, as the Jewish Sabbath approached at sundown. When the pro-Israel side prevailed in that CUNY vote, the pro-divestment forces tried again — on another Friday night, this time in April.
“Their effort to silence any opposition by scheduling the vote for this Friday during the Sabbath, when observant Jews cannot attend to voice their concerns, is no coincidence,” a state senator, Jack Martins, wrote in a letter to the CUNY chancellor, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.
Even aside from the timing, the process of these votes and other activities leaves much to be desired, pro-Israel voices on campus say. In You Have the Right to Remain Silent: Campus Anti-Zionism’s Assault on Free Speech and the University, a forthcoming book from Indiana University Press, Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar document what they call “menacing (and sometimes violent) disruptions of campus Israel-related lectures and events,” and anti-Israel activists “not playing by the rules.” Ben-Atar is a professor of history at Fordham University, and Pessin, editor of The Algemeiner’s campus bureau, is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College.
Pessin and Ben-Atar write:
Anti-Israel activity, and BDS campaigns in particular, often “cheat” or operate clandestinely…BDS resolutions are often sprung with minimal advance notice, affording no time for the opposition to organize… they call for quick votes before the other side can be heard, and limit publicity to decrease participation by opponents…they allow people to vote who aren’t franchised to vote, if they will vote for BDS…they exploit conditions where a small number of activists can sway a vote and thus give the appearance of a broad mandate… ordinary procedural rules are either flouted or exploited in order to bring about the desired outcome.
At the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, a student government resolution in favor of BDS passed in a contest in which 36,000 students were eligible to vote. But the election was held in a room that had room for only 250, leaving hundreds of voters outside, unable to see or hear speeches for or against the motion, according to a statement by pro-Israel students obtained by The Algemeiner earlier this year.
At University College, London, a resolution in support of BDS in the name of a student body of about 38,500 students passed with the vote of a mere 14 individuals. Pro-Israel student leaders said they became aware of the scheduled vote only hours before it happened, and called the process “completely undemocratic and unrepresentative.” Students who supported the boycott reportedly tried to move the vote earlier in the meeting’s agenda, before pro-Israel students who were on their way could arrive.
When a BDS vote fails, it’s often just a prelude to another BDS vote; the BDS advocates keep having votes until they finally win one. At McGill University in Canada, there have been four BDS attempts since 2009, The Algemeiner reported. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, a BDS resolution that failed in 2014 was reinstated in 2015 by a vote of 28 student council representatives on a campus with about 16,000 undergraduates. At the University of Minnesota, after one BDS resolution was blocked, anti-Israel students tried again five weeks later, The Algemeiner reported earlier this year.
At Loyola University Chicago, the student government approved a BDS resolution unanimously only “by playing the worst kind of undemocratic political maneuvering,” wrote a graduate of that college, Brett Cohen, formerly the North American campus director for StandWithUs (a pro-Israel group). “Because there was no public announcement that this bill will be presented, there was no debate and not one word was heard in opposition, and that was by design.”
Cohen wondered why the anti-Israel students would need to “resort to such underhanded tactics if their cause is so just?” He concluded: “Their actions are a testament to the fact that BDS has been defeated at almost every university where it has been given a fair trial and argued on its merits.”
At Ohio State University, a BDS resolution was timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim. “We had only two weeks to get ready. That was very abrupt,” said Idan Simchony, a Jewish Agency Israel fellow who serves the Ohio State campus. The resolution was ultimately defeated nonetheless.
Another Jewish Agency Israel fellow, Rebecca Avera, said that when she organized an event on the Stanford University campus to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, it was infiltrated by about 10 anti-Israel protesters who interrupted it by falling onto the floor and staging a dramatic “die-in.”
At the University of Indianapolis’ second Sabbath meeting devoted to considering a BDS resolution, the student senate set rules that “all you had to do to be able to vote was show up,” said the director of policy and strategy for the Israel on Campus Coalition, Melissa Weiss, who called it “almost like a perfect storm of everything you don’t want to see in a BDS vote.”
A lawyer representing the Israel on Campus Coalition, David Butler of the firm Morgan Lewis, wrote to the president of the University of Indianapolis detailing some of the concerns about tactics by Students for Justice in Palestine, which was pushing the BDS resolution:
Exploiting an ambiguity in its mysterious rules, the Student Senate opened up the April 2 vote to all University students in attendance (not just student-Senators). SJP knew this would happen — it brought a contingent of 30 non-Senator students to the meeting. The vote went forward under these procedures even though other students on campus who opposed the measure were not told they could vote and still others were turned away from the meeting on the ground that the room was full. With those questionable procedures, the BDS resolution passed on April 2 — by a single vote.
The Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council described the vote in a statement:
Surprisingly, the divestment resolution was allowed another vote on April 2, with just eight minutes allotted for discussion; once the eight minutes elapsed, additional students who had indicated their desire to speak were not allowed to do so. The resolution would not have passed if only student senators had been allowed to vote (in fact, among senators alone, the resolution was defeated). Instead, every student, whether a member of the senate or not, was allowed a vote. The UIndy student body was neither informed that the divestment resolution would come back up for a vote nor that they would be allowed to be present and vote on behalf of themselves. Apparently knowing that the vote would take place Saturday, Students for Justice in Palestine ensured the room would have enough supporters to guarantee themselves a win.
For students, and even Jewish professionals on campus, confronting such disruptive or even dishonest tactics can be unpleasant. The executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, Lisa Armony, said she was in a classroom at the University of California, Irvine in May with about 10 students watching a movie, “Beneath the Helmet,” about Israeli soldiers. Suddenly 50 or 60 protesters showed up, “shouting things like ‘intifada, intifada’ and trying to push their way into the room.”
“There was a lot of screaming outside and banging on windows,” Ms. Armony told The Algemeiner. She said law students accompanying the students misrepresented themselves as lawyers in an effort to force their way into the event.
The Jewish students who had been trying to watch the movie “were very stressed out,” Ms. Armony said, “very nervous and fearful.”
The Jewish Agency Israel fellow at the University of Michigan, Liraz Cohen, said that when the “apartheid wall” went up on the central “Diag” in Ann Arbor — complete with anti-Israel students dressed up as Israeli soldiers forcing others dressed up as Palestinians to line up or lie down on the ground at a “check point” — “it was really hard for a lot of our students.”
The Jewish students who had left campus to go home for the holiday felt “silenced,” as if they had been denied a fair opportunity to confront or debate Israel’s critics on campus. And those Jewish students who were around were upset also, feeling: “It was wrong for them to do something like that on Rosh Hashanah, on a holy day.”
Said Cohen: “It’s not something that you can ignore.”