The summer concluded with the Ben & Jerry’s boycott of ‘settlements’ dominating BDS news. Various states pushed back against the ice cream company’s corporate owner, Unilever, in a test of local laws forbidding anti-Israel discrimination. But while pushback in academia became more visible, especially in faculty unions, the overall picture for student, faculty, and other supporters of Israel this fall looks grim. At the same time, the deafening silence regarding the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan from student, faculty and other groups that had vehemently condemned Israel over Gaza illustrates the double-standards and antisemitism inherent in the BDS movement.
BDS activities in August were initially shaped by the fallout over the Ben & Jerry’s Israel boycott decision. Several US governors, states Attorney General, and comptrollers began investigations into whether the company’s demand to boycott Israel put its corporate owner, Unilever, in violation of local anti-BDS laws. There are now 33 anti-BDS laws, resolutions, and executive orders at the state level. Cognizant that these laws have been effective, North Carolina Democrats passed a resolution calling for that state’s anti-BDS law to be repealed.
As the situation unfolded it was revealed that the Ben & Jerry’s board had brought BDS activist Peter Beinart to defend the move in a conference call with franchise owners. One report indicated that Beinart “argued that Israel is illegally occupying territory that it seized from Jordan in an offensive war in 1967 and claimed that the Jewish state sends soldiers into Palestinian villages to abduct minors.” Another BDS activist revealed that the movement had been pressuring the company for nearly a decade. These reports came as several dozen franchise owners complained to the company about the boycott decision.
In an interview co-founder Ben Cohen defended the move saying, “We did it. We’re proud of it.” The 70 year-old Cohen then astonishingly characterized the founding of Israel: “I understand that at the end of World War II, these countries got together and said the Jews should have a homeland. Yes, I agree with that. I was under the impression at the time that there were not people living in that area, but apparently there were, and they did not like the idea of a Jewish homeland being established where they were living, and I understand that.”
Ben & Jerry’s chair and avowed BDS supporter Anuradha Mittal further stated that critics were “spreading lies and myths.” Reports also indicate that the company’s foundation gave $170,000 to the pro-Hamas and Hezbollah Oakland Institute, which is headed by Mittal.
With universities and K-12 schools poised to reopen, BDS remains a key issue. Indications are strong that the fall semester will see high levels of anti-Israel activism and harassment. The University of North Carolina dismissed concerns regarding a BDS supporting graduate student who is scheduled to teach a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a similar case a BDS supporter is scheduled to teach a course on antisemitism at the University of Victoria.
At the University of Houston the student government passed a BDS resolution supported by the local ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ chapter. At the University of Toronto the student government re-signed a letter by the Muslim Student Association demanding the school condemn the “Palestinian genocide.” The student government had previously signed and then unsigned the letter after complaints. The student who proposed the move stated it was important because “Our student union has constantly undermined the suffering of Palestinian Muslim students.”
The role of Muslim students working with progressive groups in promoting BDS and transforming campus environments was acknowledged in a survey of campus Jewish professionals. This was also highlighted by the speaking invitation to Kuwaiti preacher Tareq Al-Suwaidan from Canada’s Muslim Student Leadership conference. Al-Suwaidan, who has been banned from Belgium and Italy and who was fired as the head of a Saudi TV network because of his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, has stated that “All the mothers of the Islamic nation … should suckle their babies on the hatred of the sons of Zion. We hate them. They are our enemies,” called for genocide, “We should instill this in the souls of our children until a new generation rises and wipes them off the face of the earth,” and claimed “All the wars throughout history … were started by the sons of Zion.”
The case of Mohammad Abbasi, a former adjunct at the City University of New York, illustrates another aspect of radical Islam in higher education. Reports indicate that in a sermon to the Islamic Center of Union, New Jersey, Abbasi stated “With the help of Allah they will erase this filth called Israel.” His comments were condemned by the school and by various politicians. The support given by Muslim and progressive academics to David Miller, a professor at Bristol University and antisemitic conspiracy theorist, who has lately alleged Jewish student groups “exist to whitewash Zionist colonisation of Palestine and promote Israeli diplomatic objectives in the UK,” further illustrates the pattern.
Arab American and Muslim organizations have also been at the forefront of pushing ‘Palestine’ to the center of all ‘critical race’ approaches, particularly at the K-12 level. The antisemitism embedded in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum soon to be mandated by the California board of education was partially addressed by protests from Jews and others. A new ‘Liberated Ethnic Studies Curriculum’ goes further accuses Israel of “settler colonialism” and demands students see “connections between the struggle for Palestinian rights and the struggles of Indigenous, Black and brown communities, and other marginalized groups impacted by U.S. policies, both within and outside of U.S. borders.”
“Teach Palestine” is a standalone module in the curriculum and is characterized as a “liberatory act” in the same way as teaching “Black history.” The role of Arab American and Muslim groups in promoting this viewpoint is tacitly acknowledged:
In California, attacks by Zionist and other right-wing organizations on the inclusion of Arab American studies—and specifically Palestine—in the CA Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) have shone a spotlight on Palestine and importance of including it in ethnic studies curriculum. Many educators who have taught ethnic studies for years without thinking about Arab American history are reflecting on their curriculum, learning new content, and making revisions. Discussions about the pedagogical importance of comparing and contrasting settler colonialism in the US and Palestine have been central to that process. The vicious attacks that equate any mention of Palestine with antisemitism have pushed teachers, unions, and districts to understand that honest discussion of Israel’s role in the oppression of Palestinians is not antisemitism.
The new curriculum has been endorsed by the California Teachers Association, which also opposed revisions to the initial curriculum. A group called “New York City Educators for Palestine” was also the focus of a letter from Rep. Lee Zeldin, who protested their statement on alleged Israeli “ethnic cleansing,” demands for adoption of BDS, and which called for the “teaching the history of Palestinian oppression, as we would the history of American slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, antisemitism, and South African apartheid.” The statement is effectively proof that anti-Israel and antisemitic animus are already part of the curriculum in New York City schools.
Faculty and teachers unions therefore remain a focal point for BDS. Pushback against union calls for BDS were reported at the City University of New York, with more than 100 faculty members resigning. The union had previously failed to secure a 2% raise for its members. A faculty group at the University of Southern California also issued a letter condemning the school’s ‘Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies’ statement against Israel. The original statement accused Israel of ‘apartheid’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ and was co-signed by 120 departments and programs. A letter to the University of California at Davis administration from faculty protesting the ‘Asian Studies’ department’s condemnation of Israel was not answered.
The damage from faculty resolutions against Israel was acknowledged in a Los Angeles Times editorial against the city’s teacher’s union. It called the resolutions “neither needed nor wanted,” adding, “One thing is for sure. UTLA is not well-situated to answer these and a multitude of other questions raised by the movement in any expert or nuanced way, and the world is hardly waiting to hear what a California teachers union thinks of the matter.”
One defender, however, characterized the effort as “regardless of the specifics, the labor movement in both the U.S. and abroad has a long, honorable history of international labor defense and this resolution, though flawed, is very much in that spirit.” In the same vein of ‘labor solidarity,’ the ‘Executive Board of the Rutgers adjunct faculty union (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT Local 6324)’ issued a lengthy statement condemning the university and Rep. Josh Gottheimer for opposing the union’s BDS advocacy. It called Gottheimer’s comments against an earlier union BDS statement “in reality an attack on all who stand up to racism, settler colonialism, and state-sanctioned brutality.”
At the same time, the conversion of university faculty and other professional organizations to the cause of ‘Palestine’ continued. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies launched a new ‘campaign’ in support of BDS, cast in terms of a:
more liberated Middle East Studies, a popular pedagogy that links research and theory to democratic practice, wider public and private understandings, and egalitarian politics across borders. We oppose the many ways in which Middle East Studies, on and off campus, is implicated in injustice and domination – racism, colonialism, Orientalism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, authoritarianism, (neo)liberalism, and elitism. We believe in transnational solidarity and global justice, and support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the unjust regime of occupation and apartheid imposed by Israel.
By linking ‘Palestine’ with a slew of unrelated causes the campaign demands reciprocal support. The spread of ‘social justice’ campaigns including over Israel in professional organizations, which comprise litmus tests for members, has spread rapidly into areas such as counseling and psychiatry. A newly announced policy by National Public Radio permitting employees including journalists to participate in activities that advocate for “freedom and dignity of human beings” similarly opens the door to politicization and then demands for the correct views.
Linkages of ‘Palestine’ to other political causes continued in August. In a speech on the House floor Rep. Cori Bush stated “the same equipment that they used to brutalize us is the same equipment that we send to the Israeli military to police and brutalize Palestinians.” Commenting on the Palestinian Authority’s arrests of critics Bush commented “Shame on the Palestinian Authority. Suppressing dissent and criminalizing protest only deepens the violence of Israel’s apartheid system. We stand with Palestinians against the violence of the Palestinian Authority’s authoritarianism. Freedom for political prisoners now.”
For her part, Rep. Rashida Tlaib commented in support of legislation that would forbid municipalities from shutting off water and other utilities to customers who don’t pay bills, saying “You know, I always tell people cutting people off from water is violence from Gaza to Detroit. And it’s a way to control people, to oppress people. And it’s those structures that we continue to fight against.” Tlaib added “And I tell people those same people that if you open the curtain and look behind the curtain, it’s the same people that make money and, yes they do, off of racism, off of these broken policies. There is someone there making money and you saw it!”
Her implicit accusation that Jews were manipulating and profiteering from ‘behind the curtain’ was widely condemned by Jewish leaders, although one commentator claimed Tlaib’s ‘crossing the line’ had been learned from former President Trump and the “MAGA handbook.” Similar accusations that ‘Jewish money’ was responsible for the failure of progressive Democrats at the polls came from failed Ohio candidate Nina Turner, who claimed “evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”
Tlaib, along with other notable BDS supporters among House Democrats also urged the US Treasury review and possibly revoke the non-profit status of several US groups that support Israeli activities across the ‘Green Line.’ The letter accused the charities of “fueling the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians to make way for Jewish Israeli settlers.”
The direct impact of BDS at the street level was seen in a number of protests. In Brooklyn marchers “globalize the intifada” chanted “We don’t want no two states, we want all of it.” In Manhattan ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors outside the Fox News building chanted “You’re all racist, you’re nazis, you’re zionists, you’re KKK.” The Brooklyn march was supported by ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’
Finally, the major geopolitical event that should shape all discussions of BDS going forward (but will not) is the Taliban takeover of Iran. The rapid collapse of the American-backed government and the flight of tens of thousands of Americans and allies from the country dominated the headlines. Hamas congratulated the Taliban “for the defeat of the American occupation on all Afghan lands.” No condemnations of the Taliban and its human rights abuses have issued from university departments, faculty unions, student groups, or other organizations that have made ‘Palestine’ their focus. This is in contrast to the spate of vocal and vociferous condemnations aimed against Israel in May and June 2021.