January was an important month for BDS. In the academic sphere, the American Studies Association boycott resolution was followed by a pseudo-debate at the Modern Language Association. Both of these developments produced uniquely high press coverage and political backlash, suggesting that BDS advocates in academia can no longer rely on stealth to advance their goals.
In another sphere, however, the linkage between politics and economics has become ever clearer. As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (as well as ongoing negotiations with Iran) continue, threats and expressions of concern regarding boycotts of Israel are intensifying, particularly with regard to Europe. The timing and nature of these statements, from both European and Israeli spokesmen, suggest boycotts are being used as a threat to pressure Israel to make concessions specifically regarding the “West Bank.”
January saw intensive BDS activity in academia. Following the American Studies Association (ASA) adoption of a BDS resolution in December 2013, there was an unprecedented backlash from a number of quarters. The ASA resolution attracted a high level of attention and the backlash was apparent even to media observers. Opinion pieces in a number of prominent publications kept the ASA at the forefront and subjected academics to ridicule. Over 200 American colleges and universities and academic umbrella organizations announced their rejection of the ASA boycott resolution.
The ASA decision has catalyzed varied legal opposition. The Israeli Law Center issued a cease and desist letter to ASA stating that the boycott resolution is discriminatory and thus illegal under American law. The move was characterized as an attack on free speech and academic freedom by he ASA and its supporters. Cornell University law professor William Jacobsen has challenged the ASA’s tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Two attorneys with the law firm Seyfarth Shaw have also issued a memorandum indicating that universities must drop their institutional memberships in ASA or risk lawsuits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The ASA move also provoked responses from lawmakers. More than 130 lawmakers in the House of Representatives have signed a bipartisan letter condemning the ASA’s “blatant disregard for academic freedom.” New York State assemblymen have proposed a measure that would forbid state funding to academic institutions that “support boycotts, resolutions or any similar actions that are discriminatory and limit academic opportunities.” These measures indicate a strong political consensus in opposition to the ASA and the idea of boycotts, even if their ultimate disposition is uncertain.
The ASA’s reaction has been to blame the “Israel Lobby” for orchestrating the negative reactions. It should be noted while Jewish organizations were critical of the ASA there is no evidence they had any role in organizing media or political responses. The concept of the “Israel Lobby,” however, often depends on the absence of evidence to indicate hidden conspiratorial machinations and unacknowledged pressures. In a statement the ASA also protested what it called “legal bullying”, rejected any criticism by university administration as impediments to academic freedom, and cited Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, as an authority regarding Israel and Palestine. Falk is also a well-known 9/11 conspiracy theorist and regularly accuses Israel of “genocide.”
BDS supporters have pointed to the success at the ASA as evidence that ‘taboos’ had been broken and a “tipping point” reached regarding public condemnation of Israel. Given the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to the ASA, this attitude is hard to fathom, except in terms of either putting the best face on a bad situation or genuine belief that the movement has made important progress. Predictably, several BDS supporters involved in the ASA situation, such as Ashley Dawson (who had also edited the American Association of University Professors journal issue promoting BDS), pointed to public criticism of the ASA as evidence that academic freedom is being curtailed.
The intense media focus on BDS continued as the Modern Language Association (MLA) held its annual meeting in Chicago and debated a BDS resolution. As is typical, the panel was comprised only of BDS supporters and the organizer put out a call on Facebook before the session for ‘crowd-sourced’ arguments against Israel. Unusually, however, since the session had been announced long in advance, anti-BDS members of MLA were able to attend and present arguments, as well as organize a counter-session. Reports from the BDS session depict a raucous affair with frequent interruptions.
Two resolutions were ostensibly debated. The first resolution stated that Israel “arbitrarily denied academics of Palestinian entry into the West Bank and Gaza.” The reference to Gaza was removed when delegates became aware that Egypt, not Israel, controls access to Gaza. Several documents were circulated in support of the resolution. These included the claim that foreign nationals were routinely denied entry by Israel into the Palestinian Authority, and that Israeli regulations in general were a severe burden on foreign academics. A data sheet circulated by opponents of the resolution noted that in 2012 a total of 142 Americans were denied entry into Israel as a whole, out of 626,000 visitors. After much debate the resolution was approved by a narrow margin.
A second, more severe resolution was proposed by Grover Furr of Montclair State University on behalf of the MLA’s Radical Caucus in English and Foreign Languages. Furr is one of American academia’s only supporters of Stalin. The resolution condemned criticism of the ASA and supported the group’s right “to take solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.” The resolution was voted down by the delegates but the session’s chair, Margaret Ferguson of the University of California at Davis, a well-known BDS supporter, reportedly assured Furr that the resolution would be referred to the MLA’s Executive Committee.
In the lead up to the panel, it became known that the MLA had denied press credentials to several outlets including the Jewish News Service and the Daily Caller, apparently in an effort to control coverage. The long lead-time, however, gave anti-BDS members of the MLA sufficient time to both advertise the issue and organize opposition. Reports indicate that determined opposition from the floor was critical to changing the attitudes of undecided delegates and limiting the influence of BDS activists. In response to the MLA panel a counter-event was organized by a number of groups, including Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, at which anti-boycott calls were heard. A number of MLA members also participated and spoke out against the organization’s endorsement of BDS.
The ASA and MLA situations show that BDS has gained significant traction within professional academic organizations, thanks to the work of dedicated cadres of activist-scholars. At the same time, those organizations have been polarized by BDS, since the issue is of little concern to the rank and file, and has significantly alienated university administrations, which see the threat BDS poses to academic freedom and the conduct of the larger academic enterprise. Others have pointed to the ASA resolution as an outgrowth of the dominant ‘race-class-gender’ paradigm in American Studies. This observation is important, since it emphasizes how anti-Israel bias is a component of the post-colonial, anti-Western mindset that characterizes the humanities and social sciences.
Moreover, BDS has, to a palpable but unmeasurable degree, further alienated the public and politicians from academia as a whole. This alienation comes at a time when academia is under increasing pressure regarding costs and its contribution to society. It may be suggested that the preexisting perception that academia is dominated by social radicals has been intensified. The inability of BDS activists to see the costs of their activism to academia, except in terms of their own imagined persecution, indicates a disconnection from broader social perceptions both of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the position of academia within American society.
Important BDS developments also took place in the political-economic sphere. Early in the month the Dutch pension fund PGGM announced that it would no longer invest in Israeli banks, since those institutions did business in the ‘West Bank.’ The fund declined to characterize its move as a boycott but described it as “compliance with international treaties.” The move came after the cancellation in November of a contract with the Israeli water carrier Mekorot by the industrial firm Vitens.
The PGGM decision was protested by Dutch Christians and the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Dutch ambassador to lodge a protest. In response the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans stated in an interview that the Netherlands opposed the move and that it is “against a boycott of Israel and is not in favor of sanctions against that country.” In both cases the influence of Dutch NGO’s deeply involved with BDS has been highlighted, as well as the failure of Israeli public diplomacy to address the issues.
In Britain the global security firm G4S denied press reports that the British government was investigating it for work in Israel. The firm had previously been criticized for its contracts in Israel and the “West Bank” and announced in 2013 that it would not renew contracts when they expired in 2015.
More significantly, the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, stated that Israel was “losing support” in the UK and Europe as a result of its relationship with the Palestinians and the issue of Israeli community in the ‘West Bank.’ Gould added “Attitudes are shifting. Israel is losing support. I look at the British Parliament. I look at the media. There is a change. It is not a tsunami, it happens slowly. It happens over time and if you don’t spot it before it’s too late then it’s very hard to repair.”
Gould remarks came in response to a program on BDS aired on Israel Channel Two. BDS supporters and the Israeli left characterize the broadcast as part of an Israeli ‘political awakening’ on the connection between BDS and Israeli communities in the “West Bank.” This assertion is difficult to assess. Some news reports have recently highlighted fears on the part of Israeli industrial leaders regarding the threat of boycotts as well as the growing impact on the economies of Israeli communities in the Jordan Valley.
Reports of European boycott efforts and warnings directed at local corporations suggest loosely concerted efforts to deploy boycotts as weapons precisely in the context of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli sources indicate again that threats have been orchestrated behind the scenes by the United States. In the fall Secretary of State John Kerry had reportedly urged the EU and the Palestinian Authority not to pursue anti-Israel boycott initiatives (much to the dismay of BDS supporters). American sources deny the reports.
But in November Kerry had warned publicly of a third intifada if American-led peace negotiations failed, and that “if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, three will be an increasing campaign of the de-legitimization of Israel that has been taking place on an international basis.”
It has also long been clear to informed observers that the European Union and European governments fund BDS groups both directly and through various foundations. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are putatively independent are, in fact, tools of European foreign policy, maintaining pressure on Israel, both in immediate political terms and in the larger legal and cultural war against its legitimacy. It should be noted, however, that despite measurable negative impacts, Israeli trade with the EU remains strong and is growing globally.
Finally, there was an important development that showed the connection between BDS and both the economic and cultural spheres. It was announced that actress Scarlett Johansson would appear in advertisements for the Israeli company SodaStream. The company has a factory in the “West Bank” that employs both Palestinians and Israelis and has been subject to intense BDS pressures in the past.
Johansson’s decision to represent SodaStream elicited a flurry of press accounts as well as protests from BDS supporters. As with the ASA and MLA situations, SodaStream and Johansson have attracted an unusual amount of publicity as well as editorial support.
The situation was given additional visibility thanks to Johansson’s role as an ‘ambassador’ for the British charity Oxfam. The charity has stated it is seeking clarification from Johansson but had not yet ended a relationship with her. In 2009 actress Kristin Davis, also an Oxfam ‘ambassador,’ was sharply criticized by BDS activists when she signed an endorsement deal with the Israeli cosmetics firm Ahava. After Oxfam suspended her role, Davis’ relationship with Ahava was terminated. She remains an Oxfam ‘ambassador.’
Johansson’s relationship with SodaStream attracted sharp criticism from BDS supporters as well as an article and cartoon in the Jewish Daily Forward. For her part Johansson has rejected criticism of her SodaStream endorsement and has described the company as “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.” She added that she was pleased, that as a side effect of representing SodaStream “light is being shed on this issue in hopes that a greater number of voices will contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two state solution in the near future.”
Given Johansson’s uniquely high profile as an actor and political activist close to the mainstream Democratic Party the issue is unlikely to recede from view. The SodaStream advertisement was scheduled to air during the Super Bowl on February 2, 2014 but may be banned from the Fox network because it mentions SodaStream’s competitors, Coke and Pepsi.