With higher education already saturated BDS activity in October remained focused on “ethnic studies” in K-12 education. Approved in California, “ethnic studies” curriculums that emphasize race and which target Jews and Israel, as ‘white’ ‘oppressors’ are now under consideration in Massachusetts. Targeting Israel and Jews via K-12 education and the arts suggests that higher education has already been largely conquered by BDS and related CRT racism. The cost, however, has been unprecedented public disaffection with institutions, demonstrating again that BDS and racism destroy whatever they touch.
BDS in October saw key developments related to “ethnic studies” curriculums and related critical race theory.’ California governor Gavin Newsom signed the controversial bill requiring the state’s high school students to take “ethnic studies” before graduating. Long criticized for its emphasis on dividing ethnic groups into victims and victimizers, the current curriculum was modified at the demand of Jewish and other organizations that objected to its overt hostility toward Israel and support for BDS.
The final version discusses the diversity of the Jewish community and includes ‘Holocaust education’ but remains hostile towards Israel, particularly in the context of ‘Arab-American’ ethnic studies. The curriculum is also being supplanted by teachers using the earlier version and an even more radical ‘liberated ethnic studies’ curriculum in which ‘Palestine’ is central.
A bill mandating an “ethnic studies” requirement in K-12 education was also proposed in Massachusetts. The bill would create a “Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education” and mandates “a social justice perspective” in which “ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history, and unlearning racism is taught at all grade levels.” The hostility explicit in such ‘anti-racist’ approaches to both Israel and America has now also begun to infiltrate Jewish day schools. It exacerbates the longstanding issue of anti-Israel bias emanating from Federally funded university Title VI centers which train K-12 teachers, such as that at the National Humanities Center, which recently offered a webinar which claimed “Israel is not Jewish” and castigated a two state solution.
The branding of opponents to ‘ethnic studies’ and ‘critical race theory’ (CRT) as ‘racists’ escalated in October with the issuance of a letter by the Department of Justice and signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, at the request of the National School Boards Association, and directed against a purported “increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.”
Garland’s direction to the Justice Department that parents protesting CRT before local school boards are to be categorized as “domestic terrorists” also potentially targets those opposing BDS content in CRT and “ethnic studies” curriculums. Garland later claimed he did not know the background of the letter that was also disavowed by the National School Boards Association. The letter came in the context of widening demands that faculty in K-12 and higher education context produce loyalty statements regarding ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ goals, enforced by entrenched administrators, as a condition of being hired, thus implicitly endorsing racialism in which Jews are equated with ‘whites’ and oppression.
Elsewhere in academia, BDS efforts continued to isolate Israel, in part by condemning calls for debate and declaring it was an issue beyond discussion, and with demands that universities adopt BDS policies.
One example of the former tactic was seen at the University of Illinois, where the ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ (SJP) chapter strongly protested a statement from the school president that mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entitled “Respectful engagement around difficult issues,” saying “we utterly reject your call for ‘respectful engagements around difficult issues’ because ethnic cleansing and genocide are not complicated issues.”
The SJP chapter at the University of Minnesota also issued a statement protesting a new study aboard program with The Technion Institute in Haifa, stating they were “disappointed at the insistence of the University of Minnesota to persist in active cooperation with the Israeli state, the violent occupation of the Palestinian homeland, and the eradication and ethnic cleansing of its people by use of force.” An SJP campaign was also launched at the University of Virginia demanding the school “1. Stop the sale of all Sabra Hummus products on Grounds by the University and UVA affiliated vendors; 2. Terminate all contracts with G4S; 3. Divest public funding from any and all defense technology research supporting the Israeli Defense Forces.” Protestors at Trinity College Dublin made similar demands.
The Graduate and Professional Student Senate at Virginia Tech passed a BDS resolution. During the debate the student government president stated that “If we’re going to start with antisemitism, we need to start with the [antisemitism of the] Zionists.” He added that the Hillel was not consulted regarding the bill since “We did consult many Jewish graduate students but not the ones who have an institutional rule [for] Israel because we know your stance already.”
At the University of California at Berkeley, the student government unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the university community to lobby Congress in support of legislation that would restrict aid to Israel. The resolution also stated that the student government would actively lobby in favor of legislation by means of “info-sessions, phonebanking, social media campaigns, etc.” A university representative categorically rejected the resolution, while Jewish students complained that the resolution contributed to a heighted climate of harassment.
In response to a talk about Afghanistan by a retired British military officer, Richard Kemp, students at the University of Essex chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In a written statement students claimed that Kemp, a well-known supporter of Israel, was attempting to “erase the identity and history” of Palestinians on campus.
The fruits of campus BDS are seen in harassment of Jewish students, such as at George Washington University and Brooklyn College, incidents such as antisemitic posters and vandalism at other institutions including Indiana University, the University of Maryland, UCLA, and Tufts University, and on social media platforms. These schools have traditionally had large Jewish student populations. Overall a new survey indicated that some 30% of Jewish students had antisemitic experiences last year.
In Britain, however, noted BDS supporter and antisemite David Miller was dismissed by Bristol University for abusing Jewish and Israeli students. The BDS movement and a number of British academics characterized Miller as another ‘victim of the Israel Lobby’ along with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In the cultural sphere, Irish writer Sally Rooney announced that she would not permit her most recent novel to be translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher. Since there is no market for translating and publishing in Hebrew outside of Israel, she is effectively boycotting Israel as a whole, despite the fact that her previously two books were translated and published there. As many commentators have pointed out, Rooney’s books are translated into Russian and Chinese, seemingly without difficulty. Her boycott comes in the context of a new report on pervasive Irish antisemitism.
Rooney’s boycott also came as reports emerged of an internet campaign against singer Billie Eilish, who had promoted her new album on Israeli TV. An analysis showed that Eilish’s Instragram account was targeted by accounts that generated thousands of anti-Israel comments. Most of the accounts were unnamed which indicates they were automated and probably connected to a state actor, such as Iran.
In the political sphere, Vice President Kamala Harris was criticized for a classroom appearance at George Mason University where a student accused Israel of “ethnic genocide and displacement of people, the same that happened in America.” Harris nodded in agreement and then stated “And again, this is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth, should not be suppressed and it must be heard, right? And one of the things we’re fighting for in a democracy, right?”
Harris was swiftly criticized for her obvious acceptance of the student’s statement and swiftly shifted toward damage control. Her defenders, such as her former national security advisor, Halie Sofer, claimed the statement was “consistent with the Vice President’s overall message—that democracy means ensuring all voices are heard.” Other sources close to Harris stated that she “strongly disagrees with the George Mason student’s characterization of Israel.”
A statement on social media by former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, “I’ve been there [Israel] and I think our alliance with Israel is important [sic] both the US and Israel. And Israel is in fact, an apartheid state,” appeared to reflect an unguarded if uninformed moment, similar to Harris’s from a senior Democrat. Harris’s reluctance to criticize the student and Dean’s outburst comes in the context of continuing pressure from Democrats and Democratic candidates dedicated to BDS and destroying Israel. One example is Ibraheem Samirah, a former ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ member and now a candidate for the Virginia legislature, who stated on social media “Mossad creates fossil fuel wars using malicious intel, most famously the WMD lie Colin Powell spewed to the world to justify the Iraq war.”
Another is Florida state representative Omari Hardy, a BDS supporter and candidate to replace Re. Alcee Hastings in a special primary. A redistricting proposal in Illinois would also pit two Democratic representatives, Marie Newman and Sean Casten, against one another. Newman is a member of the progressive ‘squad’ and has opposed legislation to support Israel, most recently Iron Dome funding, while Casten co-authored legislation opposing the BDS movement.
The appearance of leading Congressional BDS supporter Rep. Rashida Tlaib and The Nation magazine’s ‘Palestine correspondent’ Mohammad el-Kurd at a ‘Gaza is Palestine’ event demonstrated the continued orientation of the progressive grassroots. A panel discussion at the ‘San Diego Democratic Party Central Committee’ at which members accused Israel of complicity in the murder of George Floyd and claims that a US-based Muslim charity shut for supporting Hamas was simply supporting “children in Gaza” suggested the level and tone of those grassroots.
Elsewhere, in the international sphere, Israel designated six Palestinian NGOs, several with BDS associations, as terror groups due to the presence of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine personnel. The move prompted the US to demand clarification and elicited protests from European governments, Palestinian groups, and ‘human rights’ organizations such as Amnesty International.
Finally, a number of incidents demonstrate the manner in which BDS has penetrated into social and economic life, in part as an exercise in ‘allyship’ but also as straightforward astroturfing or vandalism. One example was the refusal by the anti-fossil fuel and anti-police “Sunrise DC Movement” to participate in a Washington DC statehood event due to the presence of “Zionist organizations.” The group stated “given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance, and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology.” It then went on to accuse Israel of “violent oppressive tactics” including treating “all Palestinians, as well as Black and brown Jewish-Israelis, as second class citizens.”
The organizations in question, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, all support a two state solution and advocate for liberal causes in the US and Israel. After widespread condemnation from politicians and smaller ‘Sunrise Movement’ groups, the umbrella ‘Sunrise Movement’ partially disavowed the DC group’s statement saying its policy is to “reject antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism.” The Sunrise DC group also later apologized saying “We now understand the way our action has fueled antisemitism, which benefits white nationalism and political movements that built power by dividing us, and endangers Jewish people drastically.” Neither group, however, retracted attacks on Zionism and advocacy for the abolition of Israel.
In contrast, a supposedly grassroots efforts by technology workers employees exemplifies astroturfing. A letter in the Guardian claiming to represent several hundred employees of Google and Amazon demanded the companies refuse to work on project connected with Israel. The letter was then endorsed by a ‘coalition’ of BDS organizations including ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ and MPower, which is run by BDS leader Linda Sarsour
Research showed, however, that the websites associated with the letter were registered months before the letter appeared. A number of the employees who signed the letter BDS activists, including some formerly associated with SJP, within those companies. The letter was thus an example of infiltration and provocation, a now standard BDS tactic that has been extended to the virtual world.
Finally, the placement of posters on London area bus stops with the slogan “Normal People Boycott Israel” and the design of Sally Rooney’s recent book is an example of vandalism that opportunistically takes advantage of another BDS controversy to deface public space.