July was characterized by fallout and pushback against various BDS statements and resolutions. Three notable trends were repeated pledges from academics at all levels to abandon ‘objectivity’ regarding Israel, the push for BDS in university and K-12 teachers’ unions, and the removal of Israel from definitions and condemnations of antisemitism, either completely or by demanding inclusion of ‘Islamophobia.’ These efforts to control the information environment, however, were overshadowed by the announcement that Ben & Jerry’s would boycott ‘settlements,’ which triggered US anti-BDS laws that threaten Unilever, the conglomerate that owns the ice cream brand.
As the fall semester approaches additional signs point to an even more heightened campus environment of harassment and intimidation aimed against Israel and its supporters, emanating from official and unofficial sources. Control of narratives remains key to shaping perceptions and the construction of environments in which Israel, its supporters, and Jews are marginalized, vilified, and threatened.
The most blatant manipulations came from outside academia with continued condemnations of Israel from Rep. Ilhan Omar, who added that her Jewish colleagues in Congress were “not equally engaged in seeking justice.” Her comments produced a firestorm of responses that among other things pointed to the long history of Jewish advocacy of civil and human rights causes in the US and worldwide. The calculation behind her remarks, that Jews ‘do not work for justice’ and are thus de facto supporters of ‘injustice’ was apparent.
The idea that Israel, its supporters and at least some Jews stand on the ‘wrong side’ was articulated in more than 100 statements condemning Israel from faculty groups and departments. These prominently featured declarations that the conflict did not have ‘two sides’ and that teaching and other campus behavior must be oriented towards Palestinian advocacy. This explicit abandonment of academic objectivity and political neutrality and promise of politicization was condemned by other faculty groups, who also pointed to violations of university procedures in the issuance of anti-Israel statements in the name of entire units.
One implication of growing faculty and student extremism is it effectively gives antisemitism an “academic mandate.” Another that a wave of tendentious attacks on Israel will be unleashed, overtly in the name of ‘academic freedom’ or covertly in the classroom or in the treatment of individual students. Moreover, initial indications are that institutions will either ignore or cover up such incidents.
A typical example came at Vassar College, where faculty members issued a letter accusing Israel of “settler colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing” and declaring that they regard the “movement against racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration in the United States and the Palestinian struggle against apartheid as interconnected.”
In response the university president pointed to the school’s code of conduct and noted that the “College “welcomes forms of dissent and protest that acknowledge and encourage the expression of different perspectives.” It is with this in mind that we will continue to support free speech on our campus. The moment such speech provokes lawlessness or violence, however, it becomes unacceptable.”
She then added that
“Fostering an environment where education and ongoing discussion can thrive must be paramount, and this has been my focus since arriving at Vassar. Thus, while the letter published in the Misc does not represent an official position of the College, we defend the right of the faculty who wrote and signed it to make such a statement. At the same time, I unequivocally denounce and condemn the recent anti-Semitic attacks directed at Jewish Americans. The Islamophobia aimed at Muslim Americans over the last few weeks is equally unacceptable. This sort of violence has no place at Vassar or in society. With attacks spreading coast-to-coast, it is more important than ever that we—as a community that embraces diversity, inclusion, and equity—condemn such horrific acts and continue to be a voice for inquiry and dialogue.”
The understated warning regarding the campus environment was more than counterbalanced by an endorsement of free speech, but her mild condemnation of violent antisemitism was overshadowed by condemnation of nearly invisible ‘Islamophobia.’ The conclusion was a weak affirmation of the university’s values that will nonetheless permit attacks on Israel and the negation of antisemitism as a specific concern.
But institutional efforts at maintaining nominal civility at the expense of academic integrity and Jewish students are increasingly insufficient for BDS supporters. The manner in which aggressors indignantly characterize criticism, pushback or anything short of capitulation and absolute individual and institutional devotion to ‘Palestine’ as ‘censorship’ or violation of ‘rights’ is a longstanding BDS ploy that has escalated dramatically.
At New York University, BDS supporting faculty members renewed their attack on the institution’s Tel Aviv branch and pledged “non-cooperation.” A university reaffirmation of its commitment to the Tel Aviv branch was then characterized as “censorship.”
At Franklin & Marshall College, an anonymous letter from “Disappointed and concerned students and alumni” presented a list of incoherent statements and complained about “a lack of institutional support in terms of resources, professors, safe spaces, and even courses” and how “the systemic denial of Palestinian human rights by this institution and the lack of acknowledgment, in general, reflect western imperialism and dehumanizes many BIPOC students’ experiences.” It concluded by expressing bitterness about how the balanced “response from the F&M Leadership team is an ignorant blanket statement they put out to support one community while completely neglecting another.”
The resignation of Cornell West from his position at Harvard Divinity School also conveniently illustrated the effort to leverage pro-Palestinian histrionics, in this case for personal gain. West had been hired in a non-tenure track position and was offered a contract renewal but demanded tenure. In his resignation letter he complained about his salary and sabbatical, but blamed the “shadow of Jim Crow” and “Harvard’s hostility to the Palestinian cause” for his not receiving tenure. West now moves to a position at Union Theological Seminary.
An example of an apparent university cover up is the case of Sunil Kumar, a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins University, who stated on social media in November 2020 that she would lower the grades of “Zionist students” because of their support for “ethnic cleansing.” After protests from various local and national organizations over Kumar’s stated intention to discriminate in contravention of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the university undertook an investigation but has declined to publicize the results. By declining to make results public, possibly on the grounds of ‘privacy,’ the university is effectively permitting Kumar’s threats to stand and creates a threatening environment for students.
Concurrent with classroom threats are student efforts to exclude Israel and its supporters from campus life. Especially egregious examples emerged at George Washington University and the University of Vermont where Jewish sexual assault survivors were told they were not welcome in campus support groups unless they denounced Zionism, and accusing Jewish groups of ‘not standing with the oppressed.’
Another incident occurred at the University of Pennsylvania Law School where a newly formed student group has issued a statement calling on students not to participate in a sponsored trip to Israel. Organizers complained that “even though you’re exposed to Palestinian voices, a lot of it is portrayed very neutrally or very much as if there are two sides… When you have situations of oppression and apartheid, you don’t have two equal sides.” Expanded attacks on Israel from student governments are to be expected in the fall semester.
Illustrating the campus climate where anti-Israel bias and antisemitism are endorsed if not mandated are the expanding attacks on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which includes Israel. Brunel University in London the University and College Union (UCU) branch voted to support BDS and endorsed the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Faculty at Warwick University also voted overwhelming to oppose the definition.
This opposition puts unions explicitly at odds with the British government are potentially significant guidelines regarding BDS and implies that faculty members will engage in discrimination against Israelis and others. The attacks on the IHRA definition were also found elsewhere, such as in the eventual passage of a “Holocaust education” bill in Arizona that was stalled by calls to remove the definition.
The most sinister developments were in teachers’ unions, where BDS resolutions continue to be debated. The largest American teachers’ union, the National Education Association, voted down a comprehensive BDS resolution but approved a resolution supporting ‘critical race theory,’ in which BDS is implicit. Local unions in San Francisco and Seattle, however, passed similar resolutions. A resolution under consideration in Los Angeles was withdrawn after strong protests from Jewish parents and teachers, who threatened to leave the union. In general, the resolutions prove that BDS is a critical issue for at least a minority of teachers, who likely already promote it in the classroom.
Union endorsements of BDS have also prompted Jewish and other members to resign. A number of reports indicate that Jewish faculty at institutions such as City University of New York feel abandoned and even threatened by their union’s decisions, with some reports indicating that at least 50 have resigned thus far. Union representatives continue to support the resolution.
The institutionalization of BDS in curricula, however, is proceeding not simply through faculty abandoning objectivity in favor of advocacy but through “ethnic studies” requirements. In California, following the lead of the Cal State system, all community college students must take “ethnic studies” in order to graduate, in which ‘critical race theory’ (CRT) in which antisemitism and BDS are embedded. Similar “ethnic studies” requirements have been approved for California’s K-12 classes and have been strongly backed by anti-capitalist and anti-American activists who endorse BDS. Arguably, “ethnic studies” pedagogy regarding Jewish and white ‘privilege,’ ‘settler-colonialism,’ and other issues are simply covers for revulsion regarding Jews having power and the ideas of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism.
The appointment of administrators to run burgeoning “ethnic studies” bureaucracies also institutionalizes CRT and BDS. One example is the appointment of Julianne Malveaux, a vocal support of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, as Dean of Cal State Los Angeles’ new College of Ethnic Studies. Her appointment bolsters the antisemitic element in California’s “ethnic studies,” already amply supplied by Rabab Abdulhadi, Professor of Race and Resistance at the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and Director of Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED). Observers note that “ethnic studies” at Cal State branches play an important role educating K-12 “ethnic studies” teachers.
The BDS impacts on K-12 are thus being felt through unions, teacher training, and curricula. One example of the latter is a fifth grade lesson plan from Washington State that calls on students to “create a Timeline of Events that lead up to either the Indian or American Fight for Independence. (If you plan to make contemporary connections, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would work. Why do the Palestinians want to be free from Israeli dominance? Have their sacred homelands returned to them?).”
After media attention a school administrator edited out the content but teachers suffused in the material and ideology will likely restore it in the classroom. Equating Palestinians with ‘indigenous peoples’ is a growing strategy that dovetails with ‘critical race theory.’ Another strategy, consistent with the ‘no two sides’ argument, is to simply promote a ‘pro-Palestinian narrative’ in K-12, as has been proposed (and is thus likely already occurring) in Scottish schools.
The results of pervasive antisemitic incitement were seen in the stabbing of a rabbi outside of a Boston Jewish school, an increasing series of assaults on observers documenting ‘anti-Zionist’ protests, including in Boston and Orlando, as well as on observant Jews. British reports also indicated a tremendous increase in antisemitic incidents, with some 628 record in May alone.
Shockingly, such attacks were ‘explained’ and thus justified by Ken Roth, head of ‘Human Rights Watch’ in a now-deleted tweet: “Antisemitism is always wrong, and it long preceded the creation of Israel, but the surge in UK antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.”
Finally, in the economic sphere, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream announced plans to prohibit distribution of their product, which is manufactured in Israel, in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Long known for its ‘socially responsible stances,’ the company noted that sales in Israel would continue only through the term of the current license. The company’s owner, Unilever, immediately distanced itself from the move, leading the longtime anti-Israel activist Ben & Jerry’s board chair to complain that the intent was to boycott all of Israel and that the conglomerate was violating the terms of their acquisition agreement.
In the meantime, Israeli and Jewish sources condemned the move, as did the media sources and the US State Department spokesman. The boycott was supported by J Street and a variety of BDS organizations such as ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’ Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett complained directly to the chairman of Unilever and threatened “severe consequences,” while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid sent a letter to governors of 35 states with anti-BDS laws. Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity with the local licensee, Israelis dramatically increased purchases of the product while stores in the US announced they were removing Ben & Jerry’s product from their shelves. Several localities such as Hempstead, New York also announced they would no longer be doing business with Unilever.
More substantively, the case will test various state laws barring companies from boycotting Israel. The implications in particular for Unilever are potential significant and may force state entities such as pension funds to sell their holdings. The governors of Florida and Texas and the New York State Comptroller have already directed state entities to investigate whether the boycott triggers their anti-BDS laws. In contrast, the progressive candidate for New York City comptroller, Brad Lander, stated his support for the boycott.
For their part, the Unilever chairman expressed opposition to BDS and stated that the company remains “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, where it has invested over $300 million over the past decade.