September’s normalization agreements between Israel and two Arab states have dramatically changed the global environment for BDS. With the Palestinian issue receding in importance among once fervent supporters, the BDS movement has responded by increasing its support for BLM and other causes. This ironically concentrates its impact on vulnerable institutions, which have been extended from campuses to corporations and the government.
The most important BDS development in September was the signing of normalization agreements by Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Intense ‘outside in’ diplomacy by the Trump Administration brought decades of covert relations out into the open and have changed the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
The deal temporarily delays the extension of Israeli sovereignty onto the West Bank, brings two Gulf states firmly into the now public Sunni alliance against Iran, and creates a new Middle Eastern economy that couples Gulf and Israeli money and brainpower.
Palestinian leadership and the BDS movement reacted to these developments with shock and horror, accusing Gulf leaders of ‘selling out’ Palestinians and redoubling calls to boycott Israel. European leaders were more circumspect, expressing approval but issuing urgent reminders that the Palestinian issue was indeed paramount. Arab commentators noted, however, that Palestinian rejectionism was repeating mistakes of the past and in the process further diminishing Arab support and the possibility of a state.
By cutting the Palestinian issue down to a small territorial dispute and exposing its claims of being the pivotal global refugee problem as false, the BDS movement finds itself in a bind. The elevation of the Palestinian issue into the supreme moral issue that demands criticism and ostracizing of Israel and its supporters, above all Jews, was always excessive but now appears obsessive if not overtly deranged and antisemitic.
The peace agreements apparently took the BDS movement by surprise, which has predictably increased its already robust alliances with BLM and other oppositional causes. Standing in opposition to Israel, the United States, and now autocratic Arab regimes expands the BDS movement’s intersectional credibility, even as institutions in the real world move towards peaceful coexistence. This strategy has been most visible on campus, where the BDS movement had long been the pioneer of ‘cancel culture,’ a trend that has expanded in every direction.
At Columbia University the student body voted on and approved a BDS referendum. During the run up to the vote a group opposed to BDS, Students Supporting Israel, purchased an ad in the student newspaper which was then distributed via a mailing list. But two hours after the ad appeared the newspaper removed it, calling it “clearly inappropriate” and promising “such material” would never appear again. Positively, the university president expressed his opposition to the referendum and its impact on campus life stating the institution would not change its investment policies.
A BDS resolution was also approved on in the student government at the University of Illinois-Urbana. The SJP authored resolution, which was strategically situated inside a resolution opposing ‘anti-black violence,’ called for the university to divest from companies such as Caterpillar Inc. which – in a novel invocation of environmentalism – is “play[ing] a role in erasing the indigenous character of Palestine by clearing thousands of acres of biodiverse native habitat replacing them with non-native forests.” It also called for “one student representative from Students for Justice in Palestine” to participate in a university task force “charged with divesting from corporations and index funds that violate human rights and reinvest in socially and environmentally responsible companies and index funds.”
The trap for university administrations created by radically pro-Palestinian faculty and the subsequent legitimation of antisemitism was on display at San Francisco State University. The invitation from the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora program to Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled to appear via the Internet on an anti-Israel panel created a huge backlash directed at the university. Khaled, a convicted airplane hijacker and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an organization responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in Israel and Europe, was invited to appear alongside members of the African National Congress, the Black Liberation Army, and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’
The invitation put the university administration in the position of defending the event or risk confronting its faculty and students. Critics pointed out that her appearance was likely in violation of US law, specifically material support for terrorism, and requests were made to the Justice Department to investigate the event. Similar questions were raised regarding the Council on Foreign Relations hosting an event with Iranian foreign minister Javid Zarif. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado also called on the Department of Education to cancel funding to the university and for the Treasury department to investigate its use of Federal funds.
But 48 hours before the event the Zoom platform stated “In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event.” The event was switched to Facebook, which also blocked the event. It then moved to YouTube, which abruptly cut off the transmission as Khaled began to speak.
The university and BDS supporters were outraged at the outcome, characterizing it as ‘censorship,’ while opponents of the event expressed satisfaction. The incident highlighted again the unsettled question of whether technology companies that provide streaming platforms have responsibilities regarding content or whether they are neutral utilities.
The Khaled invitation was complemented by the appointment of Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Erekat’s appointment came after the Palestinian Authority was revealed to have donated $2.6 million to the institution, which gave the appearance of a quid pro quo. The larger pattern of academia legitimizing extremist Palestinians will likely be touted as an example of academia’s ‘higher morality.’
But the direct impacts of rising antisemitism prompted in part by BDS have become inescapable both on and off campus. They now include the burning of the University of Delaware Chabad House and several other arson attempts, and the defacing of a Kenosha, Wisconsin synagogue with the words ‘free Palestine’ during BLM related rioting.
Another notable campus trend is demands for ‘anti-racist’ transformations of institutions, onto which BDS has grafted itself. These demands include changes to all course offerings, racial quotas, ‘decolonized readings,’ segregated housing, and BDS.
One example came at Cornell University in a faculty-student letter calling for an ‘anti-racist Cornell’ demanding, among other things that the university address “Cornell Tech’s involvement in the gentrification of Queens and, through its institutional partnership with Technion Israeli Institute of Technology, the military occupation of Palestine.”
In another example at Fordham University, the Black Student Alliance demanded, along with hiring additional black faculty members and cutting ties with the New York City Police Department, that the university apologize to the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. The University of California ‘Bears for Palestine’ also demanded the university regents abolish the campus police and condemn the Canary Mission BDS monitoring website.
Accusations that Israel is a ‘settler colonial state’ built on ‘indigenous land’ that is both ‘racist’ and ‘anti-black’ and responsible for police violence in the US brings together older and newer tropes. But the intersectional process demands ever greater levels of opposition to basic structures and concepts, to the point where, in a recent webinar called “Black Lives Matter, Israeli Annexation and BDS,” leading members of the BDS movement have now called for the abolition of Israel, the police, and capitalism itself.
Demands for incorporation of ‘critical race theory,’ which typically includes anti-Israel and antisemitic content, into pedagogy via mandatory college and high school courses on ‘ethnic studies,’ ‘diversity’ or ‘anti-racism’ (such as those proposed in California), have also escalated, as has accusing and even punishing critics. Labeling critics or and those who fail to accede to demands as ‘anti-black’ or ‘white supremacists,’ in effect accusing them of heresy, and demanding their firing for banal acts such as attending a pro-police rally or refusing to attend reeducation sessions, suggests BLM and associated movements such as BDS are essentially forms of political religion. ‘Cancelation’ for wrongthink was arguably pioneered by BDS on campus in its efforts to marginalize Zionists and Israel supporters. Legal pushback is just beginning.
At the same time, the intense publicity surrounding ‘critical race theory’ and its various crypto-pedagogical manifestations such as the New York Times backed ‘1619 Project’ have resulted in much higher levels of scrutiny. Critics have long noted these efforts attacking ‘white privilege’ and ‘systemic racism’ substitute new forms of racism for old, and in the case of the ‘1619 Project,’ are shoddy and tendentious.
The spread of ‘critical race theory’ training from campus to corporations and government agencies attracted unwanted attention from media and other critics. After reports about Department of Energy and other Federal agencies conducting reeducation sessions, President Trump directed these materials be removed from Federal employee and government contractor training. Another Executive Order forbids the use of Federal funds to support ‘critical race theory’ programs at universities and orders the Attorney General to determine whether ‘critical race theory’ workplace training create a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Faced with the unexpected situation of being exposed to public criticism and having to offer defenses, proponents have become uncharacteristically silent. One result is that the Times has stealth edited the ‘1619 Project’ website and its leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had vociferously defended it, deleted her Twitter feed, after being caught misrepresenting her previous positions. BLM has similarly removed web pages stating its goals of disrupting the “Western nuclear family.”
This blurring of academia, pedagogy, and politics is a longstanding characteristic of the BDS movement and its intersectional allies. In another unusually public alliance, the leading US supporter of BDS, American Muslims for Palestine, held a joint event on with a representative of UNRWA who was slated to speak on “legislative advocacy.” Though a representative denied that the agency supported BDS, the goals of lobbyist for the internationally funded Palestinian welfare agency that advocates the ‘right of return’ training BDS supporters to lobby Congress are transparent.
Finally, in the political sphere, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez withdrew from an event commemorating the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sponsored by Americans for Peace Now after criticism from BDS supporters. The tone of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks suggested she was unfamiliar with Rabin. Liberal Democrats expressed disappointment at the move and feared it would tarnish the Biden campaign.