BDS in academia ramps up as anti-Israel activism permeates new aspects of campus life as administrators cave to demands. Democratic positions shift to reflect BDS pressure

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BDS on campus ramped up quickly in October. Several incidents illustrated the BDS tactic of holding events, sometimes in unlikely venues, and then protesting official condemnation, increasingly with allegations of “white supremacy.” This form of entrapment extends long-established BDS strategies, as does the growing effort to hijack popular causes, especially calls for fossil fuel divestment. The grafting of BDS onto a stream of unrelated issues, and the deep roots of anti-Israel bias in pedagogy, is having an impact both on campus and elsewhere.


In October the focus of BDS shifted back to campus. In a demonstration of how BDS has permeated all aspects of campus life, BDS activists at the University of Illinois gave a presentation to resident advisors at the University of Illinois on the “Palestine & Great Return March,” subtitled, “Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror.” Prior and then subsequently, several swastikas appeared on campus.

In an email to the entire university community, the university chancellor condemned the presentation as antisemitic as well as the swastika incidents. In turn, both the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) branch and faculty members expressed outrage at the chancellor’s comments and for implying a connection between the presentation and the swastikas. The SJP branch then attempted to disrupt the school’s homecoming parade, demanding the chancellor apologize and the “establishment of a Middle East/North African cultural house, racism and bias training for housing staff, and the hiring of more Palestinian faculty, among other things.”

The student government then approved an SJP sponsored resolution that claimed to distinguish anti-Zionism and antisemitism, condemned the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and called on the chancellor to retract his statement. Jewish speakers were shouted down amidst chants of ‘free free Palestine.” In response, hundreds of Jewish students led a walkout of a student government meeting.

For its part, the SJP branch lauded the resolution’s “powerful message” sent to “white supremacist forces on this campus.” After a meeting the with chancellor the SJP also claimed he had made his statement on the basis of a single student’s interpretation, who the SJP criticized since “his own Zionist claims reek of racism and anti-Black violence.

Another notable BDS event came at Bard College as the local SJP branch disrupted a conference on racism and antisemitism. An editor of the Forward newspaper who was moderating the session accused the students and conference organizers of tolerating an antisemitic display against the three Jewish panelists with no sanctions. The editor, Batya Bungar-Sargon, expressed particular shock and disappointment at the protests given her record of pro-Palestinian support.

In response, the conference organizer and several other participants claimed that the session was not actually disrupted and that it was not the presence of Jews that was being protested but rather the participation of Ruth Wisse, who was alleged to have made ‘racist’ comments in the past regarding Palestinians. This was contested by another participant, who pointed to the targeting of speakers at that one session alone. The rediscovery that antizionism is simply a form of antisemitism and that institutions regularly lie about was unsurprising.

In another incident that demonstrates the pattern of BDS hijacking other causes, a trustee meeting at Cornell University was disrupted by activists demanding institution divest from fossil fuel investments, and from investments in companies doing business in China, Qatar, and Israel. At Brown University this was not necessary since BDS supporters were able to give a presentation to the university’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies.

As predicted, the moral panic over fossil fuels has become an important avenue for Israel boycotts to be considered under the aegis of ‘socially responsible investment.’ ‘Intersectional alliances’ with groups opposing actual human rights abusers, such as China and Qatar, serve the same purpose. The demands of the Cornell protestors, which included restructuring university governance as a kind of collective including representation from students and the Cayuga Nation, are especially extreme.

But it is no longer improbable that a group of trustees will decide to demonstrate their institution’s moral purity and adopt various aspects of BDS, leading to a preference cascade in the higher education industry. Institutional shifts seem increasingly likely as various divestment activists aim personal attacks on individual trustees at universities and various art museums. The resulting crises in higher education and in culture remain difficult to predict.

The controversies over Title VI support continued in October as academics condemned the Department of Education’s (DoE) demand that Duke University rebalance its Federally funded Middle East Studies program. Local faculty members contested the decision, characterizing it as “the culmination of a decades-long campaign by anti-Palestinian organizations against academic programing and curricular offerings that are deemed insufficiently ‘pro-Israel.’”

In reality the DoE complaint did not mention Israel. The ACLU also condemned the DoE, as did other academics who claimed, implausibly, that threats to Title VI jeopardized the education of future foreign policy experts. Despite the DoE’s criticism reports indicate that the Duke program will receive full Title VI funding.

The abuse of Title VI funds to produce tendentious pedagogy and even directly support BDS programming was also noted in a supplementary report on Qatari funding. It noted that a BDS supporting Northwestern University journalism professor, currently resident at the school’s program in Qatar, had received grants totaling over $1 million. The professor had been condemned by the university president for insensitively tweeting a condemnation of the US and Saudi Arabia on 9/11. Pushback against state level BDS laws by BDS allies also demonstrate that ‘academic freedom’ continues to be the chosen fig leaf to cover this form of antisemitism.

Elsewhere in academia, an appearance by BDS supporting former academic Norman Finkelstein on a panel discussing black-Palestinian solidarity, cosponsored by the Princeton University Near Eastern Studies department, featured him calling Israelis “biped bloodhounds drinking the blood of one million [Palestinian] children.” The National Students for Justice in Palestine annual conference will also be held at the University of Minnesota, despite protests that it is a hate group.

In a crossover event, BDS protests against the Portland-based firm Leupold and Stevens, which builds military optical equipment, small numbers of which have been sold to Israel, appear to have pressured the Portland Trailblazers to end their longstanding promotional relationship. The local JVP, SJP and ‘Democratic Socialist’ groups have now targeted Portland State University’s relationship with the firm. The apparent readiness of the Trailblazers to bend to BDS pressure should be seen in relation to the NBA’s eagerness to kowtow to Chinese demands.

Finally, smaller incidents illustrated how BDS has been insinuated into American pedagogy at all levels. These include the continuing controversy at the University of Massachusetts regarding the general atmosphere at the school and the classroom behavior of communications professor Sut Jhally, who appears to have used a final exam to coerce students into equating Zionism with Nazism. In another incident at the University of Massachusetts, the chancellor condemned an event entitled “The Attack on BDS and American Democracy,” scheduled for November, saying that the university respected the rights of private groups to rent space but in no way supports BDS.

After attacks from Jhally and his supporters, however, the chancellor unexpectedly issued a statement condemning historian Benny Morris, who had been invited to give a talk, regarding his allegedly “deeply offensive comments about the Palestinian people.” The chancellor characterized these unspecified comments as “odious and loathsome.”

Students at Duke University protested the appearance for Israeli politician Tzipi Livni on the grounds that she is an ‘accused war criminal.’ Concerns regarding universities recommending and approving internships at BDS supporting NGOs, anti-Israel high school pedagogy at many American and British institutions, and even the ongoing controversy regarding the presentation of a BDS oriented book for preschoolers in New Jersey, illustrate that the BDS strategy has numerous levels outside of higher education. Finally, at Benedictine University, a SJP member harassed a Holocaust survivor describing his experiences, asking whether he equated his treatment by the Nazis with the “exile and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” and expressing disgust when he did not.

The impact of growing campus antisemitism fomented by the BDS movement, its intersectional allies, and by other hate groups was seen in the spate of swastikas appearing at universities, synagogues and memorials across the US, as well as in the gunfire apparently directed at the Elon University Chabad house.

In the political sphere, the impact of BDS on the Democratic Party continues to be manifest. Senator Bernie Sanders received the endorsement of a number of prominent BDS supporters including Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Linda Sarsour, who will also serve as an official surrogate, as will law professor Amer Zahr. Other candidates have parallel BDS baggage. Representative Tulsi Gabbard is a cosponsor of a pro-BDS resolution proposed by Ilhan Omar (who recently voiced objections to sanctions on Turkey). Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had previously placed a BDS supporter on her campaign staff, also threatened American support for Israel saying “everything is on the table” if a two state solution is not manufactured, as has Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The latter two sets of comments were elicited by the BDS group ‘IfNotNow.’ Democratic senatorial candidate Amy McGrath also appeared at a fundraiser cosponsored by the Kentucky branch of CAIR.

The appearance of Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, along with Omar and candidates Sanders, Klobuchar, Castro, Bennet and Buttigieg, at the annual J Street conference, which also included speakers from the leading BDS group ‘IfNotNow’ as well as from the Palestine Liberation Organization, also signals willingness of Democratic leadership to indulge if not actually consider anti-Israel extremists. In general, a BDS instigated antisemitism crisis similar to that of the Labour Party is well underway, with a growing number of antisemitic candidates being put forward for office.

BDS in academia ramps up as anti-Israel activism permeates new aspects of campus life as administrators cave to demands. Democratic positions shift to reflect BDS pressure

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe