With the fall semester and campuses roiled by coronavirus restrictions and BLM activism, the BDS movement has focused on canceling Jews from student government and expanding the exclusion of Jews from progressive life. August also saw street protests that prominently featured anti-Israel sentiment and primary victories by BDS supporting Democratic House candidates. The November election promises to be a turning point for BDS and the anti-Israel movement, with ‘intersectional’ political gains likely regardless of which presidential candidate wins.
The fall semester begins with higher education in limbo thanks to coronavirus and BLM activism. Colleges and universities are split between virtual and in person semesters, with the latter balanced on a knife’s edge. How this will affect BDS activities is unclear but even virtual classes and especially social activities are vulnerable to BDS disruption.
The most notable BDS controversy in academia during August was the fallout from the resignation of several Jewish student government members at the University of Southern California (USC). Previous reports had focused on one student who had been harassed by BDS supporters and accused of being a “racist” with ‘blood on her hands’ for being a Zionist and vocal supporter of Israel.
In response the president of USC condemned the antisemitic attacks on the student and announced a series of educational initiatives. Further reporting indicated that at least three Jewish members of student government have been forced out after campaigns led by local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members. The incident is the latest in a pattern of purging Jews from student government that includes UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, the University of Michigan, Williams College, and McGill University. The purges have been led by Arab and Muslim students associated with SJP chapters. The purges, and the larger campaigns to shift campus culture against Israel and Jews, are explicitly presented as “anti-racist” and are thus unquestionable if not sacrosanct.
Fallout continued from an episode at Florida State University where the student government head narrowly survived a no confidence vote after making antisemitic statement while practicing Christian member of student government was forced to resign for pro-life statements. In response to these episodes, the president of Florida State issued another statement formally adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. This followed the student government’s adoption of a similar resolution in July.
At the same time an SJP petition at the University of Connecticut called on the school to end its study abroad program in Israel on the basis of alleged discrimination against BDS supporters. The university president later met with opponents to the petition and indicated no change in the school’s policies.
In California the controversial ‘ethnic studies’ requirement for the California high school and California State University system was approved and signed into law by the governor, ignoring protests from Jewish and other minority groups. The ‘critical studies’ stance taken by the bill and the courses it requires, asking students, for example, to examine Jewish and other forms of ‘white privilege,’ will validate anti-Zionist, pro-BDS, and pro-Islamist stances and ignores the majority of California ethnic minorities. The growing trend toward mandatory ‘anti-racism’ courses at the college level will likely intensify these trends, as will the sudden allocation of resources to ‘anti-racism’ institutions on campus.
Fallout also continued over the forced resignation of Rabbi Daniel Lehmann as president of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley. Lehmann was installed in October 2018 but resigned in February 2020 with virtually no public notice. New reports suggest that local supporters of the BDS group Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and Berkeley Islamists led by BDS notable Hatem Bazian spearheaded a campaign against Lehmann over his opposition to BDS and support for Israel. This followed up on early opposition to Lehmann’s appointment from notorious antisemite Alison Weir of the group ‘If Americans Knew.’
A letter from GTU alums and associates attacked Lehmann as “a self-described Zionist who openly expressed Islamophobic and racist anti-Palestinian views,” and specifically referenced his criticism of Bazian. Lehmann resigned a month after the letter was published, but the near total silence surrounding the affair strongly suggests he reached a settlement with the institutions and is bound by a non-disclosure agreement.
The willingness of far left Christian religious leaders to partner with Islamists and antisemitic hate groups is not surprising, but their ability to prompt the ouster of an academic leader is a new and disturbing development. There is increasing likelihood that this pattern will be replicated at other institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges.
Among the most important developments in August were the primary victories of BDS supporters in the House of Representatives. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib survived well-funded challenges from Israel supporting candidates, while newcomer Cori Bush won a Democratic primary in St. Louis. Omar was endorsed by ‘IfNotNow’ while Tlaib had raised over $2 million for her campaign. Each will face weaker opponents in the November election. Jamaal Bowman, who defeated incumbent Eliot Engel in a closely watched New York race, has also declared his opposition to the Israeli “occupation” and will likely support BDS measures in the House. Other BDS supporters will be on the ballot in November for various seats in the House, including in heavily Jewish districts in Massachusetts.
In addition to the growth of the BDS caucus in the House is the fact that all three Democratic candidates vying to replace Eliot Engel as head of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Brad Sherman of California, Joaquin Castro of Texas and Gregory Meeks of New York, have expressed opposition to US aid to Israel being used for “annexation.” While Sherman and Meeks are longtime Israel supporters, Castro is not, but overall their stances represent the growing Democratic consensus that “annexation” is illegitimate and would destroy a two state solution. That narrative is a central element of the generational challenge to many Democratic incumbents from left wing insurgents.
The disconnect over Israel between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the senior members who wrested back control after the threat of a Sanders-led insurgency was also on display in August. Reports suggest that former Vice President Biden himself led the pushback against BDS support within the party and the platform. The platform expresses support for the two state solution, final status negotiations over Jerusalem, and opposes BDS “while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.” It contains no references to the “occupation.”
At the party’s televised convention, leading BDS supporter and Sanders surrogate Linda Sarsour appeared briefly and cryptically stated that “The Democratic Party is not perfect, but it is absolutely our party in this moment.” Former Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory also spoke at a convention event.
Cognizant of the optics surrounding their participation, immediately following Sarsour’s appearance a Biden spokesman quickly noted that “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of antisemitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform,” adding that Sarsour “has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
But an unconfirmed report stated that the Biden campaign then apologized to Arab and Muslim Democrats for statements against Sarsour. Included in the call was senior Biden advisor Tony Blinken, who apologized for the “hurt and disappointment” caused by comments against Sarsour, adding “Historically, Republicans and Democrats have been quick to dismiss Muslim, Arab-American and especially Palestinian-American voices, and I want to reiterate on behalf of all of us our support for your communities.”
Another advisor reassured listeners that the campaign did not equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism and supported the “constitutional right to free speech on issues like BDS.” But in a statement made later the campaign appeared to backtrack again with apologies for the “hurt caused to these communities” while reiterating criticism of Sarsour. The seeming duplicity of the campaign reflects obvious efforts to placate both Jewish and Arab and Muslim constituencies, the latter of which protested the Biden campaign’s public anti-BDS stance.
But it is not clear the party’s generational and attitudinal conflict over Israel will be deferred until after the election. The prominence of Tlaib, Omar, and the growing BDS caucus suggest that grassroots trends are also working against Israel and supporters of peace, and that a leadership showdown is inevitable. Pressure from the progressive left is already increasing in anticipation of a Biden victory, as a means of shifting the government, party and public opinion further to the left against Israel. Should Trump be reelected progressives will argue that an explicitly far left approach is overdue on Israel and other issues. Efforts by mainstream media such as the New York Times to highlight marginal far left Jewish views advocating a one state solution in which Israel is abolished are part of this information campaign.
That grassroots level attitudes regarding BDS have already shifted was also on display in New York, where the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ issued a statement asking candidates, among other things, “Do you pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to City Council in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation?” The request for a ‘pledge’ was widely condemned by members of the city and state governments including socialist mayor Bill de Blasio.
BDS efforts to ‘anti-normalize’ even the most mainstream Jewish organizations were seen in the campaign to “Drop the ADL” spearheaded by American Muslims for Palestine, IfNotNow, CAIR, the Movement for Black Lives, the American Friends Service Committee, and a host of others. Building on the false accusation that Israeli training is responsible for police violence in the US, the groups allege that the ADL has “a history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, perpetrators of state violence,” and that it had an “ongoing legacy of supporting racist policing, surveillance, colonialism, and the silencing of social justice activism.”
The groups condemned the ADL’s opposition to antisemitism and violent extremism, including from the left and Muslim groups, support for Israel, and willingness to applaud the Trump Administration on certain issues. The ADL refuted the allegations in a statement but refrained from addressing the underlying antisemitism. Ironically the ADL has moved left in recent years on a variety of issues including Israel. It has also supported the Black Lives Matter movement and helped legitimize Rev. Al Sharpton despite their histories of antisemitism. The attacks on the ADL demonstrate again that ‘intersectionality’ demands complete repudiation of Israel and that appeasement is not possible.
Finally, the novel factor that will shape BDS in the fall semester and going forward is the normalization agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. BDS leaders unironically decried the move as a “sell-out” to a “dictatorship” that legitimized Israeli “oppression” while academic supporters of BDS stated the agreement “makes the chance of a just, equitable and sustainable peace much, much, much harder.” Maintaining the dominance of the Palestinian issue in academia will become somewhat more difficult when measured against the reality of expanding peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries. The likely tone will therefore be more shrill and hysterical, with even greater ‘intersectional’ comparisons in order to elide essential differences.