SPME BDS Monitor: Campus Protests, Labour Party and More
March saw a variety of BDS efforts on campus, some timed to coincide with “Apartheid Week” and the Easter-Passover season. At the same time, BDS-inspired antisemitism crises occurred at several institutions. Tolerance for antisemitism is paradoxically linked to campus attitudes, with students increasingly devoted to “diversity” but opposed to free speech; and to politics, where Jews are defined as powerful and thus incapable of being discriminated against. Antisemitism is thus being normalized under the rubric of “diversity,” a dangerous trend that will likely get worse.
March was an exceedingly active but mixed month for BDS on campus. In a revival of an older tactic, students voted on BDS resolutions in campus-wide referenda along with other issues. One BDS resolution at the University of Minnesota passed by a narrow margin. It called on the university to divest from companies, including Israeli firms, which it claimed were “1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, 2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violating Indigenous sovereignty.”
The allegation of Israeli “indigenous rights violations” is relatively new and is a typical example of the BDS movement capitalizing on other causes, as was the call for the university to abolish its police force. Both before and after the vote the university president issued statements warning against the referendum and declaring the university had no intention of divesting from Israel. Complaints also emerged regarding the late introduction of the referendum via petition.
A BDS resolution was also adopted by a referendum at Trinity College in Dublin. The resolution calls on the student union to comply with the principles of BDS in all “union shops, trade, business, and other union operations” and requires it to lobby the university on behalf of BDS. The tiny numbers of Jewish and Israeli students at the college, plus traditional Irish antipathy towards Israel, contributed to the results.
After strong opposition from the administration and faculty, a BDS resolution was rejected at the University of Illinois. The student government at the University of Ottawa also rejected a BDS resolution for the third time in five months. The university president also condemned the resolution, and reiterated that the university would not engage in any Israel boycott.
A BDS resolution was proposed in the student government at Columbia University, in connection with “Apartheid Week.” Arguing against the resolution, Jewish and other students demanded that the word “apartheid” be removed, and noted that the term “intifada” was an implicit threat.
At George Washington University, “apartheid week” included construction of an “apartheid wall” by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. SJP chapters at all University of California schools also launched an Israel divestment campaign. This included anti-Israel chants at a protest about proposed tuition increases.
At New York University, a resolution backed by the local Jewish Voice for Peace chapter would condemn the university for its Tel Aviv-based program on the basis, among other things, that Israeli law permits the country to restrict entry of BDS group leaders. In contrast to the spate of pro-BDS resolutions, the student government at Texas A&M passed a resolution condemning the BDS movement as antisemitic.
Normalization of anti-Israel bias including through threats of violence continued in March. At Kings College London, a pro-Israel event scheduled during “apartheid week” was postponed due to what the university called “high risk factors.” The decision came after a long series of violent incidents during pro-Israel events, and revelations that the school’s student government pays “safe space monitors” to police events and record speakers’ “offensive behavior.”
Policing of pro-Israel speech also expanded. At the University of California at Davis, the incoming student government president was asked “to publicly denounce white supremacy, gay and trans oppression, ableism, and Zionism, among other ideologies.” Reports indicate he “refused to denounce Zionism, saying that as a member of the Jewish community he does not wish to denounce a historically-oppressed group’s movement” — but he “agreed to denounce the other listed ideologies with nods and quiet affirmations.”
Faculty normalization of BDS also continued. A series of pro-BDS speeches at Brown University’s Middle East Studies department reinforced the connection between that discipline, almost exclusively pro-Arab and pro-Muslim, and anti-Israel bias. At the University of British Columbia, geography department faculty members refused to attend a student event being held at the Hillel because the location was “controversial” and “political,” i.e., too closely associated with Israel.
BDS threats of violence and allegations of conspiracy were also present at San Francisco State University (SFSU), long a center of anti-Israel activism. Several lawsuits alleging SFSU’s “institutionalized antisemitism” are now underway, and in March the school’s president issued an apology for the institution’s failure to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation.
In response, the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) — the progenitor of SJP — issued a statement demanding the president retract the apology. A faculty member, Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program and advisor to GUPS, also called the apology “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of justice on and off campus.”
She went on to cement the equation of Zionism with “Islamophobia” by saying: “I am ashamed to be affiliated with SFSU administration and demand the immediate retraction of this racist, Islamophobic, and colonialist statement, and the restoration of SFSU social justice mission.” Abdulhadi’s statement was supported by local Jewish Voice for Peace chapters, which stated “zionism IS NOT welcome on our campus. White Supremacy IS NOT welcome on our campus.” Jewish and Christian groups condemned the statement, as did the university president.
Social media is growing as a major battlefield over BDS. At the University of California at Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, the local SJP chapters posted images on social media of Palestinians wielding guns in support of “armed resistance” and “liberation from fascist Israeli occupation & apartheid.” The New York City SJP chapter also recently expressed support for “Palestinian resistance” against “occupation forces.”
Importantly, there is a growing a number of incidents in which antisemitic social media postings have come to light and discredited candidates for student government. At the University of Texas, the student government’s “supreme court” invalidated an election after it was revealed that a winning candidate had “liked” a post criticizing “straight white zionist men in power!!!” The George Washington University student newspaper also withdrew its endorsement of a candidate over antisemitic and anti-Israel postings.
In reaction to exposure of such postings, the online monitoring group Canary Mission, which exposes online and social media antisemitic and anti-Israel comments by individuals, was accused of “hateful conduct.” The group was briefly suspended from Twitter before being reinstated. The extent to which pro-BDS writers are made uncomfortable by exposure of their own views was demonstrated when the Claremont Colleges’ student newspaper changed its policy regarding anonymous opinion pieces in order to protect students from being denied entry to Israel on the basis of their support for BDS.
In academic organizations, a judge allowed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) over its support for BDS to move forward. The lawsuit alleges the ASA was hijacked by members of the BDS movement, who misled the membership during elections and illegally diverted the organization’s funds to support their cause. Examination of emails during the discovery process revealed that the defendants apparently conspired to withhold their plot to take over the ASA.
Local US anti-BDS laws have now had direct impacts on campus situations. Arizona passed a law prohibiting state institutions from supporting BDS. Apparently as a provocation, the Muslim Student Association at Arizona State University then invited BDS leader Hatem Bazian to speak. But in order to comply with state law Bazian’s contract included a provision regarding BDS. He and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) then sued the university and the state attorney general alleging the contract violated Bazian’s right to free speech. The contract was later modified and agreement was reached to permit Bazian to speak.
Arizona’s anti-BDS legislation was intended to prevent state contractors from boycotting Israel, that is, engaging in economic conduct, not political speech. But the overly broad language of the statute appears to have made no distinction regarding speech. In response to these problems with state-level anti-BDS laws, revisions are being made to existing and proposed legislation, including at the federal level. Partially in response to these difficulties, a proposed bill in Massachusetts failed, a development that was also attributed to weak support from Jewish organizations.
But the lawsuit from CAIR — the parent organization of American Muslims for Palestine, which in turn is the parent of National Students for Justice in Palestine — and its alliance with the Muslim Student Association (also an American Muslim Brotherhood organization), shows that lawfare forces will attempt to systematically roll back anti-BDS laws at the local and state levels.
Internationally, the BDS movement suffered several reverses. The city of Munich passed a law banning the use of public funds and spaces to support BDS activities. Similar bans have been enacted by Berlin and Frankfurt. In France, the online finance site PayPal shut the account of ISM-France on the grounds that the group gave indirect support to terrorism. The closure was the fourth after exposés in The Jerusalem Post.
On less positive notes, Arab and Muslims group in Spain filed a lawsuit against the leading anti-BDS group in Spain, ACOM. The suit accuses ACOM of incitement, and comes after the group has had a string of legal victories against the BDS movement, forcing almost two-dozen Spanish municipalities to reverse BDS resolutions.
Reports also showed that Iranian entities are supporting the German BDS movement, including organizing transportation to rallies and providing financial support to organizations. It is probable that additional support for the BDS movement comes from other Islamic entities in Europe, including local politicians and parties, and foreign entities such as the Turkish religious network.
Still less positive was the rejection of a group of Israeli choreographers by an Oslo feminist and gender dance diversity festival on the grounds that Israeli participation would constitute “a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.”
Similarly, pro-Israel groups were blocked from participating in a Glasgow anti-racism march, an event that the leading Scottish Muslim group also boycotted precisely over the participation of pro-Israel groups.
Finally, in the political sphere, the antisemitism crises in the British Labour Party and the US Women’s March exploded. In Britain, the participation of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in several antisemitic Facebook groups finally forced the issue of Labour antisemitism into the open. The issue, which began with antisemitic and BDS-related activities in Labour student groups, was repeatedly whitewashed, as was Corbyn’s own role as patron of the BDS group Palestine Solidarity Campaign and his paid appearances on Iranian television, where he repeatedly endorsed statements calling for the destruction of Israel. Corbyn’s support for Holocaust deniers, Hamas and Hezbollah, and BDS are also well known.
Labour’s response has been to deflect and deny the charges, while individuals have alleged a Jewish conspiracy to bring Corbyn down. The creation of several Jewish, anti-Israel groups as a means of deflecting criticism has been especially transparent. Corbyn’s backing of an artist whose mural depicted classically antisemitic imagery finally forced a turning point over the issue. Official British Jewish organizations issued condemnations of Labour and Corbyn’s leadership and a mass protest was held in London at which many Labour figures called for Corbyn to address the problem.
For his part, Corbyn offered an apology for the “hurt” caused by Labour antisemitism, and claimed, “Newer forms of anti-Semitism have been woven into criticism of Israeli governments. Criticism of Israel, particularly in relation to the continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people, cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, comparing Israel or the actions of Israeli governments to the Nazis, attributing criticisms of Israel to Jewish characteristics or to Jewish people in general, and using abusive phraseology about supporters of Israel such as “Zio” all constitute aspects of contemporary antisemitism. And Jewish people must not be held responsible or accountable for the actions of the Israeli government.”
In the US, the leaders of the Women’s March faced a parallel crisis over support for Nation of Islam head and notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan. When it was revealed that Tamika Mallory, one of the march’s founders, attended a February event with Farrakhan during which he attacked “the Satanic Jew,” she refused to condemn his racism and conspiratorial antisemitism and instead praised him and her own “intersectional” work. Other Women’s March organizers including leading BDS supporter Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez, have a variety of connections to Farrakhan.
The Farrakhan issue then reached deep into the Democratic Party when it was revealed that 21 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) met with Farrakhan in 2005. A photo of then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama with Farrakhan was also suppressed at the request of the CBC. It was then revealed that Representative Keith Ellison, former Nation of Islam organizer and current deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, met privately with Farrakhan in 2015.
When questioned, Ellison stated the issue was irrelevant, saying, “None of my colleagues ever asked me about that, only reporters. … I am telling you — no one cares. I’ve been all over Minnesota, all over Alabama, all over Missouri, all over Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and nobody ever asked me about this. People ask me about wages, about pay, about health care, about guns, about immigration. They ask me all kinds of challenging questions. But for some reason, some folks in the Fourth Estate think that this Farrakhan thing needs to be inquired about instead.”
Representative Andre Carson, who also attended the 2015 meeting, was direct in his response, decrying criticism of Farrakhan by the Republican Jewish Coalition, saying, “That organization doesn’t have any credibility with me. I know they have a political agenda. The Congressional Black Caucus is asking that organization to condemn Benjamin Netanyahu and the (Israeli) government for discriminating against Africans who are migrating, who are fleeing dictatorships, who are fleeing oppression. There’s a great deal of bigotry and racism happening right now they fail to condemn.”
Characterizing interest in links to Farrakhan as a smear is one strategy for his normalization, which is also proceeding on other fronts. Former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett deflected criticism of working with Farrakhan, saying, “You work with people all the time with whom you disagree. … Goodness knows I met with the Koch brothers when we were working on criminal justice or Rupert Murdoch when we were working on immigration reform.”
Indeed, most responses suggest that alliances with Farrakhan are seen as uncontroversial and that Jewish complaints are deeply resented. Others, such as celebrity academic Melissa Harris Perry, deflected the issue by pointing to President Donald Trump, asserting that his alleged bigotry was the real issue and that Farrakhan’s is not, because he is not in an elected position of power.
The normalization of Farrakhan and his antisemitism is a remarkable and possibly decisive turning point in American politics. Thus far some in the Democratic party has avoided a confrontation with growing support for Farrakhan and BDS, even as senior members such as Charles Schumer have condemned the latter as antisemitic. This generational and sectoral divide mimics the progression that has characterized Labour antisemitism. It represents the continuing shift of the party away from Jewish concerns, including over Israel, a fact seen recently when the California party voted to reject the proposed federal anti-BDS legislation.
The selective acceptance of anti-Israel and antisemitic speech on campus and by specific political figures also requires explanation. On the one hand, it appears to contradict results from surveys that indicate students increasingly value diversity over free speech. On the other, it also appears to defy the traditional position of Jews and pro-Israel attitudes as normative within left-wing and Democratic politics.
Partially explaining this contradiction are 1) the extent to which certain institutions (like SFSU and the Women’s March) are or allow themselves to be defined by their “social justice missions,” 2) the manner in which pro-Israel speech has been successfully characterized by the BDS movement as “hate speech” or “white privilege,” which are inherently illegitimate, disruptive, and undeserving of protections, and 3) the growing position on the left that Jews are privileged and powerful, whose concerns are therefore unworthy. “Diversity” does not include Jews and pro-Israel positions.
The disconnection between these positions and the broader public, and by extension the BDS movement as a whole, was revealed by an annual Gallup poll showing American support for Israel at record highs. For complex reasons, Israel and antisemitism have been made into partisan institutional and political issues, a reality that will, if left unchecked, split the American Jewish community and marginalize it further.
Dr. Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. Educated at Cornell University and the University of Arizona, he is currently a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow of the Middle East Forum, a research scholar at the Institute for Community and Jewish Research, and a contributing writer to Jewish Ideas Daily. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net.