BDS supporters prompt Congressional antisemitism crisis as Britain passes anti-BDS law. Anthropologists vote to boycott Israeli institutions as MESA loses university home.

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A verbal assault by BDS supporters on a Jewish member of Congress prompted progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal to agree with the crowd that “Israel is a racist state.” This set off a cascading series of events culminating in a House resolution supporting Israel followed by a visit to Washington by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog. The manner in which the progressive Democrat’s anti-Israel convictions have triggered political antisemitism crises points to the situation facing the Biden Administration and mainstream Democrats – cave to BDS supporting progressives or maintain support for Israel.


BDS activities in July were focused on the political sphere. At the center were a statement by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a leading BDS supporter and ‘Squad’ member, that Israel is a “racist state,” and a visit to the White House and address to Congress by Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Both revealed the manner in which antisemitism, Israel, and BDS are now a permanent feature of American politics.

Appearing at the annual “Netroots” gathering of progressive activists, Jayapal stated “As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible.”

Jayapal’s remarks, however, came after another speaker, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who is Jewish, was heckled by pro-BDS attendees waving Palestinian flags and shouting “free free Palestine.” Schakowsky, a strong critic of Israel, stated to the crowd “I want to say something to all of you. Know your allies. I am one of the highest-ranking Jewish members of Congress. Have been one of the most outspoken voices for justice for the Palestinians. And currently a vocal critic of this current administration in the State of Israel. I am absolutely opposed to the kind of violence against the Palestinians that is happening right now. I have spoken out to these things.” The crowd then responded with shouts of “Israel is a racist state.”

Jayapal would later claim that she was coming to Schakowsky’s aid in making her comments regarding Israel as a “racist state.” Jayapal’s comments were met with applause from the listeners but caused a firestorm of criticism, including from Democrats. She was then forced to issue a ‘clarification’ that she did not believe “the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” but that Israeli politics are dominated by racists, an idea echoed in the sympathetic press.

Jayapal’s comments, however, prompted House Republicans to propose a resolution declaring that “the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel” and that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state.” The resolution was adopted by an overwhelming margin with members of the ‘Squad’ voting against. A similar resolution was approved by the Senate.

The Jayapal controversy was quickly followed by another as the White House issued an invitation to Israeli President Isaac Herzog to visit, evidently in lieu of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and with an invitation for Herzog to speak before a joint session of Congress. Both served as predictable opportunities for declarations that the US-Israeli relationship was ‘ironclad’ and for posturing and boycotts by anti-Israel members of Congress. Herzog’s speech, in which he praised the US-Israel relationship and called for compromise over Israel’s ongoing political reform crisis, was well received by Congress but was sharply criticized from the left.

Complicating the situation were warnings issued through Biden factotum and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman regarding the ongoing Israeli domestic crisis over legal reforms and US support for Israel. This was followed by threats from another factotum/commentator, Nicholas Kristof, stating that US military aid should be cut off (effectively cribbing a more sensible argument made by pro-Israel commentators in Tablet), and then by similar calls from former US ambassadors to Israel. This unsubtle messaging campaign was likely intended to mollify left wing critics of Israel rather than signal actual policy changes.

Overall Jayapal’s remarks exposed the divide between the Democratic leadership and White House, caught between BDS-supporting progressive activists with strong antipathy towards Israel and a mainstream that is generally supportive. The willingness of the US to indirectly threaten Israel and to direct its domestic policies is not new but the tone is reflective of the administration’s twin precarities, a weakening position in the Middle East as the US shifts towards Iran, which has led to lashing out at allies, and domestic political weakness against progressives. The proximal opportunity to attack Israel is provided by that country’s bizarre ongoing political crisis.

Some observers suggested that the Jayapal affair and the House vote effectively comprised a rebuke of progressives and exposed their position on Israel as both marginal and as electoral poison. But the affair meshes with polls that continue to indicate younger Democrats and progressives are more favorably inclined towards Palestinians than Israelis. This divide is a harbinger of Democratic party politics in the future, a reality denied by some commentators on the left but tacitly acknowledged by Thomas Friedman that Biden might be “the last pro-Israel Democratic president.” The implications for official policy including regarding BDS and the broader treatment of antisemitism and Israel lie in the balance.

The larger Democratic trajectory remains similar to the British Labour Party, where a BDS inspired crisis on campus led to exposure of antisemitic activists at the party’s core who continue to challenge the leadership and undermine its credibility.

These controversies also frame the continuing backlash over the Biden Administration’s ‘national strategy’ on antisemitism. Critics continue to point out that the administration’s refusal to fully embrace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and its approving reference toward the rival Nexus Document deliberately evades the leading source of contemporary antisemitism, hatred of Israel. Others have noted that the ‘national strategy’ entails ‘partnerships’ with a variety of organizations including CAIR which have increased their vitriol against Israel, seemingly as a result of the cover provided by the administration.

Outside of the ‘national strategy,’ however, the Biden Administration now appears to be implementing the Trump Administration’s 2019 Executive Order which calls on the Department of Education to adopt the IHRA definition in the context of Title VI of the 1964 Higher Education Act, and for other Federal departments to consider contemporary antisemitism with reference to IHRA.

In contrast, the Department of State’s recent decision to exclude Israeli entities in the ‘West Bank’ appears to have been made without consulting the department’s own Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Republican Senators have called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to rescind the policy.

Elsewhere in the political sphere, Texas’ anti-BDS law was upheld in Federal court, while the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, issued an executive order prohibiting the state from contracting with or investing in entities boycotting Israel.

In the international sphere in Britain a bill was passed in Parliament prohibiting local councils and other public bodies from adopting BDS policies. The Conservative government stated the bill was designed to restore government control over foreign policy. Opponents from both sides voiced concerns that the bill would somehow criminalize speech regarding Israel and warned that it equated Israel with the ‘West Bank,’ thereby restricting free speech and the ability of local councils to “promote Palestinian self-determination.”

In the economic sphere, governor Ron DeSantis announced Florida was investigating the ratings firm Morningstar for violating the state’s anti-BDS laws. Reports also indicate that Morningstar’s Sustainalytics branch, which has been the source of BDS activities, has reduced the number of firms on its “Global Screening Standards” list accused of doing ‘controversial’ business in the ‘West Bank’ from 26 to seven. It is unclear what criteria were used to remove or retain firms on the list, which is consulted by investors.

The lack of transparency again highlighted the political basis of “environmental, social, and governance” ratings, which have been exposed as means for political manipulation of markets and self-dealing by interconnected ratings firms and activist NGOs. The Florida decision also pointed to the key role of states in addressed economic discrimination by Morningstar and similar firms.

The legal and economic status of the ‘territories’ remains a focus for controversy and BDS. Britain’s trade minister stated in July that the country’s new free trade agreement with Israel does not include goods and services produced in ‘illegal settlements.’ A report also indicates that the United Nations “High Commissioner for Human Rights” removed General Mills from its blacklist after the company sold its stake in an East Jerusalem factory.

BDS activists immediately claimed credit for the decision, which General Mills explicitly stated was not political but rather part of a global restructuring. In contrast, while the French firm Carrefour has opened 50 supermarkets in Israel, it has explicitly refused to open any branches in the ‘territories.’ The firm’s General Secretary Laurent Vallée stated that “No Carrefour store will be present in the territories mentioned,” and that “there is no complicity, and we are taking care to prevent any risk.”

Additional reports have noted the growing attacks on Israeli cybersecurity firms by journalists and NGOs linked to Qatar. Accusations that Israeli software is behind illegal surveillance and human rights violations by various regimes has apparently curtailed sales and diplomatic outreach between Israel and a variety of states.

In the academic sphere, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has voted to boycott Israeli institutions. Some 37% of the members voted, with 2016 in favor and 835 against. A similar resolution was defeated in 2016.

The resolution prohibits Israeli universities from advertising in AAA journals and participating in other organizational activities. It does not prevent Israeli anthropologists from presenting at the AAA meeting or publishing papers in AAA journals. Despite disclaimers, the resolution will likely act as a blacklist and litmus test for Israeli and Jewish anthropologists in the context of university departments where anti-Israeli animus is already at high levels.

In a telling phrase, the resolution states “The Israeli state operates an apartheid regime from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the internationally recognized state of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank,” and that “Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the Israeli state’s regime of oppression against Palestinians… including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies used against Palestinians.”

This formulation implicitly suggests that the only answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the dissolution of Israel either through a ‘one state’ solution or the violent destruction of the state.

Finally, reports indicate that the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which adopted a BDS resolution in 2022, will be leaving George Washington University. The university, which has endured several BDS-instigated antisemitism crises, had been criticized for hosting MESA, whose formal adoption of BDS has led to a flight of institutional and individual members.

BDS supporters prompt Congressional antisemitism crisis as Britain passes anti-BDS law. Anthropologists vote to boycott Israeli institutions as MESA loses university home.

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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