As the spring semester closes BDS resolutions were debated on a number of campuses, often in the context of 'apartheid week' agitation. While results were mixed the propaganda value of inflammatory allegations against Jews and supporters of Israel has been done. Thanks to 'intersectional' alliances the problem of BDS and antisemitism have hardened further into a right-left split, reflected on campus, in politics, and within the Jewish community.
Anti-Israel activities reached a peak in April with BDS resolutions being considered at a number of schools and with 'Israel apartheid week' events a several dozen institutions.
BDS resolutions were narrowly defeated at Cornell University and, after a marathon ten hour debate that ended at 4:30 AM, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. After the Cornell vote BDS supporters complained that the voting procedures were unfair. Another BDS resolution was defeated at the University of Maryland, with the vote taking place during Passover. A student referendum at Dublin City College, however, approved an Israel boycott by a wide margin.
Fallout expanded after the approval of a BDS resolution at Brown University, with supporters disrupting a ceremony for newly admitted students. At Pitzer College, where the college president vetoed a joint student-faculty resolution to cut off a study abroad program with Haifa University, the student government passed a resolution of 'censure' but failed to pass a resolution of 'no confidence' that called for the president's resignation.
'Apartheid week' agitation was undertaken at many campuses. Op-eds advocating for BDS appeared in many campus newspapers and 'apartheid walls' were constructed on several campuses. Jewish students at a variety of institutions as diverse as Harvard and Occidental College were subjected to BDS organized protests, and news reports indicate that harassment was widespread. At Harvard, the student government provided financial support to SJP for 'apartheid week' and the student newspaper lectured that this "should be rooted in the goal of sparking meaningful and constructive dialogue."
Among the most egregious events were 'mock eviction' notices distributed in dormitories at Emory University by the local 'Students for Justice in Palestine' (SJP) branch. Compounding the situation was that after Jewish groups expressed outrage, the SJP branch called for those groups to be boycotted for 'smearing student activists.' For its part the university found that the flyers were not antisemitic but criticized the SJP branch for placing the flyers on students' doors without permission, violating their right to privacy and potentially confusing "students with limited English skills, who might not initially realize they were fake."
The broader impact of BDS on campus life was seen at the University of California at Berkeley, where a student judicial committee meeting on an unrelated subject was marked by a variety of antisemitic and anti-Israel statements including "being friends with Zionists means one is complicit in oppression, the prison-industrial complex, and modern-day slavery." Campus Jewish groups condemned the incident. At several institutions, such as at the University of Oregon, candidates for student government were questioned on BDS.
The disruption of normal campus life in the name of BDS continued in April. Incidents included shouting down a speaker at the University of Chicago Law School, boycotting an 'Israel Shabbat' at the Princeton Hillel, protesting an Israel fair at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and protesting an Israel innovation fair at the University of Chicago. Protests extended beyond campus, aimed particularly at Birthright. This included opinion pieces in college newspapers, from both SJP and 'IfNotNow.' The latter also held a protest outside of Birthright's New York office, blocking traffic and prompting a number of arrests. The Vassar SJP chapter even demanded that the city of Poughkeepsie end its economic connections with Israel.
In a related development, Palestinian BDS leader Omar Barghouti was suddenly barred from entry into the United States. US authorities did not reveal the reason for Barghouti's visa was revoked but it is likely related to the fact that the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), which he co-founded, includes a number of terrorist organizations.
Barghouti had been scheduled to speak at a number of 'apartheid week' events, including at Harvard, the University of Virginia (where the student government had provided funding), and New York University. In several cases Barghouti addressed BDS events remotely, including one at New York University organized by 'Jewish Voice for Peace.'
Predictably, BDS advocates and Barghouti himself claimed he was a victim of repression organized by Israel. Making Barghouti into a free speech martyr and victim of Israel, and misrepresenting the goals of BDS as other than the elimination of Israel, were key talking points for left wing commentators and BDS advocates, including at least one from a group funded by Qatar. This continues the longstanding strategy of depicting BDS as a free speech issue rather than discrimination on the basis of religious and national origin, and to describe BDS opponents as part of a repressive conspiracy orchestrated by Israel and Jews.
As the school year ends, therefore, Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel students and faculty find themselves subjected to continuing abuse and being forced to pay for it, in the form of their student activity fees and events supported by departments and thus tuition money (such as at the University of Massachusetts). Their abusers, notably SJP, act with rashness and impunity against both students and faculty while claiming the status of victims. At New York University, the SJP branch even received a presidential award for its 'service to the community,' with the university president notably absent from the ceremony. At DePaul University, a student groups demanded that a faculty member who authored a pro-Israel op-ed be censured and sent to sensitivity training, calling him 'Islamophobic.'
Lawmakers and others have begun to take notice about the misuse of university and state funds to support BDS events, such as the recent joint anti-Israel event at Duke and the University of North Carolina, which featured an unapologetically antisemitic rapper. Exposure of the antisemitism behind BDS and 'Middle East education' events will likely cause various sponsors to withdraw or rescind support but at the cost of falling on the wrong side of intersectional politics or being labeled 'Islamophobic.'
In the political sphere, lines continue to harden. Pressure has increased on the Democratic presidential candidates to align themselves with the progressive wing on BDS and the Palestinian issue, particularly in the wake of the Israeli election that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain in power. Describing Netanyahu as a 'racist' has quickly becoming a standard talking point among the candidates.
Centrist Democrats and donors have expressed dismay regarding the divisiveness of the Israel question. The left wing of the party, however, continues to push further on BDS. Reports indicate that Representative Rashida Tlaib, an outspoken BDS supporter, met with members of the leading BDS organization 'American Muslims for Palestine' (AMP) during 'Palestine Advocacy Day' on Capitol Hill.
AMP is the umbrella organization behind 'Students for Justice in Palestine' and is the successor to the Islamic Association for Palestine, which was shut down in 2004 after a lawsuit held it liable for a suicide bombing in Israel that killed an American citizen. During those meetings Tlaib also met with a leading American supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah. Another report indicate that former president Barack Obama has tacitly expressed support for Tlaib.
Support for BDS and antisemitism on the part of grassroots progressives and others is also growing. This was illustrated by a statement from the chairman of the California Democratic Party Arab American Caucus, who stated on social media regarding Senator Charles Schumer that "Shmuck Schumer the traitor whose allegiance is for Fascist Israel lobby who called himself the Guardian of Israel in Congress is attacking Rep Omar who hinted at the big elephant in the room: treason of the Fascist Israel lobby that Schumer belongs to."
In contrast, the recently appointed US Special Envoy on Antisemitism, Elan Carr, pointedly stated that BDS was antisemitic (although in its reporting the Washington Post misrepresented the goals of the movement). Republicans have pushed forward on legislation permitting states to penalize entities that boycott Israel. A Republican amendment on BDS was also appended to a Democratic resolution calling for an end to US military support for the conflict in Yemen. That bill was defeated and Democrats condemned the amendment as a cynical ploy. Increasingly, as a result of pressure from their own left wing and by Republican pressure, Democrats are being forced to state their choices on BDS and Israel.
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.