BDS co-opts Ukraine as condemnation of Amnesty International mounts. Demands for campus boycotts of Jewish groups and Israel programs grow as Middle East Studies Association adopts BDS.

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With global politics dominated by Russia’s war on Ukraine the BDS movement predictably took advantage to attack Israel. Complaints that the international community has a double standard, sanctioning Russia but not Israel, have meshed with complaints that Israel has ‘not taken sides’ in the conflict. This opportunism is standard but it comes as BDS influenced campaigns on campus and in the ‘human rights industry’ have intensified. These compound celebrity driven antisemitism and, most significantly, emerging ‘environmental, social, and governance’ norms for corporations which have begun incorporating anti-Israel animus under the influence of the ‘human rights industry.’


In a characteristic display of opportunism, the BDS movement in March concentrated its focus on the war in Ukraine. Responding to the rapid condemnation of Russia and the implementation of economic sanctions, leaders and members of the BDS movement, its representatives in Congress, and allied intellectuals alleged a hypocritical double standard and demanded the same be done to Israel. This sentiment was echoed by the Palestinian Authority, which claimed the “international community is being hypocritical and racist by being more sympathetic towards the Ukrainians because of their color, religion and race.”

The BDS movement’s position was complicated by the response of far left allies, including the ‘Democratic Socialists of America,’ which initially blamed NATO expansion for goading Russia to attack, and then moderated to a broad anti-war position. Palestinian Authority support for Russia went largely unnoticed. The fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and that Ukraine and Israel have positive relations is also a complication.

Criticism from the Biden Administration and its supporters alleging Israel reluctance to support Ukraine, claims that Israel had not ‘chosen’ between Ukraine and Russia, and that it had failed to use its ‘leverage’ with Russia should be seen as efforts to marginalize Israel (and Gulf states) in advance of a new nuclear agreement with Iran. These were undermined by Israeli negotiation and relief efforts but will now be a feature of political debates over Israel.

One strange illustration of the equation of Ukraine and ‘Palestine’ came from model Gigi Hadid, who stated she was “pledging to donate my earnings from the Fall 2022 shows to aid those suffering from the war in Ukraine, as well as continuing to support those experiencing the same in Palestine.” Hadid, who is of Palestinian descent, has participated in anti-Israel protests.

In a social media posting, Vogue Magazine, which featured an interview with her in March, initially removed her comments equating Ukrainians and Palestinians but restored them after criticism. In the interview Hadid commented that she was hurt by allegations she had called for the destruction of Israel, adding, “I truly respect Judaism, and I think it’s a beautiful religion… This is about a government system suppressing people.”

More broadly, the rapid condemnation of Russia and severing of commercial ties that affects average citizens and not simply oligarchs, as well as debates over ending academic programs, points to how a society can be quickly vilified and isolated with no consideration of strategic effects or legality. This raises the specter of other global scale cancellation cascades created by design or provocation where the corporate goal is to appear to be on the ‘right side of history.’

In this respect, the malleability and opportunism inherent in emerging ‘environmental, social and governance’ norms, in which corporations adopt fashionable ‘standards’ set by a growing industry of monitors in exchange for external validation and with substantial leadership bonuses, has already begun to incorporate antipathy towards Israel under the influence of the ‘human rights industry.’

Like the Hadid profile in Vogue, a puff piece in the New York Times on Rep. Rashida Tlaib was aimed at both whitewashing and normalizing BDS in a cultural as well as political sense. The relentless promotion of BDS in mainstream media such as Vogue and teenvogue deliberately merges left wing opinion with consumption and celebrity. This strategy, presenting BDS and antisemitism as a fashionable lifestyle choices, partially accounts for polling results that show that younger demographics, including Jews, are increasingly negative about Israel. The second order impacts, namely legitimizing antisemitism, are also reflected in the massive increases in antisemitic hate crimes.

The antipathy of the ‘human rights’ industry towards Israel was demonstrated in February by a ‘report’ from Amnesty International that deemed Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ This was compounded in March by remarks from Amnesty USA’s director, Paul, O’Brian. In comments to the Women’s National Democratic Club, O’Brien stated that “Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state” and that American Jews would prefer it be a “safe Jewish space” with “core Jewish values.” O’Brien also stated that “we are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people.”

After a report on O’Brien’s talk appeared, he complained that he had been misquoted, which prompted Jewish Insider to publish the full transcript and recording of his remarks. The transcript demonstrated his comments were both more contradictory and offensive than originally reported:

But it is really important, I think, particularly for those who understand the threats that the Jewish people experienced over the last several generations, I think it is incumbent on people who engage this conversation to say, No, I don’t believe that Israel should be preserved as a state in which one race is legally entitled to oppress another. But yes, I understand that the Jewish people have a legitimate concern about their very existence being threatened. And that needs to be part of the conversation.

In a rare display of unity, 25 Jewish Congressional Democrats condemned the statement, which noted that “O’Brien’s patronizing attempt to speak on behalf of the American Jewish community is alarming and deeply offensive” and that “We stand united in condemning this and any antisemitic attempt to deny the Jewish people control of their own destiny.” A number of other members of Congress added their condemnation.

Despite the additional damage done by the interview, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with and then praised the heads of Amnesty and ‘Human Rights Watch,’ Ken Roth and Agnes Callamard, both of whom support BDS. Blinken had previously criticized the Amnesty report as applying a “double standard” to Israel. After the heavily criticized meeting the State Department commented, “Regarding the report’s use of ‘apartheid,’ we reiterate that we fully reject that characterization.” Blinken later praised both organizations in a speech at the US Holocaust Museum, calling them “independent, impartial sources.

US inconsistency on the issue of human rights was amplified by reports that showed the State Department has announced a program to “collect, archive and maintain human rights documentation to support justice and accountability and civil society-led advocacy efforts, which may include documentation of legal or security sector violations and housing, land and property rights.” The US Government is therefore both deflecting and encouraging spurious ‘human rights’ attacks on Israel. While this may be a function of policy incoherence, a deeper administration strategy of isolating Israel may be suspected.

As predicted, the Amnesty report (and a ‘Human Rights Watch’ report in 2021) was a prelude to a ‘United Nations Human Rights Council’ (UNHRC) report that also concluded Israel was guilty of ‘apartheid.’ The report, authored by the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” long-time anti-Israel activist and BDS supporter Michael Lynk, accuses Israel of creating an “entrenched rule in the occupied Palestinian territory which endows one racial-national-ethnic group with substantial rights, benefits and privileges while intentionally subjecting another group to live behind walls.” The report was a prelude to another UNHRC meeting condemning Israel, at which it was accused of being a ‘colonial occupier.’

In response, 68 US Senators wrote to Secretary Blinken requesting he lead an effort to end the UNHCR’s permanent ‘Commission on Inquiry,’ deeming it ““consistent with UNHRC’s continuing bias against Israel and the disproportionate use of resources in an ongoing campaign to disparage, discredit and denounce Israel.”

The appearance of multiple accusations of Israeli ‘apartheid’ by the ‘human rights’ industry, in cooperation with terror-linked Palestinian NGOs, is indicative of a larger strategy designed to influence global and local politics. The goal is to vilify Israel using one of the only terms, ‘apartheid,’ that is universally reviled, even if it necessitates manipulating the definition and the evidence out of all recognition, in order to legitimate violence as well as BDS.

The BDS thus continues to have an impact in broader American politics, especially as the midterms approach. The divide over Israel within the Democratic Party is now routinely discussed in mainstream media and will feature as another small but significant issue dividing mainstream Democrats and progressives on the far left. This is apparent in the emergence of credible challengers to Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, as well as the candidacy of a BDS leader, Huwaida Arraf, a founder of the ‘International Solidarity Movement.’

The rapidly changing and increasingly heated situation surrounding Israel was also confirmed in an interview with Rep. Ritchie Torres, a strong opponent of BDS, who warned that the number of anti-Israel members of Congress is increasing, adding “There’s no topic on which I face more hatred or harassment than on the subject of Israel.”

But in a sign that BDS is causing schisms even on the far left, the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ (DSA) disbanded its BDS working group by a narrow margin. The DSA had previously condemned New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman for participating in a J Street trip to Israel and for voting in support of renewing Iron Dome funding but had declined to withdraw its support. The reason for disbanding the group was not clear but the implication was that the issue was domineering and divisive.

BDS in academia featured a number of protests against Jewish institutions and speakers on campuses. At the University of Toronto, 45 pro-Palestinian faculty members signed a letter attacking a January talk by former Canadian Attorney General, human rights advocate, and former faculty member Professor Irwin Cotler. The letter accused the school of reinforcing “anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices” through Cotler’s appearance at a Holocaust Remembrance event, specifically referencing his support for the IHRA definition, and the co-sponsorship by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In response, some 300 University of Toronto faculty members issued a statement criticizing the original letter and detailing rising antisemitism at the institution. The signatories of the original letter then accused Jewish faculty of making false charges of antisemitism, and targeting “racialized junior faculty, and almost exclusively women.”

In contrast, also at the University of Toronto, the administration has responded to an earlier graduate student BDS resolution by withholding student fees from the graduate student union.

Efforts to ‘denormalize’ Israel also continued on campus. At New York University, a resolution was presented in the student government that calls on the school to suspend its Tel Aviv branch. Among other things the resolution alleged that Muslim students were unable to receive visas to study in Tel Aviv as a result of Israeli law. A university representative dismissed the resolution as being opposed to the school’s values and added that, in contrast to students wishing to student at the main campus in New York City, “We are unaware of a single instance in which an NYU student who has sought to study at NYU Tel Aviv has been refused the opportunity to do so.”

At Georgetown University BDS movement claimed it had succeeded in getting the student government to block funding for an educational trip to Israel. Other reports, however, indicated that the university had blocked the allocation over a procedural issue.

Specifically in response to the negative publicity that frequently accompanies a BDS resolution once it is publicized, the student government at Northwestern University has adopted a policy that makes certain meetings closed door, ostensibly to ‘ensure the safety’ of participants. The policy permits the removal of non-student government members including journalists. At the same time, the ‘ethics committee’ adopted new rules that ‘encourage’ journalists to ask permission before quoting individuals.

At Tufts University, the local SJP chapter issued a call for students to “refuse to join groups or projects that normalize or benefit israel [sic].” Specifically named were J Street, Tufts Friends of Israel, and Birthright. The statement went further and demanded students to refuse to “buy products or participate in groups that enable and normalize Zionist settler colonialism.” It named a number of specific products including Sabra hummus that are available on the Tufts campus. The accompanying petition accused J Street of supporting a two state solution that “fails to recognize Israel as a settler colonial state and Zionism as a white supremacist ideology.”

In response, a university spokesman called the SJP campaign “divisive and harmful. It doesn’t help foster important conversations – rather, it shuts them down while ostracizing fellow students.” The co-chair of the J Street chapter expressed surprise at being included in the SJP boycott since “We think that, as a club, we have a lot more ideological similarities with [SJP] than not.”

Two student governments in Canada adopted BDS resolutions using ‘apartheid’ as the rationale. The resolution adopted at McGill University calls on the student government to adopt a “Palestine Solidarity Policy.” The policy states that “McGill University invests in, or engages in close collaboration with several corporations and institutions complicit in an entrenched system of settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians,” calls on the student government to issue “one public statement each semester, including a statement on Nakba Day, reaffirming the SSMU’s solidarity with Palestinian students and with Palestinian liberation from settler-colonial apartheid,” and demands the university adopt BDS policies. These entities include “all corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.” The resolution thus arguably includes all Jewish groupsJewish groups also protested the decision but the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine posted a message on social media thanking the student government for the move.

In response, a university official stated the resolution was “inconsistent with the SSMU constitution as well as previous decisions by its internal governance bodies,” which would “lead to polarization that fosters a culture of ostracization and disrespect on the basis of students’ identity, religious or political beliefs.” She also expressed concerns over “alleged irregularities in the referendum process” and threatened to rescind the Memorandum of Understanding that governed university collection of student fees. Pro-BDS students then protested that “we cannot stay silent while the McGill administration attempts to blackmail our student union, and crush the democratic will of our student body!”

Similarly, at Concordia University, long a hotbed of antisemitic agitation, the resolution was intended to “adopt a position against the practice of apartheid (as defined by leading human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) and to divest from any investments and withdraw any financial or vocal support from states or businesses that are involved in apartheid.”

At the University of Virginia the groups ‘Dissenters’ and ‘Decolonize UVA’ proposed and then withdrew a BDS resolution. The resolution also condemned the school’s Jewish Studies Program for hosting an art exhibition by Jewish artist Frédéric Brenner that allegedly “prioritized the white gaze and the perspective of the Israeli apartheid state to the exclusion and erasure of Palestinians and Palestine.”

In contrast, administrators deemed a BDS resolution at the University of Texas a “non-university related matter”, effectively negating it before a vote was held in the student government. BDS supporters complained bitterly about the “authoritarian decision” and being ‘silenced’ as well as about the previous adoption of the IHRA definition.

At Princeton University BDS supporters held a demonstration outside the Center for Jewish Life to protest the school’s support for programs in Israel. Despite the obvious context, a ‘Princeton Committee for Palestine’ leader commented “We are not protesting the Center for Jewish Life.”

Similarly tortured logic was displayed as Princeton BDS supporters approached the student government demanding the school boycott Caterpillar since “Their machinery is routinely used for some really despicable and inhumane purposes.” When pressed, however, supporters claimed that the resolution was not an endorsement of BDS since “BDS does not appear in the resolution or in the ballot question. It only exists in the explanation; that’s not what’s being implemented.”

Pure disrespect for Jewish students appear to have been at work in Britain, where the National Union of Students (NUS) first stated that it would coordinate anti-Israel ‘apartheid week’ strikes, and then announced it would host antisemitic rapper Lowkey to headline its centenary meeting. Jewish student groups protested loudly and were said to be in ‘consultations’ with the NUS. One report then indicated that Jewish students could use an “existing safe space designated for students who are sensitive to loud noise during Lowkey’s performance.” Another report pointed to antisemitic comments by NUS leaders, cast partially in the context of ‘decolonization,’ and suggested that the NUS had quietly dropped use of the IHRA definition. The NUS later accused Jewish leaders of “harassment and intimidation.” In response, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that British universities “for far too long been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism.”

Similarly, the Duke University student government approved funding for the local SJP chapter to bring The Nation’s ‘Palestine correspondent’ Mohammad el-Kurd to campus, despite being shown evidence of his antisemitic statements, including allegations of Israeli ‘organ harvesting.’

The support for BDS from British student groups comes as the Conservative government continues to demand that universities adopt the IHRA antisemitism definition and proposed restrictions on the ability of local authorities to boycott Israel. Reports indicate, however, that pro-Palestinian activists have planned another series of violent takeover of facilities belonging to Israeli companies. These far left activists include a variety of Green Party and ‘Extinction Rebellion’ members and Holocaust deniers.

At the faculty level, as expected members of the Middle East Studies Association adopted a BDS policy. The resolution accused Israeli universities of being “imbricated” with “systemic violations” of Palestinian human rights and providing “direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.” The resolution disingenuously demands members boycott Israeli institutions but not individual scholars. This contradiction was amplified in a statement from the organization’s president who said that in developing a full policy “MESA’s Board will work to honor the will of its members and ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship.”

The MESA decision was widely condemned by Jewish and other leaders. Brandeis University immediately dissociated itself from MESA, noting the “resolution attacks the fundamental principles of academic freedom and association.” This follows several state institutions that declined to renew their institutional memberships.

The resolution marks the full transformation of MESA from a scholarly to an advocacy organization. In a similar vein, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has issued a statement opposing the use of the IHRA definition, calling it ‘overly broad’ and alleging it infringes on academic freedom. The AAUP also opposed state laws addressing ‘critical race theory.’ The organization alleged that both opposing antisemitic characterizations of Israel and racialist conceptions of history represented the “intensification of the reaction by conservative activists against the civil rights movement and its legal victories.”

The MESA vote comes as a new report demonstrated that the presence of BDS supporting faculty dramatically increased the incidents of antisemitic harassment on campuses.

BDS co-opts Ukraine as condemnation of Amnesty International mounts. Demands for campus boycotts of Jewish groups and Israel programs grow as Middle East Studies Association adopts BDS.

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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