The outbreak of violence between Hamas and Israel has reshaped the BDS environment. Academics, institutions, and celebrities have rushed to attack Israeli, to reinforce the alignment between the Palestinians and ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and to center the Palestinians as the intersectional progressive cause célèbre. Explicit and implicit loyalty oaths have been created to these causes, imperiling Jewish participation in education and perhaps broader cultural life. At the same time violence directed at Jews has broken out throughout the West including in the US, erasing the conceit that anti-Zionism is different from antisemitism. Reconciling the progressive image of tolerance with demands to ostracize Israel and Jews and ultimately violence is being undertaken in real time by media manipulation of narratives and images.
The academic year has ended but the events in Jerusalem and then Gaza have prompted a dramatic upswing of BDS activities in both higher education and politics.
The Sheikh Jarrah situation escalated into violent clashes in Jerusalem and then Hamas rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli retaliation. The impacts were quickly felt globally, including on the streets of Western cities. Violent protests occurred in North America, including in Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and featured direct assaults on Jews. Samidoun, a Palestinian ‘prisoner support’ group (which is designated as a terrorist organization in Israel) organized a number of the protests in association with the Palestinian Youth Movement. An umbrella group of notable BDS supporting organizations that included Samidoun, Al Awdah: The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, the Samidoun, and “Within Our Lifetime,” provided bail for an individual who assaulted an American Jew in New York. Samidoun is associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Protests also occurred throughout Europe and particularly in Britain, with a tremendous upswing in reported antisemitic incidents. These included death threats aimed at Jewish students at University College London, the beating of a rabbi near Essex, and various protests and car convoys, with one in London featuring cries of “fuck Jews, rape their daughters.”
Various mass protests took place in London and elsewhere featuring the burning of Israeli flags and chanting of “Khayber Khayber Ya Yehud jaish Mohammad Sauf Ya’ud” (“Khayber Khaybar oh Jews, Mohammad’s army is returning”), referring to a massacre of Jews by early Islamic armies. Assaults on individual Jews and Israelis also occurred, including in Los Angeles and New York, as well as at the University of New Mexico, where an Israeli student was attacked. The extent to which violence was directly stimulated by outside influence or local religious agitation remains unknown.
Less violent responses appeared throughout academia, notably dozens of rallies and quickly issued statements condemning Israel, its creation and existence, and calling for BDS. Typical was the ‘emergency statement’ issued by student government at the University of Michigan condemning Israel beginning with its “displacement of indigenous Palestinians in 1948” through the current unrest. The statement also condemned the student government’s alleged “prior complicity with Israel’s violence through participation in events such as yearly trips to Israel that supported the settler-state in its apartheid and occupation,” and called for support of the BDS movement. Upon protests from Jewish and Israeli students, student officers clarified that the “statement was made solely by the executive team due the time-sensitive nature of the issue and the fact that the executive team runs the CSG social media platform.”
A similar statement by the Louisiana State University student government demanded a “March for Palestine” while at Stanford University pro-Palestinian students condemned what purported to be an anodyne email from the student government disapproving of violence on all sides. The Trinity College (Dublin) student government, in association with the school’s BDS group, issued a similar demand for a boycott.
A student petition at Harvard demanded the school condemn Israeli “excessive use of force” and called for boycotts of Israeli firms, while a Harvard faculty statement demanded an “an end to US support for Israel’s apartheid regime.” At Tufts University unknown parties defaced a pro-Palestinian display on a university monument with obscene graffiti, which caused the student government to issue a statement calling for BDS and the cancelation of all university contacts with Israel.
The McGill University student newspaper issued a ‘”statement in solidarity with Palestine “ expressing support for “Palestinian civilians who are being forced out of their homes, violently attacked by Zionist occupation forces, and bombed in the Gaza Strip” and the BDS movement, and opposing “settler colonial Zionist occupation of Palestinian land and systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which is grounded in and funded by western imperialism.”
Faculty expanded the pro-Palestinian efforts. A petition at Brown University circulated by faculty as well as students accusing condemning Israel for Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza, for “state-backed settler brutal violence against Palestinian citizens in Israel,” and for the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. The petition, which was signed by several hundred undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and faculty, calls on the Brown community to commit to BDS against “Israel’s apartheid regime.”
The University College London faculty issued a statement of condemnation and called for a boycott, as did faculty and students at Princeton University, whose statement did not mention Hamas. Faculty members at the Northwestern University branch in Qatar circulated a similar letter expressing “full support” for Palestinians “who are fighting against continued forced displacement and for their inalienable rights and dignity.” Faculty members at Thomas Jefferson University circulated a petition demanding the revocation of an honorary degree scheduled awarded to the Israel Defense Force’s Surgeon General.
Rejecting evenhandedness and Palestinian agency, faculty members at mid-Atlantic universities issued a statement saying “We condemn all violence against civilians and mourn all loss of life, but reject the prevalent “two-sides” narrative that ignores differences between one of the most heavily militarized states in the world and a stateless population resisting oppression.” A statement signed by over 3000 global academics also made clear that their political intervention was justified since “Scholarship without action normalizes the status quo and reinforces Israel’s impunity.”
Predictably, the board of the Middle East Studies Association issued a condemnation, as did a group of Israel Studies and Jewish Studies faculty, who noted how Zionist and European “paradigms, as implemented by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in twentieth-century Palestine, have erected unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.”
Other institutions involved in disseminating information also took stands. The University of California Press issued a statement in support of ‘Palestinian liberation.’ More disturbing still were a letter from a New York City middle school principal to teachers and staff imploring them to “take action today by protesting, attending a vigil, making a public commitment to Palestinian Liberation, signing a petition, or calling your government officials to place sanctions on Isreal (sic),” and resolutions by the United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and the United Educators of San Francisco, calling for a complete end of US aid to Israel and the adoption of BDS.
Compounding this was a “Gender Studies Departments In Solidarity With Palestinian Feminist Collective” statement that ’Palestine is a feminist issue’ which was signed by dozens of academic departments. It also states a series of demands, including the “right to return” as well as ‘refusal to tolerate censorship or retribution against Palestinian scholars,’ which in effect demands that Palestinian antisemitism be accepted. A statement by architecture and urban planning organizations condemned Israel, demanded BDS, and made the goal of politicizing educational settings clear, saying, “We welcome this change and its impact on curricula, studios, and lecture series across the world as architects and planners begin to center anti-racist, social justice and political liberation movements.”
Less expected was a condemnation by Equity UK, the British actors’ union. But in an indication of how all cultural spaces are being colonized by BDS, a statement and protest aimed against Jewish trustees of the Museum of Modern Art accused them of being “directly involved with support for Israel’s apartheid rule, artwashing not only the occupation of Palestine but also broader processes of dispossession and war around the world.”
Widespread reports indicate that Jewish students feel increasingly unsafe and, beyond the upswing in BDS resolutions and condemnations, have been subjected to harassment and intimidation. Cognizant of rising hostility towards Jews, University College London requested a heighted police presence around the campus. The British National Union of Students also issued a statement of concern regarding “a spike of antisemitism on campuses as a result of Israeli forces’ violent attacks on Palestinians.” It then replaced the statement with another that did not mention the conflict but directed students to the website of a fringe Jewish group known for saying prayers in memory of dead Palestinian terrorists.
The various petitions and statements constitute loyalty tests with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being applied to students and faculty. Fundamentally they also reflect the mapping of American ‘racial’ categories onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This equation was formally endorsed by the Black Lives Matter movement, which stated it was committed to “ending settler colonialism in all forms and will continue to advocate for Palestinian liberation.” Opposition to the tests is therefore an informal and formal betrayal of the interlinked causes and the new racial orthodoxy.
At another level the manner in which statements are quickly made reflects the same process that occurred with the killing of George Floyd, the instant and uncritical alignment with a cause deemed (through conviction or fear of reprisal) to be political correct. In this sense the Palestinian cause, defined as Hamas, and its violence is either invisible or deemed acceptable ‘resistance’ while Israeli self-defense is ‘settler colonial violence.’ The mandating of ‘critical race theory’ throughout academia promises to institutionalize this viewpoint and deem others heretical if not criminal.
But the more immediate spread of BDS and ‘Israel as white supremacy’ or ‘settler colonialism’ by celebrities such as Bella Hadid, who was seen chanting “from the river to the sea” at a rally and who tweeted about Israeli ‘settler colonialism’ to her 42 million Instagram followers. Viewpoint and loyalty tests are thus being radically extended by celebrity ‘influencers’ marketing ‘Palestine’ the same way they do other products, with feelings and protests replacing facts and dialogue.
Expressions by members of the media, such as condemnation of Israel by late night personalities John Oliver and Trevor Noah, the letter signed by 1500 Canadian journalists accusing Israel of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or a tweet (quickly withdrawn) by the New Yorker magazine staff union calling for “Solidarity with Palestinians from the river to the sea” suggests the depth to which anti-Israel sentiment has become rooted in class sensibilities.
The removal of pro-Israel social media postings and videos, including those that explained various aspects such as the Sheikh Jarrah property dispute or the legality of Israeli retaliatory airstrikes demonstrates the role of technology/media companies in shaping narratives. A letter from Jewish Google employees condemning Israel, as well as letters from employees at Apple and Amazon, suggests the mechanisms behind the anti-Israel manipulations of content search results, rankings, and deplatforming.
Traditional media also sought to control the narrative, as demonstrated when New York Times initially rejected an ad remonstrating Bella Hadid and singer Dua Lipa for supporting Hamas. For her part, Lipa, who had previously refused to perform in Israel, played the victim and stated “this is the price you pay for defending Palestinian human rights.”
Shaping the conflict in terms of the master narrative of Palestinian victims and Israeli victimizer, now set in racial terms pioneered by the Nation of Islam, has long been the goal of the BDS movement. But initial media control over narratives pertaining to the actual events in Jerusalem and Gaza was later extended to control over narratives regarding anti-Israeli protests and the antisemitic violence that resulted. This included a New York Times opinion piece bemoaning antisemitic violence as a “gift to the right.”
Stealth editing of this and other headlines after criticism, relentless focus on Palestinian casualties, claims that antisemitic violence is dramatically exaggerated, and shifting the focus to exacerbate splits within the American Jewish community, are other means of maintaining control. “Woke antisemitism,” however, is likely to become an uncontrollable force and points to fundamental, European-like changes in American society and the position of Jews.
More broadly, the fact that Swedish environmental personality Greta Thunberg, Pakistani women’s advocate Malala, and American porn star Mia Khalifa all tweeted about Gaza is an indication that an unusual preference cascade – in which people think how they ‘ought to’ or are expected to think – is underway. The apparent cascade towards Palestine (visible in the street and especially on social media) as a – or even the – centerpiece of intersectional advocacy indicates the parameters of progressive and thence middle class ideology, its intersection with various forms of antisemitism, especially from Muslim communities. In turn, as with the ‘black lives matter’ and George Floyd narratives, these attitudes stimulate elites and institutions anxiously protecting their prerogatives against populist challenges.
Opposition to Israel has therefore trickled upward through the racial politics that dominate the Democratic Party. Predictably during the Gaza conflict, the progressive, BDS supporting caucus in Congress vocally condemned Israel. Racializing the conflict and legitimizing Palestinian violence – and by extension violence against Israel’s supporters – was key to the ‘squad’s’ presentation. Islamist Rep. Ilhan Omar deemed Israel an “apartheid government,” while Rep. Ayanna Pressley stated “As a black woman in America, I am no stranger to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. We have been criminalized for the very way we show up in the world… Palestinians are being told the same thing as black folks in America: there is no acceptable form of resistance.”
These statements were followed by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders proposing legislation to cut off aid and a suspension of arms sales to Israel. Conversely, Democrats blocked a bill sanctioning Hamas and other terrorist groups. A letter from some 500 Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee workers demanding ‘justice for Palestinians’ gives a wider view of the party’s grassroots sentiments. The appearance of BDS supporters among lower ranking Biden Administration appointees gives some support to progressive claims that their foreign policy moment, focused largely on Israel, has arrived.