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March 3, 2020 7:12 am

Fighting BDS at the UN, ICC, and on Campus

avatar by Alexander Joffe


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

The leading BDS event of February was the long awaited publication by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of a list of 112 firms doing business across Israel’s “Green Line” border between Israel proper and the West Bank. The list includes 94 Israeli and 18 American and other firms, compiled with the assistance of BDS-supporting NGOs.

While purportedly aimed at companies with “activities that raised particular human rights concerns” the list in fact includes those providing basic services, including transportation, banking, telecommunications, and retail, to both Israelis and Palestinians. Many of the companies are also major employers of Palestinians.

The blacklist is a political guide to boycotting Israeli companies. As such, it is inconsistent with both US Federal and a number of state laws, and has no basis in international law. Nor has the UN created comparable blacklists for other “occupations.” It therefore represents the formal adoption of the Palestinian campaign of boycotts, “anti-normalization,” and rejectionism by an international body.

Responses to the list were swift. Israel immediately suspended contacts with the High Commissioner and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “We will contest this with all of our strength.” This was echoed by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who noted the list “only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations” and added the US “has not provided, and will never provide, any information to the Office of the High Commissioner to support compilation of these lists.” The blacklist was also widely condemned by US senators, a number of governments including the Netherlands, and several major editorial boards.

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In a parallel case, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced at the end of January that it had found evidence of Israeli “war crimes” committed in Gaza and the West Bank. But in another sign that attitudes may be changing regarding the reach of unaccountable international institutions, the prosecutorial jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed in “Palestine” — and delegated by that government to the ICC — has been challenged by a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Australia. Opposition centers largely on the fact that “Palestine” is effectively asking the court to address the political question of borders and responsibilities.

The reality that BDS is a form of legalistic political warfare was demonstrated in the political sphere in February as BDS activists continued to pressure Democratic presidential candidates. At a campaign stop, an IfNotNow member goaded Senator Elizabeth Warren saying, “I’m an American Jew and I’m terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamopohobes and antisemites and white nationalists and no Democrat should legitimize that kind of bigotry by attending their annual policy conference.” Warren then stated she would not attend the conference. Senator Bernie Sanders later stated that he would not attend since he is “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” In contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden addressed the group by video.

At the same time, the number of local Democratic candidates who support BDS and characterize Israel as “racist” is increasing. One recent example in New York State is Jamaal Bowman, a challenger to long-time Israel supporter Representative Eliot Engel. In a Chicago suburb, a number of Democratic challengers have made Representative Dan Lipinski’s support for Israel a key issue, particularly with the district’s large Arab population, and the headquarters of American Muslims for Palestine, the leading BDS support group, being there.

Nevertheless, the pushback against the targeting of Israel by the UN and ICC are positive signs that political institutions not in thrall to “intersectional” ideology may be regaining the capacity to dis-aggregate and analyze issues.

In campus news, the student government at the University of Illinois adopted a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)-backed BDS resolution after six hours of contentious debate that included a sign calling pro-Israel activists Nazis. The resolution called on the university to divest from companies providing weapons to Israel and also to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immediately afterward, the university issued a statement noting that student government resolutions “are non-binding, and the university has no plans to act on this one.” The student government president also vetoed the measure.

At the University of California at Berkeley, a debate was held in the student government regarding a resolution that condemned the Bears for Palestine group for a display that celebrated three Palestinian terrorists. The meeting descended into chaos as BDS supporters stormed the room chanting “free Palestine” and then harassed and threatened Jewish students. BDS supporters later claimed they had been attacked and intimidated.

More typical BDS events in February included attacks on trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories organized by the Hillels at the University of North Carolina and at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

In other signs that BDS is a form of contemporary antisemitism, BDS supporters disrupted a talk on contemporary antisemitism by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt at the University of California at Berkeley Law School.

Fossil fuel divestment protests were held at many campuses in February, and faculty and staff groups have begun to lend support. Predictably, BDS activists have expanded efforts to hijack the fossil fuel issue by emphasizing the “connectedness of climate justice” at campus rallies, and by expressing similar support for protesters blockading transportation networks in western Canada.

Associating Israel with fossil fuels, companies doing business with ICE, and prisons are designed to increase reputational costs for risk-averse institutions.

Increasingly, all causes must offer support to BDS, as was seen recently at Harvard, where a BDS event was co-sponsored by, among others, the Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Advocacy, Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, The Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies, and Harvard for Bernie. Another recent example of a BDS demand wrapped in “intersectional” terms appeared at Rutgers University.

This atmosphere is also enforced by pronouncements from faculty, such as at CUNY Law, where a letter from faculty, students, alums, and activist groups stated opposition to the White House’s Executive Order on Antisemitism.

Using classrooms and the imprimatur of authority to make political pronouncements is in keeping with the passive-aggressive approach of most “scholar-activists.” Nevertheless, reports indicate that the Education Department will open an investigation of UCLA over safety concerns related to a recent SJP conference. Additional regional SJP conferences are planned prior to “Apartheid Week” in March.

Dr. Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs.

A version of this article was originally published by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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