February was marked by antisemitic incidents both on and off campuses, originating from both the far right and the BDS supporting far left. Neo-Nazi and Islamist antisemitism was evident and BDS hijacking of other movements continued, but new British antisemitism guidelines have had an immediate impact, prompting universities to shut down ‘apartheid week’ events. Political leadership and legal guidelines opposing antisemitism, as well as national and religious discrimination, are critical to limiting the impact of BDS both on and off campuses.
February was an active month for BDS, especially disruptions of pro-peace and Israeli speakers by BDS advocates on university campuses.
A talk at Columbia University by Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, was repeatedly disrupted by BDS protestors from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’ Threats of disruption had prompted the administration to reduce the size of the audience, presumably to lessen the chance of violence. A similar disruption forced the cancellation of a speech at Trinity College Dublin by the Israeli ambassador to Ireland. There the university administration condemned the disruption.
At the University of Georgia SJP members also disrupted a talk by former Israeli soldiers. In other incidents, pro-BDS protestors attacked and vandalized pro-Israel displays at the University of Washington and at the SOAS in London, in both cases harassing Jewish students. At SOAS the incident came during a pro-peace ‘Bridges not Boycotts’ display.
Pro-BDS students claimed to be ‘traumatized’ by the presence of ‘Zionists’ on campus and expressed upset when a Palestinian student actually spoke to one of the pro-Israel students. The SOAS incident illustrates the extent to which ‘anti-normalization’ has saturated the BDS movement, branding any dialogue with pro-peace advocates as evil and deviant.
The antisemitism inherent in SJPs’ BDS message has long been clear, but new evidence has shown the depth to which individual members hold antisemitic views. Research from the anonymous ‘Canary Mission’ group and by a British journalist have exposed antisemitism on the part of SJP and Muslim Student Association members at the University of Texas at Arlington and the British Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
At Texas social media posting included Holocaust denial, praising Hitler, and calls to “stuff Jews in the oven.” Similar attitudes were expressed in PSC members. One recent Texas graduate who had posted social media messages including “kill some Jews” was fired from her job as a preschool teacher. The Texas students denied the allegations, which were supported by screen shots of their social media postings. ‘Canary Mission’ has documented numerous other examples of antisemitism from BDS supporters. These data indicate that the BDS movement has multiple religious dimensions.
BDS activists also hijacked anti-Trump protests at Northwestern University and the University of California, Irvine. At California State University at Fullerton, a professor allegedly punched a conservative student during an SJP protest against the Trump administration.
Other antisemitic incidents were also reported in February. At the Rhode Island School of Design swastikas were found in a dorm bathroom. At the University of Michigan mass emails with neo-Nazi content were sent from a hacked account to Jewish and back students, while at the University of Minnesota an individual was charged with distributing neo-Nazi flyers.
A more convoluted incident unfolded at McGill University where a member of the student government and BDS leader tweeted that he wanted to “punch a Zionist.” When confronted, the student government initially rejected a call to remove him, but reversed itself after the university administration intervened. The student government then alleged the administration was improperly interfering. The student has now resigned his position.
These incidents show the continuing growth of harassment and violence by BDS advocates against Jewish, Israeli, and pro-peace forces on campus. These must be also be set into the larger contexts of BDS setbacks, but also rising expressions of far right and far left antisemitism, including bomb threats, cemetery desecration, and assaults.
More positively, new British antisemitism guidelines that include rejection of overt anti-Israel bias have begun to have direct impacts. Three universities, the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Exeter, and University College London, have canceled ‘Israel apartheid week’ events. At Lancashire administrators cited the new guidelines directly, while in London, an event was canceled after the administration found BDS supporters had not “gone through proper process.” Exeter officials cited “safety and security issues” and also denied an appeal by the school’s Palestine Society. The cancellations came as British Education minister Jo Johnson repeated warnings to universities that “intimidation and violence” against Jewish students could not be tolerated.
The guidelines have also had political impact as Communities Secretary Sajid Javid directed local councils not to boycott companies and countries, specifically Israel, in contravention of national policy. This is a dramatic move against local councils that have been in the forefront of BDS throughout Britain. If the guidelines withstand the inevitable legal challenges, the academic landscape in Britain will have been fundamentally reshaped against BDS.
Elsewhere on campus, the University of California, Riverside student government voted on a resolution calling for the university to ban Sabra brand hummus from its facilities. In response, a university spokesman stated that there were no plans to do so. Sabra is partially owned by the Israeli based Strauss Group, and the brand has become associated with Israel and specifically the Israel Defense Forces. Jewish students indicated they feared rising antisemitism after the hummus controversy.
The student government at London City University also overturned a BDS resolution, while another at Ulster University was blocked. At the University of Exeter, however, a BDS supporter who compared Israel to Nazis was elected to the student government, and the National Union of Students president, Malia Bouattia, who was alleged to have made antisemitic comments was cleared by an internal investigation that, paradoxically, confirmed the reports. Another investigation, at University College London, confirmed that BDS advocates had “intentionally disrupted” a talk by a former Israeli soldier and recommended disciplinary action.
There were also major BDS developments in the political sphere. Two stand out. In the first, convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh will be a featured speaker at the ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ national conference. Odeh, currently on trial for lying on her US visa application, is also on the organizing committee of the ‘International Women’s Strike,’ a global left-wing protest aimed primarily at the Trump Administration. The elevation of Odeh, long championed by Palestinian Americans and the BDS movement, and BDS supporter Linda Sarsour, a co-organizer of the Women’s March, to the status of left-wing icons demonstrates the convergence of the BDS and far left.
The other development is the appointment of Keith Ellison, former Nation of Islam member and BDS supporter, to become deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Former Labor Secretary and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who had the support of former President Obama, narrowly defeated Ellison.
Ellison’s candidacy had been endorsed by far left members of the Democratic Party, including Elizabeth Warren, mainstream members like Charles Schumer, by Bernie Sanders supporters, but also by Neo-Nazi leader David Duke. With members of the party now blaming Israel and Jews for Ellison’s defeat, Democrats will likely continue to move left and evolve away from Israel.
In contrast, global political leaders and parties have intensified their condemnations of BDS. During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first ever visit to Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated “My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel of the kind recently adopted by the U.N. Security Council and we deplore the boycott campaigns designed to delegitimize the Jewish state.” During visits to Belgium and Britain, Netanyahu also requested leaders to stop funding BDS organizations.
In Germany politicians from the ruling Christian Democratic Union party submitted a resolution condemning the BDS movement, saying “Who today under the flag of the BDS movement calls to boycott Israeli goods and services speaks the same language in which people were called to not buy from Jews. That is nothing other than coarse antisemitism.” The resolution is expected to be the first in a series designed to limit German states from adopting BDS policies.
Elsewhere, a local Spanish municipality canceled its Israel boycott resolution. This followed court rulings overturning similar boycott resolutions, and the announcement that the organizers of a failed effort to pressure singer Matisyahu to support BDS will be tried on charges of incitement and harassment.
In Montana a bill prohibiting the state from doing business with companies boycotting Israel advanced in the legislature. A similar bill passed in the Minnesota legislature and in Texas. The State of Illinois, which had adopted anti-BDS legislation, also issued a warning to the European Union about boycotts aimed at Israeli communities across the Green Line.