Anti-Israel Efforts Spread to Campus and Elsewhere in Worrying Sign
The 2023-2024 academic year began with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement further co-opting academic spaces and legitimacy, in part by holding so-called “literary festivals” and “conferences.”
Deliberately blurring the line between scholarship and advocacy has long been a BDS strategy to gain legitimacy and penetrate deeper into academia. But it is now spreading both on college campuses and in political life. Meanwhile, much of the pro-BDS “Ethnic Studies” curriculum effort threatens to mandate the ideology in high schools and university systems.
The fall semester began with BDS activities assuming a distinct “activist” intellectual’ stance, notably the Palestine Writes “literary festival” held at the University of Pennsylvania over Yom Kippur. Speakers at the festival included BDS figures such as Huwaida Arraf, musician Roger Water, celebrity professor Marc Lamont Hill, and at least one convicted terrorist, Mayss Abu Ghosh.
Held at the university and sponsored by a number of units, including the cinema and media-studies departments, the event also claimed to have been sponsored by the state Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which later demanded the event remove its logo from their advertising. Several Arabic language courses initially made attendance mandatory until the requirement was reversed.
Response to the announcement of the event was swift and furious, especially from Jewish groups, alums, and others, many of whom noted that the event created a hostile environment for Jewish students. Several Penn trustees signed an open letter to the president demanding the university distance itself as much as possible from the event. US Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), a university alum, released a statement condemning Penn and urging the university to disinvite antisemitic speakers.
In a private letter to the ADL, university president Elizabeth Magill declined to intervene, citing the school’s “commitment to open expression and academic freedom.” She also released a statement distancing the institution from the event, saying “several speakers … have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” while reiterating the school’s support for “the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”
Reports also indicate the president promised “a review of the process that external groups use to reserve Penn’s space and host events on campus” and that “the University would improve equity and inclusion training and education programs for faculty, staff, and students to include antisemitism awareness.”
The organizers and their supporters, including Penn students, faculty, and others, expressed outrage at the criticism of the anti-Israel hate fest, which they characterized as “censorship” and “colonial backlash.” They also used the situation to lambast the university for its mild criticism and insufficient support of their cause, and to further proclaim the evil of Israel and its supporters.
Also in response to the festival, the Penn Hillel announced hosted a large scale Shabbat service. The Penn event was preceded, however, by the vandalizing of the Hillel during morning religious services by an individual yelling “F**k the Jews” and “They killed JC.” The individual was described only as “an unknown member of the campus community.”
The university “unequivocally condemned” the incident, as well as the discovery of a swastika in a classroom building. Other incidents of vandalism across the country included the spray painting of the sukkah at the Penn Chabad house, defacing an Israeli flag during Rosh Hashanah services at Purchase College (SUNY), swastikas outside a Jewish fraternity house at the University of Texas, as well as bomb threats to a number of synagogues nationwide during Rosh Hashanah.
As the “festival” approached, Roger Waters claimed he had been banned from the Penn campus, which the university denied. Waters participated virtually. One of the organizers, Susan Abulhawa, opened by frankly stating the political nature of the event, saying “This is not meant to be a gathering of polite or bored society … it is meant to be an intersectional defiant space, where we can exist for a brief moment with agency and with our friends in our refusal to disappear, our refusal to forget or forgo our ancient past, and our refusal to accept the racist trope that pervades Western imaginations.”
Elsewhere, the New York University Law School stated it would not be hosting an October “conference” organized by the ersatz Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism, as the group had previously claimed. A parallel conference scheduled for October at the University of California at Santa Cruz, appears to be on track. But a university spokesman noted that “UC Santa Cruz does not endorse the upcoming conference organized by the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism. We note that the conference organizers no longer require individuals to confirm their agreement with the Institute’s ‘points of unity’ before registering.”
The statement went on to say that “Amid a sharp rise in antisemitism in the United States, we urge our campus community to understand the impact of their individual views and the expressions of those views on others in the community.”
Antisemitic provocation in the guise of anti-Zionism — which is followed by justified criticism — then prompt complaints about “censorship” and “academic freedom,” which is a standard BDS tactic. The BDS movement’s efforts to capture and subvert academic spaces through subterfuge and intimidation are long-standing, but the fall 2023 events represent important new developments in their efforts to gain intellectual credibility. Observers note that the creation and ideology of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism mirrors precisely Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda, and warn of its spread through the American progressive movement.
The University of Pennsylvania event also evoked the controversy that played out at Princeton University over the inclusion of a book by BDS “scholar-activist” Jasbir Puar accusing Israel of harvesting the organs of Palestinians, in a course which has now gone forward. In that case, the university, including the president, was again forced into defending the provocation as “academic freedom” in part due to pressure from faculty.
Elsewhere, the opening of the Fall semester saw the usual range of BDS activities, including disruption of the convocation at Harvard University, a renewed campaign again Pitzer College’s study abroad program in Haifa, “disorientation guides” that inject left wing politics including BDS into freshman orientation activities, and “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP) organizing.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism continues to be a target of the BDS movement and its supporters, particularly in academia. In Britain, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies issued a statement calling on universities to rescind their endorsement of IHRA. The organization claims that IHRA violates academic freedom, and delegitimizes both criticism of Israel and support for “Palestinian rights.” The call comes as a report indicated that 43 leading British universities have refused to endorse IHRA. In contrast, 134 British universities have endorsed IHRA, some albeit reluctantly.
Finally, at the City University of New York, Jewish academics have filed a lawsuit against the school. The suit alleges that the Progressive Faculty Caucus of Kingsborough Community College (PFC) discussed bringing “violence to Zionists,” and conspired to “dominate campus elections and call for the removal of observant Jewish faculty members, administrators, department chairs and others at Kingsborough.” In related news, Maura Moynihan, daughter of the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, refused to attend the opening of the The Moynihan Center, a City College of New York institution named after her father, specifically citing CUNY’s indulgence of BDS and antisemitism.
The extent to which BDS has become a standard feature in high school curricula through the vehicle of “Ethnic Studies” continues to be a major concern. In California, a newly filed lawsuit alleges that Orange County’s Santa Ana Unified School District secretly approved an “Ethnic Studies” curriculum without alerting parents. The curriculum asserts that Israel is a “settler-colonial state” that conducts unprovoked warfare against Palestinians. The lawsuit also says that parents raising objections were subject to harassment and intimidation at a school board meeting.
The lawsuit comes as a new California law mandating high school students take one semester of “ethnic studies” is set to go into effect in 2025-2026. Compounding the problem are proposals mandating “Ethnic Studies” as an admission requirement for University of California (UC) schools. BDS activists within the UC system have been instrumental in both developing “Ethnic Studies” curricula that demonize Israel, and in pushing the admissions requirement.
In response to criticism, the University of California Ethnic Studies Faculty Council protested what it called the efforts of “highly funded lobbying groups or special interests” to “suppress hard truths about racism and colonialism” and “enact anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian censorship.” Not surprisingly, several of the same “Ethnic Studies” activists are involved in the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism.
These major battles will continue to play out as the academic year marches on.
The author is a contributor to SPME, where a version of this article was first published.