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October 3, 2018 8:56 am

Fall 2018: BDS Returns to Campus and Politics

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A BDS demonstration outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As the academic year begins, controversy over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — which includes demonization of Israel — has now spread to the United States.

Following the lead of the Department of State, the US Department of Education has adopted the IHRA guidelines, leading to accusations that it is “censoring” free speech on Israel. One result of the new policy is that a 2014 case from Rutgers University, where Jewish students were charged a different admission fee to an event, is being re-investigated.

Protests that the IHRA definition is “dangerously broad” quickly emerged from hostile media outlets and pro-BDS sources.

The IHRA controversy goes beyond semantics: BDS supporters and others now claim that demonizing language, such as calling Israel a “Nazi state,” allegations of dual loyalties, and other accusations are not antisemitic hate speech, but merely exercises of free speech. Overall, the right of Jews to define antisemitism is being removed.

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The clash between free speech and protections for Jewish students was also highlighted by reports that a faculty member at the University of Michigan rescinded his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student after learning that she planned to study in Israel. In his email to the student, the faculty member stated his decision was in conformity with BDS guidelines.

The university quickly expressed disapproval and reiterated its policy of no boycott, but refused to sanction the faculty member, as was called for by a coalition of groups. The BDS movement expressed support for the faculty member, while other academics questioned whether providing a letter of recommendation was a professional requirement or open to individual decisions.

The case demonstrates another area where BDS has contaminated the personal relationships between individual students and faculty, going far beyond the classroom. Because individual faculty boycotts are almost always covert, there is no way to know how many BDS supporters have declined to write letters of recommendation for travel abroad, graduate programs, or other seemingly routine things simply because the student had some relationship with Israel.

Systemic responses to the situation are difficult to imagine and unsavory, undermining further the integrity of academic institutions and student-professor relationships. For example, Jewish and Israeli students might be encouraged to investigate the background of professors before taking their classes. Realistically, however, most students are unwilling and unable to undertake this sort of due diligence, and even the suggestion is an infuriating admission that sectors of higher education are increasingly unsafe for Jews and Israelis.

Needless to say, the harsh BDS standard related to study in Israel, and to Israeli or Jewish students supporting Israel, does not apply to students interested in or supporting countries with egregious human rights records, such as Turkey, China, or Qatar.

The IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and the question of demonizing Israel are also at the core of the British Labour Party’s ongoing crisis. After a bitter controversy regarding IHRA definition, the party’s executive committee adopted it — but with a “free speech” clause that effectively neutered the guidelines.

In a new development, Labour activists loyal to party leader Jeremy Corbyn have begun to push “deselection” of pro-Israel Members of Parliament as a means of driving them out of the party and politics. A Labour-associated union leader also accused Jewish organizations of “manufacturing” the antisemitism crisis as a means of undermining the party.

Critics of Labour antisemitism are regularly assailed as “the lobby,” “right wing,” “Trump supporters,” and more. Meanwhile it was revealed that Corbyn had called for a boycott of the Arsenal football club over a minor Israeli sponsorship, and that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, had participated in a protest calling for the boycott of all Israeli goods. Corbyn claimed further that describing the creation of Israel as “racist” was not antisemitic.

The crisis reverberated into the Labour Party’s annual conference, where Marxist members handed out pamphlets comparing Israel to Nazis, Palestinian flags were waved, and other members decried the antisemitism-related “witch hunt.” Meanwhile, at least one Jewish party member required a police escort to enter the conference, while others chose not to attend. Corbyn himself announced that were Labour to come to power it would immediately recognize the “State of Palestine,” while the party passed a resolution calling for Britain to institute an arms boycott on Israel.

The bizarre centrality of Israel to Labour politics is difficult to explain in terms other than antisemitism. At the same time, polls suggest that the general public is becoming alienated from Labour as a result of the crisis.

Similar antisemitism crises are emerging in the US Democratic Party. The September primary elections were rocked by revelations that a BDS-supporting “democratic socialist” candidate for the New York legislature, Julia Salazar, had lied about being Jewish, foreign born, from an impoverished background, and a college graduate. When her deceptions were exposed, she and her supporters accused the “alt-right” media of conspiring to embarrass her — some at the behest of Israel. She further accused David Keyes, spokesman for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of having sexually assaulted her during the brief period when she was a pro-Israel activist.

Other incidents demonstrated that BDS has become a wedge issue within the party. Flyers allegedly produced by people tied to New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign called challenger Cynthia Nixon “antisemitic” because she expressed support for boycotting “settlements.” The Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, declined to answer questions about her running mate’s support for BDS. In Florida, Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, who had previously expressed support for BDS, appeared to backtrack in an interview, claiming that his previous associations with BDS groups did not constitute an endorsement. Conversely, the BDS movement harshly criticized Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California for supporting enhanced economic ties with Israel.

At the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America a speaker decried criticism of Palestinian incitement, saying that “for 70 years the pro-Israel lobby has been saying things like the Palestinians teach their children to hate. That’s a form of Islamophobia. That they send themselves out to kill people. That is a form of Islamophobia.” New Jersey Islamist groups and several newspapers have also accused Steven Emerson, of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, of “Islamophobia,” and demanded the removal of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman who appeared with him at an event. The push comes as more American Muslim groups report harassment from Islamists for cooperating with Jewish organizations.

In the cultural sphere, an international group of DJs announced their support for BDS. The move is intended to undermine the thriving club scene in Israel, which has begun to attract global attention. It is unclear how many DJs agreed to the boycott out of conviction and how many out of fear of being boycotted themselves. The announcement followed the high-profile cancellation of many DJs and performer Lana Del Ray from an Israeli music festival. The new boycott shows how a global youth-oriented marketplace can be dominated by fear of the BDS movement. The boycotts come as Palestinians and the BDS movement are increasing pressure on artists not to attend the 2019 Eurovision contest in Israel and on broadcasters not to televise the event.

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 for Jewish Ideas Daily. His web site is A version of this article was originally published by SPME.

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