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Normalization Throws a Wrench Into BDS

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The most important BDS development in September was the signing of normalization agreements by Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Intense “outside in” diplomacy by the Trump administration brought decades of covert relations into the open and changed the geopolitical map of the Middle East. The deal temporarily delays the extension of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, brings two Gulf states firmly into the now-public Sunni alliance against Iran, and creates a new Middle East economy that couples Gulf and Israeli money and brainpower.

Palestinian leadership and the BDS movement reacted to these developments with shock and horror, accusing Gulf leaders of “selling out” Palestinians and redoubling calls to boycott Israel. European leaders were more circumspect, expressing approval but issuing urgent reminders that the Palestinian issue was also paramount. Arab commentators noted, however, that Palestinian rejectionism was repeating mistakes of the past and, in the process, further diminishing Arab support and the possibility of a state.

By cutting the Palestinian issue down to a small territorial dispute and exposing its claims of being the pivotal global refugee problem as false, the BDS movement finds itself in a bind. The elevation of the Palestinian issue into the supreme moral issue that demands criticism and ostracizing of Israel and its supporters, above all Jews, was always excessive but now appears obsessive if not overtly deranged and antisemitic.

The peace agreements apparently took the BDS movement by surprise, which has predictably increased its already robust alliances with Black Lives Matter and other oppositional causes. This strategy has been most visible on campus, where the BDS movement had long been the pioneer of “cancel culture,” a trend that has expanded in every direction.

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At Columbia University, the student body voted on and approved a BDS referendum. During the run-up to the vote, a group opposed to BDS, Students Supporting Israel, purchased an ad in the student newspaper which was then distributed via a mailing list. But two hours after the ad appeared, the newspaper removed it, calling it “clearly inappropriate” and promising “such material” would never appear again. Positively, the university president expressed his opposition to the referendum and its impact on campus life, stating the institution would not change its investment policies.

A BDS resolution was also approved in the student government at the University of Illinois-Urbana. The SJP-authored resolution, which was strategically situated inside a resolution opposing “anti-black violence,” called for the university to divest from companies such as Caterpillar, which — in a novel invocation of environmentalism — is “play[ing] a role in erasing the indigenous character of Palestine by clearing thousands of acres of biodiverse native habitat replacing them with non-native forests.” It also called for “one student representative from Students for Justice in Palestine” to participate in a university task force “charged with divesting from corporations and index funds that violate human rights and reinvest in socially and environmentally responsible companies and index funds.”

The trap for university administrations created by radically pro-Palestinian faculty and the subsequent legitimization of antisemitism was on display at San Francisco State University. The invitation from the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora program to Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled to appear via the Internet on an anti-Israel panel created a huge backlash directed at the university. Khaled, a convicted airplane hijacker and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an organization responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in Israel and Europe, was invited to appear alongside members of the African National Congress, the Black Liberation Army, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The invitation put the university administration in the position of defending the event or risk confronting its faculty and students. Critics pointed out that Khaled’s appearance was likely in violation of US law, specifically material support for terrorism, and requests were made to the Justice Department to investigate the event. But 48 hours before the event, the Zoom platform stated, “In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event.” The event was switched to Facebook, which also blocked the event. It then moved to YouTube, which abruptly cut off the transmission as Khaled began to speak. Some at the university and BDS supporters were outraged at the outcome, characterizing it as “censorship,” while opponents of the event expressed satisfaction.

The Khaled invitation was complemented by the appointment of Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Erekat’s appointment came after the Palestinian Authority was revealed to have donated $2.6 million to the institution, which gave the appearance of a quid pro quo.

Amidst all this, the direct impact of rising antisemitism prompted in part by BDS has become inescapable both on and off campus. They now include the burning of the University of Delaware Chabad House and several other arson attempts, and the defacing of a Kenosha, Wisconsin synagogue with the words “free Palestine” during BLM-related rioting.

Another notable campus trend is demands for “anti-racist” transformations of institutions, on to which BDS has grafted itself. One example came at Cornell University in a faculty-student letter calling for an “anti-racist Cornell”; demanding, among other things, that the university address “Cornell Tech’s involvement in the gentrification of Queens and, through its institutional partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the military occupation of Palestine.”

In another example at Fordham University, the Black Student Alliance demanded, along with hiring additional Black faculty members and cutting ties with the New York City Police Department, that the university apologize to the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

Demands for incorporation of “critical race theory,” which can include anti-Israel and antisemitic content, into pedagogy via mandatory college and high school courses have also escalated, as has accusing and even punishing critics. At the same time, the intense publicity surrounding “critical race theory” and its various crypto-pedagogical manifestations such as the 1619 Project have resulted in much higher levels of scrutiny.

This blurring of academia, pedagogy, and politics is a longstanding characteristic of the BDS movement and its intersectional allies. In another unusually public alliance, a leading US supporter of BDS, American Muslims for Palestine, held a joint event with a representative of UNRWA who was slated to speak on “legislative advocacy.” Though a representative denied that the agency supported BDS, the goals of lobbyists for the internationally-funded Palestinian welfare agency that advocates the “right of return” are transparent.

Finally, in the political sphere, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) withdrew from an event commemorating the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sponsored by Americans for Peace Now after criticism from BDS supporters. The tone of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks suggested she was unfamiliar with Rabin. Liberal Democrats expressed disappointment at the move.

Alexander Joffe is a contributor to SPME, where a version of this article first appeared.

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