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May 3, 2018 3:30 pm

SPME BDS Monitor: Boycott Efforts Intensify on Campus

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A BDS protest. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

April was an extremely active month for BDS thanks to the confluence of Passover, “Apartheid Week,” Israeli Independence Day, and Israel’s 70th anniversary. Several BDS resolutions were approved by student governments, while others were proposed, many timed to coincide with Passover. More importantly, intersectional student groups banded together to call for the boycott of “Zionists” and Jewish groups on campus. The marginalization of Jews from the progressive environment of the American university is expanding. For now, university administrations are a bulwark, but with the larger trend on campus being to yield to mobs, the possibility increases that Israel, and Jewish students, will be sacrificed.

As the spring semester draws to a close, the BDS movement on campus has scored a number of successes in student governments.

At George Washington University a BDS resolution was suddenly scheduled for a vote but then cancelled. Afterwards, the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter occupied the student government offices. Subsequently, the appearance of flyers and stickers on campus accusing the SJP of being antisemitic occasioned cries of an “unsafe” environment and demands for protection. The vote was rescheduled and after a contentious three-hour debate, which featured the student senate agreeing to SJP demands for a secret ballot, the resolution was approved.

Palestinian and Muslim students responded to the vote by saying that while their concerns were finally being recognized, they still did not feel “protected.” The vote came on the heels of the student government election in which a candidate was discovered to have expressed antisemitic sentiments on social media, causing him to withdraw; but he was not censured. The university’s president issued a statement saying that divestment from Israel would not be considered.

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Another BDS referendum was approved at Barnard College, calling on the student government to demand the university divest from corporations doing business with Israel. Opponents claimed that the bill was introduced on short notice, giving them little time to organize. The student government issued a statement claiming that both the process and the outcome were fair representations of students’ viewpoints. The lead up to the vote was marked by “Apartheid Week” protests on the Columbia/Barnard campuses, which featured disruption of Yom HaShoah commemorations and the dismissal of complaints from Jewish students regarding ongoing harassment by BDS activists.

Some Jewish students believe the aggressive tactics of the shadowy Canary Mission website, which names BDS activists and quotes their hateful social media postings, were unnecessarily polarizing, a viewpoint that was bizarrely endorsed by the ADL.

In response to the Barnard referendum, a group of 2,000 alumni signed a petition of protest, and the president of the university stated that the institution would take no action on the referendum, which did not represent a consensus of students, and “would risk chilling campus discourse on a set of issues that members of our community should be able to discuss and debate freely.” The referendum was also widely condemned by the media. But the student government condemned the university’s stance in turn, setting the stage for future confrontations.

The president of the University of Minnesota expressed disapproval of the BDS resolution that was approved at the school in March. After that vote, the local SJP chapter sponsored a talk in which Israel was accused of ethnically cleansing Palestine in 1948, annihilating tens of thousands of Palestinians, and ‘Judaizing’ Palestine — just “as Nazis Germanized the conquered lands.”

BDS resolutions were also suddenly proposed at Case Western Reserve — but that effort was then tabled — and at the City University of New York. A resolution, however, was approved at the University of Michigan Flint campus, which follows the approval last year of resolutions at the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses. Finally, the student government at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville passed an unusual anti-BDS resolution.

The BDS resolutions and referenda have limited importance, since, as noted, in all cases university administrators have made it clear that the institutions have no intention of divesting from Israel. Student government actions, however, set the stage for growing confrontations with university administrations on BDS and other issues, and further poison campus environments. The reality that BDS activity and antisemitic agitation is typically orchestrated by the same small cadres of activists who dominate multiple organizations make the situation all the more problematic.

More significant were a number of incidents in which “intersectional” coalitions of organizations have agreed to boycott “Zionists” and other supporters of Israel.

At New York University, 51 groups expressed support for the graduate student union’s adoption of a BDS resolution. The resolution demands the university boycott Israel until it ends the “occupation,” and demands the university end its program in Tel Aviv.

In a statement, the supporting groups stated that they would commit to: 

Boycotting Israeli goods and goods manufactured in the Occupied Territories, except for those manufactured by Palestinians. …

Boycotting Israeli academic institutions and conferences sponsored by the State of Israel

Boycotting NYU’s pro-Israel clubs, Realize Israel and TorchPAC, by not co-sponsoring events with them, as well as boycotting off-campus pro-Israel groups such as Birthright-Taglit, StandWithUs, Christians United for Israel, the Maccabee Task Force, Mosaic United, Zionist Organization of America, American Israeli Political Action Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League

Endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement

Calling on NYU to divest its holdings from companies and funds that are complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine

Committing to continually recognizing indigenous land and sovereignty.

The groups thereby committed themselves to boycott Israeli products and pro-Israel groups, to divestment from Israel, and to the goals of the BDS movement, which include the Palestinian “right of return” and thus the end of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.

In the wake of the intersectional coalition’s announcement, an NYU spokesman rejected the boycott, stating, “The University opposes any kind of boycott or official refusal by some student groups to interact with other student groups because of differing points of view. It is at odds with our traditions and values, especially our core belief in the free exchange of ideas.” The university president also condemned BDS at a townhall meeting, a move that upset BDS supporters.

Similar efforts to boycott Israel and ostracize its supporters emerged elsewhere. At the University of Virginia, the Minority Rights Council rejected the school’s Jewish Leadership Council from membership in a school organization. The school’s newspaper forcefully condemned the move. At the University of Maryland, the LGTBQ group Pride Alliance protested Israeli Independence Day celebrations and issued a statement condemning Israel and Zionism as “an oppressive political ideology.”

Elsewhere, condemnation of Israel was also appended to completely unrelated issues. At California Polytechnic State University a racially insensitive incident in a fraternity resulted in a coalition of students issuing a series of demands. These included support for various ethnic and black studies programs, and funding increases for ALL cultural clubs, with the exception of organizations that are aligned with Zionist ideology.”

Palestinian “antinormalization” — the refusal to engage in dialogue with opponents or permit them to speak — continues to be a feature on campus, most recently demonstrated by the disruption of Israeli speakers at Syracuse University and the University of Michigan. But these tactics have also spread from the BDS movement to the campus left as a whole. 

These incidents are also manifestations of the growing trend against any interaction with “Zionists” — and even with Jewish organizations like Hillel. Many statements surrounded protests against Israeli Independence Day celebrations, such as at Stony Brook University, where a student was quoted as saying: “I think we’re past that point of conversation where it’s been 70 years under the occupation of Israel . … We want Zionism off this campus, so we want Hillel off this campus. … What we want is a proper Jewish organization that allows Jews to express their faith, have sabbath — everything like that, that are not Zionists, that doesn’t support Israel.”

Mainstream organizations like Hillel could find themselves in the position again of having to repudiate Israel for the sake of being accepted, perhaps quite literally, on campus.

Overall, ostracizing Israeli and Jewish organizations on campus is increasing — and with it, the possibility of defunding by student governments. Both of these tactics were seen as far back as the 1970s at British universities, when Jewish student groups were essentially kicked out after the United Nations’ “Zionism is racism” resolution.

The success of BDS votes also points to the declining position of Jewish concerns on American campuses, at least with respect to the treatment of Jews and Israel by other students. The response of university administrations remains firm against BDS, but is weakening on campus antisemitism and the decaying environment for free speech.

One example of a university administration refusing to take campus antisemitism seriously was seen at Oberlin College, where the president testily rejected protests from Jewish alumni regarding attacks on Israel and open antisemitism on campus. 

Arguably, the logic of “intersectional boycotts” of “Zionists” has also empowered full-fledged racist attacks on Jews, such as that from a black nationalist faculty member at Knox College; a Palestinian faculty member at San Francisco State University, who characterized the university’s apologies for ill-treatment of Jews as a “declaration of war” against Arabs and Muslims; and a professor at the University of Toronto who responded to an student’s inquiry by accusing him of being an “agent of the Israeli government.”

Politicians have also spoken firmly against BDS, but have taken little action, as shown by the continued delays regarding the nomination of Kenneth Marcus to head the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Legislative initiatives, such as the one passed by South Carolina adopting a definition of antisemitism that includes demonization of Israel and aimed at protecting the rights of college students, will certainly face legal challenges.

Takeovers of events and sit-ins — traditional but mostly dormant campus tactics until their revival by the BDS movement — are now increasingly common, for example at Howard University, Duke University, and Columbia University.

Intersectional divestment efforts will also grow. The BDS movement pioneered divestment as a public relations strategy only to see fossil fuel divestment take the limelight on campus. But as this latter effort grows, along with the more recent calls for universities and states to divest from gun manufacturers and financial institutions that undertake other unpopular initiatives, the BDS movement will likely attempt to unify and co-opt higher visibility and trendier causes. This intersectional process will make Israel divestment more politically viable for institutions.

In the political sphere, there were a number of important developments that demonstrated the intersectional usurpation of other movements by BDS, and their antisemitic orientation. After an incident in which two African-American men were arrested in a Starbucks after the manager complained to police, the company announced that it would expand its anti-bias training, which would include briefings from the ADL.

In response, Tamika Mallory, a co-organizer of the Women’s March and a self-proclaimed admirer of the noted antisemite Louis Farrakhan, expressed severe disapproval of the ADL, saying that the group was “constantly attacking black and brown people.” She went on to call for a boycott of Starbucks and said that the ADL “should have never been enlisted in the first place. There are other great Jewish orgs who fight racism of all kinds every day: Jews for Racial Economic Justice (JFREG) [sic], Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Jewish Voice for Peace.” Starbucks later caved in to this demand.

Though widely condemned by feminist leaders, Mallory’s case suggests antisemitism will become a defining feature and litmus test for far-left feminism.

The role of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in promulgating anti-Israel accusations and antisemitic conspiracies was also highlighted when Durham, North Carolina became the first municipality to ban international police exchanges in order to avoid “military style training.” The measure also bans “any exchange with Israel.”

JVP’s “Deadly Exchange” campaign accuses Israel of being the source of police violence in the US. The campaign specifically accuses American Jewish organizations including AIPAC and the ADL of being responsible for police contacts and hence police violence. JVP and a coalition of other groups targeted Durham, despite the city’s police having had almost no contact with Israel.

Despite opposition from local police and Jewish leaders, the measure — which was supported by the city council and mayor — advanced. The public debate was characterized by accusations that Israel routinely commits massacres and war crimes, and culminated in a Nation of Islam representative describing a “synagogue of Satan” and accusing Jews of “an inordinate amount of control” over city politics. While the mayor admitted that JVP had invented accusations against the Durham police department, the measure still passed.

The putative Jewishness of JVP, and the participation of Jewish community members who were part of local Jewish organizations in the campaign, were key to its success. The larger JVP goals of vilifying Israel in singularly hideous terms and engineering splits in the Jewish community put Jewish organizations in impossible situations. Like Hillels on campus, local Jewish organizations are being confronted with the choice of supporting Israel or including Jews who vilify Israel. Both unity and disunity play into the hands of marginal hate groups like JVP.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the City Council was prepared to debate a BDS resolution that called on the municipality to cease doing business with companies, including Hewlett Packard, that have relationships with Israel. Initial reports indicated that members of the City Council were working with JVP members, but pressure by Jewish groups led the mayor to table the motion.

On a more positive note, the Wisconsin legislature passed an anti-BDS bill, but there are indications that state legislators are increasingly concerned about the viability of such legislation, thanks to lawsuits and lobbying from the BDS movement and its allies — including the ACLU and American Muslim Brotherhood organizations.

Internationally, the deep antisemitism of UK Labour Party members was revealed during and after a parliamentary debate in which some Labour MPs detailed the shocking extent of abuse they had received that wove together both classically antisemitic and anti-Israel themes. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appeared to dismiss the complaints and left the debate early.

In the wake of the debate, a Labour official was quoted as saying that a future Labour government led by Corbyn would boycott Israeli “settlements” and join the BDS movement as a whole. The appointment of a new advisor to Corbyn’s inner circle from a well-known BDS group intensified those fears. 

In the cultural sphere, Israel-born actress Natalie Portman publicly declined to travel to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize, leading some to suggest that she was acting in support of the BDS movement. She then clarified her stance, saying that she was refusing to share the stage with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later reports, however, indicated that Portman had indeed emphasized the situation in Gaza in her emails with prize organizers.

Despite explicit disavowal of the BDS movement in her statement, leaders of the movement described her stance as implicit support. Media observers were also eager to characterize her statement as a “tipping point.” The lesson of the affair is that the BDS movement will describe any act of celebrity avoidance of Israel, whether simple rescheduling of a performance or more complex political disagreement, as an expression of support. Celebrities, accustomed to being fawned over and treated as politically wise, are rarely sophisticated enough to understand this.

Finally, the BDS movement threatened to sue Netflix if the series Fauda, which deals with an Israeli counterrorism unit, were not removed. The movement claimed that the series, which deals sympathetically with both Palestinians and Israelis, was “racist propaganda for the Israeli occupying army … encourages violating international law and human rights … and gives legitimization to war criminals.” The network refused to remove the series, and a group of entertainment executives issued a public statement decrying the censorship effort. With Israeli television programs becoming a hot commodity for American and global networks, efforts to have them canceled will likely increase.

Dr. Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net.

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