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March 1, 2021 1:36 pm

IHRA Definition of Antisemitism Becomes a BDS Battleground

avatar by Alexander Joffe


A BDS protest in front of Carnegie Hall. Photo: Liberate Art.

BDS activities on campus intensified rapidly as colleges and universities began resuming in-person instruction. Demonstrating the opportunistic nature of BDS, was a petition at the University of Illinois’ School of Public Health to cut ties with Israeli institutions and bar an Israeli speaker due to the “discriminatory health practices of apartheid Israel.”

Meanwhile, the student government at the University of California at Irvine passed a BDS resolution by an overwhelming margin. The resolution stated, “we’d like to note that this is in no way related to Judaism,” but added: “We would also like to note the distinction between the Israeli apartheid and Judaism, while Jewish history is intertwined with Israeli history, the current political and physical violence committed against Palestinians is not related to Judaism.” The university administration immediately stated that “the bill does not reflect the university’s view,” and that no university operations or investments would be changed. A pro-BDS and anti-IHRA bill introduced in the Florida State University student government was rejected.

At the University of Toronto, a student “judicial” panel ruled that the graduate student union could not use student fees to promote BDS. The panel also recommended that the fee used to support the “BDS Caucus” should be refundable. Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the Canadian Federation of Students regarding student fees used to support BDS is also underway. At McGill University, however, a divestment bill using the language of “human rights” was introduced in the student government in order to circumvent a 2017 “judicial” decision that BDS was unconstitutional.

Pushback against the IHRA definition of antisemitism also intensified in February. A discussion hosted by the leading BDS organization IfNotNow laid out the stakes, stating, “the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been destroying the progressive movement.”

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Angrily claiming that BDS and hatred of Israel are not antisemitism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, various “human rights” groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and Jewish groups such as J Street, the New Israel Fund, and American Friends of Peace Now, use opposition to IHRA as a means to consolidate institutional power, split Jews and liberals, and legitimize opposition to the definition.

Misrepresenting the IHRA definition is critical to this approach — especially in higher education. At Syracuse University, a motion in the student government to adopt the IHRA definition was tabled due to allegations that it conflated antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

At University College London (UCL) the student union rejected calls for the university to rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition. Jewish students also complained that the debate had been scheduled for Holocaust Remembrance Day. In contrast, a faculty board at UCL rejected the definition, demanding the administration “retract and replace [IHRA] with a more precise definition” that presumably does not include mention of Israel. The faculty decision prompted the angry resignation of a faculty member specializing in antisemitism, who accused some of his colleagues in Jewish Studies of spearheading the assault on the IHRA definition.

Other examples in the UK include Bristol University professor David Miller, who has a long history of antisemitic abuse of students and overt anti-Israel hatred. Most recently, Miller was condemned by students, the university, and others for demanding “the end of Zionism as a functioning ideology” and for alleging that “Jewish students on British campuses [are] being used as political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing,” and that Jewish student “lobbying for Israel is a threat to the safety of Arab and Muslim students as well as of Jewish students and indeed of all critics of Israel.”

An American counterpart to Miller is Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University, who claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement supports the “dismantling of the Zionist project.” Hill also stated that Israel was a “settler-colonial movement in Palestine” which was responsible for police violence in the US.

In the international sphere, the most important BDS-related development was the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to initiate an investigation into alleged Israeli “war crimes” against “Palestine.” The decision was the outcome of a long process initiated by the Palestinian Authority, and urged on by various BDS and terrorist groups. The decision was firmly denounced by the US, European states, and political figures.

In the political sphere, the Biden administration embraced the IHRA definition. At the same time, the refusal of White House spokesperson Jen Psaki to formally condemn the BDS movement and other moves, such as rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council, leave its record unclear, as have the appointments of officials such as Reema Dodin and Uzra Zeye.

Perhaps more telling, however, is the appearance of BDS as an issue in local elections, notably the New York City mayoral race. When surveyed, most of the leading mayoral candidates stated they would visit Israel and expressed opposition to BDS, but none would say whether they support New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order banning state entities from doing business with entities that boycott Israel.

Leading candidate Andrew Yang had previously described BDS as “rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses.” But Yang’s opposition to BDS has been challenged by pro-BDS elements including Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activists, who angrily complained that Yang had “compared Palestinians to Nazis.”

BDS has even appeared as a progressive bludgeon in the race for New York City Council. The controversy arose in the context of the Queens DSA branch’s questionnaire asking candidates to commit to not participating in trips to Israel and to explain whether or not they supported BDS. Leading candidate Soma Syed condemned the DSA’s “anti-semitic rhetoric,” “reckless policies,” and “tendencies for bad ideas.” The question of BDS reappeared during a debate between the various candidates.

In the legal sphere, a Federal appeals court in Arkansas ruled that the state’s 2019 anti-BDS law was unconstitutional. The court held that the law was too broad and could not be applied to state contractors outside the scope of specific contractual relationships, and returned the particular case to a lower court. BDS supporters including the ACLU, which brought the suit, hailed the decision, while opponents suggested that legislators could narrow the law’s language in order to meet the court’s standard.

The author is a contributor to SPME, where a version of this article was originally published.

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