With the UN publication of a blacklist of Israeli and US firms working in the disputed territories, and the BDS movement pushing Democratic presidential candidates to attack Israel and boycott AIPAC, BDS is now a central international and national political issue. The explicit idea that Israel is a rogue state that should, with its supporters, be sanctioned, has gained traction in the West even as it has declined dramatically elsewhere, even in the Arab and Muslim worlds. As links between fossil fuel divestment, the ‘green’ agenda, and other ‘social justice’ causes increase on campus, the BDS movement’s impact on practical politics will continue to rise.
The leading BDS event of February was the long awaited publication by the United Nations ‘Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ of a list of 112 firms doing business across the ‘Green Line.’ The list includes 94 Israeli and 18 American and other firms, compiled with the assistance of BDS supporting NGOs.
While purportedly aimed at companies with “activities that raised particular human rights concerns” the list in fact includes those providing basic services, including transportation, banking, telecommunications, and retail, to both Israelis and Palestinians. Many of the companies are also major employers of Palestinians.
The list’s political nature was made clear by the disingenuous statement that “The report makes clear that the reference to these business entities is not, and does not purport to be, a judicial or quasi-judicial process. While the settlements as such are regarded as illegal under international law**, this report does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises’ involvement in them.” No companies were found to have exclusively benefitted Israeli ‘settlers’ or impeded Palestinian economic development.
The blacklist is thus precisely a political guide to boycotting Israeli companies. As such it is inconsistent with both US Federal and a number of state laws, and has no basis in international law. Nor has the UN created comparable blacklists for other ‘occupations.’ It therefore represents the formal adoption of the Palestinian campaign of boycott, ‘anti-normalization,’ and rejectionism by an international body.
Responses to the list were swift. Israel immediately suspended contacts with the ‘High Commissioner’ and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated “We will contest this with all of our strength.” This was echoed was echoed by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo who noted the list “only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations” and added the US “has not provided, and will never provide, any information to the Office of the High Commissioner to support compilation of these lists.” The blacklist was also widely condemned by US US Senators, a number of governments including the Netherlands, as well as several major editorial boards.
In a parallel case, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced at the end of January that it had found evidence of Israeli ‘war crimes’ committed in Gaza and the West Bank. But in another sign that attitudes may be changing regarding the reach of unaccountable international institutions, the prosecutorial jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed in “Palestine” – and delegated by that government to the ICC – has been challenged by a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Australia. Opposition centers largely on the fact that “Palestine” is effectively asking the court to address the political question of borders and responsibilities.
The reality that BDS is a form of legalistic political warfare was demonstrated in the political sphere in February as BDS activists continued to pressure Democratic presidential candidates. At a campaign stop an ‘IfNotNow’ member goaded Senator Elizabeth Warren saying “I’m an American Jew and I’m terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamopohobes and anti-Semites and white nationalists and no Democrat should legitimize that kind of bigotry by attending their annual policy conference.” Warren then stated she would not attend the conference. Senator Bernie Sanders later stated that he would not attend since he “remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” In contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden addressed the group by video. The demonization of AIPAC from the far left and its nominally Jewish adjuncts is not new but has gained unusual traction given the leftward tilt of Democratic Party politics.
At the same time the number of local Democratic candidates who support BDS and who characterize Israel as ‘racist’ is increasing. One recent example in New York State is Jamaal Bowman, a challenger to long-time Israel supporter Representative Eliot Engel. In a Chicago suburb, a number of Democratic challengers have made Representative Dan Lipinski’s support for Israel a key issue, particularly with the district’s large Arab population, and the headquarters of American Muslims for Palestine, the leading BDS support group. One sign of this trend is that the ‘Israel Anti-Boycott Act’ introduced in the House of Representatives in January garnered only one Democratic co-sponsor. Another key test will be the nominees to the Democratic Platform Committee, with BDS advocates already complaining that too many nominees have expressed support for Israel.
Nevertheless, the pushback against the targeting of Israel by the UN and ICC are positive signs that political institutions not in thrall to ‘intersectional’ ideology may be regaining the capacity to disaggregate and analyze issues. In contrast, the growing moral panic over climate change on campus is propelling ever larger efforts from students and now faculty to push universities to divest from energy producing companies. Predictably, anti-Israel agitation is included precisely as a function of a social justice’ framework that invites uncritical connections between unrelated issues.
In other campus news, the student government at the University of Illinois adopted a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) backed BDS resolution after six hours of contentious debate that included sign calling pro-Israel activists Nazis. The resolution called on the university to divest from companies providing weapons to Israel and also to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Immediately afterwards the university issued a statement noting that student government resolutions “ are non-binding, and the university has no plans to act on this one.” The student government president also vetoed the measure.
At the University of California at Berkeley, a debate was held in the student government regarding a resolution that condemned the ‘Bears for Palestine’ group for a display that celebrated three Palestinian terrorists. The meeting descended into chaos as BDS supporters stormed the room chanting “free Palestine” and then harassed and threatened Jewish students. BDS supporters later claimed they had been attacked and intimidated.
The vote on the measure was postponed but was voted down in a later meeting. The university chancellor sent letters to groups on both sides expressing support for free speech and indicating she was “not interested in blame.” But in a follow up letter she specifically condemned the Palestinian display and also an alleged anti-Palestinian statement. University condemnation of BDS supporters is rare. The student who authored the resolution the pro-terror display, however, resigned from the student government, citing the “a culture of anti-Semitism that has become mainstream on the UC Berkeley campus.”
More typical BDS events in February included an attacks on trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories organized by the Hillels at the University of North Carolina and at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
But in other signs that BDS is a form of contemporary antisemitism, BDS supporters disrupted a talk on contemporary antisemitism by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt at the University of California at Berkeley Law School. At the University of Toronto, 60 faculty members have signed a letter demanding a meeting with the president over the continuing problem of the graduate student union’s opposition to bringing kosher food on campus, a move that was seen was “pro-Israel.” And in a first, a lawsuit alleges that BDS supporting faculty and students at Park Point University attempted to have a pro-Israel faculty member removed by means of false Title IX accusations.
Fossil fuel divestment protests were held at many campuses in February, and faculty and staff groups have begun to lend support. A number of institutions including Georgetown and the University of California system announced plans to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Predictably, BDS activists have expanded efforts to hijack the fossil fuel issue by emphasizing the ‘connectedness of climate justice’ at campus rallies, and by expressing similar support for protestors blockading transportation networks in western Canada.
There are growing indications that universities are responding to the pressure, joining Brown University, which adopted a BDS resolution and where a faculty-student advisory committee recommended the corporation divest from Israel last year. In a discussion of fossil fuel divestment with students, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger indicated that the institution’s Israel-related policies were unchanged. But he advised students to learn more about the decision-making mechanisms stating, “A majority is not the test that we want to use. The test is ‘Is there a broad consensus,’ and on that, it can’t be just the majority vote.”
Bollinger appeared to be advising students regarding the need to create a BDS consensus in anticipation of a future power sharing arrangement for university investment policy. That demand was clearly articulated at Brown, where BDS leaders touted their role in pressuring the university and called for a student role in broader investment and gift acceptance policy. At the University of Chicago, the BDS group ‘IfNotNow’ has demanded the university submit its list of investments to public scrutiny and potential shaming, specifically with respect to Israel. In contrast, University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel deemed the idea of student input and political tests for investments “inappropriate and very risky.”
Associating Israel with fossil fuels, companies doing business with ICE, prisons or the Sackler family, are designed to increase reputational costs for risk averse institutions who are not otherwise ‘politically correct.’
Increasingly, all causes must offer support to BDS, as was seen recently at Harvard, where a BDS event was co-sponsored, among others, by the “Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Advocacy,” “Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign,” “Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard,” “The Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies,” and “Harvard for Bernie.” Another recent example of a BDS demand wrapped in ‘intersectional’ terms appeared at Rutgers University. Conversely, all progressive students, including Jews, must foreswear and curse Israel and offer support for other causes.
This atmosphere is also enforced by pronouncements from faculty, such as at CUNY Law, where a letter from faculty, students, alums, and activist groups stated opposition to the Executive Order. Other examples include the opposition from the Middle East Studies Association to the order, at Fordham University, where 120 faculty members signed a letter demanding the university drop its legal battle against a proposed SJP chapter, at New York University, where Middle East Studies faculty held an informal session on the Executive Order and the recent peace plan. Faculty at the University of Michigan also expressed concerns regarding the Executive Order and peace plan.
The timing and consistency of the statements lead to the suspicion that there is a concerted effort behind the scene to sway campus opinion. Using classrooms and the imprimatur of authority to make political pronouncements is in keeping with the passive-aggressive approach of most ‘scholar-activists.’ Nevertheless, reports indicate that the Education Department will open an investigation of UCLA over safety concerns related to a recent SJP conference. Additional regional SJP conferences are planned prior to ‘Apartheid Week’ in March.