The academic year begins with BDS-linked Labour Party antisemitism crisis deepens as Democrats nominate anti-Israel candidates. The controversy over Labour’s refusal to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism portends similar battles in US academia and politics. Coupled with increasing cries of ‘punch a Zionist’ from Students for Justice in Palestine members, and anti-normalization pressure from the BDS movement on Muslim American and leftist politicians, campuses will be a key battleground against rapidly reemerging antisemitism.
August’s major issues were the continuation of the British Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis, which began more than two years ago with the problem of BDS and antisemitism in Labour affiliated clubs on university campuses. It was revealed that in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had had formally endorsed BDS in 2015. It was also learned that Corbyn had laid a wreath at the graves of Black September members who had orchestrated the 1972 Munich massacre, met Hamas leaders in the West Bank during an undeclared trip in 2010, and had participated in a 2012 conference in Qatar with Hamas members responsible for numerous terrorist murders.
Corbyn’s preposterous excuse that “I was present at that wreath-laying, I don’t think I was actually involved in it” was excoriated by the British press, British Jews, and many Labour Party members. His later comment that “Zionists” do not understand “English irony” compounded the problem. But these and other outrages were followed by another explosion of antisemitic abuse directed at Corbyn’s critics, including accusations that false claims of antisemitism are being used to smear Corbyn and wreck the party. Corbyn’s divisive leadership and the antisemitism crisis are among the issues leading some observers to predict a permanent split in the party.
The origins of Labour’s crisis on campus should be emphasized. Campus politics in Britain have long been the incubators for national politics. The influence of US campus politics is being felt in a similar fashion with centrality of ‘intersectionality,’ identity politics, and the current thrall for ‘socialism’ in progressive circles.
The connection between BDS and larger politics is also being played out in the US. In Michigan’s 13th Congressional district Rashida Tlaib won a special election to run in the November election. She will run unopposed. Tlaib, a state legislator, had previously headlined a Detroit area BDS rally, stated in interviews that she would “absolutely” support cutting aid to Israel and a one state solution.
Tlaib appeared to reverse herself and stated she in fact supported a two state solution and military aid to Israel. The pro-BDS site Electronic Intifada attacked Tlaib, deeming her insufficiently supportive of BDS and criticized her taking money from the lobbying arm of J Street. She then clarified that she indeed opposed Israel. While her willingness to pretend she had a nuanced position on the issue may be a sign of political opportunism, her initial positions clearly reflect her true beliefs. Pressure exerted by the BDS movement also reflects how extremist anti-Israel pressure, long central to Palestinian politics and the Palestine issue in global Muslim politics, are at work within Muslim American politics. For its part J Street withdrew support for Tlaib.
Minnesota candidate Ilhan Omar, running for the Congressional seat being vacated by Keith Ellison (Democratic National Committee deputy head, a former Nation of Islam follower now accused of assaulting several women), stated on social media that the “Israeli apartheid regime” had “hypnotized the world” to ignore its “evil doings.” In a campaign visit to a synagogue she stated, however, that she did not support the BDS movement. It is unclear why this statement should be accepted at face value.
Tlaib and Omar, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been celebrated by progressive and far left circles in part because of their minority statuses and stands against Israel. Both are aspects of identity politics that have spread rapidly from campuses to the broader scene. Tlaib and Omar’s antisemitism has been noted even by left wing Jewish commentators, one of whom suggested that they should be celebrated because to do otherwise would be Islamophobic and “erodes both the moral soul of our Zionism and our advocacy on the Hill.”
This deference reflects the new victim hierarchy that positions Muslims at the top and Jews at the bottom. In the progressive view Jews have not only become ‘white’ but are positioned as racists and victimizers because of their putative ‘power.’ This is an extension of a longstanding Palestinian argument regarding Israel. The attitude that it is immoral to expose BDS supporters’ antisemitism also echoes criticism leveled at the Canary Mission website by the Jewish left.
The impact of BDS, first as a wedge and then as part of a larger progressive stance, cannot be understated. Even Democrats such as Cory Booker of New Jersey, previously close to the Jewish community, have seen fit to pose with BDS representatives as a means of flirting with the position. Democrats Tlaib, Omar, Maria Estrada, Julia Salazar (a New York State Senate nominee who appears to have lied about being both Jewish and an immigrant), and Leslie Cockburn, (a nominee in Virginia and co-author of a scathing 1991 book attacking Israel), and Imtiaz Mohammad (a State Senate candidate in Florida running against an incumbent on the grounds that he supported anti-BDS legislation), fully manifest the growing trend of anti-Israel and antisemitic Congressional candidates. The centrality of Jewish evil and conspiracies to their thinking, like that of Corbyn and his followers, also represents the reemergence of classical antisemitism from the left.
One result of the increasing antisemitism is a petition from the Women’s March For All (WMFA) calling on the Democratic Party endorse the IHRA definition. If it gains traction the call will set up precisely the same type of battle within the Democratic Party as has been seen in the Labour Party.
In campus news, as the new semester begins additional Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters have taken to social media and threatened violence against ‘Zionists.’ At Stanford University an SJP member resigned as a residence hall staff member after his threats to ‘came to light. It was then announced that he would be receiving therapy as a result of the trauma he endured. Research has also shown other SJP branches and BDS leaders praising members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP connection expanded when a Barnard College group hosted members from the Palestinian advocacy organization Addameer as part of an ‘anti-incarceration’ panel. Many Addameer staff members are directly linked to the terrorist group. Despite growing protests, SJP’s national umbrella organization is currently scheduled to hold its annual convention at UCLA in November.
The growing advocacy of violence against ‘Zionists’ by BDS supporters has contributed to continued deterioration of conditions for Jewish students. A report from John Jay College noted that BDS leaders actively orchestrated the ostracizing of Jewish students, blacklisting other groups who might co-host events with Jewish organizations, and harassing individual Jewish students. Increasingly Jewish students are required to denounce Israel and Jewish organizations in order to participate in broader campus social life.
A new report from the AMCHA Initiative discusses these patterns. Among other conclusions it shows that “Nearly all of the Israel-related incidents in 2017 involved behavior intended to suppress pro-Israel expression and/or that specifically targeted pro-Israel individuals or groups for ostracizing or discriminatory behavior intended to exclude them from fully participating in campus life.” While the number of anti-Israel events remained fairly constant, behavior aimed at ostracizing pro-Israel individuals and groups expanded into 2018. The pattern is behavior aimed at increasing the social costs for Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel. At the same time, the report found that ‘classical antisemitic’ behavior and expressions of intent to harm outnumbered specifically anti-Israel expressions. Together these have changed the atmosphere on campus for Jews and others.
BDS efforts to destroy Jewish institutions also expanded in August. The Hillel International lawsuit against San Francisco State University that alleges the university permitted a hostile environment for Jewish students by excluding Hillel and other Jewish groups from campus life. It also illustrates the manner in which all Jewish ‘spaces’ are under assault by the BDS movement. A bizarre amicus brief from ‘Open Hillel’ alleges that since Hillel International does not represent ‘all’ Jewish students – that is to say anti-Zionist and pro-BDS Jews – the university cannot have created a hostile environment for Jews.
The argument goes beyond Open Hillel’s initial demands for Hillel International to permit pro-BDS programming and expands BDS efforts to have Hillels removed from campuses. It also delegitimizes the notion of Hillel as an institution capable of speaking for Jews. Observers note that this argument inadvertently undermines a broad swath of anti-discrimination law.
The Open Hillel attack complements IfNowNow’s preplanned ambushes of multiple Birthright groups during the summer, and its continuing efforts to protest Jewish Federations and to have American police forces avoid training exchanges with Israel. All aspects of both the Jewish relationship with Israel and grassroots American institutional relationships are being systematically assaulted.
Elsewhere in academia, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement that deplored Israel’s recent refusal to admit BDS leaders who are professors. The statement also rejected boycotts but maintained they are a legitimate means of protest. The increasing use of provocations by BDS leaders attempting to enter Israel, and apparent Israeli overreaction to the 2018 regulation giving security officials the ability to bar BDS activists, were also on display in August. IfNotNow co-founder Simone Zimmerman and left-wing critic Peter Beinart were questioned upon entry to Israel. The temporary detentions prompted a burst of criticism regarding ‘illiberal Zionism.’ The incidents show that the optics of all Israeli security activities, normal or excessive, have been politicized by the BDS movement, now with the aim of discrediting Israel in the eyes of American Jews.