March saw divestment resolutions, ‘apartheid week,’ campus antisemitism, and important political developments. As BDS resolutions on campus fail to gain real traction, overt antisemitism continues to increase. Equally notable are gains against BDS in the political arena as US states and international leaders take legislative action and speak out. But at the same time the BDS movement is increasingly featured by far left and anti-Trump politics, with negative ramifications for feminism and other centrist causes.
March was a complicated month for BDS, with divestment resolutions, ‘apartheid week,’ outbreaks of campus antisemitism, and important political developments.
BDS resolutions were rejected by student governments at the University of Illinois, Ohio State University, and a branch of the University of Western Ontario, but approved at De Anza College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The Georgetown University Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility also rejected a student demand to divest from companies doing business in Israel. The student government at the University of Turin, however, passed a resolution calling for that university to end all cooperation with the Technion.
‘Apartheid week’ events were held at many colleges and universities. In a departure from standard practice, however, the Columbia University student government declined support to the BDS group responsible for ‘apartheid week’ and a ‘Zionism is racism’ event. To counter ‘apartheid week’ programming, pro-Israel students at Columbia also held a “Hebrew Liberation Week.”
In Britain one notable feature of ‘apartheid week’ was a strong statement by Prime Minister Theresa May calling on universities to “investigate and swiftly address” antisemitism on campus. May was responding to a question that specifically addressed ‘apartheid week.’ Her comments should be seen in the context of an important British policy shift away from routinely supporting anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations.
These campus BDS developments came as antisemitic incidents continued in the US and Europe. In March these included distribution of flyers decrying “white privilege” and “Jewish privilege” at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and flyers with swastikas at Virginia Tech. At the University of Texas this included harassment of a pro-Israel event and Jewish students.
An unusual incident saw the Ohio State Hillel dropped its affiliation with a campus LGBTQ group after the latter co-sponsored an event with the leading pro-BDS group ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’ The group then characterized the move as anti-LGBTQ rather than as consistent with Hillel’s longstanding policy of opposing BDS.
In an important faculty-related development, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted to drop the words “non-political” from its charter. The move was supported by twelve former MESA presidents, many of whom are BDS supporters. MESA has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and the change paves the way for BDS resolutions to be adopted by the organization in the future. It is unclear, however, whether the change will jeopardize MESA’s non-profit status.
In the political sphere, legislation opposing state investments in firms boycotting Israel were passed in Arkansas and Texas, while another bill is pending in Maryland. A separate bill condemning antisemitism was passed in South Carolina. The antisemitism bill was strongly criticized by Palestinian and BDS supporters for using the US State Department definition of antisemitism that includes language regarding anti-Israel bias.
The New York State Senate passed legislation that would prevent the state from funding campus groups calling for boycotts of Israel and “allied nations.” It is unclear whether or how this legislation would apply to student activity fees, which comprise a major source of income for campus BDS groups.
Opponents, including the legal arm of the BDS movement, protested that the legislation would unfairly restrict the free speech rights of students. The bill has moved to the State Assembly, where strong opposition is expected. The issue, however, reflects the manner in which the BDS movement increasingly holds campus and free speech issues hostage to their cause.
More controversially still, legislation was introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives that would fine companies that complied with United Nations or other international boycotts of Israeli communities across the Green Line. The bipartisan sponsors stated the legislation was not designed to protect ‘settlements’ but to keep Palestinians from using international pressure to avoid final status negotiations on borders.
The uniformity with which the American political elite now regards BDS as antisemitism was also on display at the annual AIPAC meeting, where House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the equation in precisely those terms. Haley reiterated her comments at a conference saying, “The effort to delegitimize the state of Israel being waged on college campuses and the anti-Israel obsession at the UN are one and the same.” She further noted “We should boycott North Korea. We should sanction Iran. We should divest from Syria, not Israel.”
In political-legal news, BDS supporter and Palestinian symbol Rasmea Odeh accepted a plea deal from Federal authorities. Odeh, convicted in Israel for a terror bombing that killed two, has now admitted to lying on her US immigration application and will be deported, probably to Jordan. Odeh, along with BDS supporter Linda Sarsour were organizers of the recent International Women’s Strike, whose platform called for the “decolonization of Palestine” and thus, Israel’s destruction.
In an interview, Sarsour also explicitly stated that being feminist was incompatible with Zionism and support for Israel, a viewpoint that elicited objections from both Zionist women and representatives of the far left. At the same time Sarsour led an effort to raise money to restore Jewish cemeteries, which has been viewed by some as a useful cover for her BDS activities. Both Odeh and Sarsour will be featured speakers at the ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ conference in April.
The Odeh and Sarsour controversies shows the manner in which BDS has colonized the American left through the ‘intersectional’ elevation of Palestinians at the expense of multifaceted, and comprehensible, interpretations of feminism. Embracing of convicted terrorists like Odeh is becoming the litmus test for acceptance into ‘intersectional’ feminism.
A similar phenomenon of embracing repression in the name of anti-Trump activism is seen in the adoption of the hijab as a symbol of “feminism” and “resistance,” as well as in popular culture in the name of “diversity.” Asserting the permanent victimhood of women, Muslims, and Palestinians as an organizing concept, denying women who support Israel the right to participate in the feminist movement and to exercise free speech, and elevating repressive symbolism such as the hijab, is part of a broader project of normalizing Islamist structures in the West.
Internationally, a United Nations-backed anti-Israel boycott effort was unmasked and thwarted. The U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), comprised solely of Muslim states, undertook a ‘research’ effort on Israel’s ‘apartheid regime’ designed to lead to a global propaganda campaign against Israel and sanctions against ‘settlements.’ The report’s authors were Richard Falk, retired law professor, UN ‘human rights’ functionary, BDS supporter, and 9/11 truther, and Virginia Tilley, a law professor and noted one-state advocate.
When word of the report leaked, it elicited fierce responses from Israel and the United States. After pressure by the UN Secretary General, the official who had commissioned the report, Rima Khalaf, resigned and the report was removed from UN websites. The episode demonstrated, yet again, the extent to which the United Nations system, including obscure appendages, has been subverted to support the Palestinian and BDS causes. Another ESCWA report, this time comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and slave-era America with the goal of calculating Israeli ‘reparations,’ is planned for 2017.
Elsewhere in Europe, a BDS conference in Rome was canceled after protests from the Jewish community. Similar pressure also caused the cancelation of BDS events in Vienna, Bonn and Frankfurt, and hotels in Vienna also refused to host BDS events.
In Switzerland a series of reports showed the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs was funding a variety of BDS groups in the Palestinian Authority and Israel. A bill banning such funding was then introduced and passed by the lower house of the Swiss legislature. The bill will be taken up by the upper house in May.
Finally, important BDS related developments also took place in Israel. In the first, the Knesset approved legislation giving the government authority to bar BDS supporters from entering Israel. The legislation was sharply criticized by Israelis and others as both unnecessary and an effort that could be seen as criminalizing opposition to both Israel and Israeli communities in the West Bank.
As a symbolic matter the law responded to growing Israeli concerns regarding BDS and appears partially designed to deter activists from entering Israel, without regard, however, for international ramifications. In practical terms, however, the law changes little since Israeli security forces in the past have prevented BDS activists from entering the country.
Another important development was the arrest by Israeli authorities of BDS leader and co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) Omar Barghouti on charges of tax evasion. Barghouti, an Israeli citizen, is alleged to have hidden $700,000 in income as well as the existence of foreign bank accounts. Barghouti’s arrest was condemned by other BDS leaders but suggests that the Israeli government is cracking down on illicit funding of the movement.