Late semester sees big campus BDS push, new tactics; anti-BDS opposition advances at state and Federal levels but new BDS front opened in state bar association

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As the academic semester nears the end BDS resolutions were debated at a number of campuses, with mixed results. Supporters used new tactics, including tying BDS to fossil fuel divestment, in an atmosphere of increasing antisemitic harassment.

In the political sphere anti-BDS legislation moved forward in several US states and in the US Congress, while leading British candidates for Prime Minister expressed their opposition to Israel boycotts. Along with an Israeli High Court decision on Israel boycotts, these legislative developments show that BDS has reached the level of a national political issue. But the cancellation of a sponsored tour to Israel by the Virginia Bar Association portends a new front for BDS in professional organizations.


April was a very active month for BDS activities on campus. BDS resolutions in student governments were narrowly defeated at Princeton University, the University of Texas, Northeastern University, the University of Michigan, the University of New Mexico, and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

A BDS resolution was approved at the University of East Anglia, while students at Sussex University voted to boycott Israeli goods on campus. The small National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies Association also adopted a boycott of Israeli academic institutions at its annual meeting.

At all institutions debate was lengthy and intensive. BDS supporters also used a variety of now typical tactics. At Edinburgh University, for example, the vote on a BDS resolution was scheduled for immediately before Passover, limiting the ability of Jewish students to organize a response. At UC Santa Barbara the debate was marred by antisemitic comments from BDS supporters.

Antisemitism within student governments also appears to be becoming more overt, particularly where BDS activists are already dominant. At Stanford University a Jewish student running for election to the school senate was asked how her religious identity would influence her position on BDS. This prompted complaints from the student – who had removed Jewish and Israel content from her Facebook page in advance of her candidacy – and others regarding the antisemitism behind the questioning. The incident also attracted considerable media attention.

In turn, Stanford BDS supporters complained about the accusations and also alleged “gross misconduct” in the student government’s handling of a BDS resolution earlier this year. For their part the Stanford Board of Trustees issued a statement saying it would not consider any divestment proposal. BDS supporters then alleged misconduct by a Stanford trustee who also served on the Stanford Hillel board

One evolving tactic is tying divestment to other causes. At the University of Pennsylvania pro-BDS groups followed up a successful petition calling on the university to divest from fossil fuel companies with another calling on it to divest from companies involved in “human rights abuses related to the displacement of peoples.” The “Divest from Displacement” campaign thus relabels BDS along fashionable lines. A similar effort was made at New York University by a student-faculty group that called on the university to divest from companies that “profit from the occupation of Palestine and fossil fuels.” Comparisons of urban rioting in the US with the Palestinian intifada, along with blaming Israel for police conduct, are also becoming widespread.

A new development is the pirating of the “unsafe” meme by Muslims students. Pioneered by activists against campus sexual assault, the accusation that events make Muslim students feel “unsafe” has been used to shut down showings of the film “American Sniper” at the University of Maryland and elsewhere.

A variation of this was seen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Palestinian students claimed that Israel Independence Day celebrations made them feel “unsafe.” The university administration met with Palestinian students but concluded that no action should be taken since the campus celebration was sponsored by a recognized student group. In another incident at the University of California at Irvine pro-Palestinian students harassed Israel supporters at the annual Israel festival.

The Palestinian “unsafe” claim is especially ironic given the demonization and harassment routinely directed at Israel and its supporters by Palestinian, Muslim and far left students. In general these efforts appear part of a larger campus trend to control the depiction of Islam as well as Palestinian politics, including through use of speech codes and accusations aimed at individuals.

Several other developments in academia indicate that antisemitism on campus is becoming more overt. In the wake of BDS resolutions being defeated, swastikas were discovered at a number of campuses including Northeastern and on a fraternity at Stanford. A Jewish fraternity at the University of California Davis was similarly defaced in January. Use of the swastika on campus as antisemitic vandalism appears to be spreading, although in several cases the motivation remains unclear.

Finally, a conference University of Southampton entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” was cancelled on the ground that it represented a threat to ‘health and safety’ of the university community. The conference questioned the “legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.”

The ‘health and safety’ rationale was attacked as placing the blame for cancellation on critics of the conference. But the decision letter from the university made it clear that the conference organizer had consistently misrepresented the event.

As focus turned on the conference and its participants it also became clear that a number were associated with known antisemites and that the conference as a whole was completely one-sided. Proponents of the conference were predictably outraged by the cancellation and by the subsequent defeat of their appeal in the United Kingdom’s High Court. Critics of the conference, however, were divided on whether it should have been cancelled and thus turned into a free speech issue or permitted to continue in order to be criticized.

In the political sphere there were several important developments. The most unusual was the cancellation of a trip to Israel sponsored by the Virginia State Bar Association. The cancellation evidently came about when the trip was criticized by members of the bar association regarding Israeli security procedures that would allegedly have prevented individuals from entering Israel or the Palestinian territories. These were described in a petition to the organization as “unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers.”

The organization initially cited “unacceptable discriminatory policies” as the reason for the cancellation but then claimed the trip was undersubscribed. It also pointed to State Department notices regarding security procedures as well as advice allegedly received from Israeli consular officials. The latter consultations, however, appear to have been of a general nature. Documents indicate the organization’s leadership made a decision quickly after receiving the petition.

Despite protests from Virginia political leaders the trip remains canceled. The bar association decision was applauded by BDS supporters and local Muslim groups, including a number of Muslim American lawyers who had initiated the petition. Overall, the incident reflects a new initiative by BDS opponents to characterize any involvement with Israel as a real or potential civil rights violation.

In the European context BDS and antisemitism have emerged as issues in the upcoming British elections. In an interview, current British Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party expressed his opposition of boycotts of Israel, as well as to growing antisemitism. Cameron’s Labour Party challenger, Ed Miliband, also repeated his opposition to boycotting Israel.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, however, stated that she backed a cultural boycott of Israel as well as an arms embargo and suspension of a European Union trade agreement. A Scottish National Party candidate also expressed the opinion that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be tried for war crimes. Antisemitism within the Green Party has been repeatedly noted as a problem. The Scottish National Party is widely expected to win the majority of Parliamentary seats in Scotland and to have a leading role in coalition with the Labour Government.

Elsewhere, a Palestinian boycott of Israeli goods in the West Bank expanded. It is unclear which political faction is pushing the boycott. Meanwhile, Israel’s High Court upheld a 2011 law permitting the finance minister to fine or withhold funding from entities promoting boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions on either side of the “Green Line.” Lawsuits against entities calling for boycotts were also upheld but punitive damages were struck down.

Critics of entities that have called for full or partial boycotts of Israel predict lawsuits will be filed. Critics of the law, however, point to its chilling effect on free speech within Israel.

The Israeli law appears to be a model for legislation emerging in the United States. Bills introduced in the Illinois legislature would prohibit that state from doing business with companies participating in Israel boycotts. This is similar to amendments and bills introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives that direct US trade negotiators to oppose foreign efforts to boycott or otherwise sanction Israel. Aimed at European companies, they are tied to the Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority bill currently being debated. Critics point out that these bills effectively define Israel as including the West Bank and assert these would give added legitimacy to the existence of Israeli communities in that area.

Finally, the Tennessee and Indiana legislatures both overwhelmingly adopted resolutions condemning BDS. These demonstrate that the political fight over BDS has been joined at the state level.

Late semester sees big campus BDS push, new tactics; anti-BDS opposition advances at state and Federal levels but new BDS front opened in state bar association

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe

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