BDS Focus Shifts to Academic Associations and Political Arena. BDS also Emerges as Israeli Political Issue.

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During break between academic semesters the focus of BDS advocacy shifted to academic associations and to the American political arena. Efforts by BDS advocates to usurp popular political causes are becoming more blatant and have generated some pushback. BDS has also become an Israeli political issue, in the context of both European antisemitism in the aftermath of the Paris massacres and the upcoming Israeli elections. At the same time, global investment in Israel continues to increase.


A series of academic association meetings show that BDS remains an important issue for a narrow class of intellectuals intent on capturing organizational agendas. At the American Historical Association a BDS debate was centered in the organization’s business meeting. A small group called “Historians against the War” had attempted to place a BDS resolution condemning Israel and calling for both a boycott of Israel and implementation of the Palestinian “right of return” on the meeting agenda. The effort was rejected by the AHA leadership since it lacked sufficient member signatures and since the “right of return” lies outside the group’s jurisdiction.

Another resolution was submitted two weeks before the meeting, well after the deadline, without the boycott and “right of return” elements. The AHA Council then decided to permit a vote at the business meeting to consider suspending the rules and considering the resolution. The vote to suspend the rules was then soundly defeated at the business meeting. BDS supporters indicate that they will continue to push the issue within the organization.

The AHA case illustrates how BDS supporters attempt to bend and manipulate organizational rules to ram through resolutions, and how, with sufficient preparation time, these can be defeated by BDS opponents. In the case of the AHA there is historical precedent dating back to 1970 when opponents of the Vietnam War attempted to use the business meeting as a platform to dominate the organization.

In another procedural defeat for BDS supporters, the Modern Language Association requested that resolutions both in favor and opposed to BDS be withdrawn from consideration at the organization’s January meeting. The resolutions were withdrawn and the organization instead will have a broader discussion of “The MLA in the World: How Should the MLA Engage With Controversial Issues?” Any pro-BDS resolution is likely to be postponed, but in the meantime the BDS supporters have claimed victory and the organization has formed a pro-BDS working group to lay the groundwork for future success.

In contrast with these defeats, in November 2014 the Middle East Studies Association approved placing a BDS resolution before the entire membership. Voting on the resolution closes at the beginning of February. The resolution has a high probability of passing.

The significance of BDS in American academia is now being debated within Israeli academic circles. One group, which includes scholars such as Ilan Troen of Brandeis University and Ben-Gurion University, point to the formation of a committee by the heads of all Israeli universities, and a study group by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies as evidence the problem is being taken seriously by Israeli policymakers. Another viewpoint, held by scholars such as David Newman, also of Ben-Gurion University, characterizes the BDS threat as overblown.

BDS is also emerging as an explicit political issue both in the US and internationally. A strong Palestinian and BDS presence has been noted in the anti-police protests surrounding the Occupy movement, the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City. The BDS movement is actively building bridges with these protestors, as seen in the January trip of Ferguson protestors to the Palestinian territories. The effort to make BDS a mainstream ‘social justice’ cause is already well advanced but these efforts signal closer links with far left activism.

This linkage, and the willingness to employ direct action to disrupt daily life, was seen in several recent incidents. In one, Pro-Palestinian and BDS protestors loudly disrupted a New York City Council ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz. The protestors also condemned the upcoming trip to Israel by members of the City Council. Members of the City Council condemned the protest furiously.

In another incident, pro-BDS Stanford University students participating in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march across the San Mateo Bridge across San Francisco Bay hijacked the event with Palestinian and other flags to demand divestment from Israel. The protest shut down the bridge temporarily, causing several automobile accidents. Over 60 protestors were arrested.

Internationally, the threat of economic sanctions has long been implicit in European policy towards Israel, with threats escalating periodically in relation to the status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli sources have been divided regarding the extent of the political and economic threat from Europe, with some warning of increased isolation while others noted that BDS has had no impact on the Israeli economy. These divisions suggest that BDS is viewed within Israel as a political issue.

But other evidence suggests BDS is not seen in Israel along conventional political lines. In a joint press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted “Western Europe is undergoing a wave of Islamisation, of anti-Semitism, and of anti-Zionism. It is awash in such waves, and we want to ensure that for years to come the State of Israel will have diverse markets all over the world.”

Netanyahu’s statement also came in the aftermath of the Paris massacres and the run-up to Israeli elections in March, and appears to reflect a longer term view regarding the nature of European societies as much as a strictly economic perspective about trade relations. In this sense Netanyahu may be signaling European counterparts both that their leverage over Israel is limited and that the future of the European project is in jeopardy.

The Israeli ‘pivot to Asia’ is evident in the Abe visit, the acquisition of an Israeli firm by the Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, and an investment in an Israeli firm by the Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung. January also saw numerous other investments and purchases of Israeli firms by Western companies including Amazon.

The limited impact of BDS has also been seen locally in Israel and the Palestinian territories. On the one hand, the Fatah movement has called on Palestinians to boycott Israeli goods. This is consistent with efforts by the Palestinian BDS National Committee to promote BDS within the Arab world. It also supports the conjecture that the BDS movement is partially directed by factions opposed to the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, Hamas has recently announced that it would permit the import of Israeli goods into Gaza for the first time in five years. This is a tacit admission that the BDS movement is a failure within the Palestinian community, a fact that has been noted recently by other observers.

Whether these failures in part account for the increasing emphasis of the BDS movement on alignment with far left ‘social justice’ causes, and “anti-normalization” of Muslim inter-faith cooperation with Jewish organizations, is unclear.

BDS Focus Shifts to Academic Associations and Political Arena. BDS also Emerges as Israeli Political Issue.

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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