The Fall Semester Begins — and So Does BDS
The fall semester begins this year with higher education in limbo. Colleges and universities are split between virtual and in-person semesters, with the latter balanced on a knife’s edge. How this will affect BDS activities is unclear, but even virtual classes and especially social activities are vulnerable to BDS disruption.
The most notable BDS controversy in academia during August was the fallout from the resignation of several Jewish student government members at the University of Southern California (USC). Previous reports had focused on one student who had been harassed by BDS supporters and was accused of being a “racist” with “blood on her hands” for being a Zionist and vocal supporter of Israel.
In response, the president of USC condemned the antisemitic attacks on the student and announced a series of educational initiatives. Further reporting indicated that at least three Jewish members of student government have been forced out after campaigns led by local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members. The incident is the latest in a pattern of purging Jews from student government that includes UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, the University of Michigan, Williams College, and McGill University. The purges have been led by Arab and Muslim students associated with SJP chapters. The purges, and the larger campaigns to shift campus culture against Israel and Jews, are explicitly presented as “anti-racist” and are thus unquestionable if not sacrosanct.
Fallout continued from an episode at Florida State University, where the student government leader narrowly survived a no confidence vote after making antisemitic statements, while a practicing Christian member of student government was forced to resign for pro-life statements. In response to these episodes, the president of Florida State issued another statement formally adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism. This followed the student government’s adoption of a similar resolution in July.
At the same time, an SJP petition at the University of Connecticut called on the school to end its study abroad program in Israel on the basis of alleged discrimination against BDS supporters. The university president later met with opponents of the petition, and indicated there will be no change in the school’s policies.
In California, the controversial “ethnic studies” requirement for the California high school and California State University system was approved and signed into law by the governor, ignoring protests from Jewish and other minority groups.
Fallout also continued over the forced resignation of Rabbi Daniel Lehmann as president of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at Berkeley. Lehmann was installed in October 2018 but resigned in February 2020 with virtually no public notice. New reports suggest that local supporters of the BDS group Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and Berkeley Islamists, led by BDS notable Hatem Bazian, spearheaded a campaign against Lehmann over his opposition to BDS and support for Israel. This followed up on early opposition to Lehmann’s appointment from notorious antisemite Alison Weir of the group “If Americans Knew.”
A letter from GTU alums and associates attacked Lehmann as “a self-described Zionist who openly expressed Islamophobic and racist anti-Palestinian views,” and specifically referenced his criticism of Bazian. Lehmann resigned a month after the letter was published, but the near total silence surrounding the affair strongly suggests he reached a settlement with the institutions and is bound by a non-disclosure agreement.
Among the most important developments in August were the primary victories of BDS supporters in the House of Representatives. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) survived well-funded challenges from Israel-supporting candidates, while newcomer Cori Bush won a Democratic primary in St. Louis. Omar was endorsed by IfNotNow, while Tlaib had raised over $2 million for her campaign. Each will face weaker opponents in the November election. Jamaal Bowman, who defeated incumbent Eliot Engel in a closely watched New York Democratic race, has also declared his opposition to the Israeli “occupation,” and there is speculation he might support BDS measures in the House.
In addition to the growth of the BDS caucus in the House, all three Democratic candidates vying to replace Eliot Engel as head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — Brad Sherman of California, Joaquin Castro, of Texas, and Gregory Meeks of New York — have expressed opposition to US aid to Israel being used for “annexation.” While Sherman and Meeks are longtime Israel supporters, Castro is not, but overall their stances represent the growing Democratic consensus that “annexation” is illegitimate and would destroy a two-state solution.
The disconnect over Israel between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the senior members who wrested back control was also on display in August. Reports suggest that former vice president Joe Biden himself led the pushback against BDS support within the party and the platform. The platform expresses support for the two-state solution, final status negotiations over Jerusalem, and opposes BDS, “while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.” It contains no references to the “occupation.”
At the party’s televised convention, leading BDS supporter and Sanders surrogate Linda Sarsour appeared briefly. Immediately following Sarsour’s appearance, a Biden spokesman quickly noted that “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of antisemitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform,” adding that Sarsour “has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
That grassroots level attitudes regarding BDS have already shifted was also on display in New York, where the Democratic Socialists of America issued a statement asking candidates, among other things, “Do you pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to City Council in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation?” The request for a “pledge” was widely condemned by members of the city and state governments, including mayor Bill de Blasio.
BDS efforts to “anti-normalize” even the most mainstream Jewish organizations were seen in the campaign to “Drop the ADL,” spearheaded by American Muslims for Palestine, IfNotNow, CAIR, the Movement for Black Lives, the American Friends Service Committee, and a host of others. Building on the false accusation that Israeli training is responsible for police violence in the US, the groups allege that the ADL has “a history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, perpetrators of state violence,” and that it had an “ongoing legacy of supporting racist policing, surveillance, colonialism, and the silencing of social justice activism.” The ADL refuted the allegations in a statement, but refrained from addressing the underlying antisemitism.
Finally, the novel factor that will shape BDS in the fall semester and going forward is the normalization agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. BDS leaders unironically decried the move as a “sell-out” to a “dictatorship” that legitimized Israeli “oppression,” while academic supporters of BDS stated the agreement “makes the chance of a just, equitable and sustainable peace much, much, much harder.” Maintaining the dominance of the Palestinian issue in academia will become somewhat more difficult when measured against the reality of expanding peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries. The likely tone will therefore be more shrill and hysterical, with even greater “intersectional” comparisons in order to elide essential differences.
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, where the author is a writer and scholar.