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July 4, 2017 1:26 pm

SPME BDS Monitor: Academic Situation Improves, Cultural Sphere Worsens

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A Palestinian flag flies at Chicago’s 2017 Dyke March, where Jewish participants were excluded. Photo: Screenshot

With the school year over, the focus of BDS activity has moved to other parts of the academic ecosystem. One of the most important developments last month was the adoption of a resolution by the membership of the Modern Language Association (MLA) calling on the organization to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” of Israeli universities. The resolution, which passed by a large margin, calls on the MLA to refrain from anti-Israel activities — including the endorsement of BDS. BDS supporters expressed outrage at the results, and claimed that the resolution “suppress[es] debate.”

Pushback against BDS was also seen at Pitzer College, where the student government passed a BDS resolution earlier this year. The college’s board of trustees, however, has now issued a forceful statement rescinding the resolution. Pitzer’s trustees also directed the student government to be neutral regarding BDS, particularly with respect to funding student groups. It said that the BDS resolution “applie[d] a particular point of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in restricting the use of Student Activities Funds by all Student Senate-approved student groups. In so doing, [the amendment] inappropriately curtail[ed] the funds usage rights of all such groups, including those that may have a different perspective.”

Discrimination against Jewish and pro-Israel students is also at the center of a lawsuit that has been filed against San Francisco State University officials and trustees. Filed on behalf of former and current Jewish students, the suit alleges that the university has tolerated anti-Jewish harassment from BDS, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students, creating a “hostile environment’ for Jews on campus. Among recent incidents cited by the lawsuit were the shouting down of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat in 2016 by BDS protesters, and the denial of access by Jewish groups to university events.

The university has denied the allegations, and a response from the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) claims the lawsuit is a “frivolous” effort to “stifle organizing for Palestinian rights.” San Francisco State University has a long radical tradition; the campus is where Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) originated (branching out from the long-established General Union of Palestine Students and Muslim Student Association).

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Pro-BDS students also claimed to be victims at the University of California at Irvine, where the SJP chapter there accused visiting Israeli soldiers of making sexist and racist remarks during a May visit. The situation was exactly the opposite, however. Members of UC Irvine’s SJP chapter had physically and verbally harassed the soldiers, necessitating a police escort from the building where the soldiers had been speaking. The university administration at Irvine has failed to respond to complaints regarding that incident.

Sadly, claiming harassment and interference by pro-Israel elements was not restricted to student groups. After a failed search for someone to fill the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies at Fresno State University, pro-BDS faculty there accused Jewish and pro-Israel groups of carrying out “vicious and discriminatory attacks” to destroy the search, and thwart Palestinian scholarship. The university denied the allegations and noted serious procedural failings with the search to fill the position.

Elsewhere in academia, BDS campaigns at Chilean universities brought about the cancellation of talks by a visiting Israeli scholar. And leading BDS and Islamist activist Linda Sarsour was cheered during her controversial commencement speech at a City University of New York campus.

The most profound BDS incident in June took place in the cultural sphere.

At the annual Chicago Dyke March, a Jewish participant was forced to leave the event after complaints that her colorful “Jewish Pride” flag — containing the Star of David — made others feel “unsafe.” The participant, a representative of the group A Wider Bridge, which works to bring together North American and Israel LGBTQ communities, noted that she had marched with the flag in the past. But on this occasion, she was told that, “This march is pro-Palestine and explicitly anti-Zionist.” Despite claims that the march was “intersectional,” only Palestinian flags were permitted there.

In their official statement, the organizers complained that the Star of David on a flag made participants feel unsafe, and that “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology.” Yet in an interview, the lead organizer later claimed that Jewish participants were deliberately antagonizing Palestinian participants, and that the Star of David issue was a fabrication. She also alleged that the story was part of a “well-funded, highly coordinated and use [of] media tools to stifle any criticism of the State of Israel.”

For its part, the Chicago branch of JVP supported the organizers’ decision to exclude the Jewish group. In a statement, JVP blamed the “destructive impact of the State of Israel’s appropriation of Jewish symbols and identity.”

The remarkable incident produced a firestorm of responses excoriating the organizers for their overt antisemitism. At least one commentator, however, equated what was he claimed was the intolerance of pro-Israel groups with that of the march’s organizers.

The incident demonstrated that elements of the progressive movement now explicitly demand that Jews renounce support for Israel as the cost of participation — or even recognition, and that Jewish nationalism has been anathematized as “white supremacy.” According to them, the judgment of what constitutes acceptable Jewish symbols, or Jewish presence, now depends on others’ sense of “safety.”

The targeting of Jewish LGBTQ individuals by BDS forces has become a pattern. At the Israel Day parade in New York City, for example, a group from JVP posed as part of a Jewish LGBTQ group — but then disrupted the parade with anti-Israel protests. JVP members were arrested and then expressed surprised at the hostile response.

Also in the cultural sphere, the film “Wonder Woman” was banned in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon — and criticized by BDS activists — because it stars Israeli actress Gal Gadot. At present, the film has earned over $325 million in the US alone.

Elsewhere, the British band Radiohead responded forcefully to BDS criticism of its upcoming appearance in Israel, calling the boycott efforts “divisive.” BDS protesters at the Glastonbury music festival also heckled Radiohead during their performance due the group’s upcoming appearance in Israel. And finally, after protests from lyricist Sir Tim Rice, a New Zealand group restored the word ‘Israel’ in a children’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The show’s local producer — who wanted to avoid “trouble” — had removed the word.

There were also a number of important political developments regarding BDS in June– particularly in Britain, where the Labour Party’s strong showing in the recent elections nearly elevated Jeremy Corbyn to Prime Minister. Jews and others were outspoken in pointing to the vocal support for BDS and other anti-Israel activity practiced by Corbyn and his associates. The election results, however, showed that these concerns — and Labour’s positions — did not affect the decisions of many voters.

Also in Britain, the country’s High Court ruled that the government could not forbid local councils from adopting BDS policies, finding that a countrywide ban overstepped the state’s statutory power. Pro-BDS groups that brought the lawsuit promptly hailed the decision. Whether legislative solutions are possible in the current political climate is unclear.

Internationally, Spanish courts in Madrid and Barcelona  struck down BDS policies that forbade those municipalities from having commercial or other contacts with Israel until Palestinian self-determination was realized. More than 50 Spanish municipalities have adopted such policies, which have been the subject of numerous lawsuits by pro-peace organizations.

In the US, a showdown is emerging between various elements within the Democratic Party. New York City mayor Bill De Blasio stated his strong opposition to BDS, as did House Minority leader Chuck Schumer. The Massachusetts Democratic Party also rejected a plank that would have addressed Israeli “settlements.”

But the California Democratic Party adopted a resolution decrying the “Israeli occupation” and the idea of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. BDS supporters describe the resolution as a significant shift in state party policy, which they believe foretells a shift at the national level. Such a shift may already be underway, as seen by the sponsorship by Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan of a BDS presentation on Capitol Hill. Pecan tried to anonymously sponsor the event — but his identity was later revealed after pressure from other lawmakers. A similar incident took place in 2016, when Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee anonymously reserved a space for an anti-Israel presentation that was later moved off Capitol Hill.

Despite these developments, legislation preventing states from investing in companies that boycott Israel was signed in Nevada and Kansas, approved by the North Carolina legislature, and introduced in Ohio.

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