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November 2, 2018 9:28 am

BDS Debates Rage on College Campuses

avatar by Alexander Joffe


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

BDS news in October continued to be dominated by examples of institutions being subverted and manipulated by the BDS movement.

Earlier this year, two University of Michigan instructors (one a teaching assistant and the other an assistant professor, John Cheney-Lippold) rescinded offers to write letters of recommendation upon discovering the students planned to study in Israel.

Fallout from the Cheney-Lippold incident expanded as it emerged that the assistant professor had initially told the student that the university supported BDS, but later clarified that it was he who was a supporter. Cheney-Lippold also went on to admit that he had previously written letters for student to study in Israel prior to receiving tenure, and had discussed BDS during classes. In response, the university stated that it would discipline Cheney-Lippold by refusing him a salary increase and denying him credit towards a sabbatical.

In a second incident a graduate instructor also informed a student that she would not write a letter of recommendation because she was heeding the Palestinian call to boycott Israel, and was protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinians. A third professor, a long-time opponent of Israel named Juan Cole, made an unsolicited statement that he would write letters of recommendation for students to study in Israel, but not at Ariel University, “a squatter institution,” located across the “Green Line.”

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In response to the incidents the university president apologized to the students affected and stated “we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment.” He also established a panel to examine the larger question of how faculty responsibilities and political beliefs intersect.

variety of academic BDS supporters decried the university’s response to the incidents, as did several academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors and the Middle East Studies Association, along with BDS groups such as “Jewish Voice for Peace” and local Arab American representatives. The university’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies also announced that it would be hosting a BDS event, including a “teach-in,” with support from a variety of other departments.

Some Jewish students have pointed to the letter of recommendation incidents as evidence of a deteriorating environment at the University of Michigan. The upcoming BDS event and “teach in” suggest further that Jewish and pro-Israel students in a variety of departments are subject to a hostile environment.

A second case of academia and activism had international repercussions. Lara Alqasem, a BDS supporter and former head of the University of Miami’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, was denied entry to Israel, where she had planned to undertake graduate study at Hebrew University, on the grounds that her presence was potentially harmful to Israel. She was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport while a series of legal appeals were undertaken.

During hearings, it emerged that Alqasem had deleted her social media history that showed the extent of her activism, which she also misrepresented to the court. The Tel Aviv District Court turned down her appeal, but the case eventually reached the Israel Supreme Court, which ruled that Alqasem’s entrance did not pose a security risk and that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs had overreacted.

Responses to Alqasem’s ban were swift and divisive. The ADL, J Street and the Reform movement decried the decision to ban Alqasem as damaging to Israel’s democracy and open society. Mainstream media commentators also condemned what was regarded as Israel’s over-reaction. Heads of Israeli universities also condemned the detention, stating that it caused damage to Israel’s reputation as an academic center. Ironically, the BDS movement also condemned Alqasem for making the effort to study in Israel. For his part, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan stated that he was bound by law to prohibit Alqasem’s entry, but that she could be admitted if she publicly repudiated her previous support for BDS. Her promise not to engage in BDS while in Israel was unsatisfactory.

Predictably, BDS supporters hailed the Supreme Court decision while opponents decried it. Israeli academia was also divided by the episode, with some faculty members expressing resentment against the government for having taken action against Alqasem. In contrast, some Hebrew University students also posted flyers condemning Alqasem.

The Alqasem episode epitomizes the trap that the BDS movement creates for Jewish institutions, from Jewish Studies programs, Hillels, and Jewish federations, all the way up to the State of Israel as a whole. Institutions can either admit BDS supporters and facilitate their subversion and hatred of Israel, or they can deny entry and be accused of intolerance. This lose-lose situation is a carefully constructed trap designed to divide the Jewish community internally and expose these divisions publicly, inviting condemnation by society at large.

In other campus news, the SJP chapter at Swarthmore College has launched a divestment campaign that has divided the campus. A BDS resolution will also be proposed at New York University by a coalition of groups that includes the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. The vote, to be held early in December, will be closed, with representatives voting anonymously.

Also at New York University, a coalition of 30 student groups pledged “non-cooperation” with the NYU branch in Tel Aviv. This is an expansion of the Palestinian policy of “anti-normalization” to American campuses. At Columbia University several Israeli students have reported being harassed and intimidated by members of the local SJP chapter and by other students. After pro-Israel students complained that the university had ignored the situation for months a protest was held, but the university’s Hillel declined to participate.

At the University of Missouri, posters advertising an Israeli journalist’s talk were systematically torn down. At Oregon State, a campus Palestinian group disrupted a panel of visiting ex-Israeli soldiers, while “anti-war protesters” did the same at the University of Minnesota. At George Mason University, however, the student government passed a resolution condemning antisemitism after a nearby Jewish Community Center was vandalized. And despite repeated calls, including from local politicians, University of California at Los Angeles leaders have made it clear that they will not cancel the national Students for Justice in Palestine conference scheduled to take place on campus in November. In Britain, however, the University of Central Lancashire canceled an “Israel Apartheid Week” event on the grounds that it contravened the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Another notable development in October was expanding efforts to expose and impugn anti-BDS projects, primarily by the The Forward and Haaretz. The primary target was the website called Canary Mission, which catalogs statements by BDS supporters at US universities. The investigations are aimed at shaming real and potential donors from supporting the project several donations made through two Jewish federations were withdrawn after exposure, and to determine which organization is behind the anonymous effort.

Overall, the goal is to impugn opposing BDS and to remove the ability to expose individuals involved in BDS, by alleging they directly connected with “right-wing” American Jews, attack the Netanyahu government’s handling of the issue, to implicitly legitimize if not BDS as a whole then boycott of “settlements,” to split young Jews from the community and Israel, and to elevate left wing organizations at the expense of the Jewish community’s broad consensus regarding BDS and Israel.

In the political sphere, the US midterm elections demonstrate the manner in which campus BDS and intersectionality have expanded into politics as a whole. A variety of Democratic candidates have expressed anti-Israel and pro-BDS sentiments, a trend that has finally been noticed by mainstream media.

In a first, Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota described Israel as an “apartheid” state as she received an award from a leading BDS group, the “US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.” In New York, Congressional candidate Antonio Delgado stated “Israel is not a Jewish democracy. Those settlements make it so that it can’t be.”

Also well-known are the anti-Israel positions of Democratic socialist candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, and far-left Democrat Leslie Cockburn. The growing willingness of mainstream Democrats such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand to appear alongside far-left icons such as BDS leader Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory is another sign of flirtations with an anti-Israel posture.

Israel and BDS have become issues in a number of races, including the Florida governor’s race, with allegations that the Democratic candidate, Tallahassee Andrew Gillum was associated with a pro-BDS group called Dream Defenders. The issue was raised during a debate between the candidates, and Gillum defended himself strenuously. Reports also indicate that supporters of Gillum’s opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, have run ads criticizing Gillum’s Israel credentials. The Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, Ben Jealous, also implied to a Muslim group that he would rescind Governor Larry Hogan’s executive order prohibiting the state from doing business with firms boycotting Israel.

Democratic Congressmen and strategists have responded to these incidents by condemning specific statements and claiming that the party’s support for Israel and opposition to BDS is strong. The sheer number of incidents, accusation and defenses, however, demonstrate the degree to which BDS and Israel have been made wedge issues in American politics.

And in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attack, BDS leader Linda Sarsour was featured at a protest held outside the White House condemning the violence and which implied that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric was enabling antisemitism. The irony of the BDS movement condemning violence against American Jews that it would overlook or condone against Israeli Jews is striking.

A version of this article was originally published at SPME.

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