The end of the academic year saw an unusual BDS event when a prominent supporter was appointed interim dean at George Washington University. The subsequent outcry saw the university endorse the decision, reject BDS, and then rule the supporter out for a permanent position. This is another example of an institution becoming trapped by policies that formally reject BDS while tolerating it from employees. A much larger scenario is playing out in the Democratic Party where candidate Joe Biden has formally rejected BDS even as notable party members support it. Eventually such contradictions will be resolved one way or another.
The academic year ended with colleges and universities locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The impact on BDS activities, especially ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ and ‘Nakba Day,’ was significant but incidents continued.
In an unusual case at George Washington University, an avowed BDS advocate, Ilana Feldman, was appointed interim dean at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Feldman, a Middle East specialist, was a leading supporter of a BDS initiative in the American Anthropological Association.
Pro-Israel students and groups including Hillel International immediately opposed Feldman’s appointment and called for her removal, while J Street U supported it. Some commentators noted that calls for her removal mirrored those from BDS supporters regarding pro-Israel advocates and suggested she would not be in a position to impose her views on the faculty. This ignores the chilling effect on speech and behavior that her appointment implied, as well as the innumerable sub rosa means at her disposal to discriminate against pro-Israel students.
In a statement, however, the university responded that it officially opposed BDS and Feldman would adhere to all existing policies. It also added that Feldman would not be a candidate for the permanent position of dean.
Feldman’s appointment thus set up a classic confrontation between academic defenders of free speech, only construed as support for BDS, and defenders of academic integrity, defined as balanced narratives and fair treatment of Israel and its supporters. By appointing Feldman, reaffirming the decision, and then announcing she would not be offered a permanent position, the university has disappointed all sides. The contradiction between a tolerant leadership and intolerant subordinates cannot be easily resolved.
In spite of the lockdown a variety of BDS and other antisemitic incidents took place, including in student governments. At Stanford University a student government member apologized for social media postings attacking Israel and supporting BDS but claimed they were ‘taken out of context.’ The student government at the University of California at Irvine also repealed a 2012 BDS resolution. This prompted bitter complaints from the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. The student government at Santa Monica College passed a resolution expressing ‘solidarity’ with Jewish students but after debate, declined to endorse the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
A number of SJP chapters have also rebranded ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ as ‘Palestine Awareness Week,’ while presenting the same anti-Israel and antisemitic content. Antisemitic social media postings were also noted from various SJP chapters, such as at Cornell University, while the chapter at Occidental College complained bitterly regarding criticism of its posts. Traditional antisemitism was also well represented with the vandalizing of the Ohio University Hillel House and a commons room at Middlebury College.
Fallout regarding the SJP continued at Tufts University, where the local SJP chapter was given a “Collaboration Award” by the Office of Campus Life in April only to be disavowed by higher levels of the administration. In an interview the university president dismissed SJP complaints and reaffirmed the decision, saying, “We can’t endorse an award that recognizes a group whose concerning policy positions include association with the BDS movement, elements of which I view as antisemitic. So for that reason we will not be rescinding the statement.”
A similar situation, where a semi- or unaccountable academic entity endorsed BDS, occurred as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) gave an award to Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University. Abdulhadi is best known for saying that Zionists were not welcome on the SFSU campus and for feuding angrily with the university administration that was forced to apologize for her remarks.
The AAUP endorsed her viewpoint, saying that as “director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies Program she brings together scholars, activists, academics, and organizers to create justice-centered knowledge, build broad-based coalitions, and advance the agenda for social change in Palestine, the United States, and internationally. Her leadership transcends the division between scholarship and activism that encumbers traditional university life.”
In another example of the BDS movement claiming special rights, in this case by alleging governmental favoritism toward a “Zionist group,” the BDS lawfare group “Palestine Legal” has filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Inspector General against Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus. The complaint alleges that Marcus “deviated from established Department of Education policies and practices to carry out his career agenda of shutting down campus advocacy for Palestinian rights” by reopening a case at Rutgers University regarding an event that created a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The complaint alleges the reinvestigation creates a “chilling effect” and further, that Marcus’s advocacy of the IHRA’s “distorted definition can encompass virtually all criticism of Israel, inviting the government to unconstitutionally censor advocacy for Palestinian freedom and equality in violation of the First Amendment.”
Several BDS support groups cosigned the complaint, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The attack on Marcus and the Education Department may have a broader context in recently enacted changes to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act designed to restore due process to university investigations of sexual assault. These have been bitterly attacked by universities and left wing advocacy groups such as the ACLU. Aligning BDS with broader attacks on the Education Department and the Trump Administration is a logical intersectional move.
But in other legal news, the far left National Lawyers Guild (NLG) settled a lawsuit with an Israeli organization that had unsuccessfully sought to place an ad in the NLG’s annual dinner journal. The NLG had refused the ad on the basis of a resolution that prohibited it from doing business with Israeli organizations. The NLG was then sued for discrimination under New York State’s human rights statutes. As part of the settlement NLG will display an ad from the Israeli organization on its website indefinitely and issue guidelines regarding non-discrimination to all its chapter.
BDS continued to develop in the political and international spheres. Israeli plans to extend sovereignty or ‘annex’ parts of the West Bank have raised the threat of governmental sanctions from leaders of European states and the European Union (EU). Josep Borrell, the ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,’ stated that Europe would work to “discourage” Israeli annexation while reports indicate Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, and Luxembourg would support sanctions against Israel. The threat of these unspecified sanctions comes in the context of longstanding EU and more recently UN efforts to blacklist companies and individuals doing business across the ‘Green Line.’
Opposition to calls for EU sanctions on Israel (which must be adopted unanimously) came from Austria and Hungary, whose leaders called on Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations. But the Czech government, normally favorable to Israel, has been split on the issue. More interestingly, ‘annexation’ has also split the Jewish communities in Britain and the US. Members of the Labour Party have also called for possible sanctions.
US Democrats, including Senators normally favorable to Israel, have denounced the idea while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden warned against ‘annexation’ stating that it would “choke off any hope of peace.” At the same time, the Biden campaign released a statement aimed at the Jewish community, touting his “solidarity with Israel, combatting anti-Semitism, and fighting for social justice pillars of his decades-long career in public service,” and condemned “the BDS movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.” The statement enraged the BDS movement.
Biden’s statements on Israel run strongly counter to the increasingly leftward direction of his other policies and the progressive elements within the party, notably the red-green caucus led by Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib. The tension between the aging leadership and the younger grassroots, particularly BDS firebrands like Linda Sarsour who have lately campaigned against pro-Israel candidates, will not be easily resolved on Israel or other issues. But the undisguised cynicism behind statements from individuals such as Omar, that she both believed allegations of sexual misconduct against Biden but would still vote for him, if nothing else reflect the elevation of power over principles.
For the Trump Administration’s part, the State Department announced the appointment of David Peyman as Assistant Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs and Strategic Projects in the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Peyman’s responsibilities include “certain strategic projects, including the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.”
Finally, in the cultural sphere, there has been backlash against the Whitney Museum of Art for its capitulation to BDS-related demands. The institution is accused of orchestrating the resignation of a board member, Warren Kanders, the owner of a company that makes non-lethal equipment for law enforcement and security forces including the US and Israeli militaries. A radical anticapitalist group, ‘Decolonize This Place,’ led by a Palestinian-American activist demanded the museum remove Kanders, a noted art collector and philanthropist, from its board.
Kanders was forced to resign. This has now prompted a legal effort to remove the museum’s tax exempt status with the IRS, accusing the museum of “orchestrated and acquiesced in a concerted smear campaign against Warren Kanders, a distinguished member of the Board, in order to advance a transparently political agenda which had no relevance whatsoever to the museum’s charitable purpose.” Pro-BDS sources responded by attacking the lawsuit and alleging ‘anti-Palestinian bias.’
The precedent of removing board members and donors and erasing evidence of contributions in the past in order to comply with shifting activist demands has the potential to undermine broad segments of American philanthropy.