The BDS Fight Boils Over on Campus and Elsewhere
In December, the BDS movement continued to be a prominent political and campus issue, fully integrated into larger questions of antisemitism, free speech, and the nature of the university.
At Temple University, faculty member Marc Lamont Hill was fired from a job as a CNN commentator after protests regarding his appearance at the United Nations, where he endorsed Palestinian violence against Israelis and called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
After the CNN move, Temple University trustees stated they were examining whether Hill’s statements were cause for dismissal from his academic position. This produced an enormous outcry from BDS supporters and others, including neo-Nazi David Duke, and a petition in support of Hill signed by almost 3,000 people. Most observers noted that Hill’s statements were protected speech, but a few commented that a private company would be within its rights to dismiss him for hate speech. The chair of Temple’s board of trustees commented that Hill had caused “immeasurable harm” to the institution.
Hill later commented that he supported a one-state solution, but, more implausibly, that his call for a Palestine “from the river to the sea” did not call for the destruction of Israel. He then attacked those who criticized his support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, saying, “Why is only one set of people untouchable? … And why does every black leader have to ritually denounce Farrakhan in order to sustain a position? That doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Hill went on to blame Israel for police violence in the US, saying, “The New York City police, they’re killing us, but they’re being trained by Israeli security forces. … They’re being trained — New York City police and in other cities as well. So here’s a connection between the two. I can’t stop one without the other, there’s a relationship.”
Fallout also continued over the Pitzer College faculty decision in November to end the school’s exchange program with Haifa University. The university president condemned the decision, saying: “To deny Pitzer students who want to study at Haifa University the opportunity to study abroad and to enter into dialogue and promote intercultural understanding at the altar of political considerations is anathema to Pitzer’s core values.”
Pro-BDS faculty members responded ironically that the president’ comments were “anti-democratic” and had the effect of silencing untenured faculty members. More implausibly, they suggested that Jewish students did not feel unsafe at the college’s programs in Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon. Shortly after the vote, a mural decrying antisemitism at Pizter’s sibling institution Pomona College was defaced with pro-Palestinian messages.
To preempt future faculty BDS efforts at their schools, the 10 Chancellors of the University of California system issued a statement that reaffirmed “our longstanding opposition to an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and/or individual scholars. Our commitment to continued engagement and partnership with Israeli, as well as Palestinian colleagues, colleges, and universities is unwavering. We believe a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campuses, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.”
The Temple and Pitzer cases raise important questions about the nature of free speech versus hate speech, and about faculty behavior and faculty governance. The increasingly categorical opposition to Israel expressed by a small minority of faculty members has profoundly changed the campus environment. It has also changed the essential power relationship between administrations — which have responsibilities to students, state legislators, donors, and other stakeholders, as well as to abstract ideals of academic freedom — and faculty members, who increasingly see themselves as having no responsibilities besides their own politics.
Elsewhere on campus, the student government at New York University adopted a BDS resolution after a contentious debate. In response, the administration stated that it had no intention of boycotting Israel. At Ohio State University, another resolution was defeated. At Maynooth University in Dublin, however, the student government approved a BDS resolution.
Observers have noted that overtly antisemitic acts on campus have increased in response to the upswing in faculty and student BDS activities. After the NYU vote, a BDS supporter posted threats on social media that caused the campus Hillel to be closed.
In other campus-related news, the BDS campaign against Birthright continued to expand. Reports in left-wing media sources alleged that Birthright enrollments had dropped sharply in response to BDS campaigns. These reports were later denied by Birthright officials, and may be plausibly interpreted as an information operation designed to pressure Jewish students not to participate in the program. Media coverage lauding the small number of IfNotNow related students (13 out of some 40,000) who walked off Birthright trips (and then participated in pre-planned tours of the “territories”) continued, as did J Street U’s petition campaign demanding that Birthright be opened to Palestinian students.
A new line of attack was also opened, alleging that Birthright was attempting to silence dissent by adding language in their contracts prohibiting participants from behavior to “coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation.” Overall, the attacks on Birthright are a reflection of the program’s long-term success at connecting young American Jews to Israel, and the Jewish BDS movement’s exclusive focus on the “occupation” as a means of destroying it and the American Jewish connection to Israel and to Israelis.
In the economic sphere, the most significant development was the announcement by the British bank HSBC that it was divesting its holdings in the Israeli technology firm Elbit. Describing the move as related its it corporate social responsibility investment policies, the bank stated it “strongly supports observance of international human rights principles as they apply to business,” but added that it does “not take positions on political issues.” The BDS movement had targeted the company for many years.
The extent of the bank’s holdings in Elbit was very small, and in early January the company issued a clarification stating the move was in response to its long-standing policy regarding cluster munitions rather than “human rights” or Israel generally. In the meantime, the BDS movement celebrated the bank’s decision, which, if indeed limited to Israel, represents a major victory.
Fallout also continued over Airbnb’s decision to de-list rental properties belonging to Israelis across the “Green Line.” After the move was widely condemned, and with word that several US states would apply local laws forbidding companies from boycotting Israel, Airbnb held discussions with Israeli authorities. But conflicting reports emerged, with Israeli authorities claiming the company had reversed its decision and Airbnb stating this was incorrect and it was still seeking ways to implement it. Later, an Airbnb official toured the areas in question with Israeli officials and the company continued to issue conflicting statements, possibly to mislead American regulators.
The state laws that are being used to challenge the Airbnb boycott have themselves come under fire. A lawsuit filed in Texas alleges that an individual’s First Amendment rights were restricted by a law prohibiting state contractors from boycotting Israel. But as legal commentators quickly pointed out, the Texas law prohibits the state from contracting with businesses including individual proprietors that boycott Israel, on the same terms as other anti-discrimination laws. Contractors must certify that their businesses do not boycott Israel, but their ability to speak about Israel is unimpeded. That the media and BDS supporters have deliberately misconstrued this distinction is not surprising. But the fact that certain state laws single out Israel instead of presenting general prohibitions on discrimination is a problem that will open the laws to legal challenges. In contrast, a brief by the Arizona Attorney General presented in response to a challenge to the state’s anti-BDS law made the claim that the BDS movement against Israel aids terrorism.
In the political sphere, the emergence of a pro-BDS caucus in the House of Representatives has begun to change the debate over the issue. Reports indicate that Senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein will now oppose the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” in order to generate a “real debate” on Israel and its “settlement” policies. This appears to be an effort by the Democratic leadership to move the terms of the debate over Israel and BDS to the left in order to maintain control of the issues. Opposition to the legislation also came from some mainstream media outlets including the editorial board of The New York Times.
Misconstruing the legislation, and similar laws at state levels, as prohibiting speech rather than addressing discrimination in commercial behavior, is a deliberate tactic that has spread from the BDS movement to the broader political sphere. In the case of Sanders and Feinstein, this misrepresentation is ostensibly directed at free speech and designed to put pressure on Israel over “settlements,” when in fact the BDS movement aims for the elimination of Israel as a whole.
Pushing back against these stances on the anti-boycott legislation, a group of Republican Senators issued a letter demanding that the Congressional leadership express bipartisan opposition to BDS. At the same time, incoming Representative Rashida Tlaib has indicated that she will not be participating in the now traditional AIPAC tour of Israel for incoming members of Congress but will instead tour “Palestine” with the leading BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace.
The strategy of equating BDS with progressivism generally was formally stated by the head of Jewish Voice for Peace, meaning the stage is set for the BDS caucus to challenge Congressional leaders on BDS and Israel.
An exposé also revealed the manner and extent to which the Women’s March has been taken over and exploited by a cadre of BDS-supporting antisemites. The reports detailed how the original founders were pushed out by Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and others; how Jews associated with the organization were subjected to antisemitic abuse and harassment, including claims of “Jewish privilege” and the “Jewish role in the slave trade”; and how the new leadership employed the Nation of Islam for security and manipulated finances for personal gain.
First reported in Tablet, the story was met by a bizarre series of denials from a public relations firm employed by the Women’s March, and was then followed up by a report in the The New York Times. In response, several local affiliates of the Women’s March have broken away, donors have withdrawn support, and a rival national organization has been created.
The pattern mirrors to some extent the situation in academia where organizations such as the American Studies Association have been taken over and weaponized as tools of BDS. In the case of the Women’s March, the current leadership’s ties to the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan are a particular feature, which also links it with figures such as Marc Lamont Hill, as well as campaigns against police exchanges with Israel spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Black Lives Matter movement. The success of that program was also seen in December when the Vermont State Police and the Northampton, Massachusetts police department canceled scheduled police training in Israel. The fact that the training sessions related to counter-terrorism, not everyday policing, has been ignored.
The larger BDS-related goal is alienating African-Americans from Jews through blood libels about police training in Israel. A corollary program is to alienate other groups by alleging that American Jews epitomize “whiteness,” which is to say, accusing them of racism if they do not acquiesce to BDS and antisemitism. The racialization of BDS, using the African-American community as a tool against Israel and Jews, will intensify in 2019.
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 alexanderjoffe.net. A version of this article was originally published at SPME.