October’s BDS activities were focused on North American campuses. The overall number of incidents is twice that of last year, and there have been disturbing changes in their character, including violence. Pressure on faculty members is increasing, with any efforts to defend Israel being dismissed as “Zionist.” In general, the campus environment continues to deteriorate.
With the academic year underway, campus BDS is in full swing. One key incident illustrates the difficulties pro-peace and pro-Israel faculty now face on campus. A faculty member at Fordham University, Doron Ben-Atar, who spoke out against the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott resolution found himself under secret investigation by the university administration.
After stating his opposition to the ASA resolution, the head of the university’s American Studies program filed a complaint against him for an alleged “threat” to fight the program and its support of the ASA. The university’s “Director of Institutional Equity and Compliance” and “Title IX Coordinator” then undertook a secret investigation on the charge of “religious discrimination” because of his opposition to anti-Israel discrimination. Additional charges of an unspecified “threat,” sex discrimination and “incivility” followed.
Ben-Atar was eventually exonerated by the university, but the case appears to have attracted little or no attention on the part of the media and the organized Jewish community. The case is may be an indication of a growing trend to criminalize support for Israel on campus.
The ASA continues to a source of controversy. With the organization preparing for its annual meeting in California, bloggers and legal groups noted that the Westin Bonaventure Hotel hosting the meeting would endorse the ASA’s policy of discriminating against Israeli academics and thus violate California civil rights laws.
The ASA then issued a series of confused statements regarding its policy toward Israeli academics, claiming that the BDS policy did not constitute discrimination against “individual Israeli scholars” but was aimed only at those acting as a “representative or ambassador” of an Israeli institution. In response to pressure, however, the organization clarified that no one would be prevented from registering for the meeting, and has denied ever having a discriminatory policy.
The ASA thus effectively backed down from its earlier BDS stance. But to compound the confusion, it has issued highly restrictive rules regarding press coverage of its conference. As if to capitalize on the controversy, the ASA also launched a “Middle East Initiative Fund” to reflect “Association’s desire for greater interaction with international scholars. The Association’s decision to endorse a Palestinian-led boycott of Israeli academic institutions underscores in particular the need for a deeper engagement with the constitutive history of US policies and practices not only in Israel/Palestine but also across the entire region, including Iraq and Syria.” At some point, however, this project description was removed from an ASA web page, which, as of 28 October, still bore the title “Middle East Initiative.”
The activities of various Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters continue to be a concern.
- Tuft University hosted an SJP training session focusing on “direct action” in support of BDS. A featured speaker emphasized the relationship between Palestinians and people of color by repeatedly using a pejorative euphemism for black people.
- The SJP chapter at the University of Pittsburg was recently awarded funds to bring anti-Israeli advocate and conspiracy theorist Alison Weir to speak on campus.
- At Loyola University of Chicago the SJP chapter was temporarily suspended and then quickly reinstated, apparently regarding profanity used in the group’s Facebook posts during the summer Gaza War.
- A planning document belonging to the SJP chapter at Binghamton University has come to light and emphasized the “anti-normalization” stance of the group, its refusal to work with any Jewish or pro-Israel group, as well as their intention to engage in “non-violent disruption” of pro-Israel events.
The readiness of BDS advocates to politicize any campus context was seen in the recent effort to push a BDS resolution in United Automobile Workers 2865, which represents 13,000 graduate workers in the University of California system. The union typically deals with wages and working conditions. But as is typical in these situations, the BDS resolution was pushed onto the membership by a much smaller council within the organization.
The council stated that graduate students had “responsibility as educators to both learn about and teach the social issues of our time, including pressing global struggles such as the struggle of the Palestinian people for liberation from settler-colonialism and apartheid,” and proposed the union join the BDS movement. Two other resolutions, supporting a two state solution and affirming Israel’s right to self-determination, were voted down by the council. Opposition to the resolution has emerged and the position of the United Automobile Workers has note taken a position on the matter. A vote on the BDS resolution is scheduled for December 4.
In other academia news, BDS resolutions have been postponed indefinitely at McGill University and voted down at the City University of New York. A BDS resolution at the University of Exeter passed by a large margin.
Outside of academia, BDS continues to be a mechanism for European states to use as a threat against Israel over negotiations with the Palestinians. A variety of European statements have emerged regarding ‘red lines’ related to what the European Union (EU) and member states see as unacceptable Israeli activities in the West Bank. Economic sanctions, such as further punitive regulations restricting import of Israeli products from communities in the West Bank, form a backdrop to the new discussions. Rumors regarding an EU blacklist of Israeli residents of the West Bank accused of crimes were another element of pressure emerging in October.
Another international development in October were reports that the Kuwaiti government was planning to end relations with some 50 European companies that do business in Israel across the “Green Line.” Reinvigorating Arab boycotts of companies doing business with Israel has long been a goal of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, an “anti-normalization” group based in the West Bank that claims to represent a large number of Palestinian civil society groups.
Much of the recent reporting focused on the French conglomerate Veolia, which had operated part of the light rail system in Jerusalem. Earlier reports had indicated that Veolia had received a contract in Kuwait in January 2014 but in September was excluded from bidding on other contracts because of its Israel operations. The company, however, had sold all of its Israel operations in July in what it described as a debt reduction move. The true motives of the corporation remain unclear, along with the role of BDS pressure. It is apparent, however, that BDS activists will describe every business decision in the context of their desired boycott of Israel.
International BDS efforts against Israel were thwarted, however, when SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), the global financial transaction clearinghouse, refused to consider a call to disconnect Israel from its system.
Finally, the violent and antisemitic nature of BDS was fully on display in both France and South Africa. In Paris, Israeli vendors displaying products at an international food festival were harassed by a crowd.
An even more disturbing series of events occurred in South Africa, where a pig head was placed in the kosher food section of a Cape Town Woolworths supermarket. The act was organized the Congress of South African Students, a group affiliated with the ruling African National Congress. In a statement the group described Israel as a “racist apartheid state” and demanded that the supermarket chain stop selling any Israeli products. It went on to say “We have placed the pigs head in Woolworths to show these people of God that Woolworths is Haraam and it is not Kosher.”
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies protested the incident and has demanded a police investigation. A subsequent protest at a Cape Town store by the student group resulted in several dozen arrests. The BDS actions are timed to proceed the annual meeting of the Woolworth holding company.