The spring semester ended with several BDS resolutions being defeated in student governments, usually after many hours of debate. The ability of defeat BDS resolutions in open debates contrasts with resolutions passed using underhanded tactics. But as BDS has moved beyond campuses and aligned with, and then dominated, other causes, overall ability to hold open debates is being limited. BDS and antisemitism are being defined as signs of correct politics and thus acceptable speech in an environment where violence is increasingly used against unpopular causes.
The academic year ended with a flurry of BDS votes and events on campuses. Student governments at Montclair State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and George Washington University defeated BDS resolutions, the latter two after epic debates lasting over eight hours. After the defeat at George Washington a proposal was made for a campus wide BDS referendum in the fall.
The Teaching Support Staff Union at Simon Fraser University voted down a BDS resolution. But in Britain, the University and College Union has rejected government antisemitism guidelines that include demonization of Israel. A BDS resolution was also approved at Cal State Long Beach despite a statement from the university president the school had no intention of divesting from companies doing business in Israel.
Abusive behavior by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters and other pro-BDS groups continued. At Cornell University SJP members disrupted a pro-Israel event after lying to university police regarding their intentions and being admitted to the venue. The SJP chapter at Santa Barbara was also accused of using fake quotes in flyers, while unknown persons at that campus vandalized a pro-Israel mural.
Former Israeli soldiers and pro-Israel speakers at the University of California at Irvine had to be escorted from an event by campus police after being harassed by BDS supporters. The university claimed it was opening an ‘investigation’ of the incident and the role of SJP. A similar ‘investigation’ was opened at City College of New York, where the university president finally apologized for an incident in which BDS supporters shouted down an Israeli diplomat.
Backlash also continued at Santa Barbara regarding the SJP’s proposal of a BDS resolution on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and at the University of Wisconsin, where student government leaders misled Jewish students regarding a BDS resolution. At Wisconsin a student judicial board ordered the outgoing president to write an apology for her role in orchestrating the BDS vote.
The antisemitic dimension of BDS and other campus protests also came into sharper focus. Faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz also complained publicly about antisemitic slurs from the school’s “Afrikan Black Student Alliance.” The student group, which occupied a campus building for several days, has threatened more takeovers and has touted its actions in the context of “occupations” “such as the European colonization and occupation of ‘The Americas,’ as well as the current context of occupation in Palestine.”
Campus protests at St. Olaf College in response to a racist incident, later shown to be fabricated, also featured a demand that a “Christian Zionist” advisor to the school be removed from his post because of his views and membership in AIPAC. The college has refused to remove the advisor. A similar protest against the a conservative gay speaker at DePaul University attacked him for being a “white, Zionist, neoliberal journalist.”
A new front was opened by the BDS movement in the form of students professing overt support for Palestinian terrorists. At Stanford University the student government funded a talk by the son of imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. A ‘Dignity Strike Day’ was also declared at a number of campuses in sympathy with Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons who were undertaking a hunger strike. At Manchester University students actually went on a hunger strike in sympathy, although it is unclear for how long. Barghouti was also lionized in a series of internet ads from ‘Jewish Voice for Peace.’
The equation of Palestinian terrorism with emancipation and intersectional politics was epitomized by the controversial selection of BDS supporter Linda Sarsour as commencement speaker at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. Closer examination revealed that the dean who invited her, Ayman El-Mohandes, is also strongly biased against Israel. While the City University Chancellor has condemned Sarsour’s views, along with many area groups and politicians, her commencement talk will proceed.
A related controversy emerged at Dartmouth College where a faculty member who had previously signed a statement supporting the BDS movement was appointed as a dean. This provoked a furious split in the faculty, with groups both supporting and opposing the appointment. The faculty member then recanted his support for BDS and later declined the appointment.
The Sarsour and Dartmouth controversies made clear that BDS supporters are and will become college and university administrators, leading to suspicions of tacit or overt anti-Israel bias. Vigilance is required but this, and certainly support for BDS, come at the expense of collegiality and normal patterns of academic self-regulation. The incidents portend others and demonstrate yet again the BDS movement’s distinct ability to poison campuses. But it also demonstrates how the BDS movement has come to be defended, reluctantly or not, under the guises of free speech and academic freedom.
The BDS movement’s relentless push in academic organizations was also evident in May. In the American Anthropological Association, where a BDS resolution was narrowly defeated in late 2016, there is a renewed push for a BDS supporting slate of officers. At the same time, however, a referendum put to the Modern Language Association membership that would forbid Israel boycotts is also being voted on. Pro-BDS members claim the resolution would stifle free speech and quash academic freedom.
In the political sphere, the push against BDS in the states continued. The Nevada State Assembly unanimously passed a bill making it illegal for the state to do business with entities boycotting Israel. The bill will now go the governor to be signed. The governors of Texas and Alabama also signed similar bills into law. A committee of the South Carolina Senate also approved a bill opposing antisemitism on campus.
All 50 governors have signed a pledge stating “the goals of the BDS movement are antithetical to our values and the values of our respective states, our support for Israel as a vital U.S. ally, important economic partner and champion of freedom.” The initiative, organized by the American Jewish Committee, reaffirms “support for Israel as a vital U.S. ally, important economic partner and champion of freedom.”
Elsewhere, however, the Portland City Council approved a resolution to divest the city’s investments in all corporations, including those doing business in Israel. Less extreme divestment efforts directed specifically against fossil fuel companies are becoming common among various pressure groups and in universities, including with administrators and alumni. The Portland example shows how the BDS movement will co-opt fossil fuel divestment.
In international news, Norway’s largest trade union confederation approved a call for a comprehensive boycott of Israel. The move was opposed by Norway’s opposition Labor Party and has resulted in an unprecedented number of resignations from the union. More positively, the Foreign Minister of Estonia decried the BDS movement, while the En Marche party of newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron withdrew a second Parliamentary candidate who had expressed support for BDS.
The Berlin Social Democratic Party passed a resolution declaring BDS to be antisemitic, while the international soccer federation, FIFA, voted to not take up a Palestinian proposal to boycott Israeli teams from communities across the Green Line.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, reports indicate a number of artists canceled their participation in the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival as a result of BDS pressure. The capitulation of participants is ironic, given the harsh treatment of LGBT communities in the Palestinian Authority and broader Muslim world. But it illustrates the manner in which BDS subordinates other causes as part of an intersectional hierarchy with itself at the peak.