BDS Faces Setbacks Amid New Political Landscape
The November election produced a mixed result for the BDS movement. The pro-BDS faction in the House of Representatives was enlarged, but large gains for Republicans in the House and in state elections portends continued opposition. The reelection of the “Squad,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) was expected. This BDS-supporting bloc has been augmented by the election of Democrat Cori Bush of Missouri.
In contrast, one newly elected progressive Democrat, Ritchie Torres of New York, has spoken strongly in favor of Israel and a two state solution. Torres, a gay Afro-Latino, noted that “pink-washing” attacks on him for participating in a trip to Israel had been shocking, but impelled him to investigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more deeply.
A Senate runoff election in January pits two Democrats against two Republicans for control of the Senate. One of the Democrats, Rev. Raphael Warnock, in the past signed a letter that alleged that Israel was an “apartheid state,” and made the accusation that the “government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.” He says that he supports Israel, and favors a two-state solution. Warnock also defended the notorious Rev. Jeremiah Wright and invited a Farrakhan-linked minister to his congregation on numerous occasions.
Biden’s presumptive cabinet repudiates progressives and mostly includes veterans such as Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, who have held close to the Clinton-era consensus on Israel. Other staff appointments are more problematic, including Reema Dodin, appointed deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs. Dodin, a Palestinian-American, was a student BDS activist at the University of California at Berkeley, who reportedly defended suicide bombings before attending law school and becoming a Congressional staff member.
In a manifestation of pressure from the far-left, BDS leader Linda Sarsour and other faith-based activists expressed preemptive disappointment with the Biden team, including for the candidate’s criticism of her support for BDS. Referring to current State Department efforts to combat BDS, Representative Rashida Tlaib also greeted news of Blinken’s appointment with the demand that he not “suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies.”
The involvement of Sarsour and other far-left groups supporting BDS, including the nominally Jewish Bend the Arc, show that BDS and other progressive causes remain firmly linked. Omar’s condemnation of Israeli “ethnic cleansing” after the dismantling of an unauthorized Bedouin encampment in a military firing zone signals further that she and others will not refrain from attacks on Israel. Separately, 41 Democrats including Texas’ Joaquin Castro, who is a candidate to lead the Foreign Affairs Committee, signed a letter condemning the Israeli action.
At the international level, the US has undertaken steps that have fundamentally changed the geopolitics surrounding BDS. During a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “We want to stand with all other nations that recognize the B.D.S. movement for the cancer that it is.” He added that the US “will immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw U.S. government support for such groups.” Pompeo also announced that the US would describe goods made in Israeli communities across the Green Line as being “Made in Israel.”
The BDS movement expressed outrage at the administration’s decisions, as did “human rights” organizations, one of which claimed that the move would undermine the fight against antisemitism, which it claimed emanated only from the right.
Press reports described initial contacts between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as warm. A Biden administration would be hard pressed to reverse the Trump administration’s decisions related to BDS or others, such as the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem or the listing on passports of “Jerusalem, Israel,” as the birthplace for US citizens. Palestinian Authority spokesmen have demanded a Biden administration reverse these and other moves, but noted they would settle for the cancellation of the Deal of the Century and the resumption of direct financial aid.
In Britain, the Labour Party’s complex antisemitism crisis, which began with BDS in student clubs at universities, has reached a new level. After the suspension of former party leader Jeremy Corbyn for tolerating pervasive antisemitism within the party, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued its long-awaited report that documented how Labour under Corbyn had unlawfully treated accusations of antisemitism.
But in a series of bizarre turns, in November Corbyn issued a non-apology and was readmitted to the party by the central leadership only three weeks after having been suspended. Party leader Keir Starmer then refused to permit Corbyn to participate as a member of the party in Parliament, meaning that Corbyn effectively remains an independent. This unleashed a torrent of antisemitic abuse from Corbyn supporters, again proving the party’s systemic antisemitism.
In the academic sphere, the University of Illinois addressed a recently filed complaint in which Jewish students alleged the institution had permitted their harassment and intimidation by BDS supporters. The university statement noted that “For many Jewish students, Zionism is an integral part of their identity and their ethnic and ancestral heritage,” and that “While we may not agree on all aspects of these complex and critical issues, we are united in a single view that our shared and common goal must be to support a safe and welcoming environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students at the University of Illinois that is free of discrimination and harassment. … Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at this university.”
The complaint with the Department of Education remains under investigation. Jewish faculty members were sharply divided about the complaint, with one faction, led by a BDS supporter, stating that the allegation was false.
The agreement offers a model for other universities to support rhetorically and perhaps administratively Jewish and other allies of Israel. It is one of several positive indicators, along with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism being adopted by many more universities in November, including Cambridge University, Pace, Brooklyn College, Lancaster University, Manchester Metropolitan, Buckingham New University, and Warwick University, and the revised California ethnic studies rubric, which states “Antisemitism is hatred, discrimination, fear, and prejudice against Jews based on stereotypes and myths that target their ethnicity, culture, religion, traditions, right to self-determination, or connection to the State of Israel.”
Elsewhere on campus, the student government at San Francisco State University overwhelmingly adopted a BDS resolution. The General Union of Palestinian students, the organization from which most SJPs grew, authored the resolution. The president of the university stated her regret about the resolution and the manner in which it “flattens an incredibly complex historical and current geopolitical issue into misleading binaries.”
At Tufts University a referendum co-authored by the local SJP chapter would ban university police from attending international trips as a means to “demilitarize” the campus. More broadly, the local SJP falsely alleged that such police exchanges transferred “Israeli military tactics for intelligence gathering, border security and forceful suppression of protest.”
The problem of SJP chapters hosting individuals and organizations under sanction by the US Government continued, with San Francisco State University attempting to host Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist Leila Khaled via Zoom — which did not happen. The platform similarly refused to host Khaled for a session at the University of Hawaii. Jewish groups in the UK condemned a similar session with Khaled at Leeds University hosted by a BDS group.
The Middle East Studies Association decried efforts to thwart Khaled’s talks as infringements on academic freedom. In an ironic turn, students at Rice University demanded the university rescind an invitation to Zoom’s CEO as punishment for the platform’s “censorship” of Khaled.
Alexander H. 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 an analyst.