Campus BDS intensifies but successes are uneven. European pressure on Israel increases before Israeli elections but proposed American legislation may undercut political use of BDS.

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With the spring semester in full swing BDS activities intensified greatly, with the focus split between student governments and academic associations. And with the Israeli elections quickly approaching, European boycott threats have also increased. But legislation in the US Congress may forestall this by linking free trade between the US and Europe with avoidance of BDS against Israel.


BDS resolutions were proposed in several student governments in February. Most notable was a resolution adopted by the University of California Student Association. The association is made up of representatives from student governments at each of the U.C. campuses. Some members of the media were barred from the proceedings.

At the University of California Davis a BDS resolution was adopted by the student government in late January demanding the university divest from companies doing business in Israel. The University chancellor immediately responded that divestment “does not reflect the position of UC Davis or the University of California system” and that “that this type of call to action will not be entertained.”

In February the Davis resolution was overturned by a student court which stated that student resolutions “can and must be primarily concerning student welfare” but that the BDS resolution was “ PRIMARILY a political document and did not deal with student welfare to the extent that allowed the ASUCD Senate jurisdiction to pass.” It is unknown whether this finding will have applicability in other university situations.

The Davis vote was accompanied by a variety of theatrics. In the wake of the initial vote in favor of the resolution pro-BDS students at the meeting chanted ‘allahu akbar’ and heckled Jewish students. A member of the student government, Azka Fayyaz, later posted a photo of the meeting on her Facebook page with the caption “Hamas & Sharia law have taken over UC Davis. Brb crying over the resilience.” Fayyaz had voted in favor of the resolution. She was also photographed in the fall at a protest holding a sign that depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Hitler.

When her posting was publicized in the media Fayyaz wrote an article in the campus newspaper complaining that her posting had been “satirical and ironic” and that she had been “violently stalked” on Facebook. Various Jewish and campus groups have called on the university chancellor to investigate Fayyaz and Students for Justice in Palestine.

After the vote a Jewish fraternity at Davis was also painted with swastikas. Fraternity leaders suggested the act was in retaliation for their opposition to the divestment resolution. The local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine rejected the allegation. A statement posted on Facebook by another umbrella group of BDS supporters suggested the Jewish fraternity had painted the swastikas on their own building “in a deliberate, twisted, effort to discredit the student government action.”

Two other incidents illustrate the increasing harassment of pro-Israel students on campus. At the University of California, Santa Cruz threats were made against a local pro-Israel group that had been invited to speak at the campus LGBT Center. The event was held at another campus venue. At the University of California, Los Angeles a student in the process of being confirmed as a justice on the Judicial Board of the Undergraduate Student Association Council was challenged with the implication that being Jewish would compromise her impartiality and constituted a “conflict of interest.” The student was confirmed after a rancorous debate and the students who challenged her, at least two of whom are Students for Justice in Palestine supporters, publicly apologized.

Elsewhere, a BDS resolution was also adopted at Northwestern University. A resolution was also adopted at Stanford University. The resolution failed initially but passed during a revote called by a student government member who changed her vote to support the resolution.

At Trent University at BDS resolution was rescinded by a large margin. A BDS resolution at the University of Toledo was also indefinitely tabled. An upcoming vote at SOAS, University of London, however, is expected to adopt a boycott resolution. The resolution has been pushed strongly by BDS and Islamist groups in the United Kingdom and will take place during “Israel Apartheid Week.”

In several situations the burgeoning of BDS has led to two logical if appalling conclusions. Along with a BDS resolution the University of California Student Association also adopted a resolution calling for divestment from nations “engaged in human rights abuses and violence,” which includes Israel, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and the United States. The call for divestment from the United States is new and represents the culmination of a BDS logic that effectively regards the US as the “Great Satan” to Israel’s “Little Satan.”

Even more extreme than the call to divest from America was the recent demand that Jews who do not support BDS to be expelled from the University of Durban in South Africa. The Durban effort is consistent with the overt antisemitism displayed by student groups, trade unions and others linked to the ruling African National Congress. But the demand to expel Jews is also consistent with the logic of BDS that sees the issue as so far beyond debate that disagreement is cause for exclusion from society.

These sorts of overt antisemitism are also growing rapidly on American college campuses. A recent survey of Jewish college students indicated that some 54% had experienced or witnessed antisemitism on campus. The survey was undertaken early in 2014 before the Gaza war that precipitated a global surge in antisemitism. The survey found that Conservative and Reform women were most frequently targeted rather than Orthodox men. This finding implies that antisemitic harassment took place in the context of Israel-related activities.

While BDS resolutions had limited successes on campus in February, more was found in academic organizations. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) passed and calls on the organization to “to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.” The resolution passed by a large margin despite having been opposed by a number of past presidents and leading figures who warned it would severely discredit the organization.

In contrast, a divestment resolution presented at the American Library Association was withdrawn. Opponents apparently had sufficient time to both publicize and organize again the resolution.

February also saw more BDS posturing from political sources in Europe and the US. Several reports indicated that the European Union and individual states were planning additional sanctions against Israel if negotiations with Palestinians are not renewed after the upcoming Israeli elections. Some reports characterized the European position as a demand for the near immediate renewal of negotiations.

The perception that Israel’s relationship with Europe was deteriorating was also addressed by a statement from Israeli academics who had had been invited to visit with European counterparts. The Israeli delegates urged Israel to consider the European Union’s offer of upgraded strategic relations in return for progress in negotiations with Palestinians. They also warned of growing European dissatisfaction with Israel and threats to suspend existing agreements.

The statement is significant in that it suggests a European perception that Israeli academics regard themselves as uniquely vulnerable and thus susceptible to pressure, as well as continued willingness to use carrots and sticks to exert pressure.

On a different note, legislation introduced in the US Congress by Congressman Peter J. Roskam (R-Illinois) and Congressman Juan Vargas (D-California) would condition US-European Union trade negotiations on opposition to BDS. The US-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act would characterize BDS actions against Israel as “commercial discrimination” in violation of European Union commitments under the multilateral General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

BDS, Arab and Muslim sources were deeply opposed to the proposed legislation. One Arab American commentator characterized the bill as a “sellout” and stated that “betraying your people, your religion, and your nation does have a dollar amount.”

Regardless of legislative or judicial barriers, more direct action against Israeli firms and Jews by BDS supporters should be expected throughout Europe. One example in February was the takeover of a factory in England owned by the Israeli firm Elbit.

A boycott declared by the Fatah movement against Israeli products also took effect in February. The boycott is directed at leading Israeli manufacturers but is linked directly to the Israeli decision to withhold tax receipts it collects from the Palestinian Authority. The fact that the boycott call originated with Fatah and that its implementation was left to the movement and to civil society organizations permits the Palestinian Authority to deny the effort is official government policy. It is unclear whether the boycott has an impact on Israeli manufacturers.

BDS has also heated up in the cultural sphere but with limited results. A pro-BDS letter was published with the signatures of some 100 British artists and performers, few of whom can be considered A-listers. A more specific call that emerged is for a boycott of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, to be held in Eilat. Another boycott call surrounded the International Comics Festival, held in the French city of Angouleme.

Performances in Israel by artists continue despite pressure from BDS activists. A direct call from BDS activist and former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, Alan Parsons performed in Israel, as did British singer James Blunt. Reports indicate that singer Taylor Swift may perform in Israel and that she is already being pressured by BDS activists.

Campus BDS intensifies but successes are uneven. European pressure on Israel increases before Israeli elections but proposed American legislation may undercut political use of BDS.

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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

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