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July 2, 2019 5:45 am

BDS Spreads Through Community Organizations and K-12

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A BDS protest in front of Carnegie Hall. Photo: Liberate Art.

Mainstreaming antisemitism through BDS and anti-Zionism progressed in June as academics defended attacking Israel. Pushing back against anti-Israel bias has serious costs, but the impunity of higher education has been breached by legal counteractions. The defenses of BDS and racialized culture mounted by elite institutions and media are increasing and track with growing cultural, religious, and political divides in the West. Efforts to disseminate BDS through K-12 education, in communities, and by controlling information on the Internet, are also growing. As censorship by technology conglomerates grows, it is unclear whether they will oppose BDS and antisemitism or support it in the name of progressive values.

After the academic year, the fallout from BDS continues. A series of incidents show the impact that BDS has had on antisemitism in colleges and universities, which which is increasingly led by faculty who seek absolute immunity from criticism.

A notable incident occurred at New York University, where a commencement speaker publicly expressed support for BDS and was condemned by the administration and in the media. The local branch of the American Association of University Professors then condemned the administration’s stance. This was followed in June by defenses of the commencement speaker, who will be taking up a position at Northwestern University, along with allegations that his freedom of speech had been “chilled” by criticism.

At Pitzer College, where faculty passed a resolution calling on the school to end its study abroad program at Haifa University, faculty further condemned the school’s president for visiting Israel to reaffirm the institution’s ties with academia there. A faculty committee at UCLA also supported a faculty member who had invited a notorious BDS supporter as a guest speaker for an event that generated complaints regarding a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students.

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At the level of academic organizations, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies endorsed BDS against Israeli institutions at its annual meeting, but did not clarify the extent to which it or its organizational or individual members would also discriminate against Israelis or supporters of Israel. In the area of publications, an edition of the journal Radical History Review was dedicated to support for BDS. At the university level, BDS-supporting faculty at Adelphi University expressed opposition to permitting Hillel on campus because of its “pro-Israel” orientation.

Finally, there was an unusual case at the Jewish Museum of Berlin where the director resigned after being criticized for sharing an article supporting BDS on social media. This generated a petition from among Jewish Studies faculty members lambasting critics and tacitly defending BDS.

In each case support for BDS was cast in terms of academic freedom. The impunity demanded for BDS support also merges with the growing perspective that anti-Israeli perspectives must be incorporated into all pedagogy, especially Jewish and Israel studies, lest they be characterized as “pro-occupation.” To not do so invites Orwellian accusations of bigotry and discrimination.

In contrast to the growing consensus that Israel is a “right-wing cause” that is legitimately discriminated against, the Department of Education announced that it was opening investigations of recent incidents where students at Williams College barred creation of an Israel club, and a BDS event held jointly at the University of North Carolina and Duke University that used Federal grant money.

The extent to which individuals and other parties are pushing back against universities was also demonstrated by a recent court case that found Oberlin College liable for providing direct support to protesters attempting to shut down a local business after students were found to have shoplifted.

Other signs emerged that universities are on the defensive, a tone highlighted by a long piece written by Columbia University president Lee Bollinger that claimed that free speech was “just fine.” Bollinger’s comments were widely mocked and belied by a series of events in June, including vandalizing of pro-life displays at several universities and threats at the University of Texas to dox or reveal personal information of students who join conservative groups.

The spread of BDS downward into K-12 education was also evident in June. In one case an Illinois school district came under fire for a “Teaching Palestine” course offered to teachers. The course drew heavily on materials from Jewish Voice for Peace and other BDS organizations. The incident parallels a longstanding case in Newton, Massachusetts, where pro-BDS materials have been taught for years in the high schools.

In another incident, a reading of a pro-Palestinian book for children advocating “intifada” was scheduled at a public library in Highland Park, New Jersey. The event was canceled after protests, but a backlash from pro-BDS organizations demanded the library reschedule the reading. In addition to being aimed at children, the event was likely a deliberate provocation aimed at the town and its large Jewish community in order to claim discrimination against “Palestinian perspectives.” A similar event was the showing of a pro-BDS film for the Tacoma Park, Maryland community that was canceled after protests.

Conversely, reports indicate that Jewish writer Richard Zimler had several public appearances in Britain by his publicist over fears of disruptions by Palestinian and anti-Israel protesters, because “his Jewishness would alienate Palestinian sympathizers among their clientele.” Zimler has no family or other connections to Israel. Increasingly, discrimination against Jews is regarded as legitimate whether or not there is any connection to Israel.

Elsewhere in the community sphere, the primary BDS incident occurred at the Washington, DC Dyke March, where BDS supporters led by members of the BDS group If Not Now attempted to prevent Jewish women from marching with flags displaying the Star of David. The anti-Zionists alleged that the symbol would alienate Palestinian participants.

Parallel incidents demonstrated how control over information related to Israel and related topics have become critical to the spread of antisemitism. In one case, a map on the official New Zealand immigration ministry website replaced Israel entirely with “Palestine,” supplemented by text describing Israeli “repression” of Palestinians. The map was removed after protests and an apology from officials.

In another case, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez absurdly compared American border detention facilities to Nazi concentration camps, causing a firestorm. After strenuous criticism, including from Yad Vashem, her statement was defended and even expanded with warnings of a potential future genocide by public, media, and progressive Jewish figures. Finally, a scholar of Islam, Raymond Ibrahim, had an invitation to lecture at the US Army War College rescinded after protests from CAIR alleging his “Islamophobia.”

In all these cases — as with the ongoing crackdown by YouTube and Facebook on “extremism” — institutions are shaping the information environment in pervasive and tendentious ways. In the process, Jewish history is redefined as an infinitely elastic metaphor while inevitable protests and corrections are regarded as parochial Jewish efforts to “claim” history. Conversely, any critical treatment of Middle Eastern history or Islam is “Islamophobic.” The specific effect is to cast Israel as the universal villain and Palestinians as the universal victim.

The extent to which BDS has helped normalize antisemitism was demonstrated at Cambridge University, where statements by former Indonesian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, including about Jews’ resentment over being accused of having “hook shaped” noses, and “Can you imagine the Israelis taking over Cambridge and calling it Israel? How would you like that?” were met with polite laughter. Similarly, at an Intelligence Squared debate in London, the resolution that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism passed by a substantial margin, much to the satisfaction of an Islamist who participated.

Ironically, progressive vilification of Israel and its supporters, especially Jews, is expanding at the same time that neo-Nazis in the US and Europe are explicitly expressing support for BDS. A recent study showed that neo-Nazis in the US are increasing active in online forums dedicated to BDS and regularly share all manner of antisemitic materials without reproach.

Similarly, neo-Nazis in Germany have begun using the phrase “Israel is our misfortune,” a sentiment that converges with the German Green Party’s explicit support for BDS. The crossover between the two streams was seen recently when a founder of the Green Party spoke at a neo-Nazi event. This comes as the German Parliament voted to condemn the BDS movement as antisemitic. To date, however, progressives have not rejected or repudiated neo-Nazi support for BDS.

Underlying this convergence are longstanding if understated alliances between extremist figures such as David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. While logically consistent (at least partially) from the neo-Nazi perspective, progressive tolerance for the convergence is more difficult to explain. One historical parallel from the 1960s, when elements of the German far-left converged with neo-Nazis over shared antipathy toward Israel and Jews, hints that a similar process may be underway today globally. Whether this will be self-marginalizing remains unknown but the corrosive impact on mainstream political discourse and social attitudes is already apparent.

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. This article was originally published by SPMP.

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