NGOs and Politicians Continue to Push the BDS Agenda
In February, the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry released a report demonstrating that leading BDS groups are staffed by current and former members of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These organizations include Addameer, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al-Mezan, and Al-Haq, which regularly support BDS in international legal and “human rights” contexts, and receive financial support from the European Union.
BDS supporters framed the report as an exaggeration that slandered the movement and its Palestinian partners. Overall, the report received limited press attention, despite the detailed information provided on the abuse of NGOs by terror organizations. This suggests that the BDS movement has achieved a level of acceptance within the information ecosystem that is tantamount to impunity. A social media researcher who discovered that bots from hijacked accounts were generating tweet storms supporting BDS revealed one reason for this normalization — sheer volume.
Another development that showed the leading role of non-governmental organizations in pushing BDS was the campaign by Amnesty International alleging “the Israeli government has political and ideological reasons for developing a tourism industry in occupied East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank.” The Amnesty report alleged further that Israel used archaeology “to make the link between the modern State of Israel and its Jewish history explicit,” and went on to accuse travel companies of complicity in “human rights violations” for listing sites and accommodations in places including Jerusalem.
The Amnesty campaign against tourism in Israel follows on the Human Rights Watch-instigated decision by Airbnb to de-list Israeli-owned properties in communities across the “Green Line” — but that went even further by denying Jewish connections to Jerusalem and other sites. Human Rights Watch’s devolution into a BDS support group has long been evident, but the vehemence of its current position is partially the function of its director’s obsession with Israel, along with those of key staff members who originated in the BDS movement. The ACLU has followed a similar trajectory in allowing its antipathy towards Israel to shape its policy regarding anti-BDS legislation.
The Amnesty push also comes as the United Nations Human Rights Council released its long anticipated report condemning Israeli and international corporations for involvement in the “territories.” Additional UN reports condemning Israel for alleged “human rights” violations are also anticipated in May.
In February, the controversies over antisemitism among newly elected members of the US House of Representatives expanded. Recently-elected Representative and BDS supporter Ilhan Omar expressed the belief that Jewish money was influencing Congressional support for Israel and scoffed at the idea that Israel was a democracy. Her own financial backers include a variety of individual BDS supporters and organizations. Faced with harsh criticism, Omar issued a putative apology that redoubled criticism of alleged lobbying by AIPAC and other organizations.
In another incident, Representative Rashida Tlaib accused supporters of anti-BDS legislation of dual loyalties, stating, “They forgot what country they represent.” Tlaib was also criticized by Democratic House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elliot Engel for refusing to participate in a non-partisan fact-finding trip to Israel sponsored by AIPAC. In response, Tlaib’s supporters rebuked Engel as “patronizing” toward a “woman of color.”
BDS supporters expanded the criticism and alleged that coverage of antisemitic and conspiratorial remarks by Omar and Tlaib constituted “white supremacy,” and that like anti-BDS legislation, they were part of a plan to undermine the Democratic party. There were also public demands that American Jews “stand with” Omar, the implication being that those who insist on calling out her antisemitism were right-wing racists.
The strategy of splitting the American Jewish community over the issues of BDS and antisemitism within the Democratic party will intensify as the 2020 election approaches. While all of the current Democratic presidential candidates have varying records of supporting Israel, none have been willing to endorse federal legislation outlawing commercial boycotts of Israel, and all have relied on demonstrably false assertions that such legislation restricts free speech. In response to this, traditional party leaders established a new initiative to “strengthen the pro-Israel tradition of the Democratic Party, fight for Democratic values and work within the progressive movement to advance policies that ensure a strong US-Israel relationship.”
Elsewhere in the political sphere, a Virginia Democrat and BDS supporter won a special election for the Virginia House of Delegates. That he began his political career as a member of both Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is noteworthy, and highlights those organizations’ role in cultivating individuals for later influence. The unsuccessful efforts of a small group of progressives to force Israel supporters out of the California Democratic party also shows that BDS is present at even the lowest grassroots level.
The mainstreaming of BDS within the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and as a central plank of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Green party, could represent the continued transformation of the Democrats into something similar to the British Labour party.
Speaking of the UK, the antisemitism crisis that began with the exposure of BDS activities in Labour campus groups continued in February. The resignation of nine Labour members dissatisfied with the party’s failure to address antisemitism was met with torrents of abuse, including accusations that the members were disloyal to party leader Jeremy Corbyn and paid by Israel to make false claims of antisemitism.
February was also an active month for BDS on college campuses, with signs of new campaigns at many schools. But at Swarthmore College, the student government voted down a BDS resolution, and a student judiciary body at the University of Oregon overruled a BDS resolution adopted last year on the grounds that it was not viewpoint neutral. In contrast, the Pitzer College student government vetoed a bill condemning the proposed faculty boycott of study abroad in Israel. The Pitzer faculty senate will vote on that proposal next month.
BDS efforts among student groups also continue to morph and to graft onto unrelated issues and unexpected mechanisms. At New York University, the wording of a BDS resolution was changed to make it appear to target corporations working in many countries rather than only in Israel. But the underlying intent remains unchanged. The graduate student union at Columbia University, which is opening contract negotiations with the administration, has also included BDS in its list of “social justice” demands. Finally, at Syracuse University, it was revealed that students could receive credit for interning with a BDS-supporting “peace” group. The university later clarified that the arrangement did not mean that the university endorsed the group’s goals.
Fallout also expanded from the University of California Chancellors’ preemptive denunciation of the BDS movement, with faculty members continuing to condemn the statement. It appears likely that university leaders are concerned that active faculty discrimination against individual students rather than student support for BDS will undermine institutional reputations and increase exposure to lawsuits.
A federal court dismissed the lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) that alleged the organization had violated its bylaws after it was taken over by BDS supporters for that purpose. The court stated that it did not have jurisdiction, and lawyers for the plaintiffs will refile the suit in state court. BDS supporters claimed falsely that the court had dismissed the suit on substantive grounds rather than on a technicality.
BDS efforts aimed at Jewish campus organizations also continued in February. At the University of Chicago, the Jewish BDS group IfNotNow held a protest outside Hillel to present a series of demands regarding the content of Birthright trips. At the University of Texas, IfNotNow disrupted a Shabbat service at which a former Israeli soldier was about to speak. At the University of Vermont, the J Street U and SJP chapters both released letters condemning the Hillel there for accepting funds from the Maccabee Task Force. The Jewish Voice for Peace chapter at George Washington University also demanded that the school’s Hillel break ties with the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which was allegedly creating a “a hostile environment for Jewish, Palestinian and pro-divestment activists.”
Finally, in the cultural sphere, BDS attacks increased regarding the upcoming Eurovision competition that will be held in Tel Aviv in May. A British group of BDS-supporting celebrities issued a statement decrying participation in the event, as did more than 60 LGBTQ groups, who alleged that the event was another example of “pinkwashing.”
Dr. Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He is currently a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow of the Middle East Forum. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net. He is also the editor of the SPME BDS Monitor.
A version of this article was originally published by SPME.