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December 3, 2019 1:50 pm

Professors Continue to Advocate for BDS on Campus

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A BDS demonstration outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

BDS activities on campus in November included a number of events sponsored by academic units. Among the most notable was a conference by the “University of Massachusetts Resistance Studies Initiative” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, dedicated to BDS and its purported ‘silencing.’ In anticipation of the event, the university chancellor condemned the BDS movement, which predictably prompted protests from the faculty.

A stealthier example of faculty supporting BDS was seen at Indiana University, where the Center for Middle East Studies used antisemitic images by the cartoonist Latuff on a flyer for a BDS event. The center’s director issued an apology and claimed he had not seen the flyer before it was distributed.

Another incident saw Boston University considering hiring a BDS supporter who had stated “rape and killing of Palestinian women was a central aspect of Israeli troops’ systematic massacres and evictions during the destruction of Palestinian villages in 1948.” After an uproar that pointed out her overt anti-Israel bias, the hire by the Sociology department was thwarted, but reports indicate she was still being considered for a position by the Women’s Studies program.

In another example that demonstrated how academics use their institutions to support BDS, New York University’s ‘Department of Social and Cultural Analysis’ hosted a leading BDS proponent but then refused a student request for a pro-Israel speaker. This incident is in addition to numerous individual academics, such as Columbia’s Joseph Massad, who routinely endorse violence as “ongoing Palestinian resistance to Israeli settler colonialism and racism.”

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The extent to which faculty have assumed leadership of BDS was also seen in the Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) awarding the keynote address at its annual meeting to Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill. Best known for his anti-Israel animus, Hill is not a Middle East studies scholar. Reports indicate Hill shouted at the audience that the ‘cause of Palestine’ was more important than their careers and organizations. To compound the matter, MESA also released a statement purporting to be about academic freedom, but which was a defense of the BDS movement.

The pattern of student groups inviting antisemites to campus to antagonize the community over Israel expanded in November. After being condemned for his antisemitic remarks at Princeton, Norman Finkelstein appeared at Oberlin at the invitation of the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters, as did cartoonist Eli Valley. BDS supporters at Oberlin also erected a memorial to Palestinians killed during the recent violence in Gaza, most of whom were Palestinian Islamic Jihad members. At Brown University Linda Sarsour appeared beside other BDS supporters at a public event. The secretive National SJP conference was also held at the University of Minnesota over protests from Jewish groups that the organization advocates violence and promotes antisemitism.

The longstanding Palestinian ideology of anti-normalization, which demands that all contact with Israel or its supporters be cut lest Israel be ‘normalized,’ continued to manifest on American campuses. This strategy was made explicit in an op-ed in the Emory student newspaper. Ironically, the deepening of anti-normalization on campuses comes as Arab thinkers have begun to publicly repudiate BDS, a move praised by US Secretary of State Pompeo, along with Iranians protesting their government’s support for Palestinian rejectionism.

SJP’s organizing of campus opposition to Israel and Jewish events also expanded in November. At Harvard, McGill, the University of Vermont, and Arizona State the local SJP chapters pressured other campus organizations to call for the boycott of Israel trips. This is in addition to the longstanding tactics of misleading ‘informational sessions,’ as was held recently at Brown University, and proposing BDS resolutions in student governments, such as at Columbia University, where a resolution calling for a referendum on BDS was passed by one vote. A debate on a BDS resolution at Arizona State was postponed. At Swarthmore College BDS activists demanded the school amend its investment policies to permit ‘ethical divestment’ from Israel, while at Brown University BDS activists were permitted to make a presentation to a university investment committee.

SJP groups also made efforts to cancel pro-Israel speakers. At Arizona State University, pro-Palestinian protesters screamed at a group of wounded Israeli veterans at a Chabad event and harassed an Israeli speaker at the University of Florida. At York University, BDS supporters physically attacked students attending a pro-Israel event, chanting “intifada, intifada, go back to the ovens,” an incident that was condemned by the university and provincial leaders. An ‘apartheid week’ will also shortly be held at the university. Former Israeli diplomats were also protested at Harvard and Middlebury College. Similarly in the UK, BDS groups violently protested talks by an Israeli military officer who had been responsible for humanitarian treatment of Syrian refugees.

At Vassar, the local SJP chapter shouted down an Israeli speaker, Hen Mazzig, with cries of ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ Mazzig’s talk was on Mizrahi Jews and not Israel, but the SJP chapter demanded that the college community avoid ‘normalizing Zionism,’ complained that the student government had funded the talk, and accused Mazzig, who is gay, of ‘pinkwashing.’

In response, the president of Vassar issued a mild condemnation of the protesters, which was praised by Jewish groups. Predictably, in a rambling statement, the SJP chapter complained bitterly about the criticism, after which the president issued a more vehement statement that described SJP’s actions as “unacceptable.” The administration’s apparent threat to hold SJP accountable through disciplinary procedures was also vehemently condemned.

The Vassar SJP chapter stated explicitly that there can be no ‘progressive Zionism,’ and this theme has been replicated widely. Jewish students are routinely excluded and denigrated for supporting Israel by some campus progressives, and for not explicitly condemning Israel. Overt expressions of pro-Israel support are attacked, such as the partial destruction of a display at Binghamton University, and protests that feature calls for Israel to be destroyed, such as at the University of California at Santa Barbara, are increasingly common.

The extent to which every nominally pro-Israel expression is condemned was seen at the University of Chicago, where an Instagram story by a university unit that hosted an event on Israel was deemed ‘dismissive of Palestinian oppression.’ At Tufts University, SJP and JVP protests again focused on US-Israeli police exchanges and the allegation that the campus police are ‘militarized.’

Several Israeli and pro-Israel students spoke out against this trend in November, including in the pages of The New York Times. In another positive sign, the Department of Education has agreed to investigate allegations that NYU SJP helped create a hostile environment for Jewish students and to determine whether the university had responded adequately.

But the impact of antisemitic agitation was seen in numerous swastika incidents on campuses such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Arizona State, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota, Syracuse University, and Smith College. Street protests organized by SJP’s sponsoring organization, American Muslims for Palestine, also brought Israel-hatred into the public square. A rally in Times Square at which the shout of “We don’t want two states. We want ’48” made the eliminationist message clear.

Nevertheless, the larger impunity of campus antisemites continued. At George Washington University, a video of students saying “Fucking bomb Israel, bro. Fuck out of here, Jewish pieces of shit” was shared and condemned, though it is unknown what actions were taken against the individuals involved. Indeed, after a debate the student government decided to remove language condemning certain anti-Israel rhetoric from a resolution on the grounds that it would alienate anti-Israel Jews.

In an example of what might be called the progressive logic of anti-normalization enabled anti-Israel bias — antisemitism disguised and applauded as anti-imperialism — at Pomona College, a pro-Palestinian speaker who was formerly a correspondent for the propaganda channel Russia Today accused a Jewish student of being a ‘white nationalist’ after he questioned her support for Hamas. One of the sponsoring departments later expressed regret for having supported the event. Similarly, growing support for BDS from American neo-Nazis, following the example of the German far-right, demonstrates the same pattern from a different vector. It is ironic, or perhaps predictable, that an antisemitism-based consensus between otherwise incommensurable ideologies has found a home on campuses.

Indeed, the European Union’s project to label products from Israeli ‘settlements’ originated with German neo-Nazis and Green parties. The seeming contradictions of left and right are easily resolved by the unifying logic of antisemitism. More obviously, the refusal of the University of Toronto graduate student union to support a drive for kosher food in dining halls because its backers are “pro-Israel’ represented a blatant example of antisemitism as anti-Zionism. The graduate union later ‘apologized’ for the “for the harm that the wording of this response caused.” In response, dozens of faculty members issued a statement decrying the so-called apology and urging the institution adopt the IHRA guidelines on antisemitism.

But the demand for absolute progressive conformity has spread beyond ostracizing Israel and has also exposed social fissures on American campuses. At Harvard, a public letter condemned Asian groups for failing to co-sponsor a walkout in support of undocumented students. Conflicts between Indian and Pakistani students have also emerged over the issue of Kashmir, and between pro-Chinese and pro-Hong Kong students. Whether an antisemitism-based consensus can paper over these ethnic divides remains unknown.

A larger context for totalitarian conformity being demanded on campus is also reflected in the protests against free speech. At Williams College students have complained about the faculty’s support for the so-called Chicago principles, while at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a recent conference saw academics condemn the idea of free speech as inherently ‘right wing,’ ‘exclusionary,’ and ‘racist.’

Similar opposition to the free flow of information and to the practice of journalism itself has emerged. At Harvard, students complained that the school newspaper had attempted to contact the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for comment on a story regarding deportation raids, calling the move ‘culturally insensitive.’ In another recent controversy, at Northwestern University, editors of the school newspaper apologized for attempting to interview other students regarding a talk by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The decision by the Northwestern editors was widely ridiculed, but the efforts to control information for political purposes reflects a widespread impulse. By mislabeling BDS as ‘antiracist’ and aligning with intersectional allies, the goal of shutting down all pro-Israel speech is being advanced. An example of this was seen at McGill University, where the student newspaper refused to run an op-ed because it reflected a ‘Zionist’ viewpoint that was inherently a “racist attitude and violent practice against Palestinians.” After complaints regarding this discriminatory policy, the university administration intervened and forced the newspaper to run the op-ed. In response, the newspaper complained that this represented unfair interference.

A larger generational consensus on political totalitarianism as such still seems remote, but a condition of ‘repressive tolerance’ is clearly in place at most universities, wherein ‘genuine tolerance’ is construed as intolerance towards positions designated to be on the ‘right.’ The future implications of this attitude are ominous.

In the economic sphere, the major BDS development was a decision by the European Court of Justice ruling that labeling of Israeli products from communities located across the 1949 Armistice Line was mandatory, stating “Foodstuffs originating in the territories occupied by the State of Israel must bear the indication of their territory of origin, accompanied, where those foodstuffs come from an Israeli settlement within that territory, by the indication of that provenance.” Labeling was necessary “to prevent consumers from being misled as to the fact that the State of Israel is present in the territories concerned as an occupying power and not as a sovereign entity.”

Israeli officials protested strongly, as did the US Congress and Trump administration, which described the labeling move as wrong-headed and Nazi-like, and the BDS movement as antisemitic. Lawmakers warned of US retaliation while the State Department expressed its ‘unequivocal opposition’ to the decision and the BDS movement.

Despite the court decision, the European consensus on labeling is not uniform. The Dutch Parliament voted to call on the government to object to the court decision, and a recent study showed that most European states are failing to implement European Union labeling directives.

Finally, in the political sphere, the Labour and Democratic parties continue to be roiled by antisemitism crises. In Britain, as a December snap election designed to confirm the Tory Brexit process approaches, antisemitic Labour members continue to be exposed. Polls indicate public approval of Labour has dropped enormously, including over the antisemitism issue. Prominent figures otherwise sympathetic to Labour continue to release manifestos denouncing the party and Britain’s Chief Rabbi took the extraordinary step of publicly attacking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, reports indicate the Conservative manifesto plans to ban local councils from adopting Israel boycotts

In the US, after appearances at the annual J Street conference at which Democratic presidential candidates demanded Israel end the ‘occupation’ and advocated using military aid to Israel as leverage, the sudden rocket offensive from Gaza after Israel killed the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad forced most of them to issue statements condemning the rocket attacks and supporting Israel. The determination of various organizations, including J Street, to make the ‘occupation’ a central part of the Democratic platform indicate the issue will continue to received oversized attention. This impetus comes largely from left-wing Jews and the BDS movement.

But while the grassroots takeover of the party by the BDS movement has taken many steps forward, a recent development suggests it is not a foregone conclusion. The California Democratic Party rejected several efforts by JVP and other BDS activists to include platform amendments that endorsed the ‘right of return’ and Israel boycotts.

A version of this article was originally published by SPME.

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