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Cornel West, Campus Politics, and BDS

avatar by Alexander Joffe


Widener Library at Harvard University. Photo: Joseph Williams.

One of the most notable BDS related developments in March was the claim by Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West that he was “denied tenure” as a result of his support for “Palestinian rights” and an organized effort by pro-Israel forces. West, 67, had been teaching at Harvard for five years as a non-tenure track professor of practice, and had been offered a 10-year contract and substantial raise. He rejected this and announced his return to Union Theological Seminary.

West blamed the “powers that be at Harvard” for his failure to be moved to a tenure track position, and stated, “In my case, my controversial and outspoken views about and critiques of empire, capitalism, white supremacy, male supremacy, and homophobia are tolerated, but any serious engagement around the issues of the Israeli occupation are rendered highly suspect and reduced to anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice.”

While claims that anti-Israel faculty are being denied tenure are not uncommon, this incident has the appearance of using the accusation as a means of blackmailing a university during a contract renegotiation. West received considerable support from student and faculty groups, which accepted his claims without question.

Responding to criticism, West stated his willingness to debate the issue, but then failed to accept an invitation to do so.

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Celebrity academics using BDS and “Palestine” as tools for their own careers and left-wing bona fides is increasingly common. The emerging accusation “progressive except for Palestine” is a gloss on the title of Marc Lamont Hill’s new book, and is now regularly repeated in various settings.

In Britain, the parallel case of Bristol University’s David Miller, long accused of abusing students and of promoting elaborate antisemitic conspiracies, has finally produced a university investigation. Not surprisingly, hundreds of academics have expressed support for Miller, even as a separate police investigation has been opened against him regarding “a hate crime or hate incident taking place during lectures at the University of Bristol.”

In a move that reflects the BDS movement’s opportunistic “intersectional” usurpation of other causes, the National Students for Justice in Palestine umbrella organization issued a new statement of purpose, noting its aspiration “to become the central hub within occupied Turtle Island (US and Canada) for all aspects of campus-based Palestine solidarity organizing.”

The association of the Palestinian cause with that of Native Americans emerged in the past decade but has intensified in the last two years, and reflects the emphasis on “settler colonialism” that has replaced other themes in Palestinian diaspora political culture.

Controversies continued in academia regarding the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with critics regularly claiming that the working definition limits free speech, academic freedom, and is “weaponized” against critics of Israel.

Still, the definition was adopted by student governments at the University of Texas, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Georgia, and Michigan State University. Pushback intensified elsewhere, such as at the University of Minnesota, where the Hillel faced intense criticism for its support. A vote by the student union of London’s City University called for the university to overturn its adoption of the definition, and the University of Manitoba’s faculty association called on the school and all institutions not to adopt the IHRA definition. A similar move is underway by faculty at the University of Ottawa. The student government at Syracuse University also passed a bill condemning antisemitism, but only after mentions of BDS were removed.

The student government at UCLA passed a BDS resolution alleging Israel was guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” The text of the resolution, entitled “A Resolution Calling for the UC to Divest from War,’ was not released before the vote. Jewish students, faculty, and others condemned the resolution and the manner in which it was introduced. A university spokesperson also stated, “The UC system, including UCLA, has repeatedly expressed opposition to boycotting, sanctioning or divesting from Israeli institutions and remains firmly committed to that position.”

At the University of Iowa, the student government refused to create a “Jewish Constituency Senator” similar to those that represent Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American, Black, International Student, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Disability, Native American, and Veteran constituencies. The LGBTQ+ “Constituency Senator” stated he voted against the measure to avoid the appearance of “tokenism.”

In another example of how BDS supporters are brought to campuses — even by Jewish Studies programs as a function of “intellectual diversity” — a controversy has emerged at Virginia Commonwealth University over an invitation to Peter Beinart to deliver a lecture. When the local community organizations that funded the lecture protested, they were accused of “encroaching on academic freedom.”

In California, the State Board of Education finally passed the controversial Ethnic Studies curriculum, which had been severely criticized for marginalizing a variety of ethnic groups, and in the case of Jews, emphasizing their “gained racial privilege.” While overt opposition to Israel and support for the BDS movement was removed, critics continue to point to its definition of Jews as “white” and other empirical errors that are deliberately divisive with respect to race and ethnicity.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism itself continues to be a source of controversy in broader politics. A progressive Jewish group has created an alternative definition of antisemitism, which states: “Even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.” This and other vague elements deliberately elide the nature of the “contentious, strident, or harsh criticism” focused on Israel and accept the use of double standards against Israel.

Yet another alternative to the IHRA definition, the “Jerusalem Declaration,” attempts to split the difference, conceding that denying Israel the right to exist is antisemitic, but stating vaguely that, “Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a ‘double standard,’ is not, in and of itself, antisemitic.” For their part, the BDS movement rejected the new definition, and reserved use of antisemitic rhetoric, saying the declaration “risks reinforcing the impulse to decide for Palestinians and their allies what is acceptable to say about Israel and Palestinians’ lived experiences.”

BDS is also becoming a central pillar of progressive politics. One of the most recent examples is the declaration of support for BDS by almost all the Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia.

BDS also continues to serve as an issue in the New York City mayoral race. Leading candidate Andrew Yang had spoken out forcefully against BDS and called it antisemitic, but qualified that view under pressure from Muslim groups. In a recent speech to a Muslim group, Yang stated that while the BDS movement was “non-violent,” its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist made it antisemitic. A letter to the Biden administration from pro-BDS progressives in Congress called for US condemnation of Israeli actions related to “settlements” and demanding Israel vaccinate the Palestinian population.

In the international arena, New Zealand’s sovereign wealth fund announced that it would divest its tiny holdings in five Israeli banks on the grounds that “the excluded companies provide project finance for the construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is an integral aspect of settlement construction.” Critics noted that no such decision had been reached regarding the fund’s vastly larger holdings in Chinese firms. Finally, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution calling for an arms embargo against Israel. The measure received considerable European support.

A version of this article was originally published at SPME, where the author is a contributor.

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