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January 5, 2021 4:56 am

The Fight Against BDS Enters 2021

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The year 2020 saw the BDS movement pushed back to academia and progressive politics. The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan has highlighted Palestinian rejectionism — including by the BDS movement. While the Palestinians and their supporters have been attacking these countries, it’s clear that BDS does not have momentum in the Arab world.

The incoming Biden administration’s policies are unclear with regard to these countries, as well as its explicit stances regarding BDS and antisemitism. As a follow up to the Trump administration’s promise to help stop the funding of BDS organizations, BDS opponents are urging the administration to publish a list as a means of challenging the next administration.

The November election saw the pro-BDS caucus led by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) enlarged in the House of Representatives. Intersectional support for BDS as one of many progressive causes is now often taken for granted. This was reinforced by the appearance of Tlaib, Omar, and Betty McCollum (D-MN) at the annual conference of the leading US-BDS sponsor group, American Muslims for Palestine. One new progressive representative, however, Ritchie Torres of New York, has made it clear that he will oppose BDS.

The key Foreign Affairs Committee chair — previously held by strongly pro-Israel Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) — has gone to Gregory Meeks of New York. Meeks is generally considered pro-Israel, but has expressed opposition to American aid going to Israeli communities across the Green Line.

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The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has emerged as a key guideline for organizations and states, including European countries and educational institutions, to understand harassment, intimidation, and denigration of Jews and supporters of Israel.

In Britain, the IHRA definition has been adopted by the universities of Birmingham, Exeter, Oxford, and Sheffield, as well as by a number of football clubs in the top tier Premier League, with the exception of Sheffield United.

In academia, the IHRA definition has been controversial, with critics accusing it and its supporters of undermining academic freedom and free speech protections. Students at a variety of British universities, for example, have demanded their institutions not adopt the definition. Not surprisingly, this is the position of the BDS movement, which has orchestrated a growing series of attacks, including a letter from students and staff at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, which claims the IHRA definition conflates Jewish identity and Zionism, and silences critics of Israel. The call to revoke the IHRA definition was echoed by the school’s Arab American Cultural Center.

Similar demands were issued by the legal arm of the US BDS movement, Palestine Legal, which called on Florida State University to revoke its endorsement of the IHRA definition and apologize for criticism of a Palestinian-American student who had made hateful statements regarding Israel.

A faculty senate at the University College London had scheduled a vote on revoking the institution’s adoption of the IHRA definition, but the meeting was delayed. Similar moves are underway at Kings College London. The moves come as a new report detailing antisemitism directed at Jewish students and supporters of Israel at British universities was released. In an example of how serious the situation has become, one university voluntarily refunded school fees to a Jewish student after a school panel upheld his claims that students and faculty had created a “toxic antisemitic environment” because of his support for Israel. A similarly hostile environment has been documented in America at San Francisco State University, which was recently riled by the thwarted appearance of designated terrorist Leila Khaled at a campus event via Zoom.

Problematically, a number of radical Jewish organizations and academics have stated their opposition to the IHRA definition, including Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, deeming it a tool that has been “weaponized” against critics of Israel.

BDS on campus ended the semester with a “deadly exchange” referendum, passed overwhelmingly by the Tufts University student body. Despite documented irregularities, the student electoral authorities certified the referendum. The sponsoring SJP chapter called the referendum an “enormous victory in our struggle against white supremacy and militarism on Tufts campus and globally.” A university representative, however, stated the institution was “disappointed in the result of the referendum, which mischaracterized the university’s approach to public safety and policing,” and added Tufts “will not be taking action in response to the vote’s outcome.”

“Cancel culture” related to BDS was also on display at McGill University, where Muslim and pro-BDS students called on the institution to revoke the emeritus status of retired anthropology professor Philip Carl Salzman, accusing him of making offensive statements regarding Islam and Middle Eastern culture. The students alleged further that “Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context” and that “the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness.” The university rebuffed the attacks on Salzman, who undertook anthropological fieldwork in Iran for several decades.

In the coming year, the BDS movement can be expected to refocus its attacks on free speech, claiming that being pro-Israel is not only offensive, but harmful to students — along with promoting the ideas that Zionism is “white supremacy” and that Jews possess unearned “white privilege” that negates their experiences of discrimination.

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 contributor.

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