The fall semester ended with President Trump signing an Executive Order extending protections to Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The move came as the Conservative Party crushed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and then promised to stop local councils from adopting Israel boycotts. That national political authorities have been forced to make BDS and related antisemitism leading priorities demonstrates the success the BDS movement has had promoting its views. But it also speaks to a popular consensus that BDS and antisemitism violate both law and custom in liberal democracies. Continuing BDS pressure and growing numbers of antisemitic incidents at universities, however, suggest these institutions are out of step.
The most important BDS related development in December was an announcement by the Trump Administration of an Executive Order expanding protections to Jewish and other students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities that receive federal funding. The new Executive Order states:
While Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices. Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.
It shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.
The order therefore recognizes Jews as a community with national as well as religious characteristics.
The most controversial aspect of the order is the commendation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism The IHRA antisemitism definition provides guidelines “useful as evidence of discriminatory intent,” but the order also explicitly stated that that “agencies shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal law or under the First Amendment.”
Notably, and in contrast to the IHRA definition, the order does not mention Israel. The bipartisan background of the Executive Order also stretches back over a decade that notably includes instructions from the Obama era Justice Department to the Education Department in 2010.
The order creates no limits on speech nor does it instruct administering agencies to do so. To the contrary, it instructs that “As with all other Title VI complaints, the inquiry into whether a particular act constitutes discrimination prohibited by Title VI will require a detailed analysis of the allegations.” A White House official later clarified that a complaint against a lecture would not trigger a Title VI investigation but only “actionable conduct” such as refusal to rent event space to a Hillel.
Presidential advisor Jared Kushner published an op-ed defending the order and noted “The Remembrance Alliance definition makes clear what our administration has stated publicly and on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. The inclusion of this language with contemporary examples gives critical guidance to agencies enforcing Title VI provisions.”
Legal analysts noted that the extension of Title VI protections to Jews merely closed a loophole in the original legislation. But other analysts have claimed the order is illegal since modifying Title VI requires Congressional approval and that Jews cannot be covered under the law’s ‘national origins’ provision, which is taken to refer only to country of birth.
Reactions to the Executive Order came even before its release, notably a report in the New York Times that misleadingly suggested that the order would “effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” This led to a sudden outburst of anger and speculation that this would somehow target American Jews as a ‘nationality’ or even a ‘race’ along the lines of the Nuremberg Laws.
The actual text could not be interpreted in any such manner but the hysterical torrent of outrage revealed among other things the fanatical insistence that antisemitism is exclusively ‘right wing’ and ‘white nationalist’ and therefore the BDS movement and its left wing advocates cannot be antisemitic.
The initial misrepresentation of the Executive Order produced an outcry from various parts of the left and from BDS supporters. But while most Jewish media expressed support, including some not otherwise inclined to approve of the Trump Administration, mainstream media railed against it. The New York Times, for example, excoriated the order in an unusual number of ‘news,’ ‘analysis,’ and opinion pieces, and misrepresented what it purported was American Jewish ‘unease’ on the order.
Other platforms, some of which insist that President Trump is a virulent antisemite, argued similarly that the order was designed to quash Palestinian ‘rights’ and would have a ‘chilling effect’ on speech. For its part J Street called the order ‘a cynical, harmful measure,’ while BDS supporters predictably claimed the order was ‘anti-Palestinian’ and targeted advocacy for Palestinian rights, while others claimed that the order represented the ‘right wing weaponization’ of the IHRA definition.
Complaints were quickly filed with the Education Department regarding discrimination against Jewish students. A complaint regarding Georgetown University, filed by a Virginia Congressman, alleged the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies demonstrated “systematic support for biased, anti-American, pro-BDS individuals and scholarship,” which was “not in accordance with the mission of Title VI funds and contrary to America’s national security interests.”
At Columbia complaints alleged “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used by faculty and student groups to legitimize discrimination against Jewish and Israeli students because of the latter group’s race, religion and national identity,” and that an Israeli student was specifically targeted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members because of his identity. Another pointed to Columbia’s Center for Palestinian Studies as a “hub for the spread of anti-Semitic misinformation and the promotion of anti-Semitic activities,” including programs sponsored this fall.
The complaint at UCLA focused on the university agreeing to host the annual SJP conference, which allegedly facilitated campus antisemitism. Finally, members of Congress called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny funds to BDS-supporting Middle East Studies centers, detailing how these institutions and their leaderships have supported BDS.
The Executive Order and complaints against universities arrived as a new report and lawsuit alleged direct connections between the BDS movement and rising antisemitism in the US, and that BDS organizations acted as funding conduits for terrorism. The lawsuit, filed by the Jewish National Fund, alleges that the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights channeled funds to the BDS National Committee as tax-exempt contributions. The Palestinian National and Islamic Forces group then used the funds to promote terror and arson attacks against Israel.
The new report detailed the role of BDS organizations promoting delegitimization of Israel and demonization of Jews, using the terminology of social justice to gain entry and alliances with other groups, which has fed growing antisemitism in American society. Of particular importance are BDS links with right wing and neo-Nazi organizations.
Both the lawsuit and the report were given support by the arrests of a large Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) cell in the West Bank including individuals with leading roles in the BDS movement. The arrests came after a month-long investigation into an August bombing that killed an Israeli teenager and her father. The arrest of Khalidi Jarrar, until recently the director of the BDS group Adameer, and others also demonstrated the leading role of the PFLP in BDS groups, which in turn are funded by European NGOs.
The other major BDS development in December was the British election, which saw the return of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party to leadership. After some two years of being riled in a BDS initiated controversy that metastasized into a full-blown antisemitism crisis, the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was soundly rejected. Labour’s historic losses came after the party failed to address antisemitism in its ranks, among other things. Among the first items the new government has promised is to ban local councils from adopting Israel boycotts. The New York Times editorialized against the move.
BDS and antisemitism also continued to rile US politics. The rhetorical support given Corbyn by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the prevalence of BDS supporters on his staff, as well as direct aid provided to Corbyn by the ‘Democratic Socialists of America,’ suggests that the left wing of the Democratic Party has no qualms about antisemitism. This is also indicated by Linda Sarsour’s continued involvement in Sanders’ campaign, the appearance of Representative Rashida Tlaib at the BDS support group American Muslims for Palestine conference, and by the increasing number of Democratic candidates who describe Israel an ‘apartheid state’ and demand the cutoff of all aid.
A new Palestinian campaign against US funding for Israel further targeted the Democratic Party The ‘intersectional’ campaign to ‘de-exceptionalize’ Israel targeted US presidential candidates and, as an extension of the BDS movement, accuses Israel of human rights abuses and aims to end ‘all U.S. funding and diplomatic backing to Israel’ and gain Democratic support for the ‘right of return.’
At the same time, the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism by the French parliament, resounding condemnation of the BDS movement by Austrian political parties, Dutch parliamentary challenges to the government over ‘settlement’ labeling demands, and continuing legal defeats for the BDS movement in Spanish courts, demonstrates that democratic politics and law increasingly recognize that BDS and its antisemitism are antithetical. That BDS remains so firmly rooted in universities (and European Union organs) is a reflection of these sectors’ unaccountability, and the former’s reconfiguration as a revolutionary vanguard.
In campus news, the most notable BDS developments were efforts to stigmatize and cancel trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups. At McGill University this included threats to impeach a member of student government who planned to participate, a move that was condemned by the university. At Princeton a candidate for student government who served in the Israeli military was also deemed “as poor a choice as one can possibly conceive.”
Fallout continued at York University in the aftermath of a BDS led altercation against a pro-Israel speaker. The administration suspended the student BDS group and, in an apparent show of ‘evenhandedness,’ a pro-Israel group. Predictably the local branch of Amnesty International put blamed the university for permitting an event that featured ‘Zionists.’
The impact of the BDS movement on campus, as detailed in a series of reports, may also be measured in rising numbers of antisemitic incidents including vandalized dorms at the University of North Carolina, and an assault on Jewish students at Indiana University. Provocations against Jewish students and others also expanded, such a display at the University of Calidornia at Berkeley that honored Palestinian terrorists, an SJP ‘die in’ in Chicago to honor Gazans killed in Israeli airstrikes, notably Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists, and a BDS rally in Times Square that demanded ‘an intifada in every classroom’ and Palestine ‘from the river to the sea.’
Finally, as predicted, student efforts to force universities to divest from fossil fuel industries has been linked to divestment from Israel. At Wesleyan University the ‘intersectional divestment campaign’ specifically targeted Israel, to the dismay of Jewish and other students concerned with the fossil fuel issue. At Brown University a joint faculty-student review committee also approved a student request that the university corporation to divest from companies investing in Israel after ‘minimal debate.’
Linkage of Israel to unrelated issues, especially fashionable ones like fossil fuels, is to be expected given the prevalent climate of ‘cancel culture.’ Examples of the latter include calls at Tufts University to divest from companies doing business with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the removal of the Sackler family name from buildings at Tufts, the Smithsonian Institution, and demands that the name be removed elsewhere. These trends will expand in 2020.