BDS Rages as the Summer Sizzles On
As the fall semester approaches, signs point to an even more heightened campus environment of harassment and intimidation aimed against Israel and its supporters. Control of narratives remains key to shaping perceptions.
The most blatant manipulations came from outside academia, with continued condemnations of Israel from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who added that her Jewish colleagues in Congress were “not equally engaged in seeking justice.” Her comments produced a firestorm of responses that, among other things, pointed to the long history of Jewish advocacy of civil and human rights causes in the US and worldwide.
The idea that Israel, its supporters, and at least some Jews stand on the ‘wrong side’ was articulated in more than 100 statements condemning Israel from faculty groups and departments. One implication of growing faculty and student extremism is that it effectively gives antisemitism an “academic mandate.” And many defend their anti-Israel attacks in the name of ‘academic freedom.’
A typical example came at Vassar College, where faculty members issued a letter accusing Israel of “settler colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing” and declaring that they regard the “movement against racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration in the United States and the Palestinian struggle against apartheid as interconnected.”
In response, the university president pointed to the school’s code of conduct and noted that the “College “welcomes forms of dissent and protest that acknowledge and encourage the expression of different perspectives. It is with this in mind that we will continue to support free speech on our campus. The moment such speech provokes lawlessness or violence, however, it becomes unacceptable.”
But institutional efforts at maintaining nominal civility at the expense of academic integrity and Jewish students are increasingly insufficient for BDS supporters. The manner in which aggressors indignantly characterize criticism, pushback, or anything short of capitulation is a longstanding BDS ploy that has escalated dramatically.
At New York University, BDS-supporting faculty members renewed their attack on the institution’s Tel Aviv branch and pledged “non-cooperation.” A university reaffirmation of its commitment to the Tel Aviv branch was then characterized as “censorship.”
At Franklin & Marshall College, an anonymous letter from “disappointed and concerned students and alumni” presented a list of incoherent statements and complained about “a lack of institutional support in terms of resources, professors, safe spaces, and even courses” and how “the systemic denial of Palestinian human rights by this institution and the lack of acknowledgment, in general, reflect western imperialism and dehumanizes many BIPOC students’ experiences.” It concluded by expressing bitterness about how the balanced “response from the F&M Leadership team is an ignorant blanket statement they put out to support one community while completely neglecting another.”
The resignation of Cornel West from his position at Harvard Divinity School also conveniently illustrated the effort to leverage pro-Palestinian histrionics, in this case, for personal gain. West had been hired in a non-tenure track position and was offered a contract renewal but demanded tenure. In his resignation letter, he complained about his salary and sabbatical, but blamed the “shadow of Jim Crow” and “Harvard’s hostility to the Palestinian cause” for his not receiving tenure. West now moves to a position at Union Theological Seminary.
Concurrent with classroom threats are student efforts to exclude Israel and its supporters from campus life. Especially egregious examples emerged at George Washington University and the University of Vermont, where Jewish sexual assault survivors were told they were not welcome in campus support groups unless they denounced Zionism. Activists also accused Jewish groups of “not standing with the oppressed.”
Another incident occurred at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where a newly formed student group issued a statement calling on students not to participate in a sponsored trip to Israel. Organizers complained that “even though you’re exposed to Palestinian voices, a lot of it is portrayed very neutrally or very much as if there are two sides. … When you have situations of oppression and apartheid, you don’t have two equal sides.” Expanded attacks on Israel from student governments are to be expected in the fall semester.
But the most sinister developments were in teachers’ unions, where BDS resolutions continue to be debated.
The largest American teachers’ union, the National Education Association, voted down a comprehensive BDS resolution — but approved a resolution supporting ‘critical race theory,’ in which BDS is implicit. Local unions in San Francisco and Seattle, however, passed similar BDS resolutions. A resolution under consideration in Los Angeles was withdrawn after strong protests from Jewish parents and teachers, who threatened to leave the union. In general, the resolutions prove that BDS is a critical issue for at least a minority of teachers, who might also be promoting it in their classrooms.
Union endorsements of BDS have also prompted Jewish and other members to resign. A number of reports indicate that Jewish faculty at institutions such as the City University of New York feel abandoned and even threatened by their union’s decisions, with some reports indicating that at least 50 have resigned thus far. Union representatives continue to support the resolution.
The institutionalization of BDS in curricula, however, is proceeding not simply through faculty abandoning objectivity in favor of advocacy, but through “ethnic studies” requirements. In California, following the lead of the Cal State system, all community college students must take “ethnic studies” in order to graduate, in which “critical race theory” (CRT) is taught — and where antisemitism and BDS are embedded.
Similar “ethnic studies” requirements have been approved for California’s K-12 classes and have been strongly backed by anti-capitalist and anti-American activists who endorse BDS.
Outside of academic settings, the results of pervasive antisemitic incitement were seen in the stabbing of a rabbi outside of a Boston Jewish school, an increasing series of assaults on observers documenting ‘anti-Zionist’ protests, including in Boston and Orlando, as well as on observant Jews.
UK reports also indicated a tremendous increase in antisemitic incidents, with some 628 recorded in May alone.
Finally, in the economic sphere, Ben & Jerry’s announced plans to prohibit distribution of their product, which is manufactured in Israel, in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Long known for its “socially responsible stances,” the company noted that sales in Israel would continue only through the term of the current license.
The company’s owner, Unilever, immediately distanced itself from the move, leading the longtime anti-Israel activist Ben & Jerry’s board chair to complain that the intent was to boycott all of Israel and that the conglomerate was violating the terms of their acquisition agreement.
In the meantime, Israeli and Jewish sources condemned the move, as did the media sources and the US State Department spokesman. The boycott was supported by J Street and a variety of pro-BDS organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity with the local licensee, Israelis dramatically increased purchases of the product, while some stores in the US announced they were removing Ben & Jerry’s product from their shelves. Several localities such as Hempstead, New York, also announced they would no longer be doing business with Unilever.
More substantively, the Ben & Jerry’s incident will test various state laws barring companies from boycotting Israel. The implications in particular for Unilever are potential significant, and may force state entities such as pension funds to sell their holdings. The governors of Florida and Texas, and the New York State Comptroller, have already directed state entities to investigate whether the boycott triggers their anti-BDS laws. In contrast, the progressive candidate for New York City comptroller, Brad Lander, stated his support for the boycott.
For his part, the Unilever chairman expressed opposition to BDS and stated that the company remains “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, where it has invested more than $300 million over the past decade.
A version of this article was originally published at SPME, where the author is a contributor.