BDS-led campus protests call for ‘intifada’ and to hail ‘martyrs’ as Israeli speakers are attacked.

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The BDS movement and its allies in February aligned themselves further with Palestinian rejectionism with rallies calling for ‘intifada’ and hailing Palestinian ‘martyrs.’ These terms mesh the BDS movement’s religious-nationalist agenda and left wing ‘anti-imperialist’ protests over ‘victims of state violence.’ Coupled with harassment of Israeli speakers, and Palestinians who advocate peaceful dialogue, the declining traction of the IHRA antisemitism definition, and the dramatic upswing in violence in Israel and the ‘territories,’ a volatile situation exists on campus, and downstream in politics.


February saw an upswing in campus BDS activities and the marked use of Palestinian rejectionist rhetoric based around calls for ‘intifada,’ historically meaning uprisings which employ both mass and individual acts of violence. The rhetoric sees Israel as an illegitimate imperialist imposition to be eliminated, uses religious terminology of ‘martyrdom’ even as it denies the obvious Islamic connotations, and opposes ‘normalization’ of Israel through any interaction with Israelis or supporters.

A series of protests were held calling for ‘intifada’ at the University of Michigan and Brandeis University, and graffiti at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. The Brandeis rally was co-sponsored by the local ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ (SJP) chapter and the ‘Brandeis Leftist Union. Protestors’ slogans included “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free!”, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution!”, and Netanyahu is the new Hitler!”

One student was quoted as saying “The Brandeis Leftist Organization stands totally and completely with Palestine and her martyrs. We recognize that Israel is nothing more than an enlarged military base for the United States and its European allies to meddle in the Middle East. We, therefore, recognize that the liberation of Palestine is not a religious issue but, in fact, an issue of imperialism and injustice.”

Responding to allegations that the content of the protest was antisemitic the SJP president was quoted as saying “people don’t really know what the meaning of antisemitism is,” and “You can’t call me antisemitic when I am a Semitic person.” This misrepresentation of the term ‘antisemitism’ is common if not deliberate.

In an email to the Brandeis community university president Ron Liebowitz stated that both the SJP protest and counter protest groups “followed the proper protocols for scheduling a protest on campus” but added that “the protections of speech will not shield from criticism those who evoke the horrors of the Holocaust in a disgraceful manner, seek to promote violence, or call for the eradication of a country.”

A complaint to the University of Michigan administration noted that calls for Israel’s destruction violated state and Federal hate speech statues and put Jewish students in jeopardy. This was dismissed by the administration and the rhetoric defended as ‘academic freedom’ with the statement that “One of the most important values as an institution—one we teach and model in and out of the classroom and one that is embodied in our commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion—is the respect for those who have different opinions, have different life experiences, hold different world views.” It is virtually inconceivable that similar rhetoric aimed at other minority groups would be embraced by the university. A student government resolution demanding condemnation of Israel was later debated.

BDS sponsored rallies commemorating Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli security forces were held at several institutions including Binghamton University, where the slogan “glory to our martyrs” was central. These rallies, and a variety of ‘apartheid week’ style events, complemented the SJP conference at UCLA and others held in several North American cities by the BDS organization Al Awda and the Palestinian Youth Movement, and a variety of Muslim rejectionist organizations such as American Muslims for Palestine. The intersectional logic of the BDS movement’s opposition to Israel and Jews was also revealed in a joint ‘vigil for victims of state violence’ held at Rutgers University by the local ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ chapter and the ‘All Marxist Leninist Union.’

The centrality of “antinormalization” to the Palestinian movement has been transferred fully to the BDS movement, which demands rejection of peace from other Arabs. This was reflected in the disruption of a joint Israeli-Palestinian discussion event at Tufts University by masked individuals who shouted “genocide” and called the Palestinian participant a “slut” in Arabic before fleeing when campus police arrived. The local SJP chapter denied involvement. It was also reflected at Concordia University in the denunciation of the university president’s trip to Israel and signing of an agreement with Bar Ilan University by Palestinian and pro-BDS students and faculty. One faculty member characterized the purpose as ‘legitimizing Israel through their academic partnership.’

The intifada protests were followed up at Princeton University and the University of Michigan with institutionally sponsored lectures by Muhammad el-Kurd, noted anti-Israel activist. Demonstrating the absolutist nature of pro-Palestinian reasoning, el-Kurd refused to acknowledge that any Palestinian killed were terrorists and asked rhetorically “What should happen to the seven million Palestinian refugees who are rotting in refugee camps?” There are approximately 5-6 million Palestinians total worldwide.

The extent to which BDS and Palestinian rejectionism – the absolute denial of any Jewish rights to sovereignty – has been normalized on university campuses is reflected in a course at Bard College entitled “Apartheid in Israel-Palestine.” The course, taught by Nathan Thrall, former director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), was lauded by the BDS movement and reflects the revolving door between the ‘human rights’ industry, academia, government, and media.

The manner in which rejectionism is policed by student organizations was demonstrated in complaints lodged against the president of the Oxford Union following the appearance of Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotoveley in a debate with several Arab ambassadors. The no confidence petition alleges the union president of “deliberately conspiring with foreign agents to promote the interests of an apartheid state” by facilitating Hotoveley’s 2022 appearance at which she was harassed and attacked by protestors. The complaint alleged further that “Israeli security conspired to harass members of colour and pro-Palestinian members” and that the union president “facilitated a severe threat to the safety and privacy of Oxford Union members.”

The denigration of concerns of Jewish and Israeli students was also reflected at the City University of New York (CUNY), where several longstanding BDS related antisemitism scandals continue to play out. In late 2022, after stonewalling critics including from the New York City Council, the CUNY chancellor adopted several conciliatory moves. At the same time the university appointed a former CAIR official as CUNY’s ‘chief diversity officer,’ Saly Abd Alla, to oversee the investigation. Abd Alla was aslo tasked with hosting a university wide antidiscrimination/antisemitism event. After complaints regarding Abd Alla’s role the in-person portion of the event was canceled in favor of a more easily controlled online event.

Abd Alla has also been made responsible for investigating antisemitic allegations at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, where reports indicate that Jewish professors who had lodged complaints are now being subjected to a retaliatory investigation over discriminatory practices lodged by another faculty member. Reports also now indicate that the New York State Division of Human Rights will investigate a complaint filed regarding CUNY Law School’s adoption of BDS.

In response to critics CUNY has also opened an online portal for students to report antisemitic incidents but only as one of many forms of discrimination, leading critics to allege the university has adopted an “all lives matter” approach. The accompanying list of resources also appears to endorse the so-called “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” in addition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. The Jerusalem declaration is notable for its refusal to consider demonization of Israel as evidence of antisemitism. Reports also indicate that CUNY has imposed a hiring freeze and budget cuts in the face of declining enrollment.

Elsewhere the BDS movement and its student and faculty supporters continue to react harshly when subjected to criticism. At George Washington University an antisemitism scandal continues to unfold around allegations that psychology professor Lara Sheehi verbally abused and discriminated against Jewish students. Sheehi is being defended by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, but the BDS group Palestine Legal has responded by filing a complaint with the US Department of Education accusing the university of “anti-Palestinian racism.”

The complaint alleges that “for years, Palestinian students and students perceived to be Palestinian have been denied access to mental health services, falsely accused of committing crimes, disproportionately investigated by campus police, put through months-long disciplinary processes for infractions that non-Palestinian students admitted to and subjected to racist anti-Palestinian comments in class.” Sheehi’s supporters also demanded that the university not adopt the IHRA definition. The seeking of legal recourse via the Education Department is designed to mimic and supplant the most successful avenue Jewish students have pursued in their own defense. The move came as the US Department of Education announced an investigation of the University of California Law School for discrimination against Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Another defense of Sheehi presented by a fellow psychoanalyst pointed to her ‘trauma’ of having grown up Lebanese and therefore under Israeli attack and then pivoted to accusing American Jews of having taken refuge in “whiteness” and therefore inherent hostility towards “people of color.” This racialized, if not racist, line of attack was implicitly rebuked in a petition signed by some 500 academics including mental health professionals called for Sheehi’s removal until the matter was adjudicated and called into doubt her ability to train psychotherapists.

Similar efforts to depict the BDS movement as the real victims of university abuse and neglect was seen at the University of Chicago, where the local SJP chapter complained that university officials prevented protestors from entering an administration building to continue a rally against a course being taught by a former Israeli military officer. The university denied the allegation. Other accusations of discrimination – and demands for complete impunity – were circulated in op-eds decrying the “Palestinian exception to free speech” at Yale University and George Washington University.

Campuses have responded to antisemitic incidents with a variety of debates that reflect the divide over BDS and Israel. A series of incidents at the University of California at Santa Barbara, including the distribution of white supremacist literature and the vandalism of a classroom with ‘fuck Israel’ graffiti, was debated by the Jewish community but the local SJP chapter claimed the graffiti was simply free speech. A similar debate in the University of California at Berkeley student government over an IHRA based resolution was tabled indefinitely.

BDS inspired calls to attack Jews and “Zionists” were common in February. At the University of Illinois flyers with “Exterminate Zionists” were found, courtesy of the revolutionary communist “Party for Socialism and Liberation.” A violent postering effort that called on viewers to have ‘Zionist’ teachers fired by the Brixton Palestine Solidarity Campaign was also shown to have been created by Key48, a group founded by the Palestine Society at the University of Westminster Palestine Society, which was the source of several ISIS members including “Jihadi John.”

BDS inspired antisemitic vandalism was also frequent during February. Windows at the Purdue Hillel were broken, antisemitic graffiti was found on the doors of the student union at the University of California at Berkeley,

At the University of Denver mezuzot were vandalized and pork products were glued to doors. The growing atmosphere of antisemitic intimidation and violence now extends to the K-12 levels. In one February incident a basketball game between a California Jewish school and a local rival entailed supporters of the opposing team singing Kanye West songs and waving images of Palestinian flags and swastikas on their phones. Far more serious were assaults on Miami Jewish high school students during a soccer match with a rival Catholic school, which resulted in several injuries.

Attempted assaults on Israelis were also common in February. In Britain, Israel Arab and pro-Israel activist Yosef Haddad were met by mobs yelling “intifada’ at the University of Nottingham, the University of Exeter, and University College London. Protestors in London blocked building exits, accused Haddad of being a “war criminal,” and held pictures of Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’ Ayatollah Khameini along with Palestinian flags. The pictures of Khameini reflect the influence of Iranian backed Shia groups in British BDS activities.

A similar physical threat to an Israeli was encountered in Madrid when the Israeli ambassador was attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators during an appearance at a university. The ambassador’s security detail drew weapons and the ambassador was withdrawn to a secure location until they were rescued by a police detail.

Outside of the educational sphere, the attempted firebombing of a New Jersey synagogue, the invasion of a San Francisco synagogue by an individual who then fired several blank rounds to terrorize individuals, and the shooting of two Jews leaving synagogues in Los Angeles, reflect a deteriorating security situation for American Jews. Some of the background to this situation was detailed in a new report from the American Jewish Committee, which showed that some 39% of respondents believe American Jews are “more loyal to Israel than America,” while 20% believe “Jews have too much power in the United States today.”

The changes on and off campus appear to be outstripping the utility of the IHRA declaration as a moderating force. While the declaration was adopted in February by the King County (WA) government, the Richmond (VA) City Council, and has been proposed as a guideline for social media companies by the International Interparliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, opposition is intensifying from BDS and ‘human rights’ organizations. One example in February was the proposal within the American Bar Association, where the IHRA definition was removed from a resolution opposing antisemitism after opposition from ‘Human Rights Watch’ the ‘American Civil Liberties Union,’ and other organizations.

In the political sphere, the ouster of Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee by the new Republican leadership set off a brief but intense spasm of protests which predictably accused her opponents of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘racism.’ Her removal, along with several others, reflects long awaited retribution for the Democrat’s removal of several Republican House members from committee assignments as a result of their offensive behavior.

Omar’s expressed support for BDS and history of antisemitic statements was largely overlooked by her supporters, including by Jewish House members. Omar’s support for a Democratic-crafted resolution “recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism” was a transparent ploy to deflect criticism. Observers note that the complete support shown for Omar by Democrats reflects that party’s normalization of anti-Zionism and acceptance of antisemitism in the name of an ‘intersectional’ hierarchy in which Jews count little.

The pervasiveness of anti-Zionism and antisemitism with in the ‘human rights’ industry continued to be an issue in February. Fallout continued after the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) offered, withdrew and then re-offered a fellowship to former ‘Human Rights Watch’ head Kenneth Roth. For his part Roth continued to demand to know who had called on KSG to withdraw the offer to him and alleged there was ‘plenty of pro-Israel tilting’ at the school. Similarly obsessive anti-Israel bias from Francesca Albanese, the United Nations “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967” has led to widespread condemnations and calls for her removal from members of Congress.

In the governmental sphere, the Biden Administration’s nomination of an anti-Israel activist and ‘human rights lawyer,’ James Cavallaro, to a position on the ‘Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ led to a series of complaints from Jewish and other groups. Cavallaro’s nomination was withdrawn only after his social media postings came to light which accused Israel of being an “apartheid state” and accusations that House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries was “Bought. Purchased. Controlled” by Jewish groups.

In the legal sphere, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging an appeals court decision that held Arkansas’s anti-BDS law to be legal. Advocates have long asserted that the laws only target economic behavior and not speech.

In the international sphere, the mayor of Barcelona, socialist Ada Colau, revoked a sister city agreement with Tel Aviv citing Israeli ‘apartheid.’ The move came after pressure from local pro-Palestinian and LGBT groups. In response, the mayor of Barcelona, Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, offered to twin with Tel Aviv. Finally, at the instigation of South Africa and Algeria, the Israeli observer delegation was removed from the African Union summit. This move was applauded by the BDS movement and Palestinian sources.

Finally, Israeli business, financial, legal and cultural leaders as well as American Jews including liberal community leaderslaw professorsseveral prominent legislators and the Biden Administration itself continue to issue statements calling on the current government not to adopt proposed changes to the legal system and threatening consequences. Several firms have already moved funds out of Israel, preemptively boycotting the state. Most substantively, Israeli and international financial managers have warned that political instability threatens investment in Israel. In response, members of the current coalition have accused opponents of being leaders of the BDS movement, while opposition figures have depicted members of the government as Nazis.

BDS-led campus protests call for ‘intifada’ and to hail ‘martyrs’ as Israeli speakers are attacked.

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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