Cornell West accuses Harvard of denying tenure over BDS support. BDS emerges as political issue in New York City and Virginia as IHRA antisemitism definition and alternatives take center stage.

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BDS activities in March reflected both its use as an individual instrument and as a political wedge issue. Cornell West’s allegation that he was denied tenure at Harvard over his support for BDS appears to be an individual effort to profit from BDS support. At the opposite end, BDS as a political issue in New York City and Virginia demonstrate how the Palestinian issue subverts and supplants others ‘intersectionally.’ Until ‘intersectionality’ is rejected and the Palestinian issue shrunken to its true proportions, it will rile culture and politics. Both are unlikely thanks to the continued utility of antisemitism as an organizing principle.


One of the most notable BDS related developments in March was the claim by Harvard Divinity School professor Cornell West that he was ‘denied tenure’ as a result of his support for ‘Palestinian rights’ and an organized effort by pro-Israel forces. West, 67, had been teaching at Harvard for five years as a non-tenure track professor of practice and had been offered a 10-year contract and substantial raise. He rejected this and announced his return to Union Theological Seminary.

West blamed the “powers that be at Harvard” for his failure to be moved to a tenure track position and stated, “In my case, my controversial and outspoken views about and critiques of empire, capitalism, white supremacy, male supremacy, and homophobia are tolerated, but any serious engagement around the issues of the Israeli occupation are rendered highly suspect and reduced to anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice.”

While claims that anti-Israel faculty are being denied tenure are not uncommon, this incident has the appearance of a prominent faculty member using the accusation as a means of blackmailing a university during a contract renegotiation. West received considerable support from student and faculty groups, which accepted his claims without question. Responding to criticism, West stated his willingness to debate the issue but then failed to accept an invitation to do so.

Celebrity academics using BDS and ‘Palestine’ as tool for their own careers and as the essential left wing cause is increasingly common. The emerging accusation ‘progressive except for Palestine’ is a gloss on the title of Marc Lamont Hill’s new book and is now regularly repeated in various settings. Hill himself has claimed that avoiding ‘Palestine’ is as unacceptable as saying ‘progressive except for slavery,’

In Britain the parallel case of Bristol University’s David Miller, long accused of abusing students and of promoting elaborate antisemitic conspiracies, has finally produced a university investigation. Not surprisingly, hundreds of academics have expressed support for Miller even as a police investigation has been opened against him regarding “a hate crime or hate incident taking place during lectures at the University of Bristol.”

For their part, in a move that reflects the BDS movement’s opportunistic ‘intersectional’ usurpation of other causes, the National Students for Justice in Palestine umbrella organization issued a new statement of purpose noting its aspiration “to become the central hub within occupied Turtle Island (U.S. and Canada) for all aspects of campus-based Palestine solidarity organizing.” The association of the Palestinian cause with that of Native Americans emerged in the past decade but has intensified in the last two years and reflects the emphasis on ‘settler colonialism’ that has replaced other themes in Palestinian diaspora political culture.

Controversies continued in academia regarding the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with critics regularly accusing that it limits free speech, academic freedom, and is ‘weaponized’ against critics of Israel. This definition was adopted by student governments at the University of Texas, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Georgia, and Michigan State University. Pushback intensified elsewhere, such as at the University of Minnesota, where the Hillel faced intense criticism for its support. A vote by the student union of London’s City University called for the university to overturn its adoption, and the University of Manitoba’s faculty association called on the school nor any other institution to not adopt the IHRA definition. A similar move is underway by faculty at the University of Ottawa. The student government at Syracuse University also passed a bill condemning antisemitism but only after mentions of BDS were removed.

The student government at UCLA passed a BDS resolution alleging Israel was guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” The text of the resolution, entitled “A Resolution Calling for the UC to Divest from War,’ was not released before the vote. Jewish students, faculty and others condemned the resolution and the manner in which it was introduced. A university spokesperson also stated “The UC system, including UCLA, has repeatedly expressed opposition to boycotting, sanctioning or divesting from Israeli institutions and remains firmly committed to that position.”

In another indication that demonstrating hostile attitudes towards Israel is a prerequisite for participation in campus life, a proposal to recognize a progressive Zionist club at Skidmore College was denied on the grounds that “a dialogue-focused club with one perspective being conveyed could be troublesome.” Predictably, a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter was recently approved. The decision regarding the pro-Israel group was later reversed with the student government committee stating “This was never an issue of religion or ideology.”

Another example of discrimination appeared at the University of Iowa, where the student government refused to create a ‘Jewish Constituency Senator’ similar to those that represent Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American, Black, International Student, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Disability, Native American, and Veteran constituencies. Ironically, the LGBTQ+ Constituency Senator’ stated he voted against the measure to avoid the appearance of “tokenism.”

Yet another example was seen at Middlebury College where a pro-Israel student was disciplined for chalking intra-college system web links on a sidewalk directing viewers not to the expected SJP site but to sites about Palestinian terrorism. In contrast, the SJP group’s leader who chalked linked on antisemitism that directed viewers to anti-Zionist websites was not disciplined.

Student judiciary procedures have now become tools to promote BDS, harass opponents, and polarize campuses. Thus fallout continued at Tufts University regarding allegations that a Jewish member of student government was harassed for his opposition to a BDS resolution focusing on police training in Israel. Initially the SJP chapter that sponsored the resolution demanded the student recuse himself because he was Jewish.

When he did not, they accused him of bias and demanded he be disciplined, and the involvement of the Brandeis Center was cited as ‘outside interference.’ The SJP chapter claimed that its anonymous members feared exposure and being subjected to ‘bullying’ but then withdrew its complaint. The unwillingness of SJP members to publicly stand by their claims strategically asserted their narrative of being victims. Meanwhile, at the University of Toronto, the BDS supporting graduate student union simply rejected the student judiciary’s ban on BDS.

In another example of how BDS supporters are brought to campuses even by Jewish Studies programs as a function of ‘intellectual diversity,’ a controversy has emerged at Virginia Commonwealth University over an invitation to Peter Beinart to deliver a lecture. When the local community organizations that funded lecture protested, it was accused of “encroaching on academic freedom.” Media accounts predictably chose to interview a BDS supporting Jewish Studies academic and emphasized the purported divisions among American Jews over Israel.

In California, the State Board of Education finally passed the controversial Ethnic Studies curriculum. The curriculum had been severely criticized for marginalizing a variety of ethnic groups, and in the case of Jews, emphasizing their “gained racial privilege.” While overt opposition to Israel and support for the BDS movement was removed, critics continue to point to the definition of Jews as “white” and other empirical errors in now mandatory courses that is deliberately divisive with respect to race and ethnicity.

The next step in reducing society to a collection of ethnic groups and then marginalizing Jews as privileged or effectively non-existent was also displayed in Britain, where a brief controversy emerged when a BBC segment questioned whether Jews were an ‘ethnic minority.’ The reduction of Jews to a ‘white adjacent’ community to be pushed aside in favor of other ethnic groups is not only evident in the California ethnic studies curriculum but in criticism now directed against Asian Americans.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism itself and the question of Israel also continued to be a source of controversy in broader politics. In Canada, the New Democratic Party is being pressured by members to overturn its adoption of the definition, a move opposed by Jewish organizations. Meanwhile, Kentucky will become the first state to adopt the definition while Utah passed anti-BDS legislation.

A progressive Jewish group has created an alternative definition of antisemitism that states “Even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.” This and other vague elements deliberately elide the nature of the “contentious, strident, or harsh criticism” focused on Israel and accept the use of double standards against Israel.

Yet another alternative to the IHRA definition, the “Jerusalem Declaration,” attempts to split the difference, conceding that denying Israel the right to exist is antisemitic but stating vaguely that “Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a “double standard,” is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.” For their part, the BDS movement rejected the new definition, and reserved use of antisemitic rhetoric, saying the ‘declaration’ “risks reinforcing the impulse to decide for Palestinians and their allies what is acceptable to say about Israel and Palestinians’ lived experiences.”

In the political sphere, opposition to BDS has been expressed rhetorically by the Biden Administration, most recently by Secretary of State Antony Blinken who stated in a letter to the American Zionist Movement that he and the administration “enthusiastically embraced” the IHRA definition. The State Department also reiterated its opposition to the ‘International Criminal Court’s’ targeting of Israel.

BDS is a central pillar of progressive politics to be raised in all electoral contexts. One of the most recent examples is the declaration of support for BDS by almost all the Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia. Candidates vowed to prevent the ‘criminalization’ of BDS with one, a self-described socialist, stating “I am a supporter of the BDS movement… I believe the human rights abuses that are being inflicted upon the Palestinian people are among the worst currently ongoing in the world.”

BDS also continues as an issue in the New York City mayoral race. Leading candidate Andrew Yang had spoken out forcefully against BDS, calling it antisemitic, but qualified that view under pressure from Muslim groups. In a recent speech to a Muslim group Yang stated that while the BDS movement was “non-violent,” its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist made it antisemitic. He had previously walked back his earlier unequivocal opposition in another speech to a Muslim group, stating that “My view on BDS is that because of its failure to disavow certain organizations that have expressed violent intentions toward Israel that I disagree with it, but I have complete respect for people who have a very different point of view.”

The extent to which New York is a microcosm or harbinger of Democratic politics is debatable, but it is clear that on issues ranging from BDS to taxation progressive and ‘Democratic Socialists’ currently hold a uniquely powerful position.

A letter to the Biden Administration from pro-BDS progressives in Congress reflected the same confidence, calling for US condemnation of Israeli actions related to ‘settlements’ and demanding Israel vaccinate the Palestinian population. A policy document leaked by the administration outlined its revised policy towards Israel and the Palestinians reflected some of the demands including refunding UNRWA and other Palestinian institutions, and reengaging with the Palestinian Authority. Included in the document is a proposal to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to label goods produced in communities across the ‘Green Line’ as Made in Israel, a move publicly support by several left wing American Jewish groups American pressure on the United Arab Emirates to refuse a visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reflected this new orientation.

In the international arena, the New Zealand sovereign wealth fund announced that it would divest its tiny holdings in five Israeli banks on the grounds that “the excluded companies provide project finance for the construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is an integral aspect of settlement construction.” Critics noted that no such decision had been reached regarding the fund’s vastly largely holdings in Chinese firms.

Finally, the ‘United Nations Human Rights Council’ approved a resolution calling for an arms embargo against Israel. The measure received considerable European support.

Cornell West accuses Harvard of denying tenure over BDS support. BDS emerges as political issue in New York City and Virginia as IHRA antisemitism definition and alternatives take center stage.

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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