Global antisemitism rises as pandemic spreads. BDS continues in politics and online education

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The global pandemic that has shut down economies and educational institutions has been a boon for antisemitism and BDS. While campuses are shut the BDS movement has falsely claimed Israel is denying medical aid to Palestinians and education online has been targeted by antisemites. These examples provide real time evidence of how antisemitism and the BDS movement morph to attack Jews on the basis of fast changing global conditions.


The leading BDS news for April was the movement’s attack on Israel’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic. Following the approach of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, leading BDS organizations ‘IfNotNow’ and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ accused the Israeli government of prohibiting the delivery of medical equipment to Gaza and the West Bank. In an online event with ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ leading BDS supporter Linda Sarsour called the virus a “entire death sentence for over 2 million people” and stated “That blood will be on the hands of the American people … and Israel.” Various Students for Justice in Palestine chapters echoed the condemnation of Israel for the ‘blockade’ or ‘siege’ of Gaza, as did at least one J Street group, and many demanded that Israel release terrorists from prison.

Coronavirus related attacks on Israel appeared in many other sectors using standard arguments regarding Israeli evil. An op-ed in the Washington Post called Gaza an “open air prison,” while a letter in the British medical journal The Lancet argued that Israeli treatment of Gaza during the pandemic was “structural violence,” but failed to mention Hamas’ internal oppression, mismanagement, or external aggression. The letter, from a number of BDS supporters, was withdrawn after protests regarding its inaccuracies and tendentiousness.

These attacks were amplified by other BDS groups such as “Who Profits,” which alleged that an “occupied and besieged population and a systematically de-developed economy are particularly vulnerable to both COVID-19 and the economic fallout.” In keeping with the BDS movement’s tradition of perverting Jewish holidays, the J Street ‘Haggadah’ and ‘IfNotNow’ also used Passover and Jewish tradition as a means to attack Israel and its supporters while glorifying Palestinian ‘liberation,’ the latter asking, “Will we harden our hearts to the daily suffering of those under Occupation, or will we stand in solidarity with the dispossessed Palestinians, like Moses did with the Hebrew slaves?”

A seemingly ironic complement to these developments, however, was a statement by BDS movement leader Omar Barghouti that it would be acceptable to use a coronavirus vaccine developed by Israel. He added “Cooperating with Israel against the virus — to begin with, we do not consider it normalization.” Many observers pointed out Barghouti’s hypocritical stance, that he has called for anathematizing Israel under all circumstances save that which would benefit Palestinians. A deeper reading, however, suggests that he does not regard this stance as inconsistent but rather a pragmatic instance of the ‘powerless’ taking advantage of the ‘powerful.’

Antisemitic outpourings regarding the pandemic continue to increase, including accusations from a variety of sources, including Muslim and Arab states but also far left and far right fringe groups throughout the world, that Jews were responsible for creating and spreading the disease. As focus has increased on the World Health Organization’s subservience to the People’s Republic of China, observers have also noted the manner in which it has singled out Israel for criticism, replicating the pattern seen in virtually all other international organizations.

In campus news, BDS continued at a diminished rate. At Columbia University a campus-wide referendum on BDS, previously scheduled for Passover, was rescheduled for the fall. At the University of California, Irvine the student government repealed a 2012 BDS resolution, stating that the move had contributed toward a hostile environment for Jewish students and that the BDS movement was “contrary to the foundational ideals of Higher Education and thus the values of the UC.”

In contrast, other campus organizations continued to reward and indulge BDS and Palestinian rejectionism. In an unusual incident, the SJP chapter at Tufts University was given a ‘collaboration award’ for its activities which the university – including the president – then disavowed “in light of SJP’s concerning policy positions, including its association with the BDS movement, elements of which we view as anti-Semitic.” An SJP op-ed in the University of California, Berkeley student newspaper decried criticism of the BDS movement and called for Palestine ‘from the river to the sea.’ A newly elected student government leader at Rutgers University, Newark, and candidates for student government at Arizona State University were criticized for their support for BDS and Palestinian terrorism, while BDS members condemned candidates at Indiana University who attended the annual AIPAC meeting.

Since ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ was canceled on campuses because of the coronavirus shutdown, the BDS movement held a variety of online events. And with almost all education shifted online, one of the most notable developments were disruptions by various antisemites and hate groups sharing both neo-Nazi and pro-Palestinian slogans via ‘zoombombing.’ These incidents of hijacking have been widespread thanks to poor security on the popular Zoom platform. The problem has become so pervasive that reports indicate a House of Representatives subcommittee meeting was interrupted, as was a Holocaust remembrance event hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Germany. Along with others, the New York City public school system has banned use of the Chinese-owned platform.

The BDS movement continues to cement its control of campus politics by demanding to be the pivotal progressive cause. An example of this was seen at George Washington University, where ‘Students Against Imperialism at GW’ issued a statement demanding “Elements within the left on campus have tolerated blatant apartheid apologism and therefore cannot be considered allies in the struggle for Palestinian rights. The illegal occupation and apartheid imposed upon Palestine is not a negotiable issue. Zionism is racism, point-blank, period. Failure to acknowledge the global interconnectedness of liberation struggles to our own at home is naive and harmful. Western chauvinism has no place within the left.” The campus ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ chapter endorsed the demand, which has among other things manifest as ‘no-platforming’ of Jewish and other groups on campuses.

BDS leader Hatem Bazian, in a review of the movement’s history and ‘emancipatory struggle,’ articulated this demand further and stated “It is no longer possible to reconstitute Israel in the university setting and broader civil society as a state not considered a violator of human rights and international law. Those in higher education can work to shore up this trend through a number of efforts.” The pedagogical implications of Bazian’s demand are clear; Israel must be viewed through a prescribed lens and treated as a pariah.

A disturbing manifestation of this has played out at the Graduate Theological Union, where recently appointed president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann was apparently forced to resign after attacks from faculty and others regarding his support for Zionism and criticism of Bazian and the BDS movement. Bazian is a Berkeley faculty member and co-founder of the Islamist Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley.

The manner in which Lehmann was removed and replaced, entirely without press coverage, indicates a concerted effort to cover up the incident. It also reflects the ideological domination of campus Palestinianism, where criticism of BDS and the Palestinian movement is completely off limits as ‘racism’ as are expressions of support for Zionism and Israel. This reality is the diametric opposite of the situation described by Bazian and the BDS movement, which casts Palestinians and their supporters on campus as absolute, ‘silenced’ victims.

Finally, traditional antisemitic incidents also continued on campus. At the University of Massachusetts, the Hillel was defaced with the Arabic word “Palestine” on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The university chancellor condemned the event, calling it “brazen anti-Semitism.” In another notable example of how the global pandemic is spurring old fashioned antisemitism on and near campuses, the Chabad rabbi at Yale University was beaten and robbed by local teens.

In the political sphere, the fallout from the antisemitism crisis in the British Labour Party, which began with BDS-related incidents on campus, continued. Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party to its stunning defeat in late 2019, finally resigned and Keir Starmer was elected as party leader. In his first act Starmer apologized to British Jews for Labour antisemitism and vowed to rebuild trust with the community, adding that he would “judge success by the return of Jewish members.”

Jewish Labour members and the broader community expressed satisfaction at Starmer’s statement. Starmer, whose wife is Jewish, has long been seen as a friend of the community but declined to describe himself as a “Zionist.” His conciliatory statement was reinforced by comments from Labour’s shadow Communities minister the party would ‘encourage’ local councils not to adopt BDS legislation.

But the original Labour antisemitism crisis reemerged when an unredacted copy of a long concealed party investigation was posted online and leaked to the press. The report detailed an enormous number of complaints and how Corbyn’s Labour headquarters investigated these, including examination of over 10,000 emails and other communications. Corbyn’s opponents claim that the volume of accusations and the hidden report are evidence of deeply rooted antisemitism centered around Corbyn and accused his supporters of using the report to smear whistleblowers and rewrite history. In contrast, Corbyn’s supporters argued that the accusations themselves were unfounded and were treated no differently than any other complaint, but were primarily evidence of a ‘stab in the backconspiracy against him and his faction.

Starmer professed to be “shocked” by the report and the leak and ordered an investigation. Labour’s lawyers continued to argue that the report should not be given to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is officially investigating the party’s antisemitism. Lawyers for party whistleblowers are also threatening legal action since the report revealed details of their accusations, and there is the possibility of the state bringing charges for the data breach.

The legacy of problems created for Starmer by Corbyn’s radical faction and five years of remaking the party will not be easily resolved. Allowing antisemitism to become deeply embedded in the party, initially as anti-Israel bias, has deeply if not permanently damaged Labour. Observers also note that Starmer’s shadow cabinet is comprised of Brexit opponents and individuals who either stood aside during the Corbyn-era crisis or spoke out quietly against the worst incidents, along with a few who are fervent anti-Israel critics. Others, like shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, are BDS supporters in all but the name.

In the US Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race and threw his support to former vice president Joe Biden. Many of Sanders’ supporters across the progressive left stated they would not support Biden. But in a sign that Biden was courting those votes it was announced that a number of Sanders’ foreign policy advisors, including several BDS supporters, would be joining the Biden campaign and his longtime staff. Biden was also endorsed by J Street, the Jewish outreach tool of the Obama wing of the Democratic Party, setting up a potential confrontation with the new Israeli coalition government.

Both moves guaranteed the Biden campaign would advocate loosened sanctions and Iran and more strident policies towards Israel, while allowing BDS supporters to operate within the Democratic mainstream. This sets the stage for future progressive efforts to take over the party from within and for Labour-style antisemitism to develop further. Another ominous sign of that trajectory was the appearance of congresswomen Debbie Dingell and Barbara Lee at the American Muslims for Palestine ‘online gala.’ Overall, reports indicate that American Islamists, whose antipathy towards Israel and Jews is paramount, are well organized for the 2020 election, with numerous candidates and organizations at the local level.

Finally, in an example of how anti-Israel bias has infected Scandinavia, reports indicate that the Danish Bible Society has removed all references to ‘Israel’ save one from its new edition of the New Testament. References to Israel are retained in the Old Testament. The rationale for the move was not stated but the decision is in keeping with Christian replacement theology as well as longstanding Lutheran antipathy towards Israel and Jews.

Global antisemitism rises as pandemic spreads. BDS continues in politics and online education

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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