Anti-Israel activists demand “academic freedom” for BDS and antisemitism. Proposed Israeli legal reforms prompt internal protests and threats of boycott.

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As 2023 begins several BDS related trends have become clear. On the one hand ‘human rights’ industry leaders and their acolytes in academia and the media who obsess over Israel expect institutions to grant sinecures without question in the name of “academic freedom.” Meanwhile, complaints over classroom antisemitism are dismissed as “discourse on difficult topics” until external pressure is applied. At the same time the BDS movement deems Israeli viewpoints on campus as indefensible under any concept of “academic freedom.” These contradictions are intensified by growing protests within Israel over proposed legal reforms, which have seen Israelis threatening the state with boycotts.


The new calendar year began with controversies over anti-Israel bias at a number of institutions.

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) former ‘Human Rights Watch’ (HRW) head Kenneth Roth was proposed and then rejected as a fellow, leading to a firestorm of criticism and calls for the school’s dean to resign. His application to become a fellow was regarded by supporters inside and outside the school as a formality and they were aghast when it was rejected. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the dean, Douglas Elmendorf, mentioned to a faculty member that the reason for rejection was that HRW under Roth had an “anti-Israel bias.”

Roth, who headed HRW for decades, shaped the organization’s obsessive focus on Israel, routinely used his Jewish background as a shield, stating that Israel’s actions were responsible for rising antisemitism rather than HRW’s relentless criticism, including accusations of ‘apartheid.’ Roth himself described the dean’s decision, without evidence, as being the result of “donor driven censorship” and a violation of “academic freedom.” He complained further that “I worry about younger academics who are less known. If I can be canceled because of my criticism of Israel, will they risk taking the issue on?” Academia’s obsessive criticism of Israel indicates Roth’s fears are manufactured.

A slew of articles and interviews in support of Roth promoted the ideas that having been requested to apply, he was then owed a fellowship, and that its denial was de facto evidence of interference by Jewish donors to Harvard and KSG. Some 1000 KSG alums signed an open letter criticizing “a shameful decision to blacklist Kenneth Roth” The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has adopted BDS as a policy, stated the decision was “an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an insult to one of the world’s leading human rights organizations. It also makes a mockery of Harvard’s avowed commitment to human rights.” The writers’ group PEN America “expressed dismay” over the decision which it said “raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.” Roth himself tweeted about the situation over 60 times, which ironically supported the observation that he is literally obsessed with Israel.

The affair ended with the KSG dean apologizing for “having inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the school and our commitment to open debate,” clarifying that “that my decision was not influenced by donors. Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” and offering Roth (who had already accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania) a fellowship.

In response, Roth applauded the decision but demanded Elmendorf explain how his original decision was made (specifically the “people who matter to him”) and again expressed concern over the “academic freedom” of younger scholars who are presumably too afraid to express criticism of Israel. This concern was echoed by other parts of the intertwined BDS and ‘human rights’ industries.

Roth’s case deliberately confused personal entitlement to a funded position with “censorship” and violations of “academic freedom” and posited a conspiracy against him that by definition could not be disproven. In these respects it illustrated the privilege which anti-Israel critics and the BDS movement routinely demand, as well as their role instigating antisemitism.

The manner in which classroom antisemitism is defended by institutions until legal remedies are sought was on display at George Washington University, where a Federal complaint was filed against psychology professor and BDS supporter Lara Sheehi for repeatedly harassing Jewish and Israeli students in a mandatory ‘diversity course’ and then retaliating against them after they complained.

Among other things the complaint noted that Sheehi stated to an Israeli student “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel,” hosted a guest lecturer who stated that Israel’s global relief efforts were a cover for “oppressive power,” stated in response to complaints that it was a “non-negotiable truth” that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.” She further commented that it was “Islamophobic” to describe a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv as terrorism, and stated that a prayer derived from the book of Nehemiah that mentions Jerusalem could not be read “without invoking Palestine” and the “deafening crush of Zionism and its settler colonial project.”

The complaint also details that university administration dismissed student complaints as a conflict between “deeply held beliefs,” and noted that “restorative circle” and “harm circle” experiences became situations for students to attack the Jewish students “white fragility.” Sheehi then accused Jewish students of abusing the guest speaker and of ‘combativeness,’ which resulted in her instituting departmental disciplinary proceeding.

The university’s initial response was to state that it “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred,” but to add that it “also recognizes and supports academic freedom.” After an outcry the university president issued a statement that “it is not prudent at this time to comment on specific allegations. However, I want to be clear that we reaffirm that the George Washington University strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred, discrimination, and bias in all forms. We remain committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment where all feel safe and free of harassment, hostility or marginalization.” He added that “In encouraging discourse on difficult topics, we must remember the importance of civility, respect, and empathy.” The incident will be investigated by a “third party.”

By characterizing antisemitic harassment as “academic freedom” and framing complaints as mere unhappiness regarding “discourse on difficult topics” the university dismissed concerns in a manner unique to Jewish issues. Further reporting noted that Sheehi regards Zionism as a form of “mental illness” and that all Israelis are “fucking racist.” It is nearly inconceivable that similar opinions regarding other ethnic or national groups would be tolerable by a university. Celebration of anti-Israel bias as “academic freedom” was also reflected in MESA’s awarding a prize to San Francisco State University professor, BDs activist and terror supporter Rabab Abdulhabi.

In contrast, at the University of Chicago, the local ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ chapter demanded a boycott of a course taught by a retired Israeli military officer. The SJP chapter stated “No principle of “academic freedom” or “intellectual inquiry” justifies hosting classes taught by complicit Israeli military personnel—particularly not classes that misrepresent Palestinian history, treat Palestinian deaths as fodder for “strategic” military reflection, and inundate students with the Orientalist worldview of Israeli colonists.” The new call follow’s last year’s “don’t take shitty Zionist classes” campaign.

A protest was held on the at the University of Michigan by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter during a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris. The protest, which featured chants of “only one solution, intifada,” reflected the manner in which all campus events are fair game for BDS and how it attempts to hijack high profile events for its own purposes. Observers noted that the campus newspaper and left wing media downplayed the ideology and animus behind the protests.

The impact of anti-Israel bias in the classroom is clear from anecdotal evidence regarding student opinions as well as a continuing number of studies enumerating rapidly growing incidents of campus harassment, both verbal and physical.

The extent to which BDS on campus is the incubator for later antisemitism is reflected again in Britain, where a new report excoriated the National Union of Students (NUS) for decades of antisemitic abuse of Jewish students. The report, which was commissioned in the aftermath of an antisemitism scandal involving the most recent NUS president, Shaima Dalali, detailed verbal abuse and harassment of Jewish students and the organization’s failure to respond to complaints. In response to the NUS report, a motion proposed that the Oxford Student Union disaffiliate from the NUS, but it was tabled “over concerns it lacked clarity.

The impact of growing antisemitism in British universities was also detailed in report by the Community Security Trust (CST) revealed that campus antisemitism in London had risen 250% in the past and 22% in the past two years. A total of 150 incidents were reported including 140 cases of verbal abuse, seven threats, and three assaults.

Institutions responding to the continuing rapid growth of antisemitism have turned to the IHRA definition as a theoretical guideline and institutional fig leaf. Advocates note that over 1000 institutions have adopted the definition, including most recently the University of Melbourne. But even this form of restraint on hate speech remains under fire by the BDS movement and its supporters. In January the BDS support group ‘Palestine Legal,’ the ‘American Civil Liberties Union’ and ‘American for Peace Now’ expressed outrage regarding a proposal that the American Bar Association formally adopt the IHRA definition. They were joined by over two dozen BDS, Islamist, and socialist organizations.

In the political sphere, the Biden Administration continues to vacillate with regard to BDS and antisemitism. Reports indicate the administration is seeking to increase the budget for the ‘special envoy on antisemitism’ and that Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris met the co-chairs of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism. At the same time the Education Department has again delayed issuing new rules regarding campus antisemitism, a move that would likely see explicit endorsement of the IHRA definition. The delay was lauded by pro-BDS groups.

Anti-Israel protests held in places such as Grand Central Terminal by BDS organizations which featured calls to “smash the Zionist state” and “We don’t want no two states, we want all of it” have normalized the appearance of radical anti-Israel bias which has inevitably spilled over into antisemitism and street violence. Statistics show continued rise in assaults on Jews, particularly in New York. The decision by New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg to offer a plea deal to a Muslim American accused of assaulting a Jewish male at an anti-Israel protest is reflective of both the city’s larger policy of releasing low level felons in the name of ‘racial justice’ and decarceration, and the utter lack of seriousness with which antisemitic violence is regarded.

Other reports indicate that the number of Americans holding antisemitic prejudice, including the belief that Jews have “too much power” have doubled since 2019 and that attitudes towards Israel are significantly more negative among younger people.

At a broader level this reflects a split over Israel and Jews that is continues to move rapidly through the political left. A harbinger is the turmoil within the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ (DSA) where BDS and Israel are explicit litmus tests for the leftmost factions seeking to control the organization as a whole. Given the ‘entryist’ tactics used by DSA members moving into the Democratic Party, and the antisemitism inherent in the socialist factions such as the ‘Squad,’ wherein Jewish participation is permitted only at the cost of supporting Israel and specifically Jewish solidarity, these splits will intensify among the broader American left.

In the international sphere the fallout continue from the election in Israel of a ‘far-right’ coalition and its proposed policies regarding cultural and legal issues. Within Israel large-scale public protests have ben complemented by several high profile resignations of government officials disapproving of proposed judicial reforms.

Warnings about the dire consequences of legal reforms in particular were repeated in many sectors, including Americans, such as J Street aligned politicians such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler. A leading Israeli think tank warned that the judicial reforms would threaten security and political ties with the US while Israeli university presidents warned that the reforms would result in brain drains and foreign boycotts including in high tech. Israeli business leaders have also warned that judicial and cultural changes could affect Israel’s attractiveness for investors, while at least one Israeli firm stated it was moving funds out of Israel to protest the proposal.

These warnings were echoed by local ‘environmental, social, and governance’ specialists (ESG) but more significantly by representatives of international ratings agencies. Efforts to downgrade Israel’s investment ratings on the basis of ESG concerns has been underway covertly for several years and were only exposed publicly in the past year. The new public warnings and threats regarding boycott within Israel, primarily from Ashkenazi business and cultural elites on the left, ironically support global corporate discrimination and come at a time when ESG policies are rapidly faltering in the US for their financial and ethical shortcomings. Meanwhile new reports indicate that ratings giant Morningstar has not followed through on commitments to reverse its pervasive anti-Israel bias.

Anti-Israel activists demand “academic freedom” for BDS and antisemitism. Proposed Israeli legal reforms prompt internal protests and threats of boycott.

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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