In July BDS took center stage at US Presidential conventions. But important differences between the Republican and Democratic platforms regarding Israel reflect changes in the parties and US politics. BDS in British politics also suffered a blow with Brexit and the rise of Theresa May and Boris Johnson to office but BDS-inspired harassment of Israelis continued in Britain, as well as at British and American universities. Active political leadership against BDS is vital but is no substitute for accountability in institutions such as police and universities.
BDS continued to be an issue in US Presidential politics. The Republican Party adopted a platform that explicitly condemned BDS and reaffirmed US support for Israel. Somewhat controversially, the platform did not mention support for a Palestinian state. Overall the support for Israel was the result of a long-term effort to harness support from grassroots and evangelical sources.
In contrast, the Democratic platform remained along its traditional lines, supporting a two state solution. Platform committee members connected to Hillary Clinton pushed back another attempt by Bernie Sanders appointed members to insert BDS movement language condemning the “occupation.”
Inside the convention Sanders activists inside waved Palestinian flags while protestors outside burned Israeli flags and chanted “intifada” The Clinton campaign condemned the flag burning but awareness of these issues may have helped prompt the repeated mentions of Israel in former President Bill Clinton’s convention speech.
Despite the unusual nature of this year’s Presidential campaign party trajectories are becoming clearer. Regardless of whether Clinton wins the general election in November, ethnic minorities and millennials (nominally represented by Sanders) influenced by the BDS movement have spearheaded opposition to Israel within the Democratic Party, to the extent that even mainstream media have taken notice.
One example of this was recent comments by Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia who, in an event sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, described Israeli communities in the West Bank as “termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself.” Sanders also invited Paul Bustinduy of Spain’s far-left antisemitic Podemos party to attend the convention.
Concerns about the Democratic relationship with Israel were expressed by former Hawaiian Governor Laura Lingle, who in a speech to the Democratic convention complained that “On one issue after another, from boycott, divestment and sanctions to the Iran nuclear agreement to the very legitimacy of Israel, they’re divided, with those who don’t care for Israel getting stronger in the Democratic Party… You’ll find no such division in the Republican Party’s leadership.”
The political context for BDS in the United States broadened in July with accusations that Israel, or Israeli training, were responsible for recent police shootings. A new analysis has shows how BDS activists seeded the narrative of Israeli training of US police over the past years and then brought it to the forefront after the 2014 Ferguson shooting as a means to capture support from the Black Lives Matter movement. This strategy has been successful.
Accusations that Israeli methods and/or training were responsible for police shootings, and that police shootings in the US were the same as killing Palestinian terrorists, are now common. At New York University the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) repeated these claims saying “The same forces behind the genocide of black people in America are behind the genocide of Palestinians.”
This prompted complaints from Jewish students and a ‘clarification’ that “ Israel did not literally kill either of these men: that much is obvious. But the group went on to state “The IDF assists the NYPD and other American police departments in their oppression and murder of black people… these groups share a common logic that manifests in several types of oppression, white supremacist racism among them.”
But the strategy has not been uniformly successful. In July Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed forcefully rejected demands by Black Lives Matter activists that city police end Israeli counterterrorism training saying “I’m not going to do that; I happen to believe that the Israeli police department has some of the best counterterrorism techniques in the world, and it benefits our police department from that longstanding relationship.” The call to end US police relationships with Israel was also rejected by law enforcement groups.
Important BDS related developments also took place in Britain, which voted to leave the European Union. In a complicated sequence of events, Conservative Party member Boris Johnson became Foreign Minister. Johnson is an outspoken critic of the BDS movement and supporter of Israel, as is Theresa May, the new Prime Minister. The election, and the continuing antisemitism crisis within the Labour Party, should minimize official British support for BDS, although it should not be expected to change public attitudes.
But in a sign that BDS is deeply embedded in official British and European practice, British police questioned former Israeli minister Tzipi Livni in connection with a “war crimes” investigation connected to the 2008 Gaza conflict. The main force in Britain pushing for indictments of Israeli officials is the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which is heavily funded by the European Union (EU). Other reports indicate that European sources provide funding to dozens of BDS related NGOs in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
These incidents show that while political leadership against BDS is vital, its practice, especially in Europe, has become habitual for bureaucracies, particularly those outside of daily political oversight, such as the police, or any oversight at all, such as the EU.
BDS also continues to be a political issue in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated to a Knesset panel that “we have beaten” the BDS movement. The statement came in the context of a wide-ranging discussion that addressed Netanyahu’s control of foreign affairs and other portfolios.
The expanding politization of BDS in Israel reflects both pressure from academia and economic leaders for the government to address the issue, and the reality that factions and bureaucracies are competing for resources devoted to the problem.
In Palestinian society, however, increasing pressures by BDS activists opposed to ‘normalization’ with Israel have targeted a joint project with Israel retail magnate Rami Levy.
In higher education a new report indicated that harassment and intimidation of Jewish students is increasing, with almost 300 incidents reported in 2016. The report pointed to SJP chapters and allied faculty as the major sources of the problem. Illustrating the point were complaints by Jewish groups that the University of California at Irvine was dragging out its investigation of violent harassment by the local SJP chapter during the showing of an Israeli film. It was also reported that the Orange County District Attorney was investigating the SJP chapter but that this was inconclusive.
BDS groups led by SJP were also accused of targeting the head of the UCLA graduate student union, who had previously prohibited use of union funds for BDS activities. Complaints regarding this policy led to a secret investigation by the university’s ‘Discrimination Prevention Office’ that concluded the student had violated the school’s ‘anti-discrimination policy.’ Harnessing the university’s legal mechanisms to support BDS is consistent with the lawfare strategy seen at so many institutions.
Similar subversion of higher educational institutions was seen in Britain, where leaders of the National Union of Students voted to prohibit Jewish students from selecting their own representative to the union’s ‘Anti-Fascism, Anti-Racism’ committee.
Finally, in the wake of the attempted coup in Turkey, the country’s institutions are being purged of alleged supporters of regime adversary Fethullah Gülen. In higher education this has included closure of universities and dismissal of almost 1600 university deans, which has led US and European groups to condemn the crackdown. Observers have noted, however, the absence of calls to boycott Turkey.