Campus ‘speech as violence’ claims spreads as state-level anti-BDS laws cause confusion. BDS blames Zionism for Weinstein sex abuse as Center for Jewish History cancels BDS-related talk.

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The campus speech crisis continued in October, with more shout downs of pro-Israel and free speech advocates. The spread of this BDS tactic shows the movement is a leading indicator of intolerance. But like the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘anti-fascist’ protests, these paths lead back to conventional left-wing antisemitism. In this sense BDS helps widen already yawning gaps in American politics and culture.


BDS in October was characterized by ‘intersectional’ accusations and a variety of assaults on free speech, universities, and Jewish organizations. Among the most odious were accusations that sexual harassment by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein proved the connection between gender violence, white supremacy, and Zionism. More perversely, one BDS supporter accused Israel of being indirectly responsible for the Las Vegas mass shooting by exporting “assault rifles” to the US.

BDS on campus in October focused on disrupting pro-Israel events. Reports indicated that a group of Israeli Arabs visiting the US had received threats via social media. At Stanford University the Hillel chapter rescinded its invitation to the group for unspecified reasons likely related to safety concerns. The local Chabad chapter then hosted the event. But at the University of Minnesota a woman was arrested after disrupting the group’s presentation. A similar disruption occurred when the group spoke at a New York area synagogue.

At the University of California at Berkeley a talk by lawyer Alan Dershowitz was initially canceled on flimsy procedural grounds likely motivated by safety concerns. The event was ultimately held but was marred by an antisemitic cartoon attacking Dershowitz in the student newspaper. The university chancellor and the newspaper editor apologized for the cartoon but there was little further response from the Berkeley community.

BDS inspired disruptions opposing free speech escalated even more dramatically in October. Campus events that have been disrupted include a talk by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer at the University of Florida, a Skype talk at Columbia University by right wing English extremist Tommy Robinson, and a talk at the University of Michigan by sociologist Charles Murray.

A College Republican meeting at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a discussion of civil discourse at UCLA sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, and a free speech discussion at Rutgers University were also disrupted. A talk by a Republican state senator at Texas Southern University was protested and then abruptly shut down by the university president.

The tactic has spread beyond Israel and speech issues, as demonstrated when a talk by the Yale University president was disrupted by protestors from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, along with a classroom presentation by a Columbia University dean, disrupted by protestors accusing her of ‘insufficient commitment’ to Title IX and investigation of sex assault claims. Preemptive protests also emerged after a research center at Bard College invited a far right German politician to give a talk, which the college president was forced to characterize as not “legitimation or endorsement.

Accusations that speech constitutes acts of violence have come from students but also from faculty. One faculty member involved in the Columbia incident accused the university of ignoring the “violent physicality of hate,” since “words constitute an act of violence or result in physical forms of violence.” Protestors at the UCLA event similarly declared that “liberalism is white supremacy,” while protestors at Santa Cruz accused their opponents of being “racists,” “fascists,” and “white supremacists” and that “Your existence is a disturbance to every marginalized person in this country.” The BDS movement on campus has long made similar accusations regarding the presence of ‘Zionists.’

Growing student antipathy toward free speech and the belief that speech acts may be intrinsically violent, and the simultaneous conviction that universities have the responsibility to prevent ‘hate’ and that students have the right to shut down speech, with violence, represents grave threats to the concepts of the university and free speech.

The campus free speech trap is reminiscent to that which the BDS movement has engineered for Jewish institutions. Jewish institutions like Jewish Studies programs, Hillels and JCCs are challenged to host BDS supporters; if they agree, the BDS movement utilizes the platform and compromises the institutions, while deliberately provoking a ‘right wing’ backlash. If the institution refuses to host BDS speakers, it is accused to being opposed to free speech.

On campus, far right and neo-Nazi speakers employ the same tactics of forcing universities to accept or deny them a platform, trapping them into participating in a provocation or acting as ‘censors.’ In an ironic twist, however, the BDS movement has now aligned with campus ‘anti-fascists’ who wish to deny free speech rights to genuine extremists and unwelcome centrists alike, while at the same time decrying punishments given to protestors who disrupt campus talks. The BDS movement’s embrace of the heckler’s veto is longstanding.

An example of how BDS supporters trap Jewish institutions occurred in October at the Center for Jewish History (CJH) in New York. The center has a number of constituent organizations, one of which was alleged to be sponsoring events with leading BDS group ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ (JVP) and featuring BDS perspectives. Some of these events, however, only appeared on the JVP website’s calendar, and there was no indication that it was in fact co-sponsoring any of the other events.

Furious protests from anti-BDS groups then forced CJH to cancel events that it was hosting and for the head of CJH to clarify his own already heavily critiqued views regarding BDS. The entire affair may have been a JVP provocation to elicit a negative response and cast itself and CJH as the victims. Predictably, BDS supporters claimed the CJH was censoring their ability to speak. Implicit in this accusation is the idea that all Jewish institutions must automatically be open to every viewpoint.

Elsewhere in academia, a vote by the student government at McGill University removed three members due to alleged “conflict of interest.” The vote came after the student government approved a non-binding judicial board finding that declared BDS unconstitutional. BDS supporters then organized a protest alleging the student representatives, one of whom was Jewish, were “corrupt” and members of a Canadian Jewish organization. In response the university announced it was launching an investigation of the event. Removing Jewish students from campus politics on the basis of their Jewishness is a growing trend.

A divestment resolution has been reintroduced in the student government at the University of Michigan but a BDS resolution was defeated in the student government at the University of Winnipeg.

The role of BDS supporting faculty was brought into greater focus by an analysis released by the Amcha Initiative. The study surveyed almost 1000 faculty who had expressed support for BDS, finding that 70% were associated with Middle Eastern studies, gender, or ethnic studies. The study also found a strong correlation between BDS supporting faculty members and BDS related programming in departments, institutes and centers. Most significantly, there was a strong association between the prevalence of BDS programming and incidents of campus antisemitism.

This study could not review the impact of BDS supporting faculty on internal campus and disciplinary activities such as promotion and tenure decisions, funding and awards, and acceptance for publication (such as the emerging scandal regarding a new book by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar, which accuses Israel of sparing Palestinian lives in order to control them). Nor could it measure directly the impact on classroom teaching and discussion. The trends noted, however, suggest that BDS has negative impacts on the safety and well-being of Jewish students and other supporters of Israel.

In the political sphere, executive orders preventing state entities from dealing with companies that boycott Israel were issued in Wisconsin and Maryland. Formal bills are under consideration in the Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures. But confusion has developed regarding the application of state laws regarding BDS. In Texas, the town of Dickinson initially required applicants for hurricane relief to sign a statement that they were not engaged in boycotting Israel. The requirement was later dropped.

In Kansas, however, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher who claimed the state’s anti-BDS law, which requires written certification from state employees and other vendors that they are not boycotting Israel, unfairly restricts freedom of speech.

In the international sphere, concerns continue to grow regarding a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) blacklist of companies doing business in Israeli communities across the Green Line. Reports indicate that up to 130 Israel and 60 global firms received letters from UNHRC, including Bezeq, Coca-Cola, and Airbnb, noting their work in the disputed territories and demanding clarification prior to inclusion in the ‘database.’

At the same time, the council’s ‘special rapporteur,’ anti-Israel activist Michael Lynk, issued a report on alleged human rights abuses by Israel and called for economic and academic boycotts, while ignoring abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Lynk’s report was widely condemned.

Increased exposure of the UNHRC’s blacklist and blackmail tactics have prompted observers to call for passage of the Federal Israel Anti-Boycott Act that would make it illegal for companies doing business in the US to participate in Israel boycotts demanded by international entities. The UNHRC’s move coincided with an award of over $1 billion from the United Nations Development Assistance Framework to the Palestinian Authority for ‘strategic programming’ that included over $18 million for NGOs the support BDS.

Finally, the FIFA Council announced that, after several years of study, it was rejecting the Palestinian Football Association’s request to sanction Israel. The council also stated it also would not sanction the Palestinian association for its record of incitement. Palestinian football chief Jibril Rajoub blamed European Holocaust guilt for the decision.

Campus ‘speech as violence’ claims spreads as state-level anti-BDS laws cause confusion. BDS blames Zionism for Weinstein sex abuse as Center for Jewish History cancels BDS-related talk.

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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