May saw the deployment of new campus BDS techniques, which were temporarily thwarted by rapid responses by community and university leaders. These pushed BDS closer toward lawfare –legal and administrative means to attack Israel and its supporters. They also indicate an ever-closer relationship of BDS to “anti-racism” while other examples point to a contradictory attraction to far-right themes and groups.
BDS campaigns on university campuses intensified greatly in May, prior to the end of the academic semester. The most dramatic events took place at UCLA where a BDS resolution was defeated earlier this year. Local BDS groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Armenian Students’ Association then drafted a “Joint Statement on Undergraduate Students Association Council Ethics” that demanded candidates for student government “refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League or Hasbara Fellowships.” The statement accused the sponsoring organizations of “Islamophobia” and “political agendas that marginalize multiple communities on campus.”
Most candidates for student government signed the statement but several, including two who had participated in trips, did not. Students for Justice in Palestine had earlier lodged an ethics complaint against two student government members alleging that their participation in sponsored educational trips to Israel was a conflict of interest that unfairly influenced the 2014 BDS resolution vote. A similar “ethics” charge had been lodged against one of the individuals in late 2013. Curiously, the current president of the UCLA student government, who is pro-BDS and who attacked his opponent for taking a sponsored trip to Israel, had participated in a sponsored trip himself.
The “ethics hearing” was lengthy and contentious. An SJP member contended that “It is the appearance (of a conflict of interest that) is sufficient to undermine the integrity of government because it is impossible to prove what a councilmember subjectively intended with their (ties to outside organizations.)” Social media comments by SJP members made it clear, however, that the goal was not to preserve the integrity of student government but to make it impossible for students to take trips sponsored by pro-Israel organizations, and to create a chilling effect for pro-Israel activity on campus.
The SJP’s activities arguably constituted harassment under the terms of the University of California’s “Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations and Students.” With this evidently in mind, the chancellor of UCLA, Gene Block, criticized the SJP-led efforts regarding sponsored trips and suppression and harassment of student government candidates. Block’s criticism was echoed in a statement by University of California president Janet Napolitano. The student government soon released its own statement rejecting criticism and attacking Block personally.
The undergraduate judicial board then ruled that sponsored trips to Israel were not an ethics violation. This appears to have put the question to rest for the semester. The involvement of many pro-Israel organizations was critical to defeating the “ethics” charge and the proposed loyalty oath but reports suggest that a BDS resolution will reappear at UCLA in the fall.
Another BDS controversy emerged at Vassar. Earlier in the year faculty and students who had participated in a study trip to Israel were harassed by BDS activists. In the recent event the local Students for Justice in Palestine group was shown to have posted materials from a white supremacist web site on its social media sites. In another example, an antisemitic Nazi cartoon was posted on the SJP Twitter feed.
When confronted about the racist materials the SJP the organization decried the “manufactured misrepresentation” but went on to state that “providing an article link from a white nationalist publication does not mean we support white nationalist ideology; rather, we found this particular article’s description of those behind zionist propaganda campaigns and how they operate to be a helpful articulation of problems many organizations like us face.”
The affair drew condemnation by the university president, who called for a review of the SJP’s probationary status as a student organization, as well as harsh media criticism. The SJP later issued a later apology that claimed “Up until this point, the social media platforms (tumblr and twitter) associated with SJP Vassar’s name have been managed by one person and the SJP general body was not involved in decisions made about what was being posted. We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.”
Immediately following the president’s condemnation, a “Wall of Truth” erected by pro-Israel students at Vassar was vandalized and then quickly removed by the university. The Vassar situation also prompted an op-ed from a recent graduate who described the institution as “a reactionary, illiberal place full of unlettered bigots.”
In other campus news a BDS campaign in the University of Washington student government failed. One notable feature was a BDS proponent, caught on video, falsely claiming that some 75% of BDS proposals succeed. The true number is less than 25%. A divestment resolution also failed at the University of California at Davis. The Graduate and Professional Student Association at the University of New Mexico passed a BDS resolution that was then rescinded.
A BDS proposal passed at DePaul University. The resolution called on the university to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military and in the West Bank and Gaza. A pro-BDS opinion piece by an adjunct faculty member characterized the vote as being about “racism and Islamophobia.” On-line voting in which only 10% of students participated saw the proposal pass by a margin of 1575 to 1333. A statement by DePaul President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider called the resolution “problematic in a number of ways.” Interviews with DePaul students noted the borderline antisemitic nature of the BDS campaign and the atmosphere of intimidation, but at least one faculty member disagreed.
A SJP sponsored BDS petition at the University of South Florida is alleged to have garnered 10,000 student signatures. Finally, in Great Britain, the National Union of Student’s Black Students conference endorsed BDS. The organization is dominated by Muslim students.
May’s BDS activities on campus are indications that the movement is changing rapidly. BDS rhetoric (and organizations) are being realigned to attack Israel and American Jewish supporters with the uniquely American concepts of “Islamophobia” and “white privilege.” This latter mindset of politically correct “racial” self-criticism and explicit shaming expands BDS beyond its traditional North American focus on anti-imperialism/anti-colonialism, and “human rights” towards the “anti-racism” paradigms that have been dominant in Great Britain and Europe for many years.
Anti-Zionism has long been a cause of the European left, precisely on “anti-racist” grounds. Paradoxically, this is one area of profound agreement and convergence between the far-left and the far-right. While direct BDS cooperation on American campuses with, say, white power or neo-Nazi forces, remains unlikely their mutual hatred of Israel leverages that message. The Vassar SJP example also suggests that the “helpful articulation” of anti-Israel hatred and antisemitism by the far-right could develop into tactical and ideological alliances long seen in Europe.
While the eagerness of BDS supporters to dominate and politicize student government around a single issue has been apparent for some time, the use of campus judicial mechanisms to vilify supporters of Israel and shape the composition of student government is a radically new development. If it spreads, it threatens to impose anti-Israel loyalty tests and will likely bring student governments into open confrontation with university administrations eager to avoid the BDS issue.
It is difficult to predict whether such confrontations will empower BDS forces. The tenacity and single-mindedness of BDS activists is impossible to understate, but their radicalism – that is, overt hatred of Israel that is often ill-disguised antisemitism – has tended to work against their cause.
In this respect, the larger atmosphere on American campuses by radical factions is notable. This has included the forced withdrawal of Condoleeza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and the disinvitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis. The fast-moving debate over “trigger warnings,” in effect disclaimers or content advisories alerting students to potentially disturbing course materials, is another aspect. Repeated capitulation on the part of university administrations has now generated criticism and mockery damaging to specific institutions and the higher education industry as a whole. It is difficult to predict how leaders of the industry will react to future BDS provocations.
BDS forces have likely taken heart at the isolated success of the fossil fuel divestment movement at Stanford University. More characteristic is the experience at Harvard, where the issue has brought the faculty, which appears to favor fossil fuel divestment, into conflict with the university president and the corporation that manages the investments. The comparison between BDS against Israel and the fossil fuel movement, though not wholly analogous, is informative. The latter is carried by the intense moral panic over “global warming” generated over many years by academics and celebrities, facilitated by poorly understood umbrella groups, and underpinned by long, patient local organizing. Intimidation and ostracization over this issue are now commonplace on campuses.
To date the anti-Israel movement has failed to generate a moral panic over Israel, and its excesses of rhetoric and intimidation have worked against it. The minority status of BDS on campus has also been demonstrated by the evident willingness of BDS activists to take over campus facilities and organizations, to disregard procedures, to lie about its lack of success and to relish its putative victimhood at the hands of student government, administrations, and Jewish organizations.
Examples of BDS supporters’ victim mentality were revealed in the run up to a vote by members of the Modern Language Association that urges the“United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” It was revealed that MLA members had used a variety of antisemitic terms, including “Zionist attack dogs” in emailed exchanges on a private MLA listserv. Another stated that the MLA “resolution rightly targets only Israel given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision making process of Academia in general.” The deadline for voting on the resolution is 1 June.
In other BDS news, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is preparing for its 221st General Assembly in mid-June and to vote on a BDS resolution. Observers have noted the church’s new study guide Zionism Unsettled is deeply mendacious and hostile toward Israel. In a development that echoes the loyalty test proposed at UCLA, the minister who was anticipated to become the church’s “Official Moderator on Middle East Issues” was forced to resign when it became know that he had gone on study trips to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia.
Finally, in cultural news, the Rolling Stones will perform in Israel next week. In a message directed to Israeli fans they have publicized a smart phone app that will permit audience members to select songs to be played during the performance. The performance comes after harsh criticism from pro-BDS supporters and will mark the beginning of a long series of performances by international artists in Israel.