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April 6, 2022 9:00 am

BDS Co-Opts Ukraine and Drives Campus Hate to Attack Israel

avatar by Alexander Joffe


Pro-Palestinian activists protest against the unloading of an Israeli ship at the Port of Oakland, June 4, 2021. Facebook/Arab Resource & Organizing Center.

In a characteristic display of opportunism, the BDS movement in March concentrated its focus on the war in Ukraine. Responding to the rapid condemnation of Russia and the implementation of economic sanctions, leaders and members of the BDS movement, its representatives in Congress, and allied intellectuals, alleged a hypocritical double standard and demanded the same be done to Israel. This sentiment was echoed by the Palestinian Authority, which claimed the “international community is being hypocritical and racist by being more sympathetic towards the Ukrainians because of their color, religion and race.”

The BDS movement’s position was complicated by the response of far left allies, including the Democratic Socialists of America, which initially blamed NATO expansion for goading Russia to attack, and then moderated to a broad anti-war position. Palestinian Authority support for Russia went largely unnoticed. The fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and that Ukraine and Israel have positive relations is also a complication.

One strange illustration of the equation of Ukraine and “Palestine” came from model Gigi Hadid, who stated she was “pledging to donate my earnings from the Fall 2022 shows to aid those suffering from the war in Ukraine, as well as continuing to support those experiencing the same in Palestine.” Hadid, who is of Palestinian descent, has participated in anti-Israel protests.

In a social media posting, Vogue Magazine, which featured an interview with Hadid in March, initially removed her comments equating Ukrainians and Palestinians but restored them after criticism. In the interview, Hadid commented that she was hurt by allegations she had called for the destruction of Israel, adding, “I truly respect Judaism, and I think it’s a beautiful religion. … This is about a government system suppressing people.”

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More broadly, the rapid condemnation of Russia and severing of commercial ties points to how a society can be quickly vilified and isolated.

Like the Hadid profile in Vogue, a puff piece in The New York Times on Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) was aimed at both whitewashing and normalizing BDS in a cultural as well as political sense.

The antipathy of the “human rights” industry towards Israel was demonstrated in February by a report from Amnesty International that deemed Israel an “apartheid state.” This was compounded in March by remarks from Amnesty USA’s director, Paul, O’Brian. In comments to the Women’s National Democratic Club, O’Brien stated that “Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state,” and that American Jews would prefer it be a “safe Jewish space” with “core Jewish values.” O’Brien also stated that “we are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people.”

After a report on O’Brien’s talk appeared, he complained that he had been misquoted, which prompted Jewish Insider to publish the full transcript and recording of his remarks.

The transcript demonstrated his comments were both more contradictory and offensive than originally reported:

But it is really important, I think, particularly for those who understand the threats that the Jewish people experienced over the last several generations, I think it is incumbent on people who engage this conversation to say, No, I don’t believe that Israel should be preserved as a state in which one race is legally entitled to oppress another. But yes, I understand that the Jewish people have a legitimate concern about their very existence being threatened. And that needs to be part of the conversation.

In a rare display of unity, 25 Jewish Congressional Democrats condemned the statement, noting that “O’Brien’s patronizing attempt to speak on behalf of the American Jewish community is alarming and deeply offensive,” and that, “We stand united in condemning this and any antisemitic attempt to deny the Jewish people control of their own destiny.” A number of other members of Congress added their condemnation.

As predicted, the Amnesty report (and a Human Rights Watch report in 2021) was a prelude to a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report that also concluded Israel was guilty of “apartheid.” The report, authored by the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” i. e., long-time anti-Israel activist and BDS supporter Michael Lynk, accuses Israel of creating an “entrenched rule in the occupied Palestinian territory which endows one racial-national-ethnic group with substantial rights, benefits and privileges while intentionally subjecting another group to live behind walls.”

In response, 68 US Senators wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken requesting that he lead an effort to end the UNHCR’s permanent Commission on Inquiry.

The appearance of multiple accusations of Israeli “apartheid” by the human rights industry, in cooperation with terror-linked Palestinian NGOs, is indicative of a larger strategy designed to influence global and local politics. The goal is to vilify Israel using one of the only terms that is universally reviled, even if it necessitates manipulating the definition and the evidence of apartheid out of all recognition, in order to legitimate violence as well as BDS.

BDS in academia featured a number of protests against Jewish institutions and speakers on campuses. At the University of Toronto, 45 pro-Palestinian faculty members signed a letter attacking a January talk by former Canadian Attorney General, human rights advocate, and former faculty member Professor Irwin Cotler. The letter accused the school of reinforcing “anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices” through Cotler’s appearance at a Holocaust Remembrance event, specifically referencing his support for the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, and the co-sponsorship by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In response, some 300 University of Toronto faculty members issued a statement criticizing the original letter and detailing rising antisemitism at the institution.

In contrast, also at the University of Toronto, the administration responded to an earlier graduate student BDS resolution by withholding student fees from the graduate student union.

At New York University, a resolution was presented in the student government that calls on the school to suspend its Tel Aviv branch. Among other things, the resolution alleged that Muslim students were unable to receive visas to study in Tel Aviv as a result of Israeli law. A university representative dismissed the resolution as being opposed to the school’s values, adding that, “We are unaware of a single instance in which an NYU student who has sought to study at NYU Tel Aviv has been refused the opportunity to do so.”

At Georgetown University, the BDS movement claimed it had succeeded in getting the student government to block funding for an educational trip to Israel. Other reports, however, indicated that the university had blocked the allocation over a procedural issue.

In response to the negative publicity that frequently accompanies a BDS resolution once it is publicized, the student government at Northwestern University has adopted a policy that makes certain meetings closed door, ostensibly to”ensure the safety” of participants. The policy permits the removal of non-student government members, including journalists.

At Tufts University, the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter issued a call for students to “refuse to join groups or projects that normalize or benefit israel [sic].” Specifically named were J Street, Tufts Friends of Israel, and Birthright. The statement went further and demanded students refuse to “buy products or participate in groups that enable and normalize Zionist settler colonialism.” It named a number of specific products, including Sabra hummus, that are available on the Tufts campus. The accompanying petition accused J Street of supporting a two-state solution that “fails to recognize Israel as a settler colonial state and Zionism as a white supremacist ideology.”

In response, a university spokesman called the SJP campaign “divisive and harmful. It doesn’t help foster important conversations — rather, it shuts them down while ostracizing fellow students.” The co-chair of the J Street chapter expressed surprise at being included in the SJP boycott since “We think that, as a club, we have a lot more ideological similarities with [SJP] than not.”

Two student governments in Canada adopted BDS resolutions using “apartheid” as the rationale. The resolution adopted at McGill University calls on the student government to adopt a “Palestine Solidarity Policy.” The policy states that “McGill University invests in, or engages in close collaboration with several corporations and institutions complicit in an entrenched system of settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians,” calls on the student government to issue “one public statement each semester, including a statement on Nakba Day, reaffirming the SSMU’s solidarity with Palestinian students and with Palestinian liberation from settler-colonial apartheid,” and demands the university adopt BDS policies. These entities include “all corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.” The resolution thus arguably includes all Jewish groups

In response, a university official stated that the resolution was “inconsistent with the SSMU constitution as well as previous decisions by its internal governance bodies,” which would “lead to polarization that fosters a culture of ostracization and disrespect on the basis of students’ identity, religious or political beliefs.” She also expressed concerns over “alleged irregularities in the referendum process,” and threatened to rescind the Memorandum of Understanding that governed university collection of student fees. Pro-BDS students then protested that “we cannot stay silent while the McGill administration attempts to blackmail our student union, and crush the democratic will of our student body!”

Similarly, at Concordia University, long a hotbed of antisemitic agitation, a BDS resolution was intended to “adopt a position against the practice of apartheid (as defined by leading human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) and to divest from any investments and withdraw any financial or vocal support from states or businesses that are involved in apartheid.”

At Princeton University, BDS supporters held a demonstration outside the Center for Jewish Life, to protest the school’s support for programs in Israel. Princeton BDS supporters also approached the student government, demanding that the school boycott Caterpillar since, “Their machinery is routinely used for some really despicable and inhumane purposes.” When pressed, however, supporters claimed that the resolution was not an endorsement of BDS since,“BDS does not appear in the resolution or in the ballot question. It only exists in the explanation; that’s not what’s being implemented.”

Elsewhere, the Duke University student government approved funding for the local SJP chapter to bring The Nation’s “Palestine correspondent” Mohammad el-Kurd to campus, despite being shown evidence of his antisemitic statements, including allegations of Israeli “organ harvesting.”

At the faculty level, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) adopted a BDS policy. The resolution accused Israeli universities of being “imbricated” with “systemic violations” of Palestinian human rights and providing “direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.” The resolution disingenuously demands that members boycott Israeli institutions, but not individual scholars. This contradiction was amplified in a statement from the organization’s president, who said that in developing a full policy, “MESA’s Board will work to honor the will of its members and ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship.”

The MESA decision was widely condemned by Jewish and other leaders. Brandeis University immediately dissociated itself from MESA, noting the “resolution attacks the fundamental principles of academic freedom and association.” This follows several state institutions that declined to renew their institutional memberships.

The resolution marks the full transformation of MESA from a scholarly to an advocacy organization.

In a similar vein, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement opposing the use of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, calling it “overly broad” and alleging that it infringes on academic freedom.

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

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