January was shaped by the Israeli decision to ban high profile BDS activists and a series of embarrassing missteps by the BDS movement. With support apparently dropping on campus, the BDS movement’s antisemitic anger is exacerbating its clumsiness and prompting new tactics, including linking Israel with the Trump Administration and covering its intent with broad ‘human rights’ concerns. These have had limited success, since the antisemitic backgrounds of supporters are often quickly apparent.
In an era defined by social media the digital tracks follow individuals into the future. But national level institutions such as ‘old media,’ universities and other corporations, and legislatures, increasingly predisposed to display the ‘correct’ social leanings, are slower to be embarrassed by such antisemitic displays, especially from certain sectors.
The most significant BDS related development in January was the decision by the Government of Israel to ban activists from a number of high profile BDS groups. These include ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ Students for Justice in Palestine and its supporting organization, American Muslims for Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, War on Want, the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine, BDS South Africa and BDS Chile, and the American Friends Service Committee.
Israeli Strategic Affairs minister Gil Erdan stated this marked a shift from defense to offense against the BDS movement. Erdan added “No country would allow visitors who arrive to harm the country to enter it and certainly not when their goal is to wipe out Israel as a Jewish country.”
Reactions to the announcement were predictable, with prominent media, BDS activists and left wing groups excoriating the decision as an ‘antidemocratic’ infringement of ‘rights’ and a slap at global Jews. Members of Israeli opposition parties also condemned the move. More thoughtful observers pointed out the right of any national government to control who is admitted. But others also criticized the decision, noting it unnecessarily gave BDS groups the opportunity to depict themselves as martyrs, and situated the decision within the calculus of Israeli politics. Since Israel, like other countries, already exercises the ability to restrict entry of undesirables, it is unclear what the practical effect of the list will be.
Arguably, more significant BDS developments took place elsewhere. In New Orleans a BDS resolution was introduced and adopted by the city council. Described as a ‘human rights’ resolution, the measure called on the city to insure that none of its investments or contracts were with firms that violated global human, civil or labor rights. Although the measure did not mention Israel by name, later publicity revealed that the measure had been “in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS.”
In the wake of furious complaints it was quickly revealed that the local Palestine Solidarity Committee had drafted the resolution in consultation with the city’s mayor elect. In response, she and city council members expressed dismay and were quickly forced to disavow it, with some explaining that they had “no clue we were stepping into an international political controversy.” The affair concluded with the city council unanimously withdrawing the resolution and members expressing that they felt “duped.” Pro-Palestinian protestors attempted to disrupt the meeting.
Elsewhere, the first hijab-wearing model for L’Oreal cosmetics, Amena Khan, removed herself from the campaign after it was revealed that she had made a series of antisemitic social media postings. Among other things Khan had called Israel a “sinister state,” an “illegal state,” and had said the country is full of “child murderers.”
In another case, Amani al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of MuslimGirl.com, declined a “changemaker” award from Revlon, citing the company’s spokesperson, Gal Gadot, and her “vocal support of the Israeli Defense Forces’ actions in Palestine.” Al-Khatabaneh also has a history of antisemitic statements and support for the BDS movement, including blood libels and allegations that “9/11 was an inside job.”
Both cosmetic companies had embraced Khan and al-Khatabaneh without proper vetting, who were condemned only by Jewish sources. In response, a number of Muslim writers voiced support for both women and charged that criticism was anti-Muslim and racist and claimed that Gadot’s involvement with Revlon was anti-Palestinian.
In contrast to the embarrassment and disavowal by the New Orleans City Council, both companies distanced themselves without condemnation and the individuals remain unembarrassed. In a disturbing trend antisemites and their facilitators increasingly regret only unwanted exposure, while their loathsome beliefs are tolerated to a point because of tokenism that flatters corporations or other institutions.
Another notable development was the boycott of the Los Angeles Women’s March by local Palestinian and BDS groups protesting the participation of actress Scarlett Johansson, formerly spokeswoman for the Israeli firm Sodastream. One group stated that Johansson’s “unapologetic support of illegal settlements in the West Bank, a human rights violation recognized by the international community whose calls only led to a reaffirmation of her position, sending a clear message that Palestinian voices and human rights for Palestinians do not matter.”
The decision to boycott the march was a transparent and misleading publicity stunt, since Johansson had not worked with Sodastream for several years. The protest was an effort to shame her for past associations, either to elicit an apology and/or to warn off others from working with Israeli brands.
Despite efforts by local BDS groups to co-opt the march, a number of Jewish women’s groups reportedly participated, while others declined. Reports indicate that some local marches were marked by anti-Israel speeches. The Women’s March in 2017 had been co-organized by and prominently featured noted BDS supporter Linda Sarsour, and had feted National of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as well as a number of anti-American figures.
In academia, a BDS resolution at the University of South Florida was suddenly introduced, debated, and then tabled. The bizarre resolution included condemnation of the “Balfour act” of 1916, the assertion that Tel Aviv was the capital of Israel, and “refutes the Israeli justification for Palestinian occupation under the religious context of a “promised land.”” Equally bizarre was the assertion by a student senator that the resolution needed to be passed quickly because of an ‘Arab League deadline.’ The fact that students supporting the resolution, including the student government president, are 9/11 ‘truthers’ should also be noted, along with the involvement of an Egyptian-American political activist connected with the Muslim Brotherhood.
A second resolution, revised with the help of the university’s Hillel rabbi, addressed these issues. Rather than condemning the “the atrocities that the State of Israel has committed against Palestinian people” the revised resolution recognized “the suffering of the Palestinian people,” condemned Israeli ‘settlements’ and the ‘occupation, including in Gaza, as well as the Trump Administration’s decision to recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The measure passed overwhelmingly. The assistance of the Hillel rabbi appears to have been critical in expunging the bizarre and antisemitic elements from the original resolution and substituting boilerplate condemnation of Israel and the US. While the BDS movement has always sought Jewish support, it is unusual for mainstream Jewish representatives to help save them from their own antisemitism.
Another motion at the Ohio State University student government followed the same tactics that had been successful at the University of Michigan in late 2017 (but unsuccessful in New Orleans). These included disguising the intent by proposing a committee to investigate the university’s investments without mentioning Israel specifically, clumsily referencing BDS in their supporting materials, and ultimately, after a five hour debate, a procedurally irregular secret ballot in which the resolution passed. The BDS movement, and BDS opponents, both represented the outcome as a success.
In academia organizations, the Modern Language Association (MLA) held its annual meeting. BDS was not on the formal agenda, thanks to a referendum voted on by the membership last spring that barred the organization from adopting Israel boycotts. In response to that vote, dozens of members reportedly resigned in anger, claiming voting irregularities that had “stifled” support for BDS. Two leading BDS figures resigned from the organization’s executive board, claiming that they had run in part on platforms supporting BDS and that the board had shown “a troubling fetishization of process with little sensitivity or critical attention to the historical moment in which we are operating.”
This statement, however, effectively demonstrated that they had sought to take over the MLA on behalf of the BDS movement, in the same manner that has been exposed in many academic organizations. One BDS opponent also noted that the incoming president of the MLA in 2020, Judith Butler, is a leading BDS figure, who is likely to use her period in office to manipulate the organization against Israel. Butler’s scheduled participation in an MLA session on “Palestine and the Future of Academia” supports this conclusion.
In another development related to academia, the nomination of Kenneth Marcus to become Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The nomination will now go to the Senate.
Marcus, a well-known opponent of BDS and supporter of Jewish students’ rights, had previously been Staff Director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. He is also the founder of the Louis S. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
Marcus’s nomination had been bitterly opposed by the BDS movement and its supporters, which characterized him as an ‘anti-Palestinian rights crusader.’ The impact of the opposition is difficult to assess, but Democratic Senators were uniformly hostile to Marcus, suggesting before his testimony that he was more concerned with Jewish students than with other minorities. Particular concern was expressed regarding Marcus’s support for definitions of antisemitism that include Israel.
Reports also indicated that prior to the vote a senior advisor to Patty Murray, ranking Democrat on the HELP committee, told a lobbyist “We don’t care about anti-Semitism in this office,… We care about transgenders, we care about blacks, we care about Hispanics, we care about gays, we care about lesbians, we care about the disabled.” Murray’s office later denied the report.
During his testimony opposition to Marcus focused on his conservative background and values. But the fact that the vote approving Marcus’s nomination had no Democratic support was a disturbing development. The party line vote may be another indication of the declining Democratic concern for Jewish issues and support for Israel.
In the international sphere, the Irish Senate debated a measure to criminalize trade with Israeli ‘settlements,’ punishable by prison terms up to five year. While ostensibly aimed at all ‘occupied territories’ the author of the legislation and the debate made it clear the measure was aimed at Israel alone.
The Irish government reluctantly opposed the bill on the grounds that it would jeopardize ‘traditional Irish neutrality.’ Observers noted that the bill would also run afoul of US laws preventing companies doing business in the US from boycotting Israel, as well as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs and European Union policies. A vote on the measure was postponed at the request of the government, which also threatened to support the bill before the summer if there was not significant progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The debate was marked by harsh invective against Israel including accusations that Russian immigrants had ‘dragged’ Israel ‘to the right. To display its displeasure the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Irish Ambassador to a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.
In other international news, Amnesty International UK abruptly canceled a meeting that was to be held at its London headquarters sponsored by the Jewish Leadership Council to discuss the United Nations Human Rights Council’s obsession with Israel. The reason given was the allegation that the council was “an organisation that actively supports Israel’s settlements” which ran counter to Amnesty International UK’s formal support of BDS. Jewish leaders and other expressed outrage.