In February an Israeli government report demonstrated that current and former members of terrorist groups including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine direct several Palestinian BDS organizations. The muted reception of the report suggests the BDS movement is gradually gaining impunity to criticism, partially as the result of its assertion that exposure of its antisemitism are 'racist right wing' efforts to 'silence' opponents of Israel rather than factual demonstrations. This 'anti-antisemitism' was displayed in Britain, where members of the Labour Party have resigned over that party's antisemitism scandal, and were then promptly accused of using accusations of antisemitism to undermine the party. The pattern of dismissing antisemitism is also underway in the US, as the continuing scandal surround Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib shows. Dismissing blatant antisemitism appear to be integral to the 'intersectional' privileging of the Palestinian cause and hence BDS.
In February the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry released a report demonstrating that leading BDS groups are staffed by current and former members of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These organizations include Addameer, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, al-Mezan, and Al-Haq, which regularly support BDS in international legal and 'human rights' contexts, and which receive financial support from the European Union.
BDS supporters framed the report as an exaggeration that slandered the movement and its Palestinian partners. Overall the report received limited press attention, despite the detailed information provided on the abuse of NGOs by terror organizations. It suggests that the BDS movement has achieved a level of acceptance within the information ecosystem that is tantamount to impunity. A social media researcher who discovered that bots from hijacked accounts were generating tweet storms supporting BDS revealed one reason for this normalization, sheer volume.
Another development that showed the leading role of nongovernmental organizations in pushing BDS was the campaign by Amnesty International alleging "the Israeli government has political and ideological reasons for developing a tourism industry in occupied East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank." The report alleged further that Israel used archaeology "to make the link between the modern State of Israel and its Jewish history explicit," and went on to accuse travel companies of complicity in 'human rights violations' for listing sites and accommodations including in Jerusalem.
The Amnesty campaign against tourism in Israel follows on the 'Human Rights Watch'-instigated decision by AirBnB to delist Israeli owned properties in communities across the 'Green Line' but went even further by denying Jewish connections to Jerusalem and other sites. 'Human Rights Watch's' devolution into a BDS support group has long been evident but the vehemence of its current position is partially the function of its director's obsession with Israel, along with those of key staff members who originate in the BDS movement. The ACLU has followed a similar trajectory in allowing its antipathy toward Israel to shape its policy regarding anti-BDS legislation.
The Amnesty push also comes as the 'United Nations Human Rights Council' prepares to release its long anticipated report condemning Israeli and international corporations for involvement in the 'territories.' This report will constitute a UN-approved blacklist that will intensify pressures on corporations to cut economic ties with Israel. Additional UN reports condemning Israel for alleged 'human rights' violations are also anticipated in May.
In February the controversies over antisemitism among newly elected members of the House of Representatives expanded. Recently elected Representative and BDS supporter Ilhan Omar expressed the belief that 'Jewish money' was influencing Congressional support for Israel and scoffed at the idea that Israel was a democracy. Her own financial backers include a variety of individual BDS supporters and organizations. Faced with harsh criticism Omar issued a putative apology that redoubled criticism of alleged lobbying by AIPAC and other organizations.
In another incident Representative Rashida Tlaib accused supporters of anti-BDS legislation of dual loyalties stating "They forgot what country they represent." Tlaib was also criticized by House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elliot Engel for refusing to participate in a non-partisan fact-finding trip to Israel sponsored by AIPAC. In response Tlaib's supporters rebuked Engel as 'patronizing' toward a 'woman of color.'
BDS supporters expanded the criticism and alleged that coverage of antisemitic and conspiratorial remarks by Omar and Tlaib constituted 'white supremacy,' and that like anti-BDS legislation, were part of a design to undermine the Democratic Party. There were also public demands that American Jews 'stand with' Omar, the implication being that those who insist on calling out her antisemitism were 'right wing racists.' The alleged racism of critics was the subtext of adulatory coverage by mainstream media that emphasized the underdog minority status of the BDS proponents.
The strategy of splitting the American Jewish community over the issues of BDS and antisemitism within the Democratic Party will intensify as the 2020 election approaches. While all the current Democratic presidential candidates have varying records of supporting Israel, none have been willing to endorse Federal legislation outlawing commercial boycotts, and all have relied on demonstrably false assertions that such legislation restricts free speech. That unwillingness is a sign of the party being pulled further to the left in the direction of BDS by its progressive wing. In response to this, traditional party leaders established a new initiative to "strengthen the pro-Israel tradition of the Democratic Party, fight for Democratic values and work within the progressive movement to advance policies that ensure a strong US-Israel relationship."
Elsewhere in the political sphere, a Virginia Democrat and BDS supporter won a special election for the Virginia House of Delegates. That he began his political career as a member of both Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and 'Jewish Voice for Peace' (JVP) is noteworthy and highlights those organization's role in cultivating individuals for later influence operations. The unsuccessful efforts of a small group of progressives to force Israel supporters out of the California Democratic Party shows that BDS is present at even the lowest grassroots levels.
This 'entryism,' long familiar in Britain, is also seen in the appointment of Faiz Shakir as Bernie Sanders' campaign manager. Shakir, a longtime BDS supporter, moved from university activism through various progressive media and political roles, including positions with Senate Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and he was a leading proponent of the accusation that 'Islamophobia' is widespread in the US. He then moved to the ACLU, where he was instrumentalin repositioning that organization as a leading BDS support group.
The mainstreaming of BDS within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and as a central plank of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Green Party, represents the continued transformation of the Democrats into the British Labour Party. There, the antisemitism crisis that began with the exposure of BDS activities in Labour campus groups continued in February. The resignation of nine Labour members dissatisfied with the party's failure to address antisemitism seriously was met with torrents of abuse, including accusations that the members were disloyal to party leader Jeremy Corbyn and were being paid by Israel to make false claims of antisemitism.
February was also an active month for BDS on campus, with signs of new campaigns at many schools. But at Swarthmore College the student government voted down a BDS resolution, and a student judiciary body at the University of Oregon overruled a BDS resolution adopted last year on the grounds it was not viewpoint neutral. In contrast, the Pitzer College student government vetoed a bill condemning the proposed faculty boycott of study abroad in Israel. The Pizter faculty senate will vote on that proposal next month.
BDS efforts among student groups also continue to morph and to graft onto unrelated issues and unexpected mechanisms. At New York University the wording of a BDS resolution was changed to make it appear to target corporations working in many countries rather than only Israel. The underlying intent and sponsors remain unchanged. The graduate student union at Columbia University, which is opening contract negotiations with the administration, has also included BDS in its list of 'social justice' demands. Finally, at Syracuse University, it was revealed that students could receive credit for interning with a BDS supporting 'peace' group. The university later clarified that the arrangement did not mean the university endorsed the 'peace' group's goals.
Fallout also expanded from the University of California Chancellors' preemptive denunciation of the BDS movement, with faculty members continuing to condemn the statement. It appears likely that university leaders are concerned that active faculty discrimination against individual students rather than student support for BDS will undermine institutional reputations and increase exposure to lawsuits.
A Federal court dismissed the lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) that alleged the organization had violated its bylaws after it had been taken over by BDS supporters for that purpose. The court stated it did not have jurisdiction and lawyers for the plaintiffs will refile the suit in state court. BDS supporters claimed falsely that the court had dismissed the suit on substantive grounds rather than on a technicality.
BDS efforts aimed at Jewish campus organizations also continued in February. At the University of Chicago the Jewish BDS group 'If Not Now' held a protest outside the Hillel to present a series of demands regarding the content of Birthright trips. At the University of Texas 'IfNotNot' disrupted a Shabbat service at which a former Israeli soldier was about to speak. At the University of Vermont the J Street U and SJP chapters both released letters condemning the Hillelfor accepting funds from the Maccabee Task Force, alleging that Hillel's Israel trips 'erase' Palestinians. The 'Jewish Voice for Peace' chapter at George Washington University also demanded that the school's Hillel break ties with the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which was allegedly creating a "a hostile environment for Jewish, Palestinian and pro-divestment activists."
The trajectory of these discriminatory efforts aimed at Jewish student life, in part on the basis of its refusal to condemn Israel, was seen at the University of Essex, where 200 members of the student union voted on whether there should be a Jewish Society at the school. It later emerged that the local Amnesty International chapter had helped orchestrate the opposition. Amnesty's UK umbrella group later disavowed the chapter's position, which was also condemned by the university's chancellor.
The Jewish Society was then approved. But that 36% of student voters were opposed suggests the marginalization of Jews on British campuses and may be a harbinger of a return to the 1970s when Jewish Societies were outlawed in the wake of the notorious UN 'Zionism is racism' resolution. More positively, the BBC and Australian broadcasting rejected BDS demands that the event not be televised.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, BDS attacks increased on the upcoming Eurovision competition that will be held in Tel Aviv in May. A British group of BDS supporting celebrities issued a statement decrying participation in the event, as did more than 60 LGBTQ groups, who alleged the event was another example of 'pinkwashing.'
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.