In the wake of the US presidential election BDS supporters joined far left anti-Trump protestors, while a BDS supporter became the leading candidate to head the Democratic National Committee. In academia the Middle East Studies Association proposed redefining itself as a political organization in order to support future BDS resolutions, while Federal legislation to limit Israel boycotts was introduced. The polarization of America has increased and the position of BDS as a far left cause may shift as the political and cultural landscapes change.
The November election was a turning point in US history. In the protests that ensued BDS supporters were present along with other groups including ANSWER and Black Lives Matter. Palestinian flags, ‘free Palestine’ chants, and calls for intifada were heard at street protests in New York and other cities. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters participated in the protests.
BDS support for anti-Trump protests expands the ‘intersectional’ alliances with far-left movements, in this case ANSWER and Socialist Alternatives. Another recent example is BDS support for protests against the Standing Rock Sioux pipeline. Such alliances feature BDS activists attempting to usurp media attention, usually against the will of the hijacked cause.
The Trump election may have a direct impact on BDS. The nomination of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations would see a strong BDS opponent in a critical position, as would rumored appointments for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former UN ambassador John Bolton. If rumors are true that the Trump Administration will designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, SJP and its sponsoring organizations could also be in jeopardy.
In response to the Democratic collapse, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison put himself forward to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Ellison has roots in the Nation of Islam, fervently defended antisemites like Louis Farrakahn, supported the BDS movement, is effectively a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and encouraged rewriting the party platform to oppose the Israeli “occupation.”
Ellison stands on the far-left of the Democratic Party. With the support of party figures like Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren, Jewish groups including the ADL and J Street, and despite the opposition of the Obama White House, he may oversee the Democratic Party into the future. Ellison’s leadership of the DNC would be consequential for party policies towards Israel and BDS.
More broadly, it appears that an ‘intersectional’ alignment of the BDS movement and the far left of the Democratic Party is taking place, and that as the party moves left, anti-Israel agitation and BDS will take center stage in the manner of the British Labour Party.
Elsewhere in the political sphere, the governor of Pennsylvania signed an anti-BDS bill prohibiting the state from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. Similar legislation was introduced in Texas and in the US Congress. The “Protecting Israel Against Economic Discrimination Act of 2016” would “amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 to include in the prohibitions on boycotts against allies of the United States boycotts fostered by international governmental organizations against Israel and to direct the Export-Import Bank of the United States to oppose boycotts against Israel, and for other purposes.”
In academia, a BDS resolution failed for the tenth time at the University of Michigan. Opponents reported that BDS activists adhere to a strict anti-normalization policy prohibiting them from even shaking hands with pro-peace students. The vote came after the SJP chapter at the university’s Dearborn campus held a “Zionism is scary” bake sale.
The University of Toronto graduate student union also rejected a BDS resolution. Pro-peace activists commented that BDS supporters had significantly underestimated opposition to the resolution. This observation supports other anecdotal evidence suggesting the BDS movement is energizing more effective opposition.
Elsewhere in Canada, however, the McGill University student newspaper responded to complaints by Jewish students and declared that it would not run pieces with “a Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we consider to be oppressive.” This extraordinary statement was sharply criticized by Jewish groups but passed without comments from university officials. The statement also came as a group of Canadian mayors visiting Israel were quoted as saying that BDS was waning in that country. BDS supporters at McGill also attempted to block the installation of a ‘peace wall’ – an inversion of the ‘apartheid wall’ – and complained that it “appropriates the forms of Palestinian resistance.”
After bitter complaints from students and alumni Oberlin College took the dramatic step of firing Joy Karega, a BDS supporting faculty member with a long record of making antisemitic comments on social media. The Board of Trustees noted that her antisemitism could not be separated from her scholarship and that her “repeated refusal to acknowledge and remedy her misconduct, her continued presence undermines the mission and values of Oberlin’s academic community.”
More ominously, the business meeting at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) approved a resolution to remove the term “non-political” from the organization’s bylaws. The proposal will be voted on by the full membership in 2017. MESA’s redefinition as an academic yet ‘political’ organization will open the way for it to adopt a BDS resolution in the future. Several ‘academic’ panels on BDS were also featured at the 2016 annual conference to further its normalization.
How such a move would affect MESA’s nonprofit status and accord with local anti-discrimination laws is unclear. With respect to MESA’s academic reputation, even scholars who personally support BDS have spoken out in the past against the organization formally adopting a pro-BDS stance. The bylaws change was supported by a cadre of younger faculty committed to BDS and unmoved by arguments that such a political stance would compromise MESA in other ways.
As if to demonstrate the extent that younger faculty tend to politicize all spaces, the leader of the MESA cadre, Joshua Stracher of Kent State University, recently voiced support for a demand by the SJP chapter to remove a mural depicting Golda Meir from a public space at the university. Stracher is also the SJP chapter’s faculty advisor. The school has rejected the demand.
University validation of BDS was also in evidence at Columbia Law School and George Mason University. At Columbia the Law School and Center for Palestine Studies hosted a day-long pro-BDS conference. This type of event, a regular staple at Columbia, gives academic credence to anti-Israel bias and the BDS movement.
George Mason University rented facilities for the National SJP conference. A group of prominent citizens including Virginia lawmakers called for the arrangement to be terminated since SJP has a record of antisemitic incitement and its umbrella organization, American Muslims for Palestine, has links to Hamas. The conference proceeded, with Jewish and other students presenting counterprogramming and conference organizers limiting media access to sympathetic “movement outlets.”
A recent study has shown a strong correlation between BDS activities on US campuses and antisemitic incidents. This correlation is also strong at British universities. In the aftermath of violent BDS protests at University College London (UCL) in October British police were investigating social media postings by the attack’s ringleader for antisemitic bias. Police also warned pro-Israel groups not to post the locations of events for fear of violent attacks.
The British universities minister stated in response to the UCL incident that universities cannot tolerate “students that use intimidation or violence to attempt to shut down.” An independent university regulatory body also ruled that Sheffield Hallam University had permitted the school’s Palestine Society to harass and intimidate Jewish students.
Ironically, these official condemnations of BDS activities came just as a Jewish BDS supporter became a candidate to lead Britain’s Jewish student umbrella group. A group of Jewish students at Cambridge also accused the university of covering up antisemitic abuse. More positively, a new survey indicated the British public was increasingly opposed to Israel boycotts.
Elsewhere on the international scene, French authorities published an official notification calling for separate labeling of goods produced in Israeli ‘settlements.’ It is unclear whether this notification has the status of an official mandate. The call follows a similar 2015 European Union (EU) recommendation. An official boycott of ‘settlement’ goods was also adopted by the Norwegian city of Trondheim. In addition to cutting of the city’s purchase of such goods, the council called for private citizens to join the boycott.
In response to a query, EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogharini, stated that BDS was protected speech under the union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, adding that “The EU rejects the BDS campaign’s attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel.” Despite her explicit rejection of BDS, Palestinian representatives and BDS supporters nevertheless hailed Mogharini’s statement.
The conflicted European response to BDS was also illustrated in Germany, where a bank shut down the account of a leading BDS group after allegations of ties to Hamas. At the same time the controversy over BDS supporting teachers union in the city of Oldenburg continued, with calls for the national union to take action against the local branch.