One of the defining characteristics about BDS is that it attacks Israel across a broad spectrum of economic, political, and cultural life. With small numbers of dedicated activists in many spheres, the movement makes itself appear larger than it really is, but can also ratchet up pressure selectively.
In March the political and economic aspects of BDS was temporarily dampened by statements from US and European politicians. Simultaneously, pressure increased in the cultural sphere, including media and academia. The dramatic raising and lowering of boycott related tensions demonstrates how forceful leadership can set the tone from the top down. The periodic, and especially virulent, outbursts of BDS in academia also show how such leadership is generally absent. In its place, student and faculty psychodramas are regularly played out. This increasingly includes harassment and intimidation.
The question of Israel boycotts was addressed at the highest political levels in March. Most significant was an interview given by US President Barack Obama to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama repeated the assertion that “time is running out” and the “window is closing” for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and warned that “ that Israel has become more isolated internationally” and that US “ability to manage international fallout is going to be limited.” Observers, including Goldberg, interpreted Obama’s statement as a “veiled threat.”
Obama’s statements contrasted sharply with those from Secretary of State John Kerry and New York Senator Charles Schumer. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), each reiterated opposition to Israel boycotts. Kerry stated “I will continue to staunchly, loudly and unapologetically oppose boycotts of Israel.” Schumer asserted that “those who call for boycotts of Israel without calling for boycotts of other neighboring nations whose human rights records are in fact reprehensible are practicing, whether they know it or not, whether they admit it or not, a modern form of what we call anti-Semitism.” Schumer’s statement, which followed Kerry’s speech, was seen as implicit criticism of Kerry’s repeated warnings in recent months that Israel faced growing boycott threats if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail.
In his remarks at AIPAC Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also mentioned BDS repeatedly, stating that, “attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism.”
Overall, the prominence of BDS related statements from Israeli and American politicians suggests that the issues are being taken seriously at the highest political levels, albeit for different reasons. This concern, however, is not uniform.
Additional indications of the political prominence of BDS were statements from British Prime Minister David Cameron and European foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. On his first official visit to Israel Cameron stated in a speech to the Knesset “To those who do not share my ambition, who want to boycott Israel, I have a clear message. Britain opposes boycotts, whether it’s trade unions campaigning for the exclusion of Israelis or universities trying to stifle academic exchange… Delegitimising the state of Israel is wrong. It’s abhorrent. And together we will defeat it.”
Cameron was accompanied by a large contingent of British industrial and economic leaders, suggesting that his government sees economic relations with Israel as a priority. Cameron’s statement was echoed by Britain’s Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, during his visit to Israel.
Catherine Ashton, Vice President of the European Commission and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated at a meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council that the EU “opposes a boycott of Israeli companies and businesses. We don’t want to see Israel isolated.” She added, however, that the EU was ‘firmly’ opposed to the presence of Israeli communities in the West Bank.
Ashton was also quoted offering Israel and Palestinians “unprecedented’’ support if a peace agreement is reached, that would “provide huge opportunities in trade, research, innovation that will benefit both Israel and the Palestinians.”
Obama’s and Ashton’s comments demonstrate the manner that BDS has been linked to the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; it is used as a threat which is then partially disavowed by the US, and used in conjunction with unspecified benefits by the EU, that is accompanied by funding of NGOs that support BDS. Some observers expect the spread of informal boycotts by European firms if negotiations fail.
If the current negotiations collapse, as most observers expect, and as has already been telegraphed by Palestinian and Arab League leaders, the Palestinian moves are already clear. Fatah Party and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Nabil Shaath stated that the PA would seek a full South African style boycott of Israel by international institutions as well as bringing cases to the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. Palestinian officials have also threatened to seek full membership in UN organizations, where they would almost certainly promote Israel boycotts, if new demands are not met for the release of prisoners held by Israel. These statements make it clear that threatening Israel with international boycotts is now a key part of the Palestinian diplomatic strategy.
There was a significant upturn in BDS in academia in March. A BDS resolution was debated and voted down by the student governments at Oxford University and in late February at UCLA. In both cases advance preparation and well-thought out presentations played important roles. A resolution was approved, however, at the University of Windsor. The Windsor vote followed an incident where the office of the university’s vice president for academic affairs was broken into and vandalized, apparently by BDS supporters. A university lawyer later found procedural misconduct in the how the student government had brought the motion and voted on it. The university has stated it would not adopt the proposal.
Another resolution was unanimously approved without debate at Loyola University of Chicago. The resolution was proposed by surprise by Loyola’s Students for Justice in Palestine group with the support of five members of the student government. Ambush tactics of this sort are standard for BDS resolutions presented to student governments. The resolution, however, was vetoed by the student government president on the grounds that it had “caused harm among the student community” and that “diversity of thought on campus was not taken into consideration.”
A BDS motion at King’s College London also passed. In response the university administration stated it “does not support or engage in boycotts of academic institutions.” In response to questions in February, London mayor Boris Johnson had stated “Israel remains a vibrant, democratic economy and a great source of academic research and knowledge and I condemn any one-sided boycott.”
The most dramatic BDS events took place in Ireland and Michigan. At the National University of Ireland, Galway in Dublin the student union voted to “actively support” the BDS movement. During the debate pro-Israel speakers were subjected to antisemitic abuse by BDS supporters. A video clip of the incident removed any ambiguity regarding the nature of the abuse. When contacted, representatives of the university indicated that the behavior was unacceptable and would be “immediately investigated.”
In another incident, a talk by a visiting Israeli lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast had to be abandoned as a result of pro-BDS heckling. Security personnel removed the speaker from the building and pro-BDS protestors attempted to smash the windows of his car. A representative of the university indicated an investigation would take place and said, “We are disappointed that the event could not take place.” The protest was organized by the university’s Palestine Solidarity Society, which claimed that its members did not attack the Israeli speaker’s car.
A more complex situation played out at the University of Michigan. The student government there voted to indefinitely table a BDS resolution (as did students at Arizona State University) on the grounds that it was outside their scope. But in Michigan BDS protestors claimed to have been “silenced” and conducted a sit-in at the student government office. University administrators attempted to mollify both pro and anti-BDS students but ignored evidence that Jewish students had been harassed and intimidated by BDS supporters. A university representative characterized the antisemitic harassment as “activism of students with their student government” who “do not believe their voices were heard.” One of the leaders of the BDS movement at Michigan had previously posted a photograph of himself to Facebook in a keffiyeh driving a knife into a pineapple.
After several days the student government relented, apologized profusely, and the issue was again brought up for a vote. A lengthy and raucous meeting was attended by over 375 people (and watched live via the internet by over 2000 more) and included several presentations both in favor and against the resolution. The motion was defeated by a vote of 29 to 9, with five abstentions. The ballot was secret, in order to “ensure the safety of individual representatives.”
Another unique feature of the meeting was a presentation by Max Blumenthal, author of a violently anti-Israel book and a leading BDS supporter. A campus rally prior to the meetings had also featured Ali Abunimeh, proprietor of the anti-Israel web site Electronic Intifada. The presence of these professional BDS supporters indicates a significant investment on the part of the movement in the Michigan proposal.
The suspension of the Students for Justice in Palestine group at Northeastern University, following what the university characterized as “violations [that] include—but are not limited to—vandalism of university property, distribution of flyers in residence halls without prior approval, and disrupting the events of other student groups” is still unique. Predictably, BDS supporters have characterized this unusual outcome in dire terms, most melodramatically as a manifestation of “Israel’s war on American universities.” At Vassar, where BDS supporters disrupted an actual class that was discussing Israel, no action has been taken by the administration.
These incidents show that intimidation and harassment are highly effectively BDS tools on college and university campuses, especially coupled when administrations are unwilling to be seen as taking sides.