2020 ends with campus pushback against IHRA, uncertainty about Biden policies

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The year 2020 ended with BDS pushed back to campus and progressive politics by Trump Administration policies and Middle East normalization agreements. A Biden Administration’s policies and staffing with respect to BDS, antisemitism, and Israel remain uncertain, but far left pressure is already apparent. The goal of “anti-normalization” shared by the BDS movement and Palestinian rejectionists has suffered setbacks. But new avenues of attack are developing in line with global narratives of racialized concepts of victims and victimizers, along with assaults deeming free speech as ‘harmful.’


The year 2020 saw BDS pushed back to academia and progressive politics. The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan has highlighted Palestinian rejectionism including by the BDS movement. Discrediting these Arab states as ‘autocratic’ and the normalization agreements as ‘transactional’ has begun, which ironically reverses the lionizing of their previous rejection of Israel.

Biden Administration policies are unclear with regard to these countries, as well as its explicit stances regarding BDS and antisemitism. These were centerpieces of Trump Administration policies and it is in unknown whether that focus will carry over to a new administration. American recognition of goods made across the Green Line as ‘Made in Israel’ is major blow to the BDS movement, as are similar declarations by Gulf states which now import Israeli products openly. As a follow up to the Trump Administration’s promise to stop funding to BDS organizations, BDS opponents are urging the administration to publish a list as a means of challenging the next administration.

Rumors that progressive elements proposed a long slate of foreign policy appointments to the Biden team including Trita Parsi, a pro-Iran lobbyist, and pro-BDS figure Matt Duss, indicates that the far left desires to see Iran elevated and Israel downgraded, much as it was during the Obama years. In July J Street and ‘IfNotNow’ had urged the Biden campaign to exclude BDS opponents from its lists of potential appointees. Staffing at the State Department and Education Department are particular questions, since these have been at the forefront of the Trump Administration’s pressure on BDS.

The November election saw the pro-BDS caucus led by Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and others enlarged in the House of Representatives. Intersectional support for BDS as one of many progressive causes is now largely taken for granted. This was reinforced by the appearance of Tlaib, Omar, and Betty McCollum (D.-MN) at the annual conference of the leading US-BDS sponsor group, American Muslims for Palestine. One new progressive representative, however, Ritchie Torres of New York, has made it clear that he will not support the BDS caucus.

The key Foreign Affairs Committee chair previously held by strongly pro-Israel Representative Eliot Engel has gone to Gregory Meeks of New York. Meeks is generally considered pro-Israel but has expressed opposition to American aid going to Israeli communities across the Green Line.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has emerged as a key guideline for organizations including European countries and educational institutions to understand harassment, intimidation, and denigration of Jews and supporters of Israel.

In Britain, the IHRA definition has been adopted by the universities of Birmingham, Exeter, Oxford, and Sheffield, as well as by a number of football clubs in the top tier Premier League, with the exception of Sheffield United.

In academia the IHRA definition has been controversial, with critics accusing it and its supporters of undermining academic freedom and free speech protections. Students at a variety of British universities, for example, have demanded their institutions not adopt the definition. Not surprisingly, this is the position of the BDS movement, which has orchestrated a growing series of attacks, including a letter from University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, which claims IHRA conflates Jewish identity and Zionism and silences critics of Israel.

The call to revoke the IHRA definition was echoed by the school’s ‘Arab American Cultural Center’ which deemed the move “harmful” and then demanded “a system wide committee to address Islamophobia and anti-Arab & anti-Palestinian incidents” and the creation of a “Middle East and North Africa Cultural House.” Similar demands were issued by the legal arm of the US BDS movement, Palestine Legal, which called on Florida State University to revoke its endorsement of IHRA and apologize for criticism of a Palestinian-American student who had made hateful statements regarding Israel. The characterization of IHRA and moves against antisemitism as “harmful” and the demand for campus segregation are especially notable.

A faculty senate of University College London had scheduled a vote on revoking the institution’s adoption of the IHRA definition but meeting was delayed. Similar moves are underway at Kings College London. The moves come as a new report detailing antisemitism directed at Jewish students and supporters of Israel at British universities was released. In an example of how serious the situation has become, SOAS voluntarily refunded school fees to a Jewish student after a university panel upheld his claims that students and faculty had created a “toxic antisemitic environment” because of his support for Israel. A similarly hostile environment has been documented at San Francisco State University, which was recently riled by the thwarted appearance of designated terrorist Leila Khaled at a campus event via Zoom.

Problematically, a number of Jewish organizations and academics have stated their opposition to the IHRA definition, including Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, deeming it a tool that has been ‘weaponized’ against critics of Israel.

In a demonstration of how far this critique has been legitimated, an opinion piece on the future of literature ‘after Trump’ published in the New York Times directly references the 2019 Executive Order extending civil rights protections to Jewish students and for IHRA to be used as one of the guidelines, calling it “state censorship.” This came on the heels of a piece in Time that unabashedly promoted BDS in the guise of explaining it.

BDS on campus ended the semester with a ‘deadly exchanges’ referendum passed overwhelmingly by the Tufts University student body. Despite documented irregularities the student electoral authorities certified the referendum. The sponsoring SJP chapter called the referendum an “enormous victory in our struggle against white supremacy and militarism on Tufts campus and globally.” A university representative, however, stated the institution was “disappointed in the result of the referendum, which mischaracterized the university’s approach to public safety and policing,” and added Tufts “will not be taking action in response to the vote’s outcome.”

Irregular and stealthy means to insert BDS into other campus issues were also on display at Columbia University. There a petition calling for a tuition strike and a ‘more transparent and democratic Columbia’ included links to demands that the university “divest from companies involved in human rights violations’’ and cease contacts with the New York Police Department.

‘Cancel culture’ related to BDS was also on display in December. At McGill University Muslim and pro-BDS students called on the institution to revoke the emeritus status of retired anthropology professor Philip Carl Salzman, accusing him of making offensive statements regarding Islam and Middle Eastern culture. The students alleged further that “Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context” and that “ the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness.” The university rebuffed the attacks on Salzman, who undertook anthropological fieldwork in Iran for several decades.

But in the much higher profile case of Joseph Epstein, a distinguished writer and retired adjunct instructor of English at Northwestern University, criticism of Jill Biden’s use of the honorific ‘doctor’ was sufficient for the university to issue a condemnation and to erase him from university web sites. A torrent of criticism excoriating Epstein followed.

The contrast between the cases indicates that emeritus faculty can be defenestrated, at least virtually, for certain offenses. The BDS movement can be expected to refocus its attacks on free speech claiming that being pro-Israel is not only offensive but harmful to students, along with promoting the ideas that Zionism is ‘white supremacy’ and that Jews possess unearned ‘white privilege’ that negates their experiences of discrimination.

2020 ends with campus pushback against IHRA, uncertainty about Biden policies

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe