The Fights Against BDS and for IHRA Converge
January was marked by unprecedented political unrest in the US, following the presidential election and rioting in Washington. The incoming Biden administration has not yet articulated its policy regarding antisemitism or BDS, but certain aspects are becoming clearer. Incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated during his confirmation hearing that he and the Biden administration are “resolutely opposed to BDS.” Nominee for US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated in her confirmation hearing that BDS is “unacceptable,” “verges on antisemitic,” and “it’s important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the UN, and I intend to work against that.”
According to one report, a Trump-era initiative to list BDS groups has been sidelined because of the transition, and internal State Department opposition. The stance of new Education Department appointees on BDS remains unclear.
Concern is rising with regard to lower-level nominees. The nomination of a former member of Students for Justice in Palestine, Maher Bitar, to head intelligence activities at the National Security Council is especially alarming. Bitar had served in the Obama administration as Director for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, as well as a lawyer for UNRWA, before becoming General Counsel for the House Intelligence Committee. A nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who espoused troubling beliefs in college, including the idea that Jews were responsible for the slave trade, unconvincingly characterized her previous stance as satire but also denounced antisemitism.
The new administration has revoked the Trump administration’s Executive Order banning “Critical Race Theory” training in Federal agencies and for Federal contractors (a move that had already been blocked by a Federal court).
The use of ethnic studies and “racial equity” by the BDS movement to generate antisemitism was demonstrated by the California “ethnic studies” curriculum — and also by comments from a University of California Riverside professor that “Most California public education administrators don’t understand how Zionism politically toxified our schools and curricula. It prevents us from teaching historical material about entire populations. This must not continue.”
At the same time, BDS is also growing at the state level. One example is the California Progressive Delegates Network, which has made opposition to any restrictions on BDS part of its vetting process for candidates it will support. In contrast, an early candidate for New York City mayor, Andrew Yang, explicitly stated that “Not only is BDS rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy.”
Elsewhere, the BDS movement in January was focused on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, alleging that Israel was shirking its responsibility to provide the vaccine to Palestinians. This allegation of “vaccine apartheid” was repeated widely in world media and among BDS supporters. This came some nine months after BDS leader Omar Barghouti issued a unique statement permitting Palestinians to take an Israeli-developed vaccine provided it did not lead to further normalization.
The allegation was repeated specifically by BDS supporters including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who stated that “it’s really important to understand Israel is a racist state and that they would deny Palestinians, like my grandmother, access to a vaccine, that they don’t believe that she’s an equal human being that deserves to live, deserves to be able to be protected by [sic] this global pandemic.”
The vaccine allegation ignored that Palestinian leaders specifically stated they did not want to receive vaccine supplies from Israel, and had made separate arrangement to receive supplies from the Russian government. Also ignored was the fact that the Oslo Accords specifically stated that Israel does not have responsibility for providing medical services to residents of the West Bank and Gaza — and that the Palestinians had explicitly turned down Israeli help.
In the political sphere, the most notable BDS development was a statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel that it was “giving up” on efforts to force the United Arab Emirates to boycott Israel. This is a recognition that Israeli-Gulf normalization, codified under the Abraham Accords, is too powerful a force to be resisted at present.
On campus and elsewhere, pushback against the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which mentions Israel, expanded. In January, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations published a letter calling on the Biden administration to continue using the IHRA definition as a guideline. This was opposed by the “Progressive Israel Network,” which stated the definition “risks wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism” and called the declaration by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” a “dangerous overreach.”
Objections were echoed by the Union for Reform Judaism, which stated that while “we strongly endorse the IHRA definition, we share concerns expressed by other supporters, both in the Jewish community and in broader civil society, that the examples appended to the definition were drafted in a time and context different from the one before us today and can obscure even as they strive to illuminate.” Similar condemnations of IHRA were heard from British lawyers and faculty members, including many BDS supporters.
The growing trend to caricature IHRA was also reflected in the debate over IHRA in the student government at the University of California at Riverside, where one student commented: “I 100% stand against anti-semitism on campus, I would just like them to not use the IHRA definition because it is anti-Palestine.”
In contrast, a new publication by the European Union details antisemitic expression from the right and left, and notes how in “certain forms of antisemitic expression, Israel may be used as a substitute for a conceived Jewish collectivity. Rather than ‘criticizing’ Israel as one might any other state, some forms of antisemitism express direct hatred exclusively against Israel or seek to apply double standards in criticizing that country.”
The student government at the University of Georgia unanimously adopted the IHRA definition. The adoption of the IHRA definition by nearby Georgia Tech, however, came after a suit against the university in the wake of the Hillel director being denied access to a BDS event. Despite the university’s adoption of the IHRA definition, Florida State’s student government will vote on a BDS resolution calling for divestment from corporations doing business in Israel.
Finally, a new report from the Israeli “human rights” organization B’Tselem renewed the easily refuted accusation that Israel is an “apartheid state” dedicated to “Jewish supremacy.” World media quickly repeated the accusation, since it presented the novel angle of an Israeli rather than Palestinian organization make the claim.
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 commentator.