The Trump Administration’s Executive Order expanding civil rights protections for Jewish students has prompted complaints against colleges and universities. The complaints represent a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the treatment of Jewish students and supporters of Israel on US campuses. At the same time a series of incidents have illustrated the manner in which BDS supporters have politicized K-12 and college classrooms. Ensuring non-hostile learning environments will ultimately require return to intellectual ideals regarding impartiality. This remains an unlikely prospect.
The new Executive Order extending of protections to Jewish students under the 1964 Civil Rights Act has generated a number of complaints to the Education Department. At Columbia University a complaint alleges “pervasive and ongoing” discrimination against Jewish students and “a targeted harassment and discrimination campaign” by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other BDS groups.
At UCLA a complaint alleges that a speaker described Israel as a racist entity, denied its right to exist, and stated that its supporters were white supremacists. A complaint filed on behalf of Hillel of Georgia alleges that Georgia Tech permitted discrimination against an individual who was denied entry to a Young Democratic Socialists of America event because of her identity.
Central to the growing number of complaints are allegations that denials of Israel’s right to exist are de facto antisemitic by reference to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is referred to in the recent Executive Order. Another issue is harassment and disruption of public events held by Jewish and other students. Civil libertarians and BDS supporters regard both activities as protected speech, while others continue to regard antisemitism, including on campus, as a ‘right wing’ phenomenon.
The complaints come as still more evidence has appeared regarding the politicization of classrooms at all levels by BDS supporters. A new report by the Amcha Initiative analyzed syllabuses from 50 university courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. On average instructors who support BDS assigned an average of 78% of readings by fellow BDS supporters, in contrast to only 17% from non-BDS supporting instructors. The qualitative and quantitative contrasts demonstrate decisively that college courses are being deliberately politicized.
The problem of BDS supporters in the classroom in not restricted to higher education. Support for BDS and antisemitism in the Newton Massachusetts public schools has been long documented. A new incident at the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York saw a BDS supporting teacher host a speaker who alleged that Israelis were “the victims of the Holocaust and violence [and] have become perpetrators of violence against Palestinians.”
The teacher, who had a history of social media comments denigrating Zionists, was subsequently fired after mounting complaints from parents. Later reports indicate the teacher had given the finger to a group of visiting rabbis who were speaking about antisemitism.
In contrast the American Historical Association (AHA) again voted down a series of BDS resolutions at its annual meeting. Similar proposals have now been defeated four times in the association’s business meetings. Careful preparation by BDS opponents emphasized among other things that the AHA is a scholarly organization and not a political one with a foreign policy.
Elsewhere on campus, at McGill University fallout continued regarding student government members going on Hillel trips to Israel allegedly funded by the Maccabee Task Force. A Hillel sponsored trip to Israel also came under attack by the SJP branch at the University of North Carolina. At York University and pro-Israel and a BDS group that were suspended in December after a violent confrontation were both reinstated by the administration. A panel discussion of BDS at York was also postponed after protests from Jewish groups.
The student government at a branch campus of the University of Toronto voted to reaffirm an earlier BDS resolution passed over the objections of Jewish students. Similarly, the student government at Concordia University declined to review a previously adopted BDS resolution, while at Warwick University, the administration refused to adopt the IHRA definition. But BDS supporters at the University of California, Riverside, expressed disappointment that no member of student government was willing to put forward at BDS resolution.
Jewish groups in Canada also condemned the union representing University of Toronto contract employees for social media comments supporting BDS and which alleged Canadian Jews interfered with politics on behalf of Israel.
Jewish and other groups are protested a regional BDS conference by SJP and allied groups at the University of Michigan and warned that it might violate Title VI protections for Jewish students. The event came in the wake of a November 2019 regional SJP conference held at the University of Minnesota. Both events featured groups and speakers allied with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has been shown to be a major source of BDS support and personnel.
The impact of BDS and antisemitism on campus continued to be felt in January, for example in a mass email to faculty and staff at the University of Montana that accused Jews of slave trading, swastikas at Emerson College and Syracuse University, and graffiti at Marshall University.
In the political sphere, and increasing number of candidates for office have expressed support for BDS. This includes Democratic candidates for Congress in New York and Michigan, and for Manhattan District Attorney.
The goal of shifting US politics away from support for Israel and towards Islamist causes was also demonstrated by leading Congressional supporter of BDS, Representative Ilhan Omar, after the targeted killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp leader Maj. General Qasem Soliemani. Omar expressed outrage that the US would “assassinate a foreign official” and deemed American economic sanctions against Iran “economic warfare.”
Omar later explained “The BDS movement is a movement that is driven by the people,” while “The sanctions on Iran are sanctions that are being placed to create maximum pressure by a government. That’s very different.”
The rise in BDS supporting and Islamist candidates also comes in the context of continued political support for the American Muslim Brotherhood network. Reports indicate that more than 120 members of Congress issued letters expressing support for CAIR on the occasion of its 25th anniversary conference held in Washington in 2019. At the same time a new poll by the Brookings Institution suggests more Democrats support BDS than Republicans, who are more strongly opposed.
In contrast, recent Congressional hearings focused on antisemitism and domestic terrorism, while a House bill was introduced that would extend 1970s era anti-boycott legislation and penalize firms that complied with European and UN boycotts of Israel. An Arizona court also upheld that state’s anti-BDS law while the Governor of South Dakota signed an executive order prohibiting entities doing business with the state from boycotting Israel.
Finally, in the international sphere, the Italian government announced that it would adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The British Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government also announced that local councils, which had been at the forefront of adopting BDS policies, would be required to adopt the IHRA definition, as would universities. Entities that refused to do so face funding cuts.