The academic year ended with sudden late pushes for BDS resolutions and associated protests. While there were notable wins for BDS in student government, the larger goal remains shifting campus opinion against Israel and intimidating Israel supporters into silence. These were propelled by continued disruptions of pro-Israel and other events. But BDS harassment and university indulgence may produce public backlash of the sort now being felt at Evergreen State and other institutions. Radical politics, and the BDS movement, threaten the viability of specific institutions and will undermine public confidence in higher education further.
The end of the academic year saw several late pushes for BDS in student governments. At the University of California at Santa Barbara a BDS resolution was added to the student government agenda at the last minute, which then debated the measure for an extraordinary 10 hours. During that time supporters of the resolution walked out after the body’s “Attorney General” ruled the resolution had to be “positional” rather than “directional.” The measure was then tabled.
The student newspaper described the stealthy introduction of the measure as a “guerilla ambush” designed to bypass the usual comment period and limit organized opposition. A follow up debate was then thwarted by the absence of student legislators and, more significantly, a “civil disobedience” protest by BDS supporters unhappy with the direction of the meeting. No vote was held.
Another stealthy BDS resolution was introduced in the University of Oregon student government over the Shavuot holiday. The resolution – entitled the ASUO Senate Resolution on Boycotting Israeli Settler Colonialism – then passed after a lengthy debate, which included a warning that the measure could be reversed in the next semester by the student “court” on the grounds it was not “viewpoint neutral.”
A BDS resolution was voted down at the City University of New York. At the University of Heidelberg and Johannes Gutenberg University, the student governments adopted resolutions rejecting BDS as antisemitic. At the University of Sussex, however, students approved a BDS referendum, while students in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Universidad de Chile also voted to boycott Israel.
After the approval of a BDS resolution at Barnard College and the university administration’s statement that it would not consider divestment, the student government announced that it would approach companies directly to demand they halt business with Israel.
Another notable feature at the end of the semester were disruptions of pro-Israel events. At UCLA pro-BDS protestors disrupted an ethnic minority event that included Jewish, Armenian, and Kurdish students, tearing down flags and chanting “we want 48, we don’t want two states,” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In the aftermath of the protest the university condemned the disruption but did not sanction the protestors.
Similarly, at the University of California at Irvine, an event featuring former Israeli soldier was disrupted by BDS supporters chanting “IDF what do you say, how many kids have you killed today?,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “All the walls have got to go, from Palestine to Mexico.” Police then removed the protestors. The university stated it would not investigate the incident since “To our knowledge, the protestors were not UCI students.”
Finally, at New York University, two students were arrested after Students for Justice in Palestine and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ protestors disrupted a pro-Israel event in a public park and then stole and burned an Israeli flag. One of the leaders of the protest stated, “We’re not going to let them stand by and support Zionism… Our point is to make being Zionist uncomfortable on the NYU campus. They shouldn’t be comfortable because the ideology of Zionism is antithetical to Palestinian liberation and Palestinian sovereignty at its core.”
The remarks were similar to those voiced at Stony Brook University, where the local SJP chapter equated Zionism with Nazism and white supremacism. The statement also condemned the Hillel and demanded “a proper Jewish organization that allows Jews to express their faith, have sabbath — everything like that, that are not Zionists, that doesn’t support Israel.”
After an interfaith group condemned the statement the SJP chapter denounced the school’s Muslim chaplain saying “You have reached a heinous level of betrayal to the Palestinian people by working with and aiding Zionists on their endeavors… For 3 years we have been on this campus, you have not only helped Hillel normalize their Zionist agenda, but also suppressed your own Muslim students from speaking out against the state which has killed our Palestinian brothers and sisters… You have continually harassed our members and slandered our organization with claims of terrorism… We will work tirelessly to ensure that Stony Brook University’s MSA has a chaplain that properly represents the Palestinian liberation movement.”
The manner in which BDS protests have spilled over into venues unrelated to Israel was also on display when Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members disrupted a speech by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at the University of Houston with shouts of “Nikki, Nikki can’t you see, you are on a killing spree,” and “free, free, free Palestine.
Demands for absolute ideological conformity and subjugation to the Palestinian cause are increasing. The character of the many anti-Israel protests suggests that the BDS movement on campus is moving further away from any possibility of dialogue and believes, perhaps correctly, that harassment and intimidation produce no negative consequences. The sense of impunity and self-righteousness is spreading in the US and increasingly, participants in any event related to Israel are liable to be assaulted, much in the manner they are in Europe.
Many observers, ranging from the editorial boards of the New York Daily News to that of the journal Science, have warned about the rising atmosphere of antisemitism, with roots in Western universities. The effects of radical politics, including BDS, are also being felt directly by colleges and universities. Institutions like Evergreen State University, which has been racked by racial and antisemitic tensions, has announced layoffs and budget cuts in the wake of plummeting enrollment.
Coupled with long-term trends including declining birth rates and rapidly rising costs, institutions are being challenged to adapt to changing markets. Some, like the University of Wisconsin-Steven Point, have responded with plans to eliminate many humanities majors and to substitute STEM majors. Since BDS and radical politics are located almost exclusively in the humanities and social sciences, this evolution suggests that wide swaths of academia will be collateral damage in the war against Israel.
In the political sphere, the fallout of April’s controversy regarding Starbucks and the protests against the ADL’s participation in racial sensitivity training took an international turn when Women’s March co-organizer Tamika Mallory appeared in Israel on a tour sponsored by leading BDS groups Breaking the Silence and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The trip was organized for American minority leaders to highlight Israel’s ‘human rights abuses.’ For Mallory, stung by responses to her antisemitic association with Louis Farrakhan, the trip was a means to rehabilitate her liberal and Christian credentials.
Two CCR leaders were also refused entry to Israel on the grounds of their support for BDS. Their presence appears to have been a provocation designed to test Israel’s entry laws and, in the event, elicit condemnation of their non-entry. Israel’s revocation of an entry permit for a ‘Human Rights Watch’ (HRW) employee and BDS supporter also produced widespread condemnation. An Israeli court has now temporarily stayed his expulsion.
The entry of leading BDS figures and organizations such as CCR and HRW in Israel is a lose-lose situation for Israel. If activists are denied entry then they are martyrs to the ‘human rights’ cause and Israel is condemned. If they are permitted entry, their BDS organizing goes on unimpeded. For its part, HRW has also stepped up its wide-ranging BDS activities with a report detailing the involvement of Israeli banks in ‘settlements.’
Reports indicate that the campaign to have US cities cut ties with Jewish organizations sponsoring police training in Israel will be expanding after the success in Durham, North Carolina. The involvement of local Jewish Federation and local Hebrew school employees in the Durham campaign also came into focus, as those institutions condemned their activities but made no other moves, saying they chose to “embrace pluralism and welcome diverse beliefs and opinions within the community.”
The incident also demonstrated how BDS puts Jewish institutions in another typical lose-lose situation. If they fire or refuse to hire BDS supporters they will be accused of intolerance and viewpoint discrimination, making BDS supporters martyrs. If they are employed, then the organized Jewish community directly facilitates BDS.
May’s recurring attacks by Palestinians against the Gaza security fence, and the Trump Administration’s move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, also provided a context for anti-Israel attacks from the BDS movement, the ‘human rights’ community, and others.
Despite evidence that the vast majority of Gazans killed attacking the Israeli border were members of Hamas, and after attending an overtly antisemitic speech by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, British Labour Party Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry stated that a future Labour government would immediately recognize a Palestinian state and “review the sale of arms by the United Kingdom to Israel to ensure that none of the weapons sold by our country are being used by the Netanyahu government to attack innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza or anywhere else.”
In the US a number of leading Democratic Senators also issued a statement condemning the embassy move and the ‘disproportionate’ number of Palestinian casualties. Driven by hatred of President Trump but also by grassroots pressure including intersectional alliances in which the BDS movement plays a key role, the party continues to shift away from Israel and from American Jews.
In the cultural sphere, Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil canceled a scheduled performance in Israel because of the “sensitive moment.” Though Gil’s statement made it clear that “We love Israel and have always felt warmly welcomed. There will surely be other opportunities and we will be hoping for better times,” BDS supporters took the cancelation as a victory.
Elsewhere in the cultural sphere the big BDS event was Israel’s win in the annual Eurovision contest. Netta Barzilai’s song “Toy” was the runaway hit in global voting, despite a BDS campaign for the song to receive no points.
In response to Israel’s win, and in opposition to next year’s contest being held in Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Icelandic citizens signed a petition calling for a boycott of the event. Several Irish politicians also called for a boycott. Unconfirmed reports indicated that Eurovision organizers are concerned about the prospect of a boycott, while others suggest the competition will go ahead without significant problems. It was also revealed that in 2010 British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had cosponsored a measure to ban Israel from all European cultural and sporting events including Eurovision, ostensibly in the name of advancing peace.