SPME BDS Monitor: The Coming Year on Campus
August saw the violent collision of politics and culture in American life, with the BDS movement playing the spoiler. The riots between neo-Nazis and white supremacists and those opposed to them began on the University of Virginia campus. Some of the follow-on events turned violent, sparking further waves of demonstrations on both sides, along with divisive commentary.
One result of the rioting, and the subsequent claim by President Donald Trump that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” was the vilification of both sides, and the efforts by some to regard “anti-fascist” violence as intrinsically legitimate and defensive. Even more pervasive were some demands that people condemn Trump or be excoriated and ostracized from certain groups.
The BDS movement has picked up on these trends, which will shape the campus environment in the fall semester.
Perceiving the “antifa” movement as a useful fig leaf, leading BDS activists David Palumbo-Lio and Bill Mullen announced that they were organizing a “campus antifascist network.” By virtue of the organizers alone, this new organization will likely label Israel and its supporters “fascists.”
Whether or not the new network succeeds in mobilizing what some say is an increasingly violent “antifa” movement, we believe that physical threats to Jews and others on campus will increase as a result. Furthermore, this movement has been validated by some academics, some of whom explicitly reject the concept of free speech and liberal democracy. Campus violence and intimidation have increased steadily during 2017, and they are likely to continue trending upwards.
Colleges and universities have responded to this violence by canceling “controversial” events and speakers, setting onerous security requirements, or, as was seen at Berkeley in the spring semester, by giving left-wing forces license to riot. Labeling individuals or groups as “alt-right,” “fascist” or “conservative” will have an impact on campus life, as will expanding efforts to eradicate symbols, such as statues and names deemed offensive. These trends could pose dual threats to campus supporters of Israel, and to free speech as a whole.
Outside of academia, the BDS movement tried to equate Zionism with “white supremacy” when BDS leader and progressive icon Linda Sarsour stated at a protest against the National Football League, “We will not be silenced by blue lives matter — by white supremacists — by neo Nazis — by right-wing Zionists. Expect us anytime there is a fight for justice or a fight against injustice.” The allegation that “right-wing Zionism” was akin to “white supremacy” was echoed by some elements of the media, and is featured in a new BDS campaign.
Traditional neo-Nazi leaders in the US, such as David Duke, have been outspoken regarding their hatred of Jews and Israel, a characteristic shared with the BDS movement and some on the far-left generally. An especially bizarre example of their symbiosis occurred after white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, stated in an interview with an Israeli TV network, “I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves, just like you want a secure homeland in Israel,” and that he sees himself as “a white Zionist.” Spencer clarified, however, that his apparent admiration for Israel was based on the possibility of all Jews being removed from the US, and not philosemitism or Zionism.
But Spencer’s seeming equation of white supremacy and Zionism was endorsed by a representative of the fringe group “Jewish Voice for Peace,” a leading BDS organization, who asserted that there was a “disturbing alliance between Zionists and white nationalists in the White House” and that he “is holding a mirror up to Zionism and the reflection isn’t pretty.” Ken Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, also repeated the allegation that “white supremacist” support for Israel was common.
At the same time, in an open letter, writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who recently edited a book of essays opposing the Israeli “occupation,” described the Trump administration as fundamentally antisemitic. They demanded that Jewish members of the administration resign, and stated that, “Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.” These types of demands will split the American Jewish community and weaken efforts to oppose BDS on campus and elsewhere.
In another move, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), the Muslim Brotherhood-linked sponsor of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), launched a national campaign protesting Israeli security measures outside the Temple Mount. Using the phrase “Aqsa under attack,” AMP organized protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington after Friday prayers.
The AMP campaign is derived from the longstanding Palestinian theme of “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” which is used to incite Muslim and Arab hatred of Jews and Israel, and the technique of organized anti-Israel rioting on Fridays. The rhetoric is intended to radicalize American Muslims, with AMP at the center, and will find its way to campus and BDS through SJP chapters.
Silencing free speech in the name of protecting marginalized voices and fighting “extremism” has long been a feature of campus life, but is now spreading to other communities, and is also emerging as an important battle in cyberspace, including over BDS. Giant oligarchic technology corporations like Facebook and Google that have pioneered corporate-led thought policing are in danger of importing BDS from campuses to society at large.
In the political sphere, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) party voted in favor of BDS at its annual convention. The resolution calls for full support of the “Palestinian Civil Society” call for boycotting Israel, and for the “right of return” of Palestinians to homes in pre-1948 Israel. The vote was followed by chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which underscored what some see as the group’s true aim of destroying Israel. Though still tiny, the DSA has experienced considerable growth in the past few years, particularly in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. Their adoption of BDS has repelled Jewish socialists, including those who founded the party.
More significantly, the DSA’s move represents additional pressure on the Democratic Party from its left flank to distance itself from Israel, using BDS as a wedge issue. This process was also on display in August in the debate surrounding proposed modifications to long-standing Federal anti-boycott legislation.
While the changes were supported by mainstream Democrats such as Senator Chuck Schumer, bellwether progressive Democrats including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kristin Gillibrand and Cory Booker all came out against the bill on the unsustainable grounds that it would undermine free speech. Each of these politicians has presidential aspirations. Their moves were widely condemned, but represent another step in what some say is the evolution of the Democratic Party away from Israel and Jewish concerns.
Booker also voted against the Taylor Force Act, which would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops paying salaries to convicted terrorists.
In other political news, the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) opposition to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was key to undermining support in the Senate. Its national political director, Faiz Shakir, is a longtime anti-Israel activist.
In the wake of the Charlottesville riots, the ACLU is facing increasing pressure from inside and outside the organization to abandon its “absolutist” defense of free speech for an “intersectional” stance that would limit some speech. Similar reasoning regarding the necessity to attack allegedly powerful interests seems behind the decision of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to renew support for Jewish Voice for Peace.
Elsewhere, reports indicate that the US government has been strenuously lobbying at the United Nations to prevent the High Commissioner for Human Rights from publishing a blacklist of international firms doing business in Israeli communities across the Green Line. The blacklist would pressure these firms to cut ties with Israel. Legal action against the blacklist has been threatened.
In an unusual move, the group Judicial Watch has filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the US Department of State (DoS) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after earlier requests for correspondence between the departments and BDS organizations were denied. The lawsuit demands all internal and external DHS correspondence “discussing the efforts of the BDS Groups to strengthen enforcement of the West Bank country-of-origin marking requirements,” and all DoS emails relating to the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015.
Former President Obama had unilaterally reinterpreted the rules of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 to require DoS to introduce labeling requires for Israeli products originating the “West Bank.” Reports at the time suggested that the administration had been in contact with various BDS organizations.
A version of this article was originally published by SPME here.