As the school year approaches pro-BDS faculty and far left foundations opposed to the IHRA definition of antisemitism have organized an ersatz ‘institute’ and multiple conferences to denounce this widely accepted standard. Coupled with academic boycotts adopted by anthropology and Middle East studies organizations, campus BDS and antisemitism appear firmly centered with faculty and their supporters outside of academia rather than students, upstream from local and national politics.
August saw the seasonal upswing in campus BDS activity only with faculty taking the lead. One of the most important developments was the announcement of a newly formed “Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism,” that will sponsor two conferences this fall to attack the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The ‘institute’ defines its missions as
The Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism aims to support the delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies, and to reclaim academia and public discourse for the study of Zionism as a political, ideological, and racial and gendered knowledge project, intersecting with Palestine and decolonial studies, critical terrorism studies, settler colonial studies, and related scholarship and activism.
The Institute approaches Zionism as a broad set of colonial and repressive work and solidarities, efforts to curate knowledge and identities, and to dismantle movements that resist it. In other words, Zionism’s project extends beyond the borders of Palestine.
Many scholars and activists are working to illuminate such “other work” of Zionist institutions and discourses, historically and in the present, to shape the material conditions of life, the movement of capital, the construction of racial identity, and more.
The institute’s “founding collective” includes well-known BDS activists including Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, Christine Hong of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Emmaia Gelman of Sarah Lawrence College. Its funders include the Sparkplug Foundation, a longtime supporter of BDS and radical causes including the “Palestine Youth Movement.”
In an interview Gelman, who is a Sparkplug Foundation board member and daughter of the founders, Felice and Yoram Gelman, noted that “Without minimizing how Zionism operates directly on Palestinians and implements anti-Palestinian racism, we want to tie it [Zionism] to this much larger western supremacy and white supremacy that’s been endemic to these organizations even since before they were Zionist organizations.”
The organizations Gelman referred to include the ADL and the American Jewish Committee, which she has defined elsewhere as ‘racist,’ ‘white supremacist’ and designed to ‘marginalize the Jewish left’ and “attack Arabs, blacks, and queers.” Gelman also added that “Zionist institutions – long before they were Zionist – were involved in anti-communism, in trying to expand the reach of western power, in what you might think of now as orientalism, but we also just call it racism if we want.”
Abudulhadi and Schotten described the initiative more precisely, saying the ‘discipline’ would be “taking its place alongside Decolonial Studies, Settler Colonial Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Critical Disability Studies, and related scholarship and activism, Critical Zionism Studies does not simply interpret the world but also works to change it.” It would therefore be “examining how Zionist interventions move capital and shape the material conditions of life and death–in Palestine, North America, and beyond.”
Conferences will be held at New York University Law School, long a hotbed of BDS activity, and at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The focus is on “North American academia, government, and institutions while additionally mapping the ways IHRA is making incursions internationally. It will highlight victories, successful strategies, and paths of ongoing organizing.” Participants are required to conform to the “Points of Unity” which include that “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project. Like the US, Israel is a settler colonial state,” “Studying Zionism – its direct work for the Israeli state and its “other work” – is politically necessary,” an” “We join in resistance to structures of racism, group supremacy, violence, militarism, colonialism, and capitalism.”
The creation of an ersatz ‘institute’ brings together a number of recent trends in BDS and antisemitism. One is to focus on the IHRA definition as a unique form of ‘repression’ or ‘censorship,’ a claim made with increasing frequency by NGOs, including those that have been shown to receive funding from governments that have adopted or supported IHRA.
Another trend is to characterize Israel and the United States as ‘settler colonialist’ societies which are inherently racist, illegitimate, cruel, and unjust and where ‘settler colonialism’ is attributed infinite explanatory power. A more sinister trend is to relabel the roles of Jews in politics and culture as conspiratorial “Zionist interventions” that are allegedly fundamental to “racism, group supremacy, violence, militarism, colonialism, and capitalism.”
The ‘institute’s’ claim that its efforts aim at “delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies” implies the latter is intellectually and socially contaminated by the other, along with Judaism itself. The emphasis on the ADL also builds on longstanding efforts by the BDS movement to vilify that organization’s successful Israel police exchange programs and tracking of Muslim extremists in the US. The involvement of ethnic studies faculty builds on increasingly successful efforts, particularly in California, to place anti-Zionism at the center of K-12 curriculums, along with attacks on Jews and the concept of the United States.
The notion of an ‘institute’ itself, with the exclusive focus on Zionism as a unique expression – indeed, lynchpin – of global evils, namely racism and ‘white supremacy,’ has a Soviet cast, is not surprising considering the communist beliefs of its founders and funders. The crypto-academic facade does not disguise the organization’s Soviet-style obsessiveness and rhetoric regarding Zionism and Jews, and its philo-communism. Pro-BDS academics be further stimulated by the ‘institute’s’ overt efforts to link mainstream Jewish organizations and support for Israel with global villainy.
The new ‘institute’ points toward the increasing institutionalization of anti-Israel hatred in academia. This was complemented in August by reports regarding an upcoming course at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department, “Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South,” which includes the much criticized book The Healing Humanities: The Right to Maim by BDS supporter Jasbir Puar, which claimed that the Israeli military deliberately ‘maims’ Palestinians and harvests their organs.
The book claims that Israel “relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies” and that “There is less need for Palestinian labor, for Palestinian production. Rather, profit is derived from the dismemberment of reproduction, a function of capitalism without labor.” The book claims further that African Americans are “disabled” by “systemic racism” and that the “Black Lives Matter and the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine are not only movements ‘allied’ with disability rights, nor are they only distinct disability justice issues.”
Response to the inclusion of Puar’s book was swift and critical from Jewish and other sources. Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli directed comments to Princeton’s administration that Puar’s “delusional and false accusation is nothing but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel.” Princeton’s administration has thus far declined to comment but the book and instructor (a BDS supporter) were defended by the head of the Near Eastern Studies department.
The inclusion of Puar’s book in the course’s reading cleverly sets up an unwinnable situation for Princeton and for supporters of Israel. As the course is criticized, up to and including demands that the book be removed and the professor fired, these are deemed calls for ‘censorship,’ as a recent open letter claims. If the course goes ahead without criticism, then students will be demanded to accept Puar’s calumny against Israel, among others. For their part, Princeton’s “Alliance of Jewish Progressives” called criticism, including from Princeton’s mainstream Jewish leaders, a “right-wing Zionist attack.”
The Princeton situation highlights the manner in which Israel obsessed academics have come to dominate and shape discourse at universities. The appointment of former Iran negotiator Robert Malley at Princeton (and at Yale), after his removal from the State Department for security related offenses, is a useful illustration. His appointment expands Princeton’s roster of pro-Iranian and ex-regime faculty. The implications for pedagogy, and anti-Israel bias, are obvious, as is the move of noted BDS supporter Marc Lamont Hill from Temple University to the City University of New York.
An illustration of the second order effects created by the appointment of anti-Israel activists as faculty and staff have been revealed in Britain. There reports indicate Islamic Student Association chapters have hosted viciously antisemitic talks from both Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and global jihadist Hizb ut-Tahrir speakers.
More positively, fallout from the American Anthropological Association’s formal adoption of BDS has begun to expand. The organization’s decision was condemned by New York University President Linda G. Mills and Interim Provost Georgina Dopico, who noted that “academic boycotts contravene the concept of the free exchange of ideas, a key tenet of academic freedom.” There are reports of individuals resigning from the organization but it is too soon to determine how widespread these, or the termination of institutional memberships, might be.
As many commentators have noted, the AAA decision transforms it from an academic to a political organization with a simplistic worldview of oppressor and oppressed in which Jews are particular villains. The AAA resolution was endorsed, however, by a Latin American association of anthropologists.
In the cultural sphere, the manner in which the BDS movement associates Israel with all contemporary horrors, however unrelated, was demonstrated by a social media posting from ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ linking “the climate disaster and exploitation Native Hawaiians are experiencing right now” with the fictitious ‘Tantura massacre’ where the Israeli government “built a parking lot over a mass grave of Palestinians murdered by Jewish militias in 1948.”
In the political sphere, with the election season heating up, charges and counter-charges related to Israel and anti-Zionism have been fully integrated into campaigns. A recent AIPAC sponsored junket to Israel for House Democrats brought a slew of condemnations from the ‘Squad’ and pro-BDS groups, including ‘Justice Democrats’ and J Street. The meetings organized with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were criticized as were individual social media postings by visiting officials, which Hadar Susskind, president of ‘Americans for Peace Now’ (APN) disparagingly described as “It was as if they were on some junket in Tahiti and ignoring the reality of what was going on around them.”
In contrast, in August APN sponsored a webinar on Israeli ‘human rights violations’ featuring UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese and Rep. Ilhan Omar enjoyed a junket to Qatar sponsored by the Qatari government, which she initially failed to declare. Her unreported 2022 trip to Pakistan, paid for by that government, also went largely unnoticed.
The ‘Squad’s feud with AIPAC also included attacks on AIPAC’s support for pro-Israel candidates, including thus far unnamed challengers to individuals such as Rep. Jamaal Bowman. This has included accusations by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the organization was “funneling dark money” targeting “progressive, working-class candidates of color,” and that “We just got word: AIPAC is at it again. They’re trying to recruit an establishment executive to run against my brother in The Bronx, Jamaal Bowman.” Rep. Ilhan Omar used the same “dark money” rhetoric in a series of social media ads while Rep. Cori Bush also described AIPAC as “a right-wing bully group that supports actual insurrection, white supremacists.”
At the same time, leading BDS group ‘IfNotNow’ has targeted pro-Israel Democrats including Rep. Jerry Nadler and Rep. Dan Goldman specifically for accepting support from AIPAC. One ‘IfNotNow’ staffer was quoted accusing AIPAC as “directly supporting the extremists working to dismantle our democracy and disenfranchise the most marginalized people in this country,”
The BDS-led attacks on AIPAC, accusing it of racism, conspiracy, and being an enemy of democracy, represent a new type of negative intersectionalism, united around a Jewish enemy. The latest events come as the ADL released a new report on left wing antisemitism being driven by anti-Israel bias in Europe and warning, somewhat belatedly, of similar developments in the US.
It remains unclear, however, whether these attacks are an indicator of strength or weakness, particularly given reports of layoffs by the ‘progressive’ political organization ‘Justice Democrats.’ Reporting on the layoffs stressed again that anti-Israel politics are one of the only causes unifying far left groups such as ‘Justice Democrats’ which have then been unable to follow through with legislation or support for incumbents. The impact of BDS and the new style of American identity politics at the grassroots level, however, was displayed in Michigan where a state senator representing Dearborn issued an apology for visiting Israel.
In an illustration of how Israel and BDS have become basic divisions in American party politics, Senate Democrats blocked an amendment proposed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz which would have prohibited the Federal Trade Commission from penalizing Israeli companies based in the ‘West Bank’ or Golan Heights for labeling their products as ‘Made in Israel.’ In Cruz’s description “All the Democrats on the Commerce Committee voted to give the Biden administration a new tool to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel.”
Finally, the spillover of unrest regarding proposed judicial reforms in Israel onto American Jewish politics has intensified. A new public statement from over 1000 Israeli and American Jewish academics purports to “call attention to the direct link between Israel’s recent attack on the judiciary and its illegal occupation of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” “whether in one state, two states, or in some other political framework.” It calls “on leaders of North American Jewry – foundation leaders, scholars, rabbis, educators” to:
- Support the Israeli protest movement, yet call on it to embrace equality for Jews and Palestinians within the Green Line and in the OPT.
- Support human rights organizations which defend Palestinians and provide real- time information on the lived reality of occupation and apartheid.
- Commit to overhaul educational norms and curricula for Jewish children and youth in order to provide a more honest appraisal of Israel’s past and present.
- Demand from elected leaders in the United States that they help end the occupation, restrict American military aid from being used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and end Israeli impunity in the UN and other international organizations.
In a similar vein, the progressive bundist group ‘Workers Circle’ has left the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations over the latter’s “reluctance to critique Israel, its equation of such critique as antisemitism, its adoption and promotion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and its failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel.”
The irony remains that certain Israeli and now American Jewish elites are calling for boycotts and international pressure on Israel in precisely the same manner as the BDS movement. It remains unclear whether elite behaviors reflect or will influence American Jewish (or broader) American support for Israel.