The academic year closed with dramatic protests to shut down pro-Israel and free speech events. But other developments, the rejection of a BDS resolution and further association with the movement by the United Methodist Church, and the appointment of BDS supporters to the Democratic Party’s platform committee, show BDS is firmly an issue in the religious and political mainstream. The two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton who denounced BDS before the Methodist vote, and Bernie Sanders, who appointed the BDS supporters to the Democratic Party platform committee, neatly illustrate the role of political leaders in suppressing and encouraging anti-Israel sentiment. The divide also portends a bitter divide within the party.
The most dramatic campus BDS protest in May took place at the University of California Irvine where pro-Israel students screened a film about the Israeli army. Some 50 BDS protestors including the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters attempted to enter the room and effectively prevented others from leaving or entering while yelling “intifada, intifada—long live the intifada! Fuck Israel and fuck the police,” “displacing people since ‘48/ there’s nothing here to celebrate,” and “all white people need to die.” After the film ended campus police escorted the pro-Israel students from the building. Students complained of feeling threatened by the protestors.
Accompanying the protestors were representatives of the National Lawyers Guild, who claimed “The protesters made no threats, destroyed no property, and listened to UCIPD [UC Irvine Police Department] when they said they needed an unobstructed exit.” SJP celebrated the incident saying it had “successfully demonstrated against the presence of IDF soldiers on campus,” and denied that the slogan “All white people need to die” had been used.
University Chancellor Howard Gilman later stated that the incident “crossed the line of civility” and called for an investigation. Students Supporting Israel (SSI), which had co-sponsored the film, stated that it would take legal action if the investigation “sweeps the behavior of the demonstrators under the table.” Hillel International also condemned the incident.
For its part the SJP claimed that “The presence of IDF and police threatened our coalition of Arab, black, undocumented, trans, and the greater activist community” and that it was “wholly justified” in disrupting the event. It added that “For opposing students to claim to feel unsafe at the presence of protesters is incomparable to the fear and vulnerability of Palestinians who face violence at gunpoint by IOF [“Israel occupation force”] forces and who are facing systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing and erasure as a part of their colonization of Palestinian land.” JVP accused organizers of “falsify[ing] the entire event to campus administration.”
The investigation promised at Irvine is likely to provoke further aggressive behavior from BDS supporters, such as that displayed at Connecticut College after BDS supporters distributed mock eviction notices were distributed in dorms. In response to the investigation, BDS supporting students began a sit-in at the building housing the university president’s office.
The BDS protests at Irvine came in the context of growing efforts to end both pro-Israel events and other forms of free speech on US campuses. Another recent example was at DePaul University where a talk by firebrand gay conservative Milo Yannopoulos was shut down by angry mob. Campus police were told not to intervene. As at Irvine, campus police did little to restrain the pro-BDS protestors.
The Irvine, Connecticut, and DePaul incidents are serious escalations in a deepening assault on campus free speech and on pro-Israel groups. The presence of legal representation for the Irvine protestors, the alleged but politically unassailable coalition of the ‘Arab, black, undocumented, trans, and the greater activist community,’ the use of slurs and threats (which are then denied to have either been used or to have been threatening), complaints of victimization when criticized, and the threat of even wider campus disruptions, represent tactical and strategic innovations. These promise to make campuses even more hostile toward Israel, Jews, and others. The well publicized BDS related incidents at Vassar and Oberlin, and less well known incidents (including overtly antisemitic speakers) at the University of Toronto, Dartmouth, San Diego State University, the University of Missouri, and elsewhere also suggest that some institutions are systemically incapable of addressing antisemitism from BDS supporters.
BDS continues to be a major issue on British campuses. The School of Oriental and African at the University of London announced that will discipline students involved in an incident at Kings College earlier this year, where a talk by Israeli military leader and politician Ami Ayalon was violently disrupted by BDS supporters. The nature of the sanctions is unknown.
The scandal that began with BDS supporters in the National Union of Students (NUS) continues to roil the British Labour Party. It was revealed that recently elected NUS president and BDS supporter Malia Bouattia – who had described Birmingham University as a “Zionist outpost”- had been investigated in early 2015 for alleged antisemitic comments. Several of student associations at British universities have chosen to disassociate themselves from the NUS as a result of the scandal, while others have agreed to remain. Senior Labour Party leaders have been accused of suppressing a report on antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour society.
More positively, reports indicate that the Edinburgh University Student Association’s board of trustees has overturned a recently adopted BDS policy. The decision was apparently made on the basis of legal advice. But the University and College Union of professional staff in British higher education will shortly vote on a motion reaffirming its support for BDS, and condemning “‘counter-radicalisation’ to prevent campus criticism of Israel, and boycott of complicit institutions.” Another British teacher’s union also held a day-long BDS event for teachers in conjunction with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Elsewhere in academia, voting on a sweeping BDS proposal by the membership of the American Anthropological Association will conclude at the end of May with results to be announced early in June. Even as lawsuits have alleged that institutional boycotts by academic associations are illegal under state anti-discrimination laws, evidence has mounted that individual academics in anthropology and other fields are already engaged in personal BDS efforts against students and junior scholars, especially Israelis.
Personal boycotts suggest that the next frontier in opposition to BDS may be lawsuits on behalf of individuals. These will be much harder to demonstrate, in the first instance finding parties willing to come forward with adequate documentation to support allegations. Even if proved, such suits will run afoul of claims that discrimination against Israelis and supporters of Israel constitute academic freedom or freedom of speech. Ultimately, university guidelines and reviews of the fair treatment of applicants, students, and junior faculty, similar to procedures already in place for oversight of research involving human subjects, may be necessary. The resort to lawsuits or institutional review will further poison relations between faculty and administration and heighten hostility towards Israelis and supporters of Israel.
Equally important BDS developments took place in the political sphere. At its annual meeting the United Methodist Church (UMC) rejected four BDS resolutions and later voted to withdraw from the ‘US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.’ Similar BDS resolutions were rejected last year. The votes were a sharp rebuke the BDS campaign within the church and came after a statement from US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, herself a Methodist, condemning the BDS movement.
In a letter to Jewish leaders Clinton stated “It is because of my longstanding commitment to the Israeli people and to the security of Israel that I am writing to express my opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, or “BDS,” the global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges. I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority, and that we need to work together—across party lines and with a diverse array of voices—to reverse this trend with information and advocacy, and fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”
It is unclear to what extent Clinton’s comments contributed to the defeat of BDS in the Methodist context. Other examples have shown that resolution from political leaders galvanizes support both for and against BDS.
As if to illustrate this point, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has appointed BDS supporters, including Cornell West, James Zogby, and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, to the committee that will write the Democratic Party’s new platform. While reliably “progressive,” if not overtly socialist, West, Zogby, and Ellison, are most notable as bitter critics of Israel. Their selection has been interpreted as Sanders and his faction deliberately picking a fight within the party over Israel and threatening its unity.
Sanders’ supporters are usually depicted as outliers from the Democratic Party mainstream. But in fact they build on what former US diplomat Dennis Ross describes as President Barack Obama’s “conscious decision to try to distance [himself and his administration] from Israel.” In a move similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, Sanders’ campaign has relied on anti-Israel activists, including Muslim and Jewish ones, to build his coalition. This reengineering of the Democratic Party base is especially evident in its younger generations, a fact confirmed by recent polls showing that, unlike older Americans, liberal Democrats and millennials display markedly less sympathy toward Israel and that one-third would support boycotts.
Elsewhere on the political front, Nassau County on Long Island became the first municipality to pass legislation prohibiting the county from doing business with firms that boycott Israel. Anti-BDS legislation was also signed into law in Iowa, and the New Jersey State Senate passed a bill prohibiting the state or its pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel.
Internationally, the Dutch Foreign Minister stated that the BDS movement fell within the bounds of free speech but that the government did not support efforts to boycott Israel. At its national conference the liberal Dutch political party D66 also called for sanctions against Israel. In contrast, a Spanish court made a non-binding recommendation again municipalities with BDS policies, the Swiss Parliament opened an investigation into governmentally supported NGOs that back BDS, and the bank accounts of European BDS organizations have been shut down in Austria and France, as well as by PayPal.
Demonization of Israel in international institutions also intensified in May with overwhelming adoption of a resolution by the World Health Organization (WHO) condemning Israel for ‘violating the health rights’ of Palestinians. Israel was the only country singled out. Israel is currently opposing a Palestinian bid to join INTERPOL on fears that the international police organization will be similarly turned against Israel.
Illustrating this Palestinian tactic, the head of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, has again raised the issue of Israeli teams based in communities located across the Green Line in an effort to have them restricted from international play. Rajoub, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and former head of Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Force, is also head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee.
Finally, infighting within the Israeli government over BDS intensified during May. The State Comptroller’s annual report excoriated response to BDS from the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Relations, saying that it lacked strategy, funding, and effectiveness. In contrast, Strategic Affairs minister Gilad Erdan described the official response to BDS as mostly successful. Knesset member Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, also stated that the addition of Avigdor Lieberman to the government would increase BDS pressure on Israel.