BDS in February focused on the IHRA definition of antisemitism and on the ‘International Criminal Court’s decision to investigate Israel for ‘war crimes.’ Growing opposition to the adoption of the IHRA definition has manifest particularly among students and faculty, putting them into conflict with university administrations. The growing emphasis on BDS in local politics demonstrates a similarly shifting landscape. As with education, more of politics is being configured as a referendum about the existence of Israel, cast in the guise of free speech, or contemporary concerns such as ‘anti-imperialism’ or ‘anti-whiteness.’
BDS activities on campus intensified rapidly as colleges and universities began resuming in-person instruction. Demonstrating the opportunistic nature of BDS rejectionism was a petition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health to cut ties with Israeli institutions and bar an Israeli speaker due to the “discriminatory health practices of apartheid Israel.”
The student government at the University of California at Irvine passed a BDS resolution by an overwhelming margin. The resolution stated “we’d like to note that this is in no way related to Judaism” but added “We would also like to note the distinction between the Israeli apartheid and Judaism, while Jewish history is intertwined with Israeli history, the current political and physical violence committed against Palestinians is not related to Judaism.” The university administration immediately stated “the bill does not reflect the university’s view” and that no university operations or investments would be changed. A pro-BDS and anti-IHRA bill introduced in the Florida State University student government was rejected.
At the University of Toronto a student ‘judicial’ panel ruled that the graduate student union could not use student fees to promote BDS. The panel also recommended that the fee used to support the ‘BDS Caucus’ should be refundable. A lawsuit against the Canadian Federation of Students regarding student fees used to support BDS is also underway in the Ontario Court of Appeal. At McGill University, however, a divestment bill using the language of ‘human rights’ was introduced in the student government in order to circumvent a 2017 ‘judicial’ decision that BDS was unconstitutional.
BDS activity centering around American-Israeli police exchange programs continued in February. The Tufts University administration stated it would not act on student referenda demanding the university police not participate in ‘militarized trips’ to Israel. A complaint by a Jewish member of the Tufts student government also alleges harassment by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) branch designed to force him from office before a spring BDS campaign, and condemns the university’s refusal to take action in his defense. A petition at the local level by the leading BDS group ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ demands that Pittsburgh police cease all training with Israeli counterparts.
Pushback against the IHRA definition of antisemitism also intensified. A discussion hosted by the leading BDS organization ‘IfNotNow’ laid out the stakes of the opposition stating “the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been destroying the progressive movement.”
Angrily claiming that BDS and hatred of Israel are not antisemitism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary has now become an intersectional touchstone. Various ‘human rights’ groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and Jewish groups such as J Street, the New Israel Fund, and American Friends of Peace Now use opposition to IHRA as means to consolidate institutional power, split Jews and liberals, and legitimize opposition.
Misrepresenting the IHRA definition is critical to this approach and opposition is predictably growing in higher education. At Syracuse University a motion in the student government to adopt the definition was tabled due to allegations it conflated antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
At University College London (UCL) the student union rejected calls for the university to rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition. Jewish students also complained that the debate had been scheduled for Holocaust Remembrance Day. In contrast, a faculty board at UCL rejected the definition, demanding the administration “retract and replace [IHRA] with a more precise definition” that presumably does not include mention of Israel. The faculty decision prompted the angry resignation of a faculty member specializing in antisemitism, who accused his colleagues in Jewish Studies of spearheading the assault on the IHRA definition.
British opposition to the IHRA definition comes in the context of continued government support but also the now longstanding crisis in the Labour Party that began over BDS support in allied student groups and which engulfed the party and its leadership. But it has also served to highlight egregious antisemitism elsewhere in academia.
One example is a faculty member at Bristol University, David Miller, who has a long history of antisemitic abuse of students and overt anti-Israel hatred. Most recently Miller was condemned by students, the university and others for demanding “the end of Zionism as a functioning ideology” and for alleging that “Jewish students on British campuses being used as political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing,” and that Jewish student “lobbying for Israel is a threat to the safety of Arab and Muslim students as well as of Jewish students and indeed of all critics of Israel.”
An American counterpart to Miller is Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University, who stated in a ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ discussion that the Black Lives Matter movement supports the “dismantling of the Zionist project.” Hill also stated that Israel was a “settler-colonial movement in Palestine” which was responsible for police violence in the US.
The impact of anti-Israel academics and pedagogy on higher education has long been clear but few have been explicit in their demands for the end of Israel as Miller and Hill, in the name ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘anti-white’ activism and with claims that their critics endanger free speech.
Miller, Hill, and the BDS movement generally have contributed to the rising perception that higher education is irredeemably hostile towards Israel and in turn, Jews. The continuing problem of the California ethnic studies curriculum that remains biased against Jews as ‘ racially privileged whites’ disseminates these attitudes far more broadly in high schools. The rising number of antisemitic incidents on campuses demonstrates the impact of these claims.
In the international sphere the most important BDS-related development was the decision by the ‘International Criminal Court’ (ICC) to initiate an investigation into alleged Israeli ‘war crimes’ against ‘Palestine.’ The decision was the outcome of a long process initiated by the Palestinian Authority, and urged on by various BDS and terrorist groups. The decision was firmly denounced by the US, European states, and political figures on the grounds that no ‘State of Palestine’ formally exists and, implicitly, for fear that their personnel could be subjected to similar arbitrary investigations. While the ICC decision does not yet subject individual Israelis to formal investigation, a chilling effect has been reported for present and former Israeli military personnel.
The ICC move has been echoed by other campaigns by international organizations to vilify Israel and potentially subject its citizens to sanctions and legal proceedings. Another recent example is a campaign by the Gaza and West Bank branches of UNICEF aimed against the IDF alleging abuses of ‘child rights.’
In the political sphere one of the most interesting developments was the ‘embrace’ of the IHRA definition by the Biden Administration. At the same time, the refusal of White House spokesperson Jen Psaki to formally condemn the BDS movement and other moves such as rejoining the ‘United Nations Human Rights Council’ and the sudden and massive reorientation of US policy in favor of Iran, suggests shifts in Biden Administration policy towards Israel.
Concerns also remain about the administration’s commitment to opposing BDS. The appointment of mid-level staffers including several who had been active in the BDS movement suggests a gap between statements for public consumption and actual policy execution. Most recently concerns have been raised regarding Reema Dodin as Deputy Chief of Staff for the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, and Uzra Zeye, nominated for undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Dodin was a former CAIR official and college BDS activist while Zeye was formerly a staffer at the anti-Israel Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a leading proponent of Israel Lobby conspiracies.
This disconnect is compounded by the continued promotion of BDS by elected officials, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (recently appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee), who demanded the administration support the referral of Israel to the ICC, and Rep. Betty McCollum (the new head of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee), best known for labeling Israel as an ‘apartheid state.’.
Some Democratic representatives expect massive reorientation of US policy directed against Israel while other pro-BDS organizations continue to lament the high level of Congressional support for Israel. This was demonstrated by a vote in the Senate expressing support for keeping the US Embassy in Jerusalem, a measure opposed only by Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Carper.
While BDS and sanctions against Israel have become a centerpiece of progressive politics at the national level, they continue to expand locally. One example is a special election for an Ohio House seat that pits a ‘Squad’ advocate against an establishment Democrat. In contrast, a newly elected Massachusetts Democrat has staked out a position against BDS and the administration’s Iran-centric foreign policy.
More telling, however, is the appearance of BDS as an issue in local elections, notably the New York City mayoral race. When surveyed, most of the leading mayoral candidates stated they would visit Israel and expressed opposition to BDS but none would say whether they support New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order banning state entities from doing business with entities that boycott Israel.
Leading candidate Andrew Yang had previously described BDS as “rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses.” But Yang’s opposition to BDS has been challenged by pro-BDS elements including ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ activists who angrily complained that Yang had “compared Palestinians to Nazis.”
BDS has even appeared as a progressive bludgeon in the race for New York City Council. The controversy arose in the context of the Queens ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ (DSA) branch’s questionnaire asking candidates to commit to not to participate in trips to Israel and to explain whether or not they supported BDS. Leading candidate Soma Syed condemned the DSA’s “anti-semitic rhetoric,” “reckless policies” and “tendencies for bad ideas.” The question of BDS reappeared during a debate between the various candidates.
It appears that, as in academia, the support for the existence of Israel is becoming the ultimate progressive litmus test. Another illustration of this is pushback against a campaign in California by the ‘Progressives Delegate Network’ to make opposition to Israel a requirement for Democratic candidates at all levels of government.
In the legal sphere, a Federal appeals court in Arkansas ruled that the state’s 2019 anti-BDS law was unconstitutional. The court held that the law was too broad and could not be applied to state contractors outside the scope of specific contractual relationships and returned the particular case to a lower court. BDS supporters including the ACLU, which brought the suit, hailed the decision while opponents suggested that legislators could narrow the law’s language in order to meet the court’s standard.