April saw confrontations emerge between faculty opposed to BDS and academic organizations that have adopted BDS resolutions, including legal action, between graduate students and university administrations, and within political parties. At the same time, university administrations continue to express opposition to BDS, and political parties contend with spillover from BDS to overt antisemitism. Legal outcomes notwithstanding, polarization within academia and politics will remain and animosity against Israel will shape those spheres in the future. The ability of BDS supporters to divide institutions against themselves, to undermine civility, is considerable. The long-term impact of reshaping Western society in these ways is consistent with the political agendas of both far left and Islamist BDS supporters.
In April BDS in academic organizations was a focal point as a lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) was filed on behalf of four members opposed to the organization’s adoption of a BDS resolution. The lawsuit alleges that the 2013 Israel boycott resolution violates District of Columbia laws that govern non-profit organizations by hijacking the ASA for a “narrow political agenda.” The suit also alleges that ASA violated its own procedures by refusing to circulate information regarding opposition to the resolution. The ASA has referred the matter to its attorneys. BDS supporters characterize the suit as an effort to silence free speech on behalf of Palestinian scholars.
The lawsuit against the ASA came as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) began online voting over its own, more strident BDS resolution that calls on the organization to boycott Israeli institutions and endorses discrimination by individual members against Israelis. The online vote, which concludes at the end of May, is the culmination of a multi-year effort to push the organization to adopt BDS. This included a one-sided task force charged with studying the issue, which produced an endorsement of BDS, and public debate at the organization’s annual meeting that saw BDS opponents harassed and shut off from participation. Despite opposition from a number of senior scholars the resolution will likely be adopted.
Whether or not the ASA lawsuit or any future AAA lawsuit succeeds in preventing BDS activities in academic organizations, these organizations and the academic disciplines they represent have been tainted. The existence of BDS resolutions give license to faculty and students to discriminate tacitly against Israelis and others who support Israel, and create an environment where Israel and BDS are litmus tests.
Elsewhere on campuses, several student governments approved BDS resolutions. A resolution was suddenly proposed and then adopted at the University of Chicago, but the university administration quickly issued a statement repudiating the decision and declaring it would not divest from or boycott Israel. A student-wide vote on a BDS resolution effectively calling for a complete boycott of Israel was narrowly rejected at Vassar College.
Another resolution was adopted at Edinburgh University. There a student opposed to the resolution was almost ejected for violating the meeting’s “safe space policy” when she raised her hand in order to be noticed. This incident demonstrated how concepts such ‘safe spaces’ are co-opted by BDS advocates and applied tactically against pro-peace supporters. It also comes in the context of growing antisemitism at Scottish universities, the latest example being the appearance of flyers claiming that Jews had invented the Holocaust for financial gain. Students and faculty at several Italian universities also launched Israel boycott campaigns.
At the University of Minnesota a BDS resolution was voted down after Jewish students had the text modified to call for divestment from all “corporations involved in human rights violations,” and “companies profiting from human rights abuses and violations of international law.” During the debate BDS supporters claimed that removing Israel as the focus of the bill was “anti-Palestinian discrimination.”
The related claim that opposition to BDS was “Islamophobic” was also approved in a resolution adopted by the Graduate Student Association at UCLA. The resolution represents a new approach in the long BDS saga at UCLA. The president of the UCLA graduate student government was also censured by the organization for requesting that it not fund pro or anti-BDS groups. The local SJP chapter obtained support for its efforts to first publicly attack then censure the student from the pro-BDS organization Palestine Legal (a joint project of the far-left Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild, and located on the same premises as the Chicago office of the American Friends Service Committee).
BDS resolutions were approved by graduate student organizations at New York University (and condemned by the university president), the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (where the administration also reiterated its opposition to BDS), and at the City University of New York (CUNY). The CUNY vote was further marred by allegations of antisemitism and procedural illegalities from both pro and anti-BDS students and faculty. The CUNY vote was set against continuing allegations of antisemitism and harassment by local SJP chapters.
The sudden series of BDS resolutions in graduate student associations may suggest that pressure against BDS at the undergraduate level is having some success. But the adoption of BDS resolutions by graduate students indicates that a substantial number of these pre-professionals are reliably anti-Israel and will recreate the biases that exist within academia.
In contrast to the undergraduate and graduate levels, other developments were more positive. Most significant were statements from the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and ten campuses of the University of California, explicitly opposing BDS. The letters were solicited by Israeli counterparts and included explicit condemnations of the proposed AAA boycott. The faculty senate at the University of Michigan at Dearborn also voted down two BDS resolutions.
April also saw talks by Israeli speakers disrupted by BDS supporters. The first were incidents of harassment directed against Israeli speakers. At San Francisco State University (SFSU) a speech by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat was disrupted by BDS supporters chanting “intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The university president condemned the mayor’s treatment and promised a “full investigation.” The SFSU protestors were apparently members of the General Union of Palestine Students, an organization founded in 1959 in Cairo to unify Palestinian, Muslim, Arab and leftist students against Israel. The SFSU branch is the oldest in the United States and was the progenitor of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
In another incident a BDS supporter publicly insulted former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In a forum at Harvard Law School involving Livni and American diplomat Dennis Ross, law student, BDS supporter, and campus activist Husam El-Qoulaq asked Livni, “How is it that you are so smelly?” The law school dean immediately condemned the comments but the law school refused to identify the speaker, going so far as to edit video of the event. El-Qoulaq was later defended by 11 Jewish law students in a public letter that characterized his comments as “more mischief than malice” and decried the “smear campaign” against him.
The BDS strategy of delegitimizing routine contacts with Israelis was apparent in the treatment of visiting Knesset members by the Chapel Hill Town Council. Local pro-BDS groups including Jewish Voice for Peace and the ‘Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East’ attempted to prevent the meeting and least one council member walked out.
A different BDS strategy, claiming that criticism of BDS amounts to threats and intimidation, was on display at the University of California at Berkeley and San Diego State University, where students protested the appearance of flyers linking BDS to Palestinian terrorism.
In an important development, Congressional testimony in April showed that SJP is supported by an Islamist group, American Muslims for Palestine, which is run by individuals previously involved in the Holy Land Foundation and the Islamic Association for Palestine, organizations censured for providing material support to Hamas. The largely hidden role of Islamists indicates in part that the BDS movement is being used as a stalking horse, both against Israel and more broadly against American institutions and American society.
In Britain scandals brought the connection between BDS and antisemitism into the political forefront. One major development was the election of avowed anti-Zionist and BDS supporter Malia Bouattia as president of the National Union of Students (NUS). Bouattia had previously described the city of Birmingham as a “zionist outpost” and that the university there “has the largest Jewish Society in the country, whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.”
In response to the election, campaigns have begun at 24 universities across Britain to disassociate student groups from the NUS. Several Jewish Societies (Jewish student groups) have also broken with the NUS. Also in response, the spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council condemned the “power of the zio lobby” and warned “You really should’t poke a tiger, you terrorist-sympathising p*****.”
The NUS scandal comes as the antisemitism problem within the Labour Party continues to expand. One of the most recent revelations saw a BDS-supporting Labour Member of Parliament, Naz Shah, apologize for social media posting that the “solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict was to “relocate Israel into the United States.” Shah also resigned as secretary to the Labour shadow finance minister.
After a firestorm of criticism Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn deemed Shah’s proposal “offensive” but initially refused to suspend her from the party. She was later suspended, “pending investigation,” as was Labour firebrand Ken Livingstone, who justified Shah’s remarks on the basis of Nazi policy of moving Jews to Palestine. Livingstone, former Mayor of London, also accused the “Israel lobby” of smearing its opponents. Observers note that many other Labour Members of Parliament and local councilors routinely make antisemitic statements and support BDS. Despite calls for the Labour Party to address its antisemitism problem, other commentators dismissed criticism of Shah as a ‘smear.’ In another ironic twist Shah will serve on a parliamentary investigation into antisemitism.
Finally in political news, a bill prohibiting the State of Florida from doing business with firms boycotting Israel was signed. A similar bill was passed by the Iowa Senate, along with another declaring support for Israel and for a negotiated peace settlement. During a visit to Israel Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan also condemned the BDS movement, and a bipartisan taskforce in the House released a letter to the Secretary of Education inquiring about that department’s response to BDS.