With universities slow to reopen due to COVID the focus on BDS activity in January was suddenly shifted to the Texas synagogue hostage crisis. Calls from Muslim organizations to free convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, including those supporting BDS, was a reminder that antisemitic radicalization often begins with BDS. At the same time, cognizant of the growing harassment of Jewish students and the negative optics, universities have announced plans to combat the antisemitism problem on campus. This goal will be difficult when a significant proportion of Middle East studies faculty members support BDS.
BDS activities in January were shaped by the continuing evolution of the COVID pandemic, which has slowed the reopening of higher education, but also by the hostage-taking situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. In the latter, a British Muslim, Malik Faisal Akram, took hostages with the goal of forcing the release of a convicted terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui. American Muslim organizations including ‘American Muslims for Palestine,’ (AMP) the primary group behind the BDS movement, have demanded Siddiqui’s release, going so far to call her a “political prisoner.” Also calling for Siddiqui’s release were Linda Sarsour and other leaders of the BDS movement.
The hostage situation also came in the wake of calls by leaders of CAIR, including Zahra Billoo, to stigmatize Jewish organizations for their support of Israel and opposition to BDS. Billoo had stated in a late November talk for AMP that American Muslims must “pay attention to the Anti-Defamation League, we need to pay attention to the Jewish Federation, we need to pay attention to the Zionist synagogues, we need to pay attention to the Hillel chapters on our campuses.” Billoo’s comments reflect the North American manifestation of Siddiqui as a global jihadist cause, which contributed to the radicalization of the synagogue attacker. CAIR condemned Akram but immediately resumed efforts to have Siddiqui freed and attacked critics who pointed out its role in fomenting antisemitism.
The hostage situation also came as CAIR issued a report that accused a variety of Jewish foundations and organizations of ‘fueling a huge upswing’ in ‘Islamophobia.’ Among the groups named were CAMERA (“a lobbying and media-monitoring group that spreads misinformation pertaining to Muslim Americans”), the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (“neoconservative lobbying group encourages the Islamophobic “war on terror” narrative and policies”), and MEMRI (“a pseudo-research organization that carefully selects and purposefully inaccurately translates news from Muslim-majority organizations to provide justification for anti-Muslim propaganda”).
Voting by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) membership to fully adopt BDS highlighted the role of the anti-Israel vanguard that has radicalized much of an academic discipline. The voting for individual and student members opens to the membership on 31 January and closes on 22 March.
The effort to institutionalize discrimination on the basis of national and religious origin in the guise of boycotting Israeli academic institutions, and to endorse it informally in the sense of bias against Israelis, and supporters of Israel including Jews, attracted the ire of politicians, particularly in states that have anti-BDS legislation. The office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated
- It is our expectation that Florida State University will not permit MESA to operate a boycott of Israel through a public institution, will not accept the academic boycott of Israel, and will not allow university funds to be paid indirectly or directly to any organization that endorses BDS. The same goes for any other institution that receives state funding.
Florida State and the University of Arizona then ended their institutional memberships in MESA. Other state institutions are expected to follow suit. Observers also note that George Washington University would jeopardize its eligibility to receive Federal funds by hosting an organization that explicitly endorses and organizes discrimination.
The growing recognition of anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment on campuses was also reflected in comments from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in response to a protest by the Arizona State University ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ (SJP) chapter which included “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.” On social media Ducey stated “This is shocking. This kind of discriminatory behavior cannot be tolerated on a college campus or anywhere. Arizona continues to stand with Israel.” Elsewhere the Rutgers University SJP chapter protested that school’s research partnerships with Tel Aviv University and the Rutgers’ president’s travel to Israel.
The overt discrimination faced by Jewish and pro-Israel faculty was the subject of a lawsuit against the City University of New York (CUNY) faculty union. The suit alleges the union, which in 2021 issued a resolution condemning Israel for “the continued subjection of Palestinians to the state-supported displacement, occupation, and use of lethal force” and called for discussions of union support for BDS, infringed on the First Amendment rights of faculty members who opposed such a statement.
Under New York State law CUNY faculty are required to be union members for the purposes of workplace representation and contract negotiation. Even if they resign the union is still the sole representative for collective bargaining. In response the union characterized the suit as “meritless” and called the Right to Work Foundation, which is aiding the plaintiffs, “notoriously right wing” and “rooted in white supremacy.”
Another example of intense antisemitic and anti-Israel bias directed at Jews has been revealed by an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission report regarding New York City’s Kingsborough Community College. Visibly Jewish and pro-Israel faculty members have been verbally attacked and physically intimidated by ‘progressive’ colleagues and excluded from committee work both deliberately and with meetings scheduled on Shabbat, while Jewish and students have been subjected to anti-Israel tirades and have apparently had grades lowered.
Lawyers for individuals named in the report as sources of the harassment denied the charges while the university refused to respond. Recent statements from U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioners suggested the higher education examples were part of a generalized rise in workplace antisemitism.
It is increasingly difficult for major institutions to deny growing campus antisemitism, to address the problem with simple condemnations or, as in the case of the University of Southern California, by consulting with Jewish organizations. Predictably, that university’s new plan to create an advisory committee on antisemitism, and its past criticism of campus BDS advocates, was excoriated by Palestinian students.
In another case the president of Tufts University released a statement reporting on recommendations from a study conducted by outside consultants, including Hillel International and the TCC Group.
The report noted “some Jewish students who felt that, in order to be welcome in student organizations supporting social justice, they had to hide their Jewish identities. Relatedly, some faculty and staff noted that the climate related to antisemitism, which often revolves around issues related to Israel-Palestine, has become more challenging in recent years.” It recommended:
- “Further education and training for students, faculty, and staff, coordinated by the Provost and CDOs’ offices, on what is considered antisemitism and antisemitic speech and partnering with nationally recognized organizations to do so.
- Orientation discrimination and bias awareness programs that educate incoming students on antisemitism distinctly among other forms of race and ethnicity-based forms of discrimination.
- Conversation, dialogue, and discussion forums on understanding better the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, which often influences how antisemitism manifests itself on our campus.
- Better awareness of Office of Equal Opportunity processes and improved communication to the community about these processes.
- The creation of a university-wide advisory council of faculty and staff, to advise the senior leadership team on the best ways to approach the implementation process.”
No specific recommendations regarding definitions of antisemitism or BDS activities were included but the “alarming incident in Texas” was mentioned.
The emerging pattern of acknowledging campus antisemitism but calling for enhancing existing mechanisms as a solution was demonstrated by the University of Toronto’s “Anti-Semitism Working Group” that released a report and recommendations. The report “expressed surprise” at the extent of antisemitic harassment including physical assaults, exclusion from campus life and spaces particularly as a result of attitudes towards Israel, and refusal of accommodations for religious observance with students “even chastised for being backwards for being religiously observant.” The report recommended “better equipping the equity office,” recommitting to academic freedom, and approaching antisemitism within the framework of ‘antiracism.’
But the University of Toronto working group specifically recommended the university not adopt a definition of antisemitism. This reflects the growing effort to avoid or reverse adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition by universities and other institutions. One example was the call by the faculty union at the University of Edinburgh to reverse that institution’s adoption, alleging the definition was “compromising academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the university position on anti-racism.” In contrast, the British Education Secretary (who also held a summit on campus antisemitism with university and Jewish leaders) stated again that university adoption of the IHRA definition is “essential, not optional.”
Demands for the BBC to adopt the IHRA definition were also leveled after the broadcaster was exposed fabricating a report that Jewish students subjected to antisemitic abuse had used ‘Islamophobic’ slurs against their attackers. An internal report that “partially upheld” the complaints against the broadcaster was later published since there was “genuine doubt” regarding the alleged slur. The report was published only after Jewish communal leaders indicated that BBC officials continued to reject responsibility and claimed the representatives had accused the broadcaster of antisemitism.
Jewish groups also protested a proposed BBC debate on whether anti-Zionism was a “protected characteristic” that would have involved Labour Party members under investigation for antisemitic statements. The debate was later canceled.
In the cultural sphere reports indicate that the marketing firm Big Duck refused to work with the Shalom Hartman Institute because it was a Zionist organization based in Israel. The Hartman Institute works to promote democracy and pluralism in Israel as well as Jewish-Muslim cooperation.
Although Big Duck has apparently worked with Jewish organizations, with regard to the Hartman Institute one of the firm’s leaders initially stated that while it did not support BDS, “Being more vocal and committed to fighting oppression has led us to more active questioning of working with organizations with significant programming in Israel, among other issues, and in those cases, we have mutually agreed that it does not make sense to work together.”
In response, the Hartman Institute stated “Big Duck’s decision represents a moving of the goalposts on BDS from Israel to North American Jewish organizations, and applies a standard on North American Jewish commitments that would exclude the vast majority of the members of our community… Big Duck’s claims to not apply litmus tests nor to adhere to a BDS policy as a company are belied by their application of a litmus test here, and by their allowing those employees who support BDS to exercise a veto over business decisions on the basis of that commitment.”
The firm’s leadership then claimed that “Big Duck’s decision to decline to work with the Hartman Institute was due to multiple reasons, one of which was our perception at the time that they would not be open to working with a company whose employees and clients hold a range of views on the Israeli government’s policies and practice… We have since learned that our perception of the Hartman Institute’s position was mistaken, and we regret that the way we raised the topic caused harm.”
The firm thus placed blame implicitly on the Hartman Institute for not clarifying their willingness to work with anti-Israel staffers and claimed that management had been subjected to ‘antisemitic abuse’ as a result of the scandal they had themselves created. The case appears to be another where management deferred to the bigotry of younger staffers and caused reputational harm to the firm.
As the 2022 midterms approach, BDS and anti-Israel politics are increasingly central issues, particularly in the House of Representatives. Prominent BDS supporter Rep. Mark Pocan has faced criticism in his home district for the disproportionate attention he pays to Israel, while others, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib is facing a primary challenge from a center-left candidate who supports Israel. Rep. Betty McCollum faces a challenge from a far-left challenger. The candidacy of Huwaida Arraf, Nida Allam, and other BDS supporters promises to keep anti-Israel bias at the center of domestic politics through the midterms and beyond.
Finally, a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics revealed that Rep. Marie Newman had offered her opponent, Palestinian-American and BDS supporter Iymen Chehade, a position of foreign policy advisor as an inducement not to run against her in the 2020 election. Chehade’s conditions apparently included Newman opposing military sales to Israel, supporting BDS, a commitment to work with ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ and complete control over any travel to the region. Newman denied the report.
This distortion created by BDS and anti-Israel bias emanating from the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ and the negative impact on the broader Democratic Party and its relationship with American Jews has begun to be criticized from the left.
In the economic sphere, reports indicate that the stock price of global conglomerate Unilever has declined dramatically since subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s announced its intention to end its licensing agreement in Israel and effectively institute a boycott. The decline is primarily connected to investor backlash over a failed acquisition of GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer unit and a hedge fund’s effort to acquire a stake in Unilever.
But the post-boycott toxicity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand as a result of its activism has led some analysts to suggest Unilever will be unable to sell the subsidiary. Republican Senators had recently called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Unilever over he boycott. Reports indicate that Ben & Jerry’s will spun off as a separate unit as part of a broad Unilever restructuring.