April saw the focus of BDS activities pivot back to academia. It is no coincidence that Passover and Easter were celebrated in April; indeed, the timing of BDS resolutions in student government settings has long centered around holidays when attention, presumably wanes.
A series of BDS proposals were presented to student governments at North American universities in April. These were accompanied by various demonstrations and guerilla theatrics.
At Cornell University a BDS resolution was presented to the student assembly by the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The resolution was presented at the last minute as ‘new business’ and as not listed on the original assembly agenda but only later on a revised version. This provided less than 48 hours notice to the Cornell community that a BDS resolution was to be debated.
The timing of the resolution was designed to both avoid public notice and minimize the involvement of Jewish students, since the initial debate was scheduled only days before Passover. Had the resolution not been noticed, and a debate not held, it would have passed and been subject to a formal vote a week later, in the middle of Passover.
A debate was held at the initial meeting, however, and the proposal was tabled indefinitely by a large margin. The SJP, however, claimed that the defeat was undemocratic and called for a protest at the student union the following week. The call appeared to threaten a takeover of university premises of the sort that occurred recently at the University of Michigan. A small number of protestors appeared and at the regular student assembly meeting, the session was suspended and SJP supporters were given two hours to vent against Israel and the student government process.
The incident typifies the BDS strategy of secrecy and ambush, designed to circumvent public scrutiny of BDS proposals and to minimize the involvement of Jewish student by scheduling debates in conflict with the Jewish religious calendar. This latter strategy was also telegraphed by the SJP’s called for a ‘National Day of Action’ on behalf of BDS proposals during Passover. The Cornell incident also illustrates the growing tactic of declaring BDS defeats as anti-democratic, and to threaten protests and takeovers of facilities.
At other institutions, BDS resolutions were usually defeated when opponents had sufficient time to organize. At San Diego State University a BDS resolution was soundly defeated after five and a half hours of debate. A similar resolution was also defeated at the University of California at Santa Barbara. A resolution was narrowly approved, however, at the University of California at Riverside in a closed vote. At Riverside, a campus with a long record of anti-Israel and antisemitic activity, a pro-BDS resolution was adopted last year, then overturned, and has now been reinstated. A BDS proposal at the University of New Mexico was defeated. A BDS proposal is also making its way through the student government at the University of Washington.
At Ryerson University in Toronto a BDS resolution was adopted. Reports indicate that the student union will now be prohibited from dealing with firms that do business in Israel and from selling Israeli products. The debate was characterized by antisemitic harassment of pro-Israel students, who then walked out in protest after debate was cut short. Ryerson is one of several Canadian universities where BDS resolutions have been passed by student governments.
BDS is emerging as a major issue in student government elections at the University of California at Berkeley where a slate that includes a pro-BDS candidate, has been endorsed by several members of the campus branch of J Street U. In contrast, J Street U members joined other Jewish students to organize against the BDS proposal at Cornell.
Backlash continues at Vassar regarding the disruption of a class by BDS advocates. In a written statement the faculty members involved described the incident and note that a “climate of fear has descended on campus.” The president of Vassar has now issued a statement calling for civility. A public letter from several Vassar dozen alumni protested the anti-Israel environment on campus and voiced support for the college president’s efforts to reassert an atmosphere of civility. The alumni letter was specifically in response to a public letter signed by several dozen faculty members protesting the college president’s earlier condemnation of the American Studies Association BDS resolution.
Pro-BDS groups expanded use of guerrilla and intimidation tactics. At New York University Jewish students in a dormitory were served with ‘eviction notices’ by Students for Justice in Palestine. The leaflets stated that the students’ suites were scheduled for demolition and that they were “intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.” The dormitory is the only one at NYU with a Shabbat elevator and thus has a large number of Jewish students. The following day the SJP directed a tweet at a Jewish student who had written about and appeared on television to discuss the incident, saying “The existence of Israel is in undeniably a flagrant violation of UN Resolutions and int’l law.” The tweet was later deleted from the SJP account.
Similar ‘eviction notice’ intimidation campaigns directed at Jewish students have occurred at the University of Michigan, Rutgers, Harvard, Florida International, Yale, the University of Chicago, and other schools. The SJP at Northeastern University had been suspended in March for these and other acts of harassment and violations of university policies. It has now been restored by the university for the fall 2014 semester.
Finally, members of the Modern Language Association (MLA) have begun voting on an anti-Israel resolution. In January the controversial resolution was approved for distribution to the 30,000 members of the association. It condemns Israel for allegedly denying entry of American academics into the Palestinian territories. A more radical BDS proposal was defeated in January.
Allegations have emerged regarding antisemitic postings on the MLA’s member-only email forum and procedural irregularities surrounding the anti-Israel resolution. Voting will conclude in June.
The contrasts between the US and Canadian examples may be instructive. Canada’s policy of official multiculturalism and British-influenced tradition of politically active student organizations have empowered BDS activists to a degree as yet unseen in the United States. Official multiculturalism gives BDS activists cover to accuse Israel of racism while deflecting efforts that point to their own self-evident anti-Israel and antisemitic biases. At U.S. universities where such European style ideologies prevail among students (and are enabled by faculty) such as Vassar and the University of California campuses, BDS has had greater if still limited success.
BDS activities intensified in British professional organizations. In a surprise move, the National Union of Journalists rejected a BDS proposal. Ostensibly the proposal was rejected because it had not been specifically requested by Palestinian journalists and because it would have ‘put journalists at risk.’ Two days before the vote Labour Party leader Ed Miliband had called on NUJ members to reject the proposal.
Last month the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) adopted a resolution calling on the International Union of Architects (UIA) association to suspend Israeli participation. The RIBA decision has now been condemned by leading Jewish architects Daniel Libeskind and Richard Meier, and by Rick Bell, executive director of AIA New York. The international union will vote on the BDS proposal in August.
Finally, BDS has reemerged on the international scene in the context of Palestinian negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, told the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People that the international community should boycott “illegal” Israeli settlements as a means of pressuring Israel during negotiations. He also stated that if Israel did not negotiate in “good faith” the Palestinian Authority would “move into the next stage of holding them accountable for all of their illegal behavior in all fronts, politically, diplomatically and legally.”
Mansour’s remarks echoed those of Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the ruling Fatah party’s Executive Committee, who called for a Palestinian and global boycott of Israel. The Palestinian statements should be seen as part of the strategy to undermine negotiations by approaching international institutions for membership and orchestrating boycotts of Israel.
The Palestinian strategy is designed to expand international condemnation of Israel, of the sort long displayed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. That body recently adopted a resolution demanding that states not do business with Israeli entities in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” and which warned of “probability of liability, including international criminal liability, for corporate complicity in breaches of international law related to illegal settlements.” The strategy thus formally expands BDS as a political threat into international organizations. This strategy was given additional if possibly inadvertent weight by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse, Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state.”
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.
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