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July 1, 2021 12:10 pm

Anti-Israel Activism Expands on Campus and Elsewhere

avatar by Alexander Joffe


The B. Altman & Company Building housing the City University of New York Graduate Center in New York City. Photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia.

BDS activities in June were marked by continued condemnations of Israel from a variety of faculty and student groups, unions, and others. Overall more than 100 departments, programs, and faculty groups have issued condemnations of Israel, typically accusing it of “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” being a “settler-colonial state,” endorsing the “Palestinian right to return,” and equating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with injustice against African-Americans.

Characteristic was a statement by the faculty union at the City University of New York, which issued a condemnation of “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state’’ and Israel’s “expansionism and violent incursions into occupied territories.” The resolution also directs chapters to “facilitate discussions” about supporting BDS. No mention was made of Hamas.

As questions emerged regarding the condemnations of Israel, accusations of “censorship” were immediate.

One example was the African American Studies department at Penn State University, which issued a statement condemning “Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid in solidarity with Palestinians’ struggle for liberation,” “Jewish supremacy,” and stating, “we join calls from the Black Lives Matter Movement to recognize that the struggle against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence is interconnected with anti-Palestinian violence and that Afro Palestinians have born the brunt of dispossession and rightlessness while also speaking out against police terror in Jerusalem.

The university administration then requested the department take down the statement, but the statement quickly was restored after complaints that the intervention was an example of the “Palestine exception,” which “censors” speech about “Palestine.”

Most ominous were anti-Israel condemnations that explicitly called for the politicization of classrooms. A statement called “Palestine & Praxis” characterized the conflict as “the Palestinian struggle as an indigenous liberation movement confronting a settler colonial state” and described Israel as “a brute force that enshrines territorial theft and the racial supremacy of Jewish-Zionist nationals.”

Accusing Israel of various crimes, the statement redefines scholarship by saying, “We recognize our role and responsibility as scholars to theorize, read, and write on the very issues unfolding in Palestine and among all oppressed nations today. Scholarship without action normalizes the status quo and reinforces Israel’s impunity.”

It then states:

  • In the classroom and on campus, we commit to
    • Pressuring our academic institutions and organizations to respect the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel by instating measures that remove complicity and partnership with military, academic, and legal institutions involved in entrenching Israel’s policies.
    • Supporting student activism on campus, including, but not limited to sponsoring joint events and holding our universities’ accountable for violations of academic freedom.
    • Highlighting Palestinian scholarship on Palestine in syllabi, our writing, and through invitation of Palestinian scholars and community members to speak at departmental and university events.
    • Extending the above approach to any and all indigenous scholars within the university, and any Indigenous communities within the vicinity.
    • Centering Indigenous analyses in teaching and drawing links to intersectional oppression and transnational liberation movements.
  • In our research, we will actively
    • Include Palestine as a space and place worthy of substantive and historical integration into critical theory, not only as a case in a list of colonial examples.
    • Work to engage methods which highlight and elevate the voices and experiences of the places and moments we study over our own positions.
  • In places where we reside, we will
    • Support community efforts and legislation to pressure our governments to end funding Israeli military aggression.

Several hundred scholars from a variety of disciplines from Anthropology and History, to Music and Theater, signed the statement.

The Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association issued a similar statement, condemning Israel and decrying “settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and racial capitalism that connect the United States and Israel.” The statement also made explicit demands regarding pedagogy:

We call on our colleagues in their classrooms, universities, and beyond to:

  • Reject the “two-sides” narrative that erases power hierarchies.
  • Recognize the framework of apartheid as applicable to describe Israel’s systematic repression of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel’s 1948 boundaries.
  • Recognize that Israel’s violent repression often constitutes crimes against humanity.
  • Reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which has been used by Israel’s supporters to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel

The statement therefore rejects the academic ideal of objectivity, implies that Israel’s formation and existence is a priori a “crime against humanity,” and implicitly accuses critics of using the IHRA antisemitism definition as a shield.

A similarly sweeping condemnation was issued by a group of journalists. The statement accused the profession of abandoning its “core principles” of “finding truth and holding the powerful to account” by promoting “a narrative that obscures the most fundamental aspects of the story: Israel’s military occupation and its system of apartheid.”

It cites “power asymmetry” between Israel and the Palestinians as justification for abandoning objective reporting, and concludes on a revealing note: “We have an obligation — a sacred one — to get the story right. Every time we fail to report the truth, we fail our audiences, our purpose and, ultimately, the Palestinian people.”

Over 500 journalists signed the statement, from both mainstream and radical publications, such as The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune, New Yorker, New York magazine, Condé Nast, TIME, NPR, NBC, and ABC. The signatories also included many individuals who refused to be named.

The further implications of these statements and many others are vast. Contradictory information and viewpoints are automatically dismissed and derided by ideological politics designed to homogenize the worldview of information consumers. This stark polarization inevitably creates gaps between reality and ideology — and the unintended result is the accelerating erosion of trust in key institutions, namely education and media.

In response, there was pushback against the wave of anti-Israel statements. In some cases, student governments backtracked after protests that the original statements were one-sided, acontextual, and proposed to discriminate against supporters of Israel. Others recanted in recognition that the optics were negative.

One example was the University of Oregon student government, which issued a statement accusing Israel of “actively committing genocide and engaging with modern day colonialism” and asserting, “This is not a war one takes sides on — supporting Palestine and condemning Zionism is doing the bare minimum to uphold the values of human rights, equality and justice.”

After protests from the university Hillel and other groups, the student government executive committee apologized for “our unnuanced discussion of Zionism,” and claimed, “We stand for peace in the region that Israel exists in and that Palestinians and Jews have resided in peacefully for centuries. We stand against all forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and against all forms of apartheid.” For his part, the University of Oregon president blamed the rise in antisemitism on the “growth of white supremacy.”

At Franklin & Marshall College, however, the president and provost issued a strong statement disavowing a faculty letter condemning Israel and noting, “Healthy discourse and even passionate disagreement about important issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are absolutely consistent with the discussions that contribute to an academic culture of inquiry and greater understanding on college campuses.”

But elsewhere, pushback met with mixed success. An effort in the University of Chicago student government to rescind an Israel condemnation failed. A statement condemning Israel by the Wayne State University student government was criticized by the university president for “needlessly inflammatory language,” which angered pro-Palestinian students.

At Rutgers University, the university president’s condemnation of antisemitic violence was met by protests from Palestinian students claiming it served to “derail Palestinian voices and activism.” A subsequent apology condemning both antisemitism and “Islamophobia” was also deemed inadequate.

The defense in the Wayne State and Rutgers cases and others (such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, where the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer was fired for a statement condemning antisemitism) appears to be that condemnation of antisemitism and attacks on Jews are attacks on Muslims, implying that these are legitimate forms of Palestinian and Muslim protest or that it is prejudicial to point them out. The result is that even ritual condemnations of antisemitism must be “balanced” by mention of “Islamophobia,” thereby negating any specific anti-Jewish context.

The full voiced condemnations of Israel from nearly unaccountable groups like faculty members — and the vacillation from semi-accountable ones like student governments — should be contrasted with the responses from political bodies. One example is how Texas, Switzerland, and Quebec adopted the IHRA antisemitism definition. In contrast, however, were the condemnations of Israel from progressive politicians, notably the pro-BDS “Squad” in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) blamed Israel for Hamas’ violence and claimed that there had been “attacks on Al-Aqsa,” while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) equated Israel defending itself to “police brutality and state-sanctioned violence.”

Most notable were remarks from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who stated, “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen un-thinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”

Omar quickly backtracked, saying, “To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel. … I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”

Coupled with this anti-Israel consensus is the use of Israel and BDS as litmus tests for progressive politics in New York City, both at the mayoral and city council levels.

The deliberate abandonment, indeed, condemnation, of even-handedness and objectivity and the demand for direct action, is an ominous development that will further undermine confidence in both institutions and movements.

In the economic sphere, the BDS movement, in association with BLM and antifa groups, has attempted to prevent the unloading of ships belonging to the publicly-traded ZIM Line. In Oakland, California, reports indicate that 1,000 protestors blockaded entrances to the port and that union employees refused to cross the picket line. The ZIM ship was eventually rerouted. In Seattle, protestors blocked the port entrance and threatened workers. That cargo ship was forced to remain moored in the harbor without unloading before police arrested protestors and permitted the ship to be unloaded. In Vancouver, police and port authorities were alerted in advance to the protests and a ship was unloaded after delays. Other protests are planned around the country.

The alliance of BDS, BLM, and antifa protestors demonstrates the willingness to not only disrupt Israeli connected business but aspects of the American economy. The groups involved in the ZIM protests share funding sources, above all the far-left Tides Foundation (whose chairman has now been appointed president of Temple University). Observers note that disrupting interstate commerce by threats or violence is a Federal offense (18 U.S. Code § 1951) and may also be subject to class action lawsuits from affected parties.

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

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