The first violent BDS protest of the fall semester has now occurred, as Midwestern colleges and universities begin offering direct support to campus activists, including the BLM and BDS movements, through training programs. The growing trend to regard Palestinians as ‘people of color’ continues to superimpose BDS on racial and other protest movements, even as violence by BDS supporters, and their ‘intersectional’ allies, undermines their broader appeal.
The most notable BDS development in October was a violent incident at University College London. A talk by a former Israeli soldier was attacked by a mob of around 100 BDS supporters who attempted to enter the room through doors and windows while shouting “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.” Pro-Israel students and other attendees were trapped in the room until police arrived, who then escorted them from the hall to another venue where the talk was held. BDS protestors also assaulted several Jewish students.
British Jewish leaders strongly condemned the attack and called on the university to take disciplinary measures against the protestors. The university described the events as “non-violent” but stated it would begin an inquiry and “take appropriate disciplinary action where there is clear evidence that students may have breached our disciplinary regulations.”
The incident is similar to others where BDS supporters attempted to shut down talks by Israeli speakers at University College London, the University of Texas, at the University of Minnesota, and several University of California campuses. The unwillingness of university administrations to provide adequate protection for pro-Israel speakers is an ongoing problem, as is reluctance to punish BDS supporters engaged in violence and disruption.
At the University of California at Berkeley, however, a ‘National Day of Action’ by professional BDS supporters was countered by a peaceful and well-organized demonstration by several pro-Israel organizations. The unusual show of force and unity by Israel supporters gives some credence to recent reports that suggest that campus antisemitism from the BDS movement has begun to motivate more students to fight back.
This trend comes as universities are expanding direct support for ‘social justice’ movements by offering training in political activism, apparently including BDS organizations. At Northwestern University, for example, the ‘Leadership and Social Engagement Office’ is offering a day of “Social Justice Advocacy Training” and promotional materials include the logo of the local BDS organization, NU Divest. Other Chicago-area universities are offering similar training.
The point of these programs appears to be to direct students to lobby states to maintain support for universities while simultaneously appearing to support student activism. The university imprimatur received by groups like BLM and BDS advocates, and their enhanced ‘intersectional’ cooperation, is highly destructive. It is unclear whether cooperation will mainstream or marginalize these causes in broader society.
Unwitting mainstreaming was also seen in October as several BDS events were held under the banners of university branches. Most notable of these was a daylong BDS session held at Columbia Law School. Another example is the National SJP conference, to be held at the George Mason University in Virginia in November. This event has prompted opposition from state lawmakers.
BDS controversies continued at Syracuse University after the preemptive cancellation of an Israeli film. In the latest case faculty supporting BDS voiced opposition to a long-scheduled conference then underway at the university that brought together scholars, including Israelis and Palestinians, who study ‘intractable conflicts.’ The BDS supporters stated that the presence of Israelis violated the guidelines of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, in effect claiming that these were somehow binding on the university.
The incident illustrated the extent to which ‘anti-normalization’ has become accepted among US faculty members. More broadly, the incident illustrated the extent to which pedagogy, academic inquiry, and free speech are regarded as weapons in a campus culture that increasingly demands students be protected from ideas, and where accusations of ‘racism’ are leveled at those who call out racism, such as that of the BDS movement. The emerging ‘intersectional’ trend to characterize Palestinians as ‘people of color’ whose racism is simultaneously impossible and beyond criticism provides additional protection for the BDS movement.
Elsewhere in academia, a BDS resolution was passed at Portland State University. The resolution accused Israel of being an “apartheid state” but was most notable for stating that the “Israeli occupation of Palestinian land has been entrenched since 1948,” meaning simply that the entire existence of Israel is illegitimate. In a statement earlier this year when the resolution was originally introduced, the university president called it “divisive and ill-informed.”
Abuse of Jewish holidays by BDS supporters was also in evidence during October. At the University of Michigan on the eve of Rosh Hashana an “apartheid wall” and mock “checkpoints” were erected by BDS supporters. An official of the New York Board of Rabbis also condemned High Holiday materials created by a leading BDS group, ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ which included ‘readings’ celebrating BDS and the Israeli ‘occupation.’ A BDS group in Chicago also organized demonstrations during the holidays in order to send a message to the Jewish community.
BDS support for terrorism was also in evidence in October as the University of California at Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice (SJP) in Palestine launched a web-based fundraising effort for Ali Jiddah, who served a 17 year prison sentence for planting explosives that injured four Israelis. Jiddah (whose father originated in Chad) is described by SJP as “Afro-Palestinian,” suggesting their interest also includes his ‘intersectional’ identity. More broadly this case and longstanding SJP support for convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh, who is appealing her conviction in Federal court for lying on US immigration forms, demonstrate SJP endorsement of Palestinian violence against Israelis.
More positively, an umbrella group representing Canadian universities has adopted a policy opposing discrimination based on place of origin. Canadian Jewish leaders expect that the policy will help opposition to BDS resolutions by student governments.
There were several important BDS developments in the political sphere. The most important were revelations from hacked emails that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary R. Clinton was warned by her advisors not to not to “have Israel at public events” but to restrict such discussions to donor meetings. At the same time, other emails reveal Clinton consulted with advisors regarding ways to oppose BDS. Clinton’s positions reflect both the growing strength of anti-Israel forces within the ranks of Democratic Party supporters and her own often-stated personal opposition to BDS.
The Pennsylvania Senate has passed legislation prohibiting the state from doing business with firms engaged in discrimination “based on race, color, religion, gender or national affiliation or origin of the targeted person or entity.” The bill, which was strenuously opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, is expected to be signed by the Pennsylvania governor.
The continued failure of BDS at the state level appears to be one of the factors prompting the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the main North American BDS umbrella group, to rebrand itself as the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Foregrounding ‘Palestinian rights’ puts a positive spin of “freedom, justice and equality” on their anti-Israel activities and helps makes the movement more superficially appealing to ‘intersectional’ allies on the far left.
At the same time, however, reports indicate that the broader BDS movement is planning renewed campaigns directed at municipalities and liberal churches. ‘Intersectional’ claims will give the BDS movement license to hijack local causes and divestment initiatives. Given the dramatic record of BDS failures at the state and national levels, it is unclear whether these moves are acts of growing, if perhaps deluded, confidence, or desperation.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, reports indicate that both American Express and Citi have withdrawn their support for musician Roger Water’s upcoming tour as a result of his outspoken support for BDS. Reports indicate Waters’ inflammatory rhetoric toward Israel, as well as Donald Trump, at a recent music festival may have prompted the sponsors’ decisions.