May saw the culmination of debate over the IHRA antisemitism definition. Left wing groups demanded its exclusion from the Biden administration’s national antisemitism policy while center and right groups demanded its inclusion. The debate, which has stretched from campuses to state houses and now the White House, encapsulates the central place of Israel and BDS in contemporary antisemitism, as well as efforts to deny this fact.
The most important BDS related developments in May occurred in the political sphere.
The keynote event was the unveiling of the Biden Administration’s national strategy to combat antisemitism after many weeks of debate and public pressure. The majority of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations had lobbied strongly for inclusion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition explicitly discusses antisemitism as a unique phenomenon that includes demonization of Israel and double standards.
This definition has been strongly opposed by left wing critics, including BDS supporting Jewish organizations, the BDS movement, and its Muslim and progressive backers. Rumors had suggested for weeks that the administration was planning either to put the IHRA definition at the center of the new strategy or alternately to elevate the rival Nexus document which explicitly states that “Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.”
There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism. The most prominent is the non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.
Thanks to clever phrasing the administration endorsement of IHRA is at best indirect. Most pro-Israel groups nevertheless highlighted the positive mention of IHRA while critics noted the positive reference to the Nexus document canceled out the IHRA reference. The overall strategy also includes a wide range of recommendations for security funding, Holocaust education, ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ training, partnerships with professional sports leagues, and more.
Critics also noted that many recommendations were not specific to antisemitism but rather directed at ‘all forms of hate,’ including “antisemitism, anti-Muslim bias, anti-Sikh bias, and related forms of bias and discrimination.” Islamophobia was mentioned numerous times but no reference was made to BDS, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights use of the IHRA definition, or to Islamist or left wing violence against Jews.
Indeed, the letter was praised by the lawfare arm of the BDS movement, Palestine Legal: “The national strategy document removes IHRA from the center of the conversation, de-emphasizes the role of a definition and declines to make it law.” This sentiment was echoed by other BDS and left wing organizations such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, whose leader expressed gratitude to president Biden for “not succumbing to those who demanded the codification of the IHRA definition so that they could use false accusations of antisemitism to attack those who criticize indefensible Israeli policies.”
Concurrent with the release of the national strategy the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding colleges that a university violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “when it fails to take adequate steps to address discriminatory harassment, such as antisemitic harassment.” The letter did not mention the IHRA definition.
The other main BDS event of May was a ‘Nakba day’ panel hosted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib in the US Capitol. Originally scheduled for a space in the House of Representatives, the booking was canceled by Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy. But it was relocated to a hearing room in the Senate at the invitation of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Tlaib lauded Sanders and gloated “Let the headlines read ‘McCarthy tries to erase Palestine but fails””. In her remarks Tlaib accused Israel of being an “apartheid state” which was guilty of ‘ethnic cleansing.’
The event itself was attended by a variety of BDS and anti-Israel organizations but only one other member of Congress, Rep. Cori Bush. Despite the unrelenting publicity Sen. Chuck Schumer claimed he was unaware the event had been relocated to the Senate. The event and Tlaib’s remarks were widely condemned by Congressional and Jewish leaders.
Tlaib also filed a bill “recognizing the Nabka and Palestine refugee rights,” which condemns ‘Israeli aggression.’ To compound her claims, Tlaib invoked the Eli Wiesel Genocide Act of 2018, which is aimed at enhancing training for Foreign Service Officers and mandates reports to Congress on US efforts to prevent mass atrocities. The bill continues the longstanding Palestinian effort to define genocide downward, emptying the term of meaning and leading to it being deployed as a signifier of victimhood.
Reports indicate that Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), a longtime Congressional adversary of Israel, will introduce a bill prohibiting US military aid to Israel from being used in certain situations, particularly those involving ‘Palestinian minors.’ The bill also requires the Government Accountability Office to report on other aspects of US aid to Israel. Five representatives are reported to cosponsor the bill, which is supported by a variety of BDS organizations including ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ the American Friends Service Committee, Al-Haq, IfNotNow, and J Street.
Other legislation related directly BDS was introduced at the Federal level. The Republican backed “Combatting BDS Act of 2023” was reintroduced in the Senate. The bill, first introduced in 2017, is designed to permit states and local governments to divest from entities that boycott Israel. Another bipartisan bill amends the Anti-Boycott Act of 2018 to make it easier for US firms to avoid boycotts organized by international organizations.
The bipartisan “Doxing Threat Assessment Act” was also introduced specifically in response to the “Massachusetts Mapping Project” which purported to map institutions supporting Israel, including corporations, schools, and communal organizations. Researchers suspect the project, which was publicized anonymously but promoted heavily by the BDS movement, has direct backing of the Iranian government.
A measure of the extent to which BDS permeates local politics is a bill in the New York State legislature would empower the state Attorney General to “prohibit not-for-profit corporations from engaging in unauthorized support of Israeli settlement activity.” The legislation was introduced by two members of the ‘Democratic Socialists of America,’ Assembly member Zohran Mamdani and State Senator Jabari Brisport, who named the New York-based Central Fund of Israel as one of the targets. The bill was condemned by the majority of New York State lawmakers and deemed a non-starter by senior legislators.
The state legislation comes on the heels of a resolution in the New York City Council condemning antisemitism which was opposed by six progressive lawmakers representing heavily Jewish districts. The Democratic council members in question are all on record opposing Israel in one way or another. Together the anti-Israel legislation reflects a major shift in New York politics.
In contrast, the Florida legislature approved a bipartisan bill that prohibits corporations from applying ‘environmental, social, governance’ (ESG) standards designed to discriminate against Israel and firms working there. The bill comes as the controversy regarding ratings firm Morningstar’s discrimination against Israel and Israeli firms continues, and the expanding controversy over ESG standards in general.
Reports have indicated that asset managers at major investment firms have been exercising excessive influence by voting for ESG related proxies introduced by activist shareholders. The results are shifts in corporate policies that undermine the fiduciary responsibilities towards shareholder but which reward managers by raising ESG scores created by NGOs masquerading as ratings agencies.
One example are ratings created by the ‘human rights’ group ‘Amnesty USA’ which purport to rate university investments. The group gave ‘failing grades’ to a number of American universities on the basis of their investments, using nebulous ESG and ‘responsible investment’ categories. Reports also point to investment practices by major banks which charge higher interest rates to firms and industries that have low ratings.
The academic year ended with the BDS movement making high profile gains on campus despite criticism. At the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School, long a center for BDS related antisemitism indulged by the university, an anti-Israel activist gave the commencement address for the second year in a row. Fatima Muhammad, leader of the school’s ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ (SJP) chapter attacked ‘Zionists,’ accused Israel of indiscriminately killing Palestinians, and impugned Jewish CUNY funders. CUNY Law graduates also booed New York City Mayor Eric Adams when he mentioned his police background.
Muhammad stated she had chosen CUNY Law as one of the few “to recognize that the law is a manifestation of White supremacy that continues to oppress and suppress people in this nation and around the world.” In a belated response, the school stated that the speaker “offered congratulatory remarks and their own individual perspectives on advocating for social justice. As with all such commencement remarks, they reflect the voices of those individuals.”
Many New York politicians criticized the talk and the university. Mayor Adams issued a gentle rebuke on social media, stating he was “proud to offer a different message at this year’s CUNY law commencement ceremony-one that celebrates the progress of our city and country…” Under this pressure the CUNY Board of Trustees and Chancellor stated on social media that “The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation. The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York condemns such hate speech.”
Despite criticism CUNY BDS activists went on the offensive, claiming the school had removed video of Muhammad’s speech from their Youtube page and that 2022 CUNY Law commencement speaker, BDS activist Nerdeen Kiswani. The video was later reposted on Youtube and gained national attention for its vitriol. This has led to widespread criticism and calls to defund CUNY.
BDS activists also complained that Kiswani was prevented from giving a ‘Nakba day’ talk at Hunter College, and accusing the university of failing to protect Palestinian students from being “harassed, surveilled, and defamed by Zionist organizations as well as the NYPD and FBI,” and systemic bias against supporters of Palestine.
Prior to the commencement controversy, CUNY’s response to the ongoing BDS crises was creation of a Jewish ‘advisory council,’ in association with the Jewish Community Relations Council, and support for a state-wide hate crimes reporting system. Critics denounced this as a fig leaf.
The increasingly aggressive stance of the BDS movement was reflected in allegations of ‘systemic’ bias against ‘Palestinian’ students and faculty that have resulted in a Department of Education investigation of George Washington University. The investigation results from a complaint filed by Palestine Legal which alleged discrimination after the university canceled a ‘virtual processing space’ (a chat room) for Palestinian students, as well as allegations that the university had failed to support students accused of vandalizing the campus Hillel, and a professor, Lara Sheehi. The university is also under investigation by the Education Department for Sheehi’s treatment of Jewish students which suggests Palestine Legal’s complaint is retaliatory.
‘Nakba day’ commemorations were held on a number of campuses, including Northwestern University, Concordia University, the University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, Tel Aviv University, and Ben-Gurion University, at one California high school, and in various cities such as London. One notable event occurred at the United Nations where ‘Nakba day’ was commemorated for the first time. In what appears to have been a largely ad libbed address Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of perpetrating “holocausts,” demanded a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders as well as a “right of return.”
Campus BDS activities were accompanied by the usual incidents of vandalism, including spray painting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” on the pavement outside the University of California at Santa Barbara Chabad house prior to a Shabbat event. In what has become the norm, swastikas were also found at a number of institutions including the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Delaware, Susquehanna University, Dartmouth College, Stanford University, and at a number of high schools.
A BDS resolution has been proposed again in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and will be voted on by the membership in June. The resolution accuses Israeli academic institutions of being “complicit in the Israeli state’s regime of oppression against Palestinians, including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies used against Palestinians” and of failing to “provide protections for academic freedom, campus speech in support of Palestinian human and political rights, nor for the freedom of association of Palestinian students on their campuses.” The resolution has generated widespread opposition from various groups including Israeli anthropologists. A similar resolution was narrowly defeated in 2016.
One of the intended effects of BDS on campus has been to diminish Jewish student participation in and event attendance at universities. A new report by the British parliamentary Taskforce on Antisemitism in Higher Education noted Jewish students are increasingly reluctant to wear identifiable Jewish symbols or clothing for fear of being targeted, as well as to attend certain seminars or lectures “for fear of personal interrogation.” Among other things the report recommended embedding the IHRA definition in all university “processes.”
With respect to public communication, the mendacity of the BDS movement was again displayed when BDS leader Hatem Bazian accidentally tweeted from his own account “@jaketapper, your reporting on Rashida Tlaib’s Nakba 75 event was racist and anti-Palestinian. As Jews who believe in human rights and justice, we demand you do better.” It was unclear which fake account Bazian had intended to tweet from but the incident revealed a series of sock puppet accounts pretending to belong to Jews and tweeting identical messages.
In the international sphere the IHRA definition was adopted by the Latin American Parliament. The French National Assembly voted down a resolution that declared Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ The legislation had bee n introduced by members of the Communist Party. A bill introduced in the British Parliament also aims to prevent local councils from adopting BDS.
In contrast, in Ireland new legislation demanding the state investment fund divest from firms with operations in the ‘West Bank’ was debated. A report indicated that the fund had “€1.19 million, 0.01% of ISIF’s total equity investments of €799 million in 2021, into Israeli companies, according to the Ireland-Israel Alliance. Only €150,000 of that money was invested in businesses known to operate in the West Bank.”
Finally, the Belgian city of Liége passed a motion that called for “a temporary suspension of all relations with the state of Israel and the institutions that are complicit until the Israeli authorities put an end to the systematic violation of the Palestinian people.” The motion was introduced by the “Marxist Workers’ Party of Belgium.”