BDS in February was shaped by Amnesty International’s report labeling Israel an ‘apartheid state’ and the growing split in the Democratic Party over Israel. With midterm season ongoing and with a large number of Democratic retirements in the House of Representatives, progressives hostile to Israel have emerged as strong contenders in many districts. And with progressive organizations announcing opposition to the Abraham Accords, BDS has been placed at the center of American politics.
A key development in BDS in February was a report by Amnesty International entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against the Palestinians.” The BDS movement and its various supporters, particularly in the American Muslim Brotherhood, immediately lauded the report. BDS advocates also complained about what they deemed as inadequate coverage by mainstream media.
Observers immediately noted that the report, based almost entirely on its own and other NGO ‘analyses’ (sometimes quoting nearly verbatim) was filled with egregious errors of fact and overt fabrications, and was undermined by Amnesty leaders’ farcical ignorance and obsession regarding Israel and the conflict. By advocating for a Palestinian ‘right of return’ the report also effectively argued for the destruction of Israel. Palestinian terrorism and rejection of negotiations were completely omitted.
The report disingenuously claimed – despite the title and accompanying promotion – that it “does not seek to argue that the system of oppression and domination as perpetrated in Israel and the OPT is, for instance, the same or analogous to the system of segregation, oppression and domination as perpetrated in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.” Close readings of the Amnesty text, however, demonstrated that the organization accused Israel of having instituted ‘apartheid’ from its creation in May 1948 but that this was later changed to “over decades.”
The Amnesty report was widely condemned by US and European governments, Jewish and Israeli organizations, and by both an Islamist Israeli Arab politician and the head of Amnesty’s Israel branch. But it follows similar ones by ‘Human Rights Watch’ and B’Tselem and anticipates additional reports from the ‘Commission of Inquiry’ recently created by the ‘United Nations Rights Committee,’ led by an anti-Israel activist and which has an open-ended mandate to investigate the “root causes of current tensions” between Israelis and Palestinians, and “systematic discrimination and repression.” The obvious goals are international sanctions on Israel and Israeli entities and individuals.
Despite a hostile reception from governments, BDS supporters are already referencing the Amnesty report, including those promoting a BDS resolution at Concordia University. In Britain, the Labour Party’s former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, spoke in opposition to a government plan to prohibit local councils from adopting BDS measures, saying that he was “against investments going into Israel as I do believe according to the Amnesty Report, the Human Rights report and many Jewish institutions as well that actually it is an apartheid state the way they treat the Palestinians.”
There were a number of significant BDS related developments in academia. Among the most noteworthy were campus protests aimed at Israelis. At the Harvard Kennedy School BDS supporters protested outside a classroom where retired Major General Amos Yadlin was speaking. Calling Yadlin a “war criminal” the protestors accused the university of “lack of regard for Palestinian narratives.” Signs were held against the windows of the classroom where he spoke and protestors vowed to disrupt the class weekly. The same BDS group also protested the presence of Sabra brand hummus on campus. Additional protests again the brand were held at Northwestern University.
Similarly, at Cambridge University, Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Livni was met by anti-Israeli protests which included flares and whistles, chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and posters calling her “Zionist scum.” Jewish students and the British Universities Secretary condemned the tone of the protests.
In another incident at the University of Manchester, the head of StandWithUs in Britain was confronted and abused by pro-Palestinian protestors who called her “worse than Hitler.” Anti-Israel protestors stated they were “outraged” that “a racist Pro-Israeli organisation that promotes propaganda” that persists on “denial of the Palestinian plight continues to normalise apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine” was allowed to be present on campus.
At the University Chicago the local ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ chapter urged the boycott of “shitty Zionist classes,” specifically naming several taught by Israelis, warning that they “serve as vehicles to spread Zionist propaganda.” In response to a media inquiry a university spokesperson stated that the institution’s “values compel our steadfast opposition to discrimination, including rejection of antisemitism, anti-Palestinian bias, and other forms of bias that are incompatible with our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Similarly, at the University of Illinois the SJP chapter condemned the School of Public Health’s hosting of Israeli speakers, while the chapter at UCLA called on students to boycott a scholarship at the School of Public Affairs founded by Rep. Lynn Schenk because she is a ‘Zionist.’ At the University of Connecticut, the SJP chapter protested the university president’s plan to travel to Israel.
Efforts to ostracize Israelis are also underway in the Middle East Studies Association, where the membership is voting on a BDS resolution. In response at least a half dozen universities have dropped or declined to renew their institutional memberships. The bases of these decisions have not been publicized but they are likely in response to potential threats to funding should educational institutions endorse MESA’s desired policy of discrimination on the basis of national origin.
In the Netherlands, a number of universities have issued a statement suspending compliance with a freedom of information request filed by an anti-Israel NGO, the ‘Rights Forum,’ that demanded they disclose ties with Israeli and Jewish entities. The request, to which the universities were subject as public institutions or recipients of public funds, demanded documentation of “institutional ties with Israel universities, institutions and businesses and with organizations that propagate support for the State of Israel.” Late reports indicate that the universities may comply with the request for information on Israeli entities but not Jewish ones. The ‘Rights Forum’ was founded by a notoriously antisemitic former Dutch prime minister who has accused Israel of being a ‘Nazi state’ that ‘poisons Palestinians.’ The information request is clearly an effort to identify, blacklist, and harass Dutch academics working with Israel.
There were also a number of BDS developments in the student realm. Reports indicate an unofficial sexual assault awareness group at SUNY New Paltz excluded Jewish students on the basis of their support for Israel. The group responded that any defense of Israel as a “a non-colonial state and justifying its occupation of the area, is being indifferent, condoning the oppression of Palestinians” and that “Allowing these beliefs to permeate into our organization would exclude Palestinian students and survivors.”
An investigation into the affair by the student newspaper resulted in critics of the group accusing its it of not being ‘trauma informed’ while the group accused others not adopting a uniformly negative definition of ‘Zionism.’ In a strongly worded statement the university president characterized the group’s actions as antisemitism and “incompatible with our campus values and the learning and inclusion goals of a public university like ours.”
Pushback against the IHRA definition of antisemitism also intensified in February. At the University of Texas the student government took up a resolution to withdrawn and condemn its previous endorsement of the IHRA definition. The local SJP chapter later withdrew the resolution after university officials expressed concern about the student government taking up “non-university issues.” At Queen Mary University in London Jewish students protested an event on ‘resisting and refusing IHRA.’ In contrast, the student government at Duke University approved a resolution condemning antisemitism and endorsing the IHRA definition.
The student union at the University of Toronto voted to approve a BDS resolution that calls on the union to “wholly divest funds and further on forbid investment to firms complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territory.” The concepts of “firms” and “Palestinian Territory” were not defined. The new resolution comes in the wake of a late 2021 decision by the student union at the Scarborough campus to boycott all firms active on campus and to “refrain from engaging with organizations, services, or take part in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid.” The student government of London City University also passed a BDS resolution, while Britain’s National Union of Students stated it would “stand in solidarity” with ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ in March.
These and other protests are designed to expunge not only Israelis and supporters of Israel from physically being present on campus but any “narratives” deemed insufficiently supportive of Palestinians. The increasing identification of Jews with ‘whiteness’ and thus ‘privileged’ oppressors was highlighted by the Department of Education probe of Brooklyn College alleging Jewish students were chastised by faculty and others for their ‘whiteness.’ A similar complaint was filed regarding the treatment of Jewish students at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work.
The impact of the wave of BDS protests and efforts to ostracize Jews and Israelis on campus was highlighted by a call from members of Congress for the Department of Education to do more to prevent campus antisemitism. The Department of Education has delaying issuing rules regarding antisemitism until the end of 2022. The long delayed appointment of Professor Deborah Lipstadt as ‘U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism’ progressed slightly with a confirmation hearing in February. Jewish leaders similarly called on Congress to provide more support for Department of Homeland Security programs aimed at protecting Jewish institutions. The impact of BDS rhetoric and protests has also been documented in reports showing the rise of antisemitic incidents in both the US and in Britain.
In the political sphere, Israel will be a pivotal issue in the upcoming midterms thanks largely to the BDS movement, both a positive and negative sense. South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both visited Israel in February in order to buttress perceptions of their parties as allies, as did separate groups of Republican and Democratic legislators.
Nonetheless, the increasing wave of Democratic retirements has opened the way for far left BDS supporting candidates to come to the fore. Support for BDS and animosity towards Israel are now clear litmus tests on the ‘progressive’ left, in both districts with and without Jewish constituencies. The split within the party is demonstrated by the selection of ‘Squad’ member and BDS supporter Rep. Rashida Tlaib to give a response to President Biden’s State of the Union Address on behalf of the ‘Working Families Party.’
Another important BDS related development that is already shaping politics and will reach back toward campuses is a statement by a number of ‘progressive’ groups opposing the Abraham Accords. Led by ‘Jewish Voice for Peace Action’ the 29 groups included all major BDS organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, CAIR, the Center for Constitutional Rights, IfNotNow, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The statement makes the accusation that
- While masquerading as ‘peace’ and ‘diplomacy’, the Abraham Accords and this legislation are in fact an endorsement of arms sales and political favors between the U.S. and authoritarian regimes – including weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates and the recognition of Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara – in exchange for the sidelining of Palestinian rights.
The statement should be read as a belated acknowledgment that the Accords have indeed been successful at fostering broad Arab-Israeli peace agreements and economic interaction. It also reflects the complete adoption of Palestinian ‘anti-normalization’ rhetoric as the heart of the ‘red-green’ alliance between far left and Islamist organizations, which seeks to control the progressive movement as a whole.
Legislators are thus increasingly caught between the positions of their constituents and the progressive the anti-Israel consensus. One example of this is Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, who withdrew his support for bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening the Abraham Accords. Bowman, whose district includes heavy Jewish Southern Westchester, stated that after a J Street sponsored trip to Israel that he “became aware that the deals that this bill supports and seeks to pursue, have included deals at odds with human rights and safety for everyday people in the region.” In reality, the legislation specifically calls for the US to “support a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states—a democratic Jewish state of Israel and a viable democratic Palestinian state—living side by side in peace, security, and mutual recognition.”
Bowman had been previously criticized for his trip by the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ (DSA) and for supporting efforts to resupply Israel with Iron Dome components. For its part the DSA claimed that Bowman had promised them he would withdraw his support from the legislation but only did so after the heavily Jewish area of Riverdale was removed from his district. It also stated that it would continue to ostracize Bowman until he expressed full support for BDS. Ironically, Bowman’s rejection of Israeli-Arab normalization came as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made the first ever diplomatic visit to Bahrain.
Elsewhere in New York, a challenger to veteran Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Suraj Patel, expressed strong support for Israel and opposition to BDS. Patel also objected to the boundaries of NY-12, a district centered on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and which had been radically gerrymandered at Maloney’s request as part of a larger Democratic effort to eliminate Republican representation in the state. But Maloney also faces a larger field of candidates including DSA member Rana Abdelhamid, who claimed not to support BDS while having “a different set of tactics for approaching the occupation.”
Other candidates face similar pressure. In Texas, Greg Casar, DSA candidate for the US House of Representatives, was quoted saying that he supports “continued federal aid for the self-defense of Israel.” The DSA then withdrew its endorsement of Casar. New York Democrat and ‘Squad’ personality Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nonetheless appeared at a rally to support Casar but bizarrely claimed “With media, with all this stuff, Palestine is basically a banned word. It’s censored. We don’t talk about it. No one knows about it.”
Despite her statements of support for ‘Palestine,’ pro-Palestinian protestors, including one contributor to Iran’s English language network, Press TV, heckled her speech. Ocasio-Cortez also bizarrely compared illegal aliens in the US with Palestinians, saying “I don’t believe that a child should be in a cage on our border and I don’t believe a child should be in a cage in the West Bank.”
The importance of the midterms was also highlighted by the unfolding scandal over Rep. Marie Newman, who is accused of bribing a political rival, Palestinian American Iymen Hammam Chehade, not to run by paying him to act as advisor on the Middle East. Toxic conflict over Israel has also been documented in state politics, for example in New Hampshire, where a progressive representative, supported by BDS icons such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, and who previously called for Israel’s destruction has now accused another representative of racism, apparently in retaliation.
The practical results of the growing conflicts between left wing and far left elements within the Democratic Party remain unclear. On the one hand each side expects the other to provide support, including financial, and to dictate the agenda, especially on key topics such as Israel. On the other, while the overall Democratic stance has moved far to the left, defections in the interest of pragmatic politics seem inevitable, particularly as the unpopularity of open borders, COVID school closures, the ‘defund the police,’ ‘abolish ICE’ and ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ ideologies – along with Israel, all key ‘Squad’ priorities – becomes fully understood. Reports indicate that internal Democratic polling shows the party will lose control of the House.
At the same time, however, the continued efforts to appoint BDS supporters such as Sarah Margon and Maher Bitar to positions in the State Department and National Security Council, respectively, ensures that anti-Israel politics will be even more deeply embedded in the Federal government.
The impact of antisemitism in politics is likely reflected in the continuing upswing in antisemitic acts across the US, including vandalism of property in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.