BDS in Politics and on the College Campus
BDS news in November was dominated by the midterm elections. Several BDS supporters were elected to the House of Representatives, notably Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After the election, Ocasio-Cortez, already notorious for a series of verbal gaffes, made it clear that after receiving pressure from the far left that she had reversed her previous support for a two state solution. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, had received support from the political arm of J Street, but also stated after the election that she favored cutting off all military aid to Israel.
Omar, a Somali refugee accused of immigration fraud including marrying her brother, had made her support for BDS clear prior to the election, as well as her antisemitism, having stated on social media in 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.” She then appeared to reverse herself in speech to a Jewish group. In a post-election reversal that surprised some left wing supporters, especially Jewish ones, Omar came out and stated that she did indeed support BDS. Some BDS supporters defended her reversal as conventional politics as well as her stance on BDS, stating that it was not antisemitic. No Democratic Party leader had thus far criticized her stances.
BDS supporter and Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour also criticized Jews and progressives who were critical of Omar, whom she alleged was “being attacked for saying that she supports BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) and the right for people to engage in constitutionally protected freedoms. This is not only coming from the right-wing but some folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.” She also implicitly accused critics of being racist. Sarsour’s dual loyalty accusation drew wide condemnation even from the Jewish left.
The emergence of a pro-BDS and arguably antisemitic progressive faction in the House of Representatives has furthered the split in the Democratic Party over Israel. While the aging leadership of the party is securely in control of the House after the mid-terms, the future is uncertain, to the point where the large number of potential Democratic presidential candidates have taken a visibly hands-off approach to Israel and to the bill in Congress opposing Israel boycotts. It is unclear whether a showdown is inevitable or if the leftward drift of the party can be stopped. The underreported successes of many “Democratic Socialists of America” candidates at the grassroots level are another ominous sign of changes that will undermine American support for Israel and attack supporters of Israel.
Comments from Sarsour and others for BDS and attacks on Jewish progressives and Israel have also created a growing controversy regarding the leadership of the Women’s March and their support for Louis Farrakhan. The co-founder of the March, Theresa Shook, has called on the current leaders to resign for having “allowed anti-semitism” and for steering “the Movement away from its true course.” She also accused Sarsour and others of financially exploiting the organization. Sarsour later offered an apology for the “harm we have caused” but did not address the substantive questions including the Nation of Islam connections, support for Farrakhan, or treatment of Jewish and other supporters.
The accusations came shortly after a social democratic German foundation withdrew a human rights award to the Women’s March, stating that “its organizers have repeatedly attracted attention through antisemitic statements, the trivialization of antisemitism and the exclusion of Zionists and Jews.” Other high profile supporters of the march, including actors Debra Messing and Alyssa Milano, publicly withdrew their support over the Farrakhan issue.
In campus news, the BDS movement, J Street University launched a campaign against Birthright with petitions demanding that the program open itself up to Palestinians. The petitions were aimed at Birthright programs at George Washington University, Tufts, Brandeis, and other schools. The primary talking point was that “adding Palestinian voices” to Birthright was vital since, as one petition put it “Our community values complexity, nuance, and the inclusion of multiple experiences and narratives,” in order for participants “learn about the Israeli occupation from Palestinians who are living under it.” The effort is designed to pressure individual Hillel branches to break a consensus on the purpose of Birthright. J Street University thus joins “IfNotNow” and other far-left organizations in efforts to undermine Birthright from within.
The efforts of groups to split the Jewish community away from Israel and to define antisemitism as a solely “right-wing” phenomenon were also seen in “Jewish Voice for Peace’s” disturbing equation of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre with the “victims of Gaza.” A less perverse formulation was offered by the Middle East Studies Association which condemned the shootings and antisemitism but then went on to condemn all forms of “xenophobia” including “Islamophobia,” and to “reject efforts to falsely conflate antisemitism and critique of the state of Israel.” The implicit demand is that to fight antisemitism Jews must repudiate Israel and embrace antisemites such as in the BDS movement
Elsewhere on campus, fallout continued in response to the situation at the University of Michigan where in October two instructors denied students letters of recommendation for study in Israel. BDS supporters condemned the university’s censure of the two faculty members and complained that a panel that will study the question of professional responsibilities in areas such as letters of recommendation was not “diverse” since it did not include BDS supporters. In a move apparently designed as pushback against the university administration, a “town hall” sponsored by several academic departments also offered unrelenting support for BDS. A faculty letter further condemned the university and a student group issued a series of “demands” including for BDS to be implemented immediately and threatened “direct action” if it were not.
In a similar case of faculty pushing back at an administration that refused to adopt BDS policies, the Pitzer College faculty senate voted to suspend its study abroad program at Haifa University and to condemn the administration for rejecting a student government BDS resolution. The faculty senate called for the “suspension of the College’s exchange with Haifa University, until (a) the Israeli state ends its restrictions on entry to Israel based on ancestry and/or political speech and (b) the Israeli state adopts policies granting visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a fully equal basis as it does to Israeli universities.” Supporters cited the case of Lara Alqassam, a BDS supporting student who was barred from entry into Israel until she was admitted by a decree of the Supreme Court. In response, a student government resolution was introduced to protest the elimination of “student learning opportunities.”
Like the letter of recommendation controversy, the study abroad decision opens another area of conflict between faculty and administration that is ostensibly about free speech and shared governance but which will play out in terms of discrimination against Israelis, Jews, and supporters of Israel. An example of where this will lead was seen in the removal of Israeli academics from the list of participants at the demand of BDS activists from a conference at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Another new BDS strategy was on display at the University of Cardiff, where a resolution was proposed in the student government “Protecting Palestinian and Jewish students.” The resolution’s first point condemned rising antisemitism and then condemned Israel in the remaining 16 points and called on the student government and university to adopt BDS. It thus usurps the problem of antisemitism, defines it in terms that exclude BDS, and links condemnation of antisemitism with condemnation of Israel.
In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Students approved a BDS resolution and offered financial support to “Palestinian solidarity” organizations. The organization will thus be helping to promote BDS. The move was quickly denounced by Canadian Jewish leaders and comes shortly after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned BDS in a speech apologizing for Canada not accepting Jewish refugees before World War II.
Despite efforts to prevent it, including a call from the Los Angeles City Council, the National Students for Justice in Palestine convention was held at UCLA. The event was closed to media but reports indicate that attendees called for the end of Israel, chanted “Long live the intifada! Intifada intifada!” and promoted the “anti-normalization” of contacts with Israelis and supporters of Israel. Several pro-Israel students crashed the event and were ejected while many more held peaceful protests outside. SJP’s supporting organization, American Muslims for Palestine, was also held in November and featured a variety of Islamists who had been involved with the Hold Land Foundation-Hamas terror finance case.
A talk by Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev at a university in London was cancelled after the institution refused to provide security. BDS supporters have regularly disrupted Regev’s talk. BDS supporters also praised the harassment of Regev at other talks.
The European Association of Social Anthropologists also adopted a policy of boycotting Israeli academic institutions in the “settlements.” Israeli social anthropologists had previously called on their European counterparts to adopt the policy.
At New York University, where the student government will consider a BDS resolution in December via a secret ballot in order to protect future job prospects, the university administration issued a statement condemning BDS and the boycott of the school’s Tel Aviv program by 30 student groups. NYU student and faculty groups, including the local branch of the American Association of University Professors, reacted angrily to the school’s rejection of BDS. A BDS resolution is also under consideration at Swarthmore College, where the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) branch held a “teach in” to support the initiative.
In the economic sphere, Airbnb announced that it would no longer list rental properties in “Israeli settlements,” meaning Israeli-owned apartments in West Bank communities. The company did not specify whether that included East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. The company regularly lists properties in other “disputed territories” such as Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus and Tibet, making its discrimination against Israelis and Jews clear. A review of the petition submitted by JVP revealed it included a number of fraudulent names. A later report indicated that Airbnb was considering dropping listings in the Western Sahara.
The move is thus far unique but represents a serious escalation of corporate boycotts of Israel. The Airbnb decision was welcomed by the BDS movement and by members of the Israeli left, which had pressured the company for several years. In response, members of the Israeli Cabinet announced that plans were being developed to thwart the company’s action, including restricting its ability to work in Israel and bringing the matter to the attention of law enforcement official in the US to investigate whether the company was violating state-level laws against BDS. A class action lawsuit was also filed in a Jerusalem district court claiming the company’s policy was discriminatory under Israeli law, while another Israeli company filed suit against Air BnB in New York and California. Other ministers also called for Israelis to boycott Airbnb. US Senator Rob Portman of Ohio also stated that he had inquired with the company regarding the new policy, and the governors of Florida and Illinois stated they would raise the issue with state investment authorities.
The Airbnb decision attracted widespread condemnation from Jewish and other sources, including the city of Beverly Hills, which stated the company was not welcome to list properties there because of the policy, but Palestinians and BDS supporters expressed hope that other companies would follow suit. A statement from the Israeli Strategic Affairs ministry noted, however, that to date the primary economic damage from BDS activities was to Palestinian and Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley.
Finally, the Quakers of Britain announced that they would no longer invest in companies the “profit from the occupation of Palestine.” The group did not clarify whether this meant Israeli or other companies. The Quaker movement in the US is a leader in the BDS movement and has long evinced hostility towards Israel.