The protests that wracked Washington at the beginning of January exposed how limits on free speech pioneered by the BDS movement, including deplatforming and cancellation, have spread into the political and cultural spheres. At the same time, the BDS movement’s demands that Israel provide COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians, the pushback against the IHRA antisemitism definition, orchestrated in part to divide the Jewish community, and renewed accusations that Israel is an “apartheid state,” show that BDS related antisemitism remains prevalent.
January was marked by unprecedented political unrest in the US following the presidential election and rioting in Washington. Among the results were the widespread cancellation of individuals and media platforms deemed to have supported not only the ‘insurrection’ but also those who questioned the 2020 electoral results. Calls to ‘purge,’ ‘deprogram’ and blacklist large segments of the population and even to censor platforms such as podcasts are now commonplace from media and political figures.
These tactics were arguably pioneered on campus by the BDS movement and have spread into broader culture and politics, most recently through corporations anxious to both appear ‘woke’ and thus conform to emerging elite opinion, as well as to cancel business rivals. The identification of Zionism and Jews as ‘right wing’ and then as ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ is already far advanced on campus and in the progressive movement. The specific accusation that Capitol rioters were white supremacists and Nazis in concert with Israel was made by BDS supporters including Code Pink, Adalah, ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ and Students for Justice in Palestine.
The incoming Biden Administration has not yet articulated its policy regarding antisemitism or BDS but certain aspects are becoming clearer. Incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated during his confirmation hearing that he and the Biden Administration are “resolutely opposed to BDS.” Nominee for US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated in her confirmation hearing that BDS is “unacceptable” and “verges on anti-Semitic,” and “it’s important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the U.N., and I intend to work against that.” Reports indicate, however, that a Trump-era initiative to list BDS groups has been sidelined because of the transition and internal State Department opposition. The stance of new Education Department appointees on BDS remains unclear.
Concern also is rising with regard to lower level nominees. The nomination of a former member of Students for Justice in Palestine, Maher Bitar, to head intelligence activities at the National Security Council is especially alarming. Bitar had served in the Obama Administration as Director for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs as well as a lawyer for UNRWA before becoming General Counsel for the House Intelligence Committee. A nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who had espoused black supremacist beliefs in college including the idea that Jews were responsible for the slave trade unconvincingly characterized her previous stance as satire but also denounced antisemitism.
The new administration has also revoked the Trump Administration’s Executive Order banning ‘Critical Race Theory’ training in Federal agencies and for Federal contractors (a move which had already been blocked by a Federal court) and has made ‘racial equity’ and rooting out ‘systemic racism’ leading education goals. As the California ‘ethnic studies’ curriculum has shown, this promises to insert antisemitism through critiques of Jewish ‘whiteness’ and, uniquely Jewish ‘privilege.’
The use of ethnic studies and ‘racial equity’ by the BDS movement to generate antisemitism was further demonstrated by comments from a University of California Riverside professor that “Most California public education administrators don’t understand how Zionism politically toxified our schools and curricula. It prevents us from teaching historical material about entire populations. This must not continue.” This stealthy approach to inculcating antisemitism will now be replicated across the country.
At the same time, with BDS long established as a local political issue in progressive cities such as Portland and Durham, it is also growing at the state level. One example is the California Progressive Delegates Network, which has made opposition to any restrictions on BDS part of its vetting process for candidates to the Democratic Party’s Assembly District Election Meetings. While not an overt endorsement of BDS, the chilling effect on progressive opponents is already being felt. The vandalizing of three Israeli restaurants with “Free Palestine” graffiti in Portland by Antifa rioters demonstrates that the direct threat is growing.
In contrast, an early candidate for New York City mayor, Andrew Yang, explicitly stated that “Not only is BDS rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy.”
Elsewhere, the BDS movement in January was focused on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, alleging that Israel was shirking its responsibility to provide the vaccine to Palestinians. This allegation of “vaccine apartheid” was repeated widely in world media and among BDS supporters. This came some nine months after BDS leader Omar Barghouti issued a unique statement permitting Palestinians to take an Israeli developed vaccine provided it did not lead to further normalization.
The allegation was repeated specifically by BDS supporters including Rep. Rashida Tlaib who stated that “it’s really important to understand Israel is a racist state and that they would deny Palestinians, like my grandmother, access to a vaccine, that they don’t believe that she’s an equal human being that deserves to live, deserves to be able to be protected by this global pandemic.”
The vaccine allegation ignored that Palestinian leaders had specifically stated they did not want to receive vaccine supplies from Israel and had made separate arrangement to receive supplies from the Russian government. Also ignored was the fact that the Oslo Accords specifically stated that Israel does not have responsibility for providing medical services to residents of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the political sphere, however, the most notable BDS development was a statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel that it was ‘giving up’ on efforts to force the United Arab Emirates to boycott Israel. This is a recognition that Israeli-Gulf normalization, codified under the ‘Abraham Accords,’ is too powerful a force to be resisted at present.
On campus and elsewhere pushback against the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which mentions Israel, expanded. In January the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations published a letter calling on the Biden Administration to continue using the IHRA definition as a guideline. This was opposed by the “Progressive Israel Network,” which stated the definition “risks wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism” and called the declaration by outgoing Secretary of State Pompeo that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” “dangerous overreach.”
Objections were echoed by the Union for Reform Judaism, which stated that while “we strongly endorse the IHRA definition, we share concerns expressed by other supporters, both in the Jewish community and in broader civil society, that the examples appended to the definition were drafted in a time and context different from the one before us today and can obscure even as they strive to illuminate.” The group endorsed the definition as “an effective educational, reporting, and training tool” but not “codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists.”
This appears to reflect precisely the use of IHRA by the Department of Education but reporting on the statement emphasized it as representing a split in the Jewish community, largely in order to bring such a split about. The contradiction between a desire to “oppose antisemitism” while defending the ability to criticize Israel in antisemitic terms cannot be easily resolved.
Similar condemnations of IHRA were heard from British lawyers and faculty members, including many BDS supporters, as well as in a resolution by the Carleton University Academic Staff Association. A new report regarding a study on the IHRA definition at University College London similarly described how BDS supporters tendentiously shaped internal discussion against IHRA by alleging it infringed on free speech, that complaints regarding antisemitic discourse were made to shut down debate on Israel, and that the definition singled out Jews for special treatment.
The growing trend to caricature IHRA was also reflected in the debate over IHRA in the student government at the University of California at Riverside where one student commented “I 100% stand against anti-semitism on campus, I would just like them to not use the IHRA definition because it is anti-Palestine.” Anti-Zionist commentary on IHRA is even more extreme and actively defends describes Zionism as racist and Nazi-like.
In contrast, a new publication by the European Union details antisemitic expression from the right and left and notes how “certain forms of antisemitic expression, Israel may be used as a substitute for a conceived Jewish collectivity. Rather than “criticising” Israel as one might any other state, some forms of antisemitism express direct hatred exclusively against Israel or seek to apply double standards in criticising that country. “
The student government at the University of Georgia unanimously adopted the IHRA definition. The adoption of the IHRA definition by Georgia Tech, however, came after a suit against the university in the wake of the Hillel director being denied access to a BDS event. Despite the university’s adoption of the IHRA definition, Florida State’s student government will vote on a BDS resolution calling for divestment from corporations doing business in Israel. A former student government president who had been removed after his antisemitic remarks came to light submitted the resolution.
In the cultural sphere, the death of philanthropist Sheldon Adelson from cancer prompted an outpouring of hatred from the BDS movement. The death of Adelson, a supporter of Brithright and the Republican Party, was described as a “present for my birthday” by former JVP director Rebecca Vilkomerson, while IfNotNow’s response asserted that he “dedicated his life and wealth to empowering the far right in the US and in Israel,” and ended “Yimakh shemo. May his legacy be erased. And may we do it together.”
Finally, a new report from the Israeli ‘human rights’ organization ‘B’Tselem’ renewed the easily refuted accusation that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ dedicated to “Jewish supremacy.” World media quickly repeated the accusation since it presented the novel angle of an Israeli rather than Palestinian organization make the claim. The group’s primarily European governmental funding makes it likely that it is acting as a stalking horse for those governments.
The sudden appearance of three sets of accusations regarding vaccine distribution, the IHRA, and Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ are opportunistic but also represent a convergent effort to exert pressure on the incoming Biden Administration.