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May 31, 2021 12:41 pm
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BDS Seizes on Israel-Hamas Fighting to Demonize the Jewish State

avatar by Alexander Joffe

Opinion

A streak of light is seen as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 16, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The academic year has ended, but the events in Jerusalem and then Gaza have prompted a dramatic upswing of BDS activities in both higher education and politics.

The Sheikh Jarrah situation escalated into violent clashes in Jerusalem and then Hamas rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli retaliation. The impacts were quickly felt globally, including on the streets of Western cities. Violent protests occurred in North America, including in Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and featured direct assaults on Jews.

Protests also occurred throughout Europe and particularly in Britain, with a tremendous upswing in reported antisemitic incidents. These included death threats aimed at Jewish students at University College London, the beating of a rabbi near Essex, and various protests and car convoys, with one in London featuring cries of “fuck Jews, rape their daughters.” Assaults on individual Jews and Israelis also occurred in Los Angeles and New York, as well as at the University of New Mexico, where an Israeli student was attacked.

Less violent responses appeared throughout academia, notably dozens of rallies and quickly issued statements condemning Israel, its creation, and existence, and calling for boycotts of the Jewish state.

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Typical was the “emergency statement” issued by the student government at the University of Michigan, condemning Israel — beginning with its “displacement of indigenous Palestinians in 1948” through the current unrest. The statement also condemned the student government’s alleged “prior complicity with Israel’s violence through participation in events such as yearly trips to Israel that supported the settler-state in its apartheid and occupation,” and called for support of the BDS movement. Upon protests from Jewish and Israeli students, student officers clarified that the “statement was made solely by the executive team due the time-sensitive nature of the issue and the fact that the executive team runs the CSG social media platform.”

A similar statement by the Louisiana State University student government demanded a “March for Palestine,” while at Stanford University, pro-Palestinian students condemned what purported to be an anodyne  email from the student government disapproving of violence on all sides. The Trinity College (Dublin) student government, in association with the school’s BDS group, issued a similar demand for a boycott.

A student petition at Harvard demanded the school condemn Israeli “excessive use of force” and called for boycotts of Israeli firms, while a Harvard faculty statement demanded an “an end to US support for Israel’s apartheid regime.”

The McGill University student newspaper issued a ‘”statement in solidarity with Palestine” expressing support for “Palestinian civilians who are being forced out of their homes, violently attacked by Zionist occupation forces, and bombed in the Gaza Strip,” and opposing the “settler colonial Zionist occupation of Palestinian land and systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which is grounded in and funded by western imperialism.”

Faculty efforts also expanded the pro-Palestinian cause. A petition at Brown University circulated by faculty as well as students, accused Israel of “state-backed settler brutal violence against Palestinian citizens in Israel,” and for the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. The University College London faculty issued a statement of condemnation and called for a boycott, as did faculty and students at Princeton University, whose statement did not mention Hamas.

Faculty members at the Northwestern University branch in Qatar circulated a similar letter expressing “full support” for Palestinians “who are fighting against continued forced displacement and for their inalienable rights and dignity.”

Rejecting even-handedness and Palestinian agency, faculty members at mid-Atlantic universities issued a statement saying, “We condemn all violence against civilians and mourn all loss of life, but reject the prevalent ‘two-sides’ narrative that ignores differences between one of the most heavily militarized states in the world and a stateless population resisting oppression.” A statement signed by more than 3,000 global academics also made clear that their political intervention was justified since, “[s]cholarship without action normalizes the status quo and reinforces Israel’s impunity.”

Predictably, the board of the Middle East Studies Association issued a condemnation, as did a group of Israel Studies and Jewish Studies faculty, who noted how Zionist and European “paradigms, as implemented by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in twentieth-century Palestine, have erected unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.”

The University of California Press issued a statement in support of “Palestinian liberation.” More disturbing still were a letter from a New York City middle school principal to teachers and staff imploring them to “take action today by protesting, attending a vigil, making a public commitment to Palestinian Liberation, signing a petition, or calling your government officials to place sanctions on Isreal (sic),” and resolutions by United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and the United Educators of San Francisco, calling for a complete end of US aid to Israel and the adoption of the BDS platform.

Compounding this was a “Gender Studies Departments In Solidarity With Palestinian Feminist Collective” statement that “Palestine is a feminist issue,” which was signed by dozens of academic departments. It also states a series of demands, including the “right to return” as well as “refusal to tolerate censorship or retribution against Palestinian scholars,” which in effect demands that Palestinian antisemitism be accepted.

A statement by architecture and urban planning organizations condemned Israel, demanded BDS, and made the goal of politicizing educational settings clear, saying, “We welcome this change and its impact on curricula, studios, and lecture series across the world as architects and planners begin to center anti-racist, social justice and political liberation movements.”

The various petitions and statements reflect the mapping of American racial categories onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This equation was formally endorsed by the Black Lives Matter movement, which stated it was committed to “ending settler colonialism in all forms and will continue to advocate for Palestinian liberation.”

Expressions by members of the media, such as condemnation of Israel by late night personalities John Oliver and Trevor Noah, the letter signed by 1,500 Canadian journalists accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” or a tweet (quickly withdrawn) by the New Yorker magazine staff union calling for “Solidarity with Palestinians from the river to the sea,” suggests the depth to which anti-Israel sentiment has become rooted in class sensibilities.

The traditional media also sought to control the narrative, as demonstrated when The New York Times initially rejected an ad remonstrating Bella Hadid and singer Dua Lipa for supporting Hamas. For her part, Lipa, who had previously refused to perform in Israel, played the victim and stated “this is the price you pay for defending Palestinian human rights.”

Shaping the conflict in terms of the master narrative of Palestinian victims and Israeli victimizer, now set in racial terms — and pioneered by the Nation of Islam –has long been the goal of the BDS movement.

Relentless focus on Palestinian casualties, claims that antisemitic violence is dramatically exaggerated, and shifting the focus to exacerbate splits within the American Jewish community, are other means of maintaining control over the narrative and seeking to undermine Israel.

More broadly, the fact that Swedish environmental personality Greta Thunberg, Pakistani women’s advocate Malala, and American porn star Mia Khalifa all tweeted about Gaza is an indication that an unusual preference cascade — in which people think how they “ought to” or are expected to think — is underway. The apparent cascade towards Palestine (visible in the street and especially on social media) as a — or, even the — centerpiece of intersectional advocacy indicates the parameters of progressive and thence middle class ideology.

Opposition to Israel has trickled upward through the racial politics that dominate the Democratic Party. Predictably during the Gaza conflict, the progressive, BDS-supporting caucus in Congress vocally condemned Israel. Racializing the conflict and legitimizing Palestinian violence was key to the “Squad’s” presentation. Islamist Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) deemed Israel an “apartheid government,” while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) stated, “As a black woman in America, I am no stranger to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. We have been criminalized for the very way we show up in the world… Palestinians are being told the same thing as black folks in America: there is no acceptable form of resistance.”

These statements were followed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who proposed legislation to cut off aid and a suspension of arms sales to Israel. Conversely, Democrats blocked a bill sanctioning Hamas and other terrorist groups. A letter from some 500 Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee workers demanding “justice for Palestinians” gives a wider view of the party’s grassroots sentiments.

The author is a scholar at SPME, where a version of this article was originally published.

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