The BDS movement suffered important setbacks in June. The membership of the American Anthropological Association voted down sweeping BDS resolutions but by a tiny margin. More US states also joined in opposition to BDS, through legislative and executive action. In contrast, the Presbyterian Church USA approved several anti-Israel resolutions that edge it closer to rejecting a two state solution. Most significantly, the Democratic Party platform committee debated but rejected several planks supported by the BDS movement that would have put the ‘occupation’ at the center of party policy. These trends indicate how BDS has moved from an academic and cultural issue to a ‘fully’ political one.
In academia there were several major BDS developments in June, notably the narrow defeat of sweeping BDS resolutions by members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The final vote was 2,423 votes against 2,384 in favor, with 51% of the membership participating.
Most observers predicted that the BDS resolution would pass and it is unclear why so many members voted against it. Opposition to the resolution was well-organized but the potential for an embarrassing and destructive lawsuit against the AAA likely contributed to the outcome. The fact that voting took place anonymously on-line may have also played a role, since it removed face to face group pressure and virtue signaling that would have been present if the vote had been done at the association’s annual meeting. Proponents of the BDS resolution expressed disappointment and vowed to continue pressure on the organization.
The AAA leadership, which had transparently aided the pro-BDS effort, reacted to the defeat by sanctioning the Israeli government anyway, alleging among other things “unjust denial of freedom” regarding the movement of Palestinian and foreign academics going to Gaza and the West Bank and “unjust denial of freedom of expression to Palestinian and dissenting Jewish faculty and students at Israeli universities.” These sanctions, and continuing BDS efforts within the organization, will further legitimize informal discrimination by departments and individuals against Israelis and supporters of Israel within anthropology and academia.
Elsewhere in academia, in an ironic move the South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation withdrew from a conference on genocide and mass violence at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after BDS pressure. A BDS vote at Portland State University, however, was tabled after the university president expressed strong opposition, and after an embarrassing incident where a guerrilla filmmaker successfully raised money on campus for the fictional “American Friends of Hamas.”
There were several BDS reversals on campus in June. A student review board at McGill University unanimously ruled that BDS resolutions violate the student constitution. BDS opponents at McGill admit, however, that the decision is unlikely to prevent BDS resolutions from being introduced in the future, and that legal recourse might be necessary. A BDS resolution at University College London was also found to be ‘inoperable’ after the student government sought legal advice.
The most important reversal came as the International United Auto Workers union (UAW) overruled the New York University graduate student union’s BDS resolution adopted earlier this year. The parent union, which had previously undone a BDS resolution by the University of California graduate student union, also clarified that the decision was binding on all subordinate unions. Despite hopes that the union outcome would be decisive, as with the AAA vote and the McGill decision, it seems unlikely that these results will significantly deter future BDS activities.
The general trend of BDS reverses on campus must also be understood in light of a new report showing that antisemitic incidents at colleges and universities doubled in 2015. It is unclear whether the increase in antisemitic activity is motivated by local BDS failures or by successes, such as at the University of California at Davis. There, allegations have emerged that the administration’s fear of reprisals from BDS and Muslim groups have resulted in impunity for harassment of Jewish and Israeli students.
Thee were also important developments in the political sphere. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order making it illegal for state government to do business with entities boycotting Israel. This was the first such effort by a state executive and it joins the growing list of legislation opposing BDS. Predictably, BDS proponents were stung by Cuomo’s order and accused the governor of creating a “blacklist” and restricting free speech. Legal scholars have pointed out that Cuomo’s actions were fully legal and did not impinge on free speech.
Rhode Island also unanimously passed anti-BDS legislation, while similar legislation in New Jersey passed by an overwhelming margin. Similar legislation has been proposed in Westchester County, New York. Concerns were expressed, however, regarding a bill passed in the California legislature whose focus was changed from prohibiting BDS against Israel to opposing boycotts of “recognized sovereign nations.”
Equally significant was politicking within the Democratic Party’s platform committee. Concerns about the injection of BDS planks into the platform were raised after former candidate Bernie Sanders appointed Cornel West and James Zogby to the committee. But reports now indicate that after contentious debate the platform rejected a call for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” Instead it will reaffirm traditional Democratic support for Israel and add language condemning the BDS movement. The platform will, however, for the first time add explicit support for Palestinian self-determination.
The move was applauded both by BDS supporters and J Street, which stated that “The new language breaks with the party’s practice of framing its aim of establishing a Palestinian state solely in terms of Israel’s interests” and that the “party underscores its belief that the only viable resolution to the conflict–a two-state solution–requires recognizing the fates of the two-peoples are intertwined.” Zogby, however, complained publicly about the process and outcome.
The position of Israel in the Democratic Party platform represents the triumph, for the moment, of the Clinton wing over the Sanders wing, but Sanders has stated that the debate over Israel and other issues would continue at the party’s convention in Philadelphia in July. A floor fight at the convention remains a possibility. Another sign of conflict within the party regarding Israel are reports that senior Democratic Senators are blocking the inclusion of anti-BDS language into a major defense appropriations bill. But the Senate Appropriations Committee did incorporate a bipartisan bill authorizing state and local governments to oppose BDS into the 2017 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Program Appropriations.
At its biannual meeting the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a denomination long obsessed with Israel and BDS, passed additional resolutions calling for rethinking the two state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, “prayerful study” of BDS, and for the RE/MAX real estate company to stop selling properties across the Green Line. Jewish groups and others expressed strong disappointment at the PCUSA’s decisions. Questioning the two state solution edges PCUSA closer to rejecting the existence of Israel altogether in favor of a ‘binational’ state.
Also in June the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution offering support for Israel and condemning the BDS movement. The SBC has approximately 15.3 million members in over 47,000 congregations, while PCUSA has some 1.5 million members and 9600 congregations. The striking contrast between the two suggests that emphasis on BDS and opposing Israel has not increased the liberal denomination’s popularity.
Internationally, a number of European ministers made statements opposing BDS, including the Finish Foreign Minister and the Italian Education Minister, and in a non-binding resolution the Dutch Parliament recommended to the government that it end financial support for pro-BDS NGOs. In contrast, a series of letters from British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn show that he has avidly supported the BDS movement. The Canadian Green Party is also debating whether to officially add BDS to its party platform. The US Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, is already on record supporting BDS.
Finally, the bank accounts of BDS organizations in Austria and Germany were shut down. The banks did not explain why they closed the accounts but observers speculate that concerns regarding the connection between BDS and terror funding, and threats from American officials and legislators, played a role. Investigative reporting by the Jerusalem Post have now led to the closure of at least six BDS organization accounts in Europe.