The calendar year ended with politicians holding conferences and making statements in opposition to antisemitism and BDS. The impact of these actions, however, was undercut by calls to boycott the new Israeli government from officially linked US and European sources, and from left wing American Jews. Complicating matters further are calls within the new Israeli coalition to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and responses from Israeli corporations stating that will not happen. The Jewish schism opening in Israel and the US threatens to extend BDS in new and damaging ways even as the movement’s impact in the West has been blunted.
BDS in December was characterized by a sudden series of responses from politicians, notably meetings expressing opposition to antisemitism. At the city level, a conference called by the Combat Antisemitism Movement was held in Athens and drew an international collection of mayors including New York City’s Eric Adams.
At the state level an event was held in New York City, sponsored by the Orthodox Union, featured New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Hochul announced a new “Hate and Bias Prevention Unit” to be run through the state’s ‘Department of Human Rights’ with the goal of bringing together “together stakeholders and the trusted voices that can rise up with us.”
In Virginia a commission appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin released its report on antisemitism in the state. The report cited instances of anti-Israel bias, including evidence that ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ administrators were pervasively biased against Israel, and also criticized former President Trump for meeting Kanye West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes. The report, and an open letter from the Virginia Attorney General, recommended the state adopt anti-BDS laws and that Youngkin use his executive power to ban BDS on campus.
At the national level, Sen. Benjamin Cardin convened a ‘cross-governmental working group’ on antisemitism with representatives of various agencies as well as non-profits. Cardin stated “A unified, national strategy on countering antisemitism is needed. While finding the proper balance between protecting free speech and protecting Americans from harm, we need to up our game, rebuild coalitions with other groups that have been the target of hate-based violence, and institutionalize coordination that counters antisemitism wherever it is found.”
Also at the national level, a White House ‘roundtable’ was convened by Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. Speakers at the 90 minute session included students who spoke about BDS and antisemitism on campus. The Biden Administration also announced an ‘interagency task force’ to address antisemitism and ‘Islamophobia.’ White House Press Secretary, and former BDS supporter Katine Jean-Pierre stated, “This strategy will raise understanding about antisemitism and the threat it poses to the Jewish community and all Americans, address antisemitic harassment and abuse both online and offline, seek to prevent antisemitic attacks and incidents, and encourage whole-of-society efforts to counter antisemitism and build a more inclusive nation. Observers noted that the inclusion of ‘Islamophobia’ deliberately undercut the emphasis on antisemitism and that the assignment of the issue to an ‘interagency task force’ relegated it to bureaucratic obscurity.
Finally, in Great Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated in a letter to a pro-Israel group that the Conservative government would find a way to formally ban BDS and to expand trade with Israel.
The sudden spate of conferences, speeches and initiatives from politicians opposing antisemitism responded to long documented upswings in antisemitic violence and rhetoric, brought to a head in the controversies precipitated by Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and former president Donald Trump. While statements and actions from these individuals are easy to identify, policies that address antisemitism while preserving free speech remain difficult to conceive. Political figures also continue to normalize antisemites and BDS supporters such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was recently photographed with President Biden at a White House event.
Street level antisemitic violence against Jews also continues to rise. In this regard the release of hate crimes statistics by the FBI was sharply criticized since it omitted data from New York City, Los Angeles and Miami, the former two locations having seen dramatic increases in violence targeting Jews in the past few years, largely by African Americans. The FBI blamed local officials for not providing data but the larger picture is of law enforcement reluctance to provide data that demonstrates precisely who is targeting American Jews.
The electoral return of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and his coalition of ‘far right’ parties provides another context for international criticism and calls for boycott. Prior to the election Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had warned of cooling US-Israel relations should Itamar Ben-Gvir become a member of the governing coalition. This was followed up in December by a call from former US diplomats Aaron David Miller and Dan Kurtzer for an arms embargo against Israel and to boycott future ministers Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as well as their ministries. This shot across the bow likely represents a trend in official US thinking. European officials also warned of cooling relations with one stating that intelligence exchanges would be curtailed should Ben-Gvir become the Israeli minister in charge of the police. In contrast, reports indicate that the US has requested that the United Nations not update its list of companies operating across the ‘Green Line.’
At the same time, calls from Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis to boycott members of the Israeli ‘Religious Zionism’ bloc from speaking in their congregations represents another entirely predictable schism. This group has been opposed in turn by a group of Orthodox rabbis, who pointed out their counterparts expressed no opposition to Muslim anti-Zionists who had been members of the outgoing Israeli government. The internal Jewish dissent is complicated vastly by by calls from members of the new Israeli coalition to permit discrimination against LGBTQ Israelis and by efforts from Israeli banks and other corporations to rewrite their regulations to prevent such occurrences.
On campus, it was revealed that the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at George Washington University was being investigated by institution for damaged incurred during an October protest against the appearance of a former Israeli official at the school’s Hillel. Palestine Legal, the legal defense wing of the BDS movement, alleged that the SJP chapter was being unfairly targeted while its campus allies, notably the ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ chapter, stated that no damage had been done to Hillel or other property. The SJP chapter was exonerated by the university but blamed the JVP chapter for the damage.
A variety of anti-Israel events were also held on campuses including at Harvard University, Tufts University, the University of Maryland, and John Jay College. At the Graduate Center of the City University of New York protestors disrupted an event on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event had been introduced by the university president. Despite these and other activities, an anonymous op-ed in the University of Michigan newspaper complained that two decades of BDS activity on campus had produced few tangible gains in terms of divestment from Israel.
The Department of Education has launched an investigation of the University of California at Berkeley Law School after student organizations adopted a bylaw prohibiting ‘Zionist’ speakers from appearing on campus. The investigation will address “whether the university failed to respond appropriately” to complaints “from Jewish law students, faculty and staff that they experienced a hostile environment at the law school based on their shared Jewish ancestry.” The dean of the law school had criticized the student groups but the university claimed it was powerless to act against this viewpoint discrimination and related harassment. Mainstream media coverage continues to claim that the student government pledge to bar ‘Zionist’ speakers was a free speech issue rather than institutionalized viewpoint discrimination.
The student union of Queen Mary University of London disaffiliated itself from the National Union of Students (NUS), alleging that NUS president Shaima Dallal had been removed because of “anti-Palestinian racism” rather than her BDS related antisemitism. A BDS resolution at London City University was overridden after a complaint to the Charity Commission that the student union’s decision was political and thus outside its legal objectives.
At the faculty level, the ‘Middle East Studies Association’ (MESA) held its annual conference at the end of November and gave its highest ‘academic freedom’ award to six Palestinian NGO’s that are leaders in BDS and lawfare again Israel. These included Adameer and Al-Haq, organizations with demonstrated links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The rationale, as MESA’s president put it, is that “international scholars and human rights advocates have relied on well-researched and meticulously-documented reports from these six organizations.” MESA formally adopted BDS early in 2022 and has made opposition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism a central ‘academic freedom’ cause.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism continues to be controversial. Following MESA’s lead, the Rutgers University SJP called on the student government to revoke its endorsement of the IHRA definition. The province of Saskatchewan adopted the IHRA definition as did the Nevada higher education system.
The University of Toronto, however, declined to endorse the definition. In a statement the university president asserted that the IHRA definition was “both insufficiently responsive to many of the most troubling instances of antisemitism in the university context and in tension with the university as a place where difficult and controversial questions are addressed. Freedom of expression and academic freedom are individual rights. Protecting these freedoms is essential to our university’s mandate and mission of discovery, research and education, which can only thrive in an environment of free expression and critical inquiry. The remedy for dealing with controversial speech is more speech, not less.” By casting the university’s support of IHRA as infringement on individual rights, the University Toronto implicitly endorses institutionalized viewpoint discrimination, such as that of student organizations who ostracize ‘Zionist’ speakers.