The BDS movement suffered major losses in March as politicians and legislators condemned the movement. Particularly important were condemnations from all remaining US presidential candidates, representatives of European governments and Christian leaders. University trustees in the US also condemned BDS antisemitism, setting up confrontations with faculty members, while campus antisemitic incidents increased. Overall the inherent antisemitism of BDS is being revealed, particularly on campuses, as the movement experiences real pressure.
In March BDS became an issue in the US presidential campaign. In speeches at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and Republicans John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, all condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. Democrat Bernie Sanders did not attend but his comments on BDS echoed those of the other candidates. Their comments do not represent policy commitments but reflect a perception regarding the seriousness of the BDS issue for American Jews and others.
These condemnations were repeated in other settings by global politicians including US Senator Cory Booker, a group of Latin American and Caribbean lawmakers, British Justice Minister Michael Gove, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom also condemned the BDS movement but did not refer to antisemitism. These remarks reflect the growing political realization that BDS is inherently antisemitic, discriminatory, and a threat to civil society.
Individual states continued to pass legislation prohibiting state agencies from doing business with entities that boycott Israel. The most recent states include Georgia, Colorado, Arizona, with a bill pending in Ohio. A non-binding resolution condemning BDS was passed in Virginia.
At the United Nations, however, the ‘Human Rights Council’ voted to create a database of Israeli businesses operating across the Green Line and in the Golan Heights. The vote and blacklist, which are likely to create international legitimacy for Israel boycotts, were condemned by Israel and the United States. US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also emphasized American opposition to BDS in remarks at a conference on the issue in Israel. Shapiro quoted Obama, who recently stated, “I have directed my Administration to strongly oppose boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting the State of Israel. As long as I am President, we will continue to do so.”
Although criticism of BDS grew decisively in the political sphere, the problem of BDS related antisemitism has grown more acute in academia, prompting official action. The most important took place as the University of California Regents adopted a controversial “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that noted “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.”
The statement was modified at the last minute to condemn “antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism,” as “forms of discrimination,” that “have no place at the University of California.” The statement did not condemn anti-Zionism as a whole but was still criticized for specifying that attacks on Israel could constitute antisemitism. Predictably, the BDS movement and its supporters excoriated the statement, while BDS opponents were pleased.
Overt antisemitism connected to the BDS movement was on display at Vassar and Oberlin. The student government at Vassar passed a BDS resolution, despite warnings that the move could violate New York State antidiscrimination laws and prompt the administration to assume control of student activity funding. Reports indicated the harassment of Jewish students during the debate prior to the student government vote, and faculty members have weighed in regarding the debate and the school’s atmosphere of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. In response, the university president issued a statement that “that Vassar will not boycott any companies or in any way support BDS.”
The vote came after a talk by a BDS proponent, Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University, who alleged that Israel routinely murdered Palestinians and harvested their organs. After widespread condemnation, Vassar held a webinar for alumni in which officials defended the right of the speaker to make her claims. The university president also defended the speaker but admitted that “Some found at least parts of her talk offensive to Jews in particular, and others have found many of her writings highly objectionable.”
At Oberlin, revelations regarding a faculty member’s social media posts in which she expressed belief that Israel was behind 9/11, the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris were condemned by the school’s Board of Trustees. The faculty member is also a strong BDS supporter. In response, Oberlin faculty and students have claimed the school is “safe” for Jewish students, despite the recent controversy, and the petition by Oberlin alums complaining about the BDS movement and the antisemitic atmosphere at the school.
The public stances taken by trustees and alumni at Oberlin and Vassar are unusual and suggest that trustees and alumni will step in only in extreme circumstances. Doing so sets up confrontations with faculty and students that will be critical for the future of universities.
Finally, unusual allegations of antisemitism have been reported at the City University of New York (CUNY), including several regarding the activities of Students for Justice in Palestine as well as one alleging harassment of a faculty member. In response, CUNY opened several investigations while state lawmakers threatened to cut CUNY funding. That threat, however, offered a specific rationale to an existing proposal from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to cut the state’s share of the CUNY budget and shift costs to New York City. Cuomo later withdrew the threat.
The manner in which opposition to Israel has spilled over into other aspects of campus life and overt antisemitism was apparent at Brown University, where the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine criticized holding a talk by a transgender activist to be held at the Hillel building. The group’s petition alleged that the appearance at Hillel constituted “pinkwashing” and that Hillel “has consistently defended and even advocated for the Israeli state’s policies of occupation and racial apartheid.” The speaker then canceled the talk. The incident was followed by the discovery of antisemitic and homophobic graffiti on a Jewish fraternity and further revelations regarding antisemitism at Brown.
Aggressive behavior by BDS advocates was noted on other campuses. At three of the Claremont colleges (Claremont McKenna, Scripps and Pitzer) fake eviction notices were put under the doors of students. Campus police reported that Jewish students asserted that they were specifically targeted. BDS supporters at the University of California at Davis protested the appearance of Israeli diplomat George Deek, disrupting his presentation with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “Long live the intifada,” forcing Deek and the organizers to leave the room under the protection of campus police.
Another example of the BDS movement staging a provocation and then claiming discrimination also occurred at Boston University where BDS supporters disrupted a Hillel event and then claimed they had been discriminated against when they were asked to leave. The incident is similar to one that occurred in November 2015 at the University of Texas, Austin where BDS supporters disrupted an Israeli speaker. They then alleged that an Israeli faculty member had displayed aggressive behavior and had discriminated against them. A university investigation has now cleared the faculty member of any wrongdoing.
Political manipulations of student governments by BDS supporters were also reported in March. A pro-Israel group was excluded from participating in “Social Justice Week” at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology because the student government had adopted a BDS resolution. The university administration disavowed the student government’s actions and reiterated its opposition to BDS. At Columbia University, despite having permits, pro-Israel supporters who erected a 15 foot inflatable Pinocchio figure during ‘apartheid week’ were forced to take it down after protests from Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace representatives to the BDS dominated student government.
The implications of the continuing BDS efforts are to penetrate any Jewish institution, event, or space, assert that any Israel-related activity is inherently offensive, and to claim discrimination when rebuffed. These have grave implications for campus life. BDS has pioneered the hysterical atmosphere where displays of other ideas are unacceptable, no matter how mundane (such as the appearance of the word “Trump” in chalk on a sidewalk), and conversely, where violent protests to shut down free speech are increasingly acceptable.
The crossover of antisemitism and BDS from academia into politics was also seen in the continuing scandals at British universities. Accusations surfaced that the leadership of a Labour Party club at the London School of Economics had made antisemitic remarks. The latest allegations come after an investigation by the Labour Party regarding antisemitism at the Oxford University club by BDS supporters. The results of the investigation have not been made public, prompting fear of a cover-up orchestrated by party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Other antisemitic incidents were reported at York University, where the play “Seven Jewish Children” was performed during Israel Apartheid Week. In response, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, released a statement expressing “shock” at antisemitic at British universities and urging the government take action.
In other BDS news on campus, boycott resolutions failed at Ohio State, Northeastern and the University of Indianapolis. A BDS resolution at the University of Minnesota was dropped when a pro-peace student group offered a parallel resolution condemning antisemitism. The university president also issued a statement opposing both the boycott and antisemitism resolution. A council of student groups at the University of Vienna offered what appears to be the first condemnation of BDS by a European student body. The student government at Capital University in Ohio also passed a resolution expressing support for Israel and Jewish self-determination. In contrast, a boycott resolution was passed by the University College London Union. The university president issued a statement to “distance itself” from the resolution and reiterating the institution’s opposition to Israel boycotts.
Faculty members also made a number of public statements regarding BDS. A group of University of Toronto faculty members and librarians signed a public letter supporting BDS, as did some 40 faculty members at Columbia University. In response, a group of over 200 Columbia faculty members signed a letter supporting university ties with Israel.