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January 21, 2019 7:37 am

All Politics Is Local: How Off-Campus Anti-Israel Activists Impact Campus BDS

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avatar by Miriam F. Elman


Signs at a pro-BDS protest in New York following the US decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri.

Back in the summer of 2009, the Atlanta, Georgia chapter of the virulently anti-Israel Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) launched a campaign to shut down the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) — a police leadership and counter-terrorism training program housed at Georgia State University (GSU) that included several long-standing trips to Israel.

AFSC local activists soon partnered up with another off-campus organization, the Movement to End Israeli Apartheid-Georgia (MEIA-GA), and they managed to rope in a GSU campus group — the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) — to help field the campaign against GILEE.

This was a kind of prototype for the vile “Deadly Exchange” initiative spearheaded years later by the radical and fringe Jewish Voice for Peace group, which seeks to close down US-Israel police exchanges and is now being heavily promoted by anti-Israel activists across the country.

In my recent article for Legal Insurrection about this multi-year attack on GILEE, I documented how students were repeatedly told the lie that Israel is to blame for police brutality and killings in the US. Basically, in order to advance the BDS agenda at GSU, the anti-GILEE campaign exploited racial tensions unrelated to Israel and dangerously stoked anger toward GSU’s Jewish community from student minorities (especially African-Americans).

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For the better part of a decade, activists affiliated with the AFSC chapter in Atlanta, MEIA-GA, and the student PSA (and, on occasion, faculty too) collaborated to “shut GILEE down” by regularly co-hosting rallies, talks, teach-ins, and “days of action” on the Georgia campus. They repeatedly disseminated propaganda suggesting that the relationship between GILEE and GSU was “deeply troubling” due to Israel’s “well-documented history of extrajudicial killing, racial profiling of Arabs, and torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees.”

And it wasn’t just Israel being demonized for alleged abuses of Palestinians — central to this relatively little-known effort that trafficked in antisemitic tropes and canards was the claim that GILEE was trying to “implement violations of human rights here in Georgia.”

What’s been happening at GSU is a good example of how BDS student groups can often forge close-knit relationships with local anti-Israel organizations to create a hostile campus climate for Jews. Yet, despite their ubiquity, these local off-campus/on-campus bonds and associations are among the most understudied aspects of campus anti-Israel activism.

Instead, the focus has mostly been on national, not local, BDS drivers — like American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), and Palestine Legal. In recent years, a number of reports have been released that specifically address these national organizations and the roles that they play in promoting BDS on America’s colleges and universities (see, for example, a recent Israel on Campus Coalition report and my review of it here).

To be sure, it makes sense to study and monitor these major BDS operators, especially in light of the disturbing evidence that continues to surface about the “extensive connections” that these national groups have to Palestinian terrorist organizations. But, as the example at Georgia State University clearly underscores, it’s also important to recognize the impact that smaller, off-campus anti-Israel groups and chapters can have — particularly if they’re successful in getting assistance from the larger BDS organizations.

As a member group of the national umbrella organization US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (now the USCPR), MEIA-GA was able to tap into a support system. Once the USCPR took an interest and even began to co-sponsor events on the GSU campus, having this prominent, national organization endorse them garnered the Atlanta activists a lot more attention — and likely financial resources too. It’s not surprising that, after USCPR became involved, more campus events were held aimed at shutting GILEE down, and new slickly-produced flyers and brochures began appearing on campus.

The AFSC and MEIA-GA made sure that campus events covered topics like the history of slavery and policing in the South, as well as the prison system in Atlanta and in Southern states. These were invariably linked to the effort to “expose GILEE,” the Israeli police, and Israel’s “surveillance and incarceration of the indigenous Palestinian population.”

Sustained support from local AFSC and MEIA-GA activists for the on-campus campaign also worked to keep the university community engaged on the alleged “racist” GILEE program. In fact, a new cohort of students are still working on this issue — nearly a decade after the first petition to “Stop GA-Israel Police Trainings” was addressed to GSU President Mark Becker.

Last week, at a heated Student Government Association debate over a trip to Israel that twenty-four GSU students took during winter break, a sign calling to “end GILEE” was raised aloft by student activists.

In seeking to banish GILEE from GSU, off-campus BDS groups are running roughshod over the academy’s bedrock principle of academic freedom. They’ve also brought hate onto campus. As I showed in my study, most of the anti-GILEE events have gone beyond legitimate criticism of Israel by tossing around disgraceful and outlandish charges of genocide, apartheid, and mass enslavement and control of people of color to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.

As best I can tell though, neither MEIA-GA nor AFSC activists have been implicated in disrupting anyone else’s events at GSU. This actually makes them an exception.

Non-student activists have been ringleaders in numerous recent incidents involving shut-downs of Israeli speakers and Israeli-themed events, some of which got so nasty that campus security and police needed to intervene and make arrests. Examples include:

  • A talk by George Mason University Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich at St. Louis University in July of last year, which was repeatedly disrupted by non-student activists affiliated with the local, off-campus groups Palestine Solidarity Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace.
  • A February 2018 panel of IDF reservists hosted by the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, where students and non-students reportedly chanted slogans through a megaphone, preventing the speakers from being heard.
  • The pre-planned disruption of a speaking event with Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan that was hosted by the Dean’s Office and other academic departments at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University (SU). There, off-campus agitators from Code Pink and the Syracuse Peace Council interrupted several times, then egged on students into rounds of disruptive chanting that made it impossible to hear the speaker — a clear violation of SU’s policies.

But these and other examples notwithstanding, it’s still the case that on-campus groups are the main instigators of Israel-related speech disruptions on campus.

More concerning is how these off-campus groups can shape and shove the discourse about Israel on nearby colleges and universities, and help mount viciously anti-Israel campaigns — in some cases, like at Georgia State University, year after year. When it comes to BDS, the common saying is often accurate: “all politics is local.

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University where she is the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence. A frequent speaker and writer on academic freedom, campus free speech, and BDS, in 2018 she was listed by The Algemeiner among the top 100 people worldwide who are “positively influencing Jewish life.”  

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