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June 1, 2020 6:26 am

Despite Coronavirus, BDS Debate Continues on Campus and Elsewhere

avatar by Alexander Joffe


The campus of George Washington University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The academic year ended with colleges and universities locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The impact on BDS activities, especially Israeli Apartheid Week and Nakba Day, was significant — but incidents continued.

In an unusual case at George Washington University, an avowed BDS advocate, Ilana Feldman, was appointed interim dean at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Feldman, a Middle East specialist, was a leading supporter of a BDS initiative in the American Anthropological Association.

Pro-Israel students and groups including Hillel International immediately opposed Feldman’s appointment and called for her removal, while the college’s J Street U chapter supported it. Some commentators noted that calls for her removal mirrored those from BDS supporters regarding pro-Israel advocates, and suggested she would not be in a position to impose her views on the faculty. Others claim this ignores the chilling effect on speech and behavior that her appointment implied, as well as the potential means at her disposal to discriminate against pro-Israel students.

In a statement, however, the university responded that it officially opposed BDS and that Feldman would adhere to all existing policies. It also added that Feldman would not be a candidate for the permanent position of dean.

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In spite of the lockdown, a variety of BDS and other antisemitic incidents took place, including in student governments. At Stanford University, a student government member apologized for social media postings attacking Israel and supporting BDS, but claimed they were “taken out of context.” The student government at the University of California at Irvine also repealed a 2012 BDS resolution. This prompted bitter complaints from the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. The student government at Santa Monica College passed a resolution expressing “solidarity” with Jewish students, but after debate, declined to endorse the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

A number of SJP chapters have also rebranded Israeli Apartheid Week as Palestine Awareness Week, while presenting the same anti-Israel and antisemitic content. Antisemitic social media postings were also noted from various SJP chapters, such as at Cornell University, while the chapter at Occidental College complained bitterly regarding criticism of its posts. Traditional antisemitism was also well represented with the vandalizing of the Ohio University Hillel House and a commons room at Middlebury College.

Fallout continued at Tufts University, where the local SJP chapter was given a “Collaboration Award” by the Office of Campus Life in April, only to be disavowed by higher levels of the administration. The university’s president rejected the award — and said it never should have happened

A similar situation, where a semi- or unaccountable academic entity endorsed BDS, occurred as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) gave an award to Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University (SFSU). Abdulhadi is best known for saying that Zionists were not welcome on the SFSU campus, and for feuding angrily with the university administration over her views.

The AAUP endorsed her, saying that as “director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies Program she brings together scholars, activists, academics, and organizers to create justice-centered knowledge, build broad-based coalitions, and advance the agenda for social change in Palestine, the United States, and internationally. Her leadership transcends the division between scholarship and activism that encumbers traditional university life.”

In another example of the BDS movement claiming special rights, in this case by alleging government favoritism toward a “Zionist group,” the BDS lawfare group Palestine Legal has filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Inspector General against Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus. The complaint alleges that Marcus “deviated from established Department of Education policies and practices to carry out his career agenda of shutting down campus advocacy for Palestinian rights” by reopening a case at Rutgers University regarding an event that created a hostile environment for Jewish students.

The complaint alleges the re-investigation creates a “chilling effect” and, further, that Marcus’ advocacy of the IHRA’s “distorted definition [of antisemitism] can encompass virtually all criticism of Israel, inviting the government to unconstitutionally censor advocacy for Palestinian freedom and equality in violation of the First Amendment.”

Several BDS support groups co-signed the complaint, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

In other legal news, the far left National Lawyers Guild (NLG) settled a lawsuit with an Israeli organization that had unsuccessfully sought to place an ad in the NLG’s annual dinner journal. The NLG had refused the ad on the basis of a resolution that prohibited it from doing business with Israeli organizations. The NLG was then sued for discrimination under New York State’s human rights statutes. As part of the settlement, the NLG will display an ad from the Israeli organization on its website indefinitely, and issue guidelines regarding non-discrimination to all its chapters.

BDS continued to develop in the political and international spheres. Israeli plans to extend sovereignty or “annex” parts of the West Bank have raised the threat of government sanctions from leaders of European states and the European Union (EU). Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that the EU would work to “discourage” Israeli annexation, while reports indicate Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, and Luxembourg could support sanctions against Israel. The threat of these unspecified sanctions comes in the context of longstanding EU and more recently UN efforts to blacklist companies and individuals doing business across the “Green Line.”

Opposition to calls for EU sanctions on Israel (which must be adopted unanimously) came from Austria and Hungary, whose leaders called on Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations. But the Czech government, normally favorable to Israel, has been split on the issue. More interestingly, “annexation” has also split the Jewish communities in Britain and the US. Members of the UK Labour Party have also called for possible sanctions.

US Democrats, including senators normally favorable to Israel, have denounced the idea, while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden warned against “annexation” stating that it would “choke off any hope of peace.” At the same time, the Biden campaign released a statement aimed at the Jewish community, touting his “solidarity with Israel, combating antisemitism, and fighting for social justice pillars of his decades-long career in public service,” and condemned “the BDS movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into antisemitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.” The statement enraged the BDS movement.

For the Trump administration’s part, the State Department announced the appointment of David Peyman as Assistant Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs and Strategic Projects in the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Peyman’s responsibilities include “certain strategic projects, including the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.”

Finally, in the cultural sphere, there has been backlash against the Whitney Museum of Art for its capitulation to BDS-related demands. The institution is accused of orchestrating the resignation of a board member, Warren Kanders, the owner of a company that makes non-lethal equipment for law enforcement and security forces including the US and Israeli militaries. A radical anti-capitalist group, Decolonize This Place, led by a Palestinian-American activist, demanded the museum remove Kanders, a noted art collector and philanthropist, from its board.

Kanders was forced to resign. This has now prompted a legal effort to remove the museum’s tax exempt status with the IRS. Pro-BDS sources responded by attacking the lawsuit and alleging “anti-Palestinian bias.”

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 SPME.

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