October was characterized by a series of campus BDS and antisemitism incidents that showed how deeply anti-Israel bias is embedded in organized student life. The determination of Berkeley Law School students and the Wellesley student newspaper to push anti-Israel animus and discrimination demonstrates how BDS activists routinely capture campus organizations. Pushback from the student body, faculty and administrators then appears to defy a grassroots consensus that does not exist.
On campus BDS in October was characterized by a series of incidents demonstrating how BDS supporters capture student organizations.
The antisemitism crisis at the University of California at Berkeley Law School expanded after the decision last month by nine student groups to ban speakers who support ‘Zionism.’ A group of law faculty condemned the “discriminatory bylaw” and called for “free and open speech at the law school.” The group included Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who had previously stated that only a small minority of student groups had endorsed the call to exclude ‘Zionists.’ The student call was also widely condemned by alumni and other observers, including the writers’ group PEN America, who called for the end of what some characterized as “Jew free zones” on campus.
A group of Jewish students also detailed the impacts of the discriminatory bylaw, including growing difficulty in discussing pro-Israel positions. Students also pointed to another aspect of the bylaw, the requirement that student leaders attend a predictably tendentious “Palestine 101” training session.
In an demonstration of how campus BDS is supported, and how individual supporters then find positions of after graduation, reports indicate that the student law groups who banned ‘Zionists’ receive financial backing from major US law firms. These include Covington & Burling LLP, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, Jenner & Block LLP, and Cooley LLP, which collectively employ thousands of lawyers nationally.
The role of law firms was similarly highlighted by reports that the White & Case firm was sponsoring a University of Chicago Law School program entitled “Apartheid: International Law in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” The program, which featured several anti-Israel activists including from ‘Human Rights Watch,’ was open to the university community. When questioned, the firm initially denied then admitted it was sponsoring the program through its support for the schools International Law Societies.
In a second incident, White & Case provided funding for a panel discussion “Racism and the Crime of Apartheid in International Law,” featuring ‘Human Rights Watch’ staffer and anti-Israel activist Omar Shakir held at the International Law Association’s annual conference. When questioned, the firm acknowledging supporting the event which it then condemned. It was unclear whether either panel in question qualified as Continuing Legal Education for lawyers.
Earlier this year a report from White & Case had exonerated the investment ratings firm Morningstar, which had been discovered using ‘environmental, social, governance’ (ESG) guidelines to downgrade Israeli firms. A group of 19 Republican Senators have now cited the Morningstar case in a letter urging the Commerce Department to investigate how ESG is used against Israel.
The role of college media in promoting and normalizing BDS was again highlighted in October. At Wellesley College the editorial board of the student newspaper called for the “liberation of Palestine,” expressed support for the BDS movement, and demanded the school “divest from Israel and any entity that supports Israeli apartheid.”
The editorial also expressed support for the ‘Mapping Project’ which charted Boston-area entities, many Jewish and others related to Israel in economic or only tangential terms, such as MIT. The editorial claimed the “Mapping Project is providing a vital service. Collecting data about these institutions, tracing their financial and political activity and publicizing this information is incredibly important.”
The editorial provoked sharp criticism, including from the college president, who noted that “claiming that Jewish people and organizations are responsible for a host of societal harms and calling for action against them is, by definition, antisemitism.” The newspaper then distanced itself from the Mapping Project but complained about “hateful comments and harassment online.”
At George Washington University the appearance of a former Israeli intelligence official at the Hillel sparked a protest from ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ activists. Flyers demanding “Zionists fuck off” were distributed also around the university over Sukkot. At least one report downplayed that incident, minimizing the extent of anti-Israeli bias on the campus and attributing it to inflated student fears created by outside sources.
An ‘apartheid wall’ and anti-Israel protest were featured at the University of Michigan over Rosh Hashanah, while BDS activist Muhammad al-Kurd spoke at Harvard University. Fallout also continued at the University of Wisconsin over sidewalk chalking found on the first day of school that accused Jewish organizations of complicity in Israeli ‘genocide.’ After being condemned by the university administration, the local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter released a statement denying responsibility but supporting the content of the messages.
Complementing BDS related antisemitism was another spate of vandalism. Mezuzot were torn down from students’ doors, including at Stanford University and Indiana University, and swastikas found in various spaces, including at the University of California, Davis, Ithaca College, the City College of New York, University of Toronto, Queens University, and others. Outside of universities antisemitic attacks continued, such as the in New York when individuals shouting “Free Palestine” threw eggs at yeshiva students.
In the political sphere, with midterm elections in early November many races remain too close to predict but with most observers believing that Democrats will lose control of the House and possibly the Senate.
Among the lesser-known trends are continued efforts by ‘Democratic Socialist’ factions to take over local Democratic parties, in which BDS and anti-Israel politics are central. In North Carolina anti-Israel resolutions forced through by BDS supporters, including former SJP activists, have been approved by the state Democratic Party. While the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, Cheri Beasley, and House incumbent Kathy Manning, both oppose the resolutions, the situation demonstrates growing power of anti-Israel activists in state Democratic politics, including in the legislature. Similar situations are found across the country where socialist candidates have used the Democratic Party as an entryway into local politics.
In contrast, many centrist and even progressive Democrats appear to be eschewing the anti-Israel obsessions of their socialist competitors. With a few exceptions Republican candidates remain largely united in support of Israel.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, October was characterized by high profile celebrity antisemitism crises. On a podcast musician and entrepreneur Kanye West railed against Jews, “Jewish media,” and stated among other things that
- I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.
He added, somewhat incoherently:
- On TMZ I just saw yesterday it said, ’Pete Davidson and Kim have sex by the fireplace to honor their grandmother.’ It’s Jewish Zionists that’s about that life. That’s telling this Christian woman that has four black children to put that out as a message,” he said on a podcast, in which he went unchallenged by the hosts.
- Jewish people have owned the black voice. Whether it’s through us wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt, or it’s all of us being signed to a record label, or having a Jewish manager, or being signed to a Jewish basketball team, or doing a movie on a Jewish platform like Disney.”
West’s social media posting was then removed and he was barred from Instagram while various celebrities, platforms and brands, including Adidas, dropped their relationships with him. Condemnations were also quick in coming from Jewish and black sources as well as from political figures.
West, who has a history of mental illness, later stated in an interview that he was “sorry for the families of the people that had nothing to do with the trauma that I have been through.”
While most characterized West’s outbursts as incidents of ‘right wing antisemitism,’ due to his high profile relationship with former President Trump and strained defenses from right wing figures, his apparent espousal of Black Hebrew Israelite and Farrakhan-influenced ideology which sees blacks as the ‘real Jews’ is a complication that partially situates him on the cultural left.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump stated on social media that “No President has done more for Israel,” wondering why “our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the US,” and urging American Jews to “get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel – Before it is too late!”
Trump was harshly criticized including by White House press secretary and former anti-Israel activist Karine Jean-Pierre. More ironic criticism came from Rep. Ilhan Omar, well-known for her support of BDS and antisemitic comments, who was interviewed by Medhi Hasan, who has an equal record of hating Israel.
More unambiguous antisemitism from the left also came in the still-unfolding crisis in the Los Angeles City Council, where several Latino members were secretly recording making racist and antisemitic comments. In another incident, podcaster Joe Rogan interviewed musician Roger Waters who discussed music but also articulated a series of conspiratorial views about Russia and Ukraine as well as his well-known hostility toward Israel and Jews with no pushback.
Assessing such high profile incidents with respect to their relative contributions to antisemitism results in a complex equation. Cultural and political figures promoting antisemitism mainstream and legitimize bigotry but also elicit strong reactions that raise awareness of the problem. A strictly political focus on the source in order to demonstrate that antisemitism from the right or left is ‘worse’ or ‘more dangerous’ then becomes a political tool in itself.
With respect to BDS it is fair to say that this has been almost exclusively a left wing concern but which now partially overlaps with right wing politics of the newer neo-isolationist and older antisemitic varieties. Both Democrats and Republicans also vie for Muslim and Arab voters with progressive and conservative appeals, respectively, in which anti-Israel (and antisemitic) politics are explicit or implicit.