As the spring semester progresses BDS campus BDS activities have ramped up sharply, albeit with mixed results, with faculty now taking leading roles against university administrations. The continuing antisemitism crisis in Congress, however, shows how the BDS movement has contributed to shifting overall public perceptions, making boycotts and even Israel's 'existence' viable questions instead of absurdities. BDS and its antisemitism have spread widely and have capitalized on the anti-Trump 'resistance,' opposition to 'white supremacy,' and increasingly, allegations that complaints about antisemitism are 'Islamophobic.' The spiral of division in American politics and culture shows no sign of abating.
BDS on campus increased sharply in March. The most consequential move was the decision by a mixed faculty-student body at Pitzer College to end its semester abroad program with the University of Haifa. The campaign was led by faculty members over the objections of the university administration and students. During the lead up to the final vote the voting body limited the number of students who could participate in the vote and excluded a campus media outlet that had been critical of the campaign. Representative Rashida Tlaib also expressed support for the proposal.
In the aftermath, the university president, who had spoken out strongly against the proposal, announced that he would disregard the vote, which produced outrage from BDS supporters. The campaign was clearly designed to create a confrontation between the faculty and the administration, challenging traditions of faculty governance and invoking questions of 'academic freedom.'
The Pitzer vote is prima facie evidence of intent to discriminate on the basis of ethnic and national origin. Like the case of the University of Michigan faculty who announced they would not write letters of recommendation for students to study in Israel, the Pitzer vote implies that individual faculty members are already discriminating against students covertly.
The Pitzer vote comes in the context of other higher education problems, such as scandals over bribes paid by wealthy families to ensure admission of their children to colleges and universities, the sit-in by students at Sarah Lawrence College demanding additional support as well as the 'right' to 'review the tenure' of a faculty member, and widespread student support for fossil fuel divestment. All developments widen divisions between students and their institutions, and between the public and higher education. BDS has played a key role.
Elsewhere on campus, a BDS resolution was voted down by the student government at Columbia University. But Brown University students approved a BDS referendum (where all candidates for student government had previously expressed support) as did students at Swarthmore College. The presidents of both Brown and Swarthmore rejected the resolutions.
Another resolution has been proposed at Cornell University (where the university president has already expressed firm opposition). At Cornell, student candidates to the university's Board of Trustees were also queried on their support for BDS. Public debates were marred by unfounded allegations of 'Islamophobia,' and a member of student government supporting BDS demanded that the vote be done via email through the 'diversity and inclusion' committee that she chairs. The 'correct' attitude towards BDS is also a factor in upcoming elections for the Columbia University student government. Making BDS a litmus test for candidates is a new strategy designed to guarantee the results of future campaigns.
Anti-Israel events at Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Wake Forest appear to be setting the stage for later BDS proposals. A proposal at the University of Toronto for the graduate student council to create a permanent committee dedicated to BDS has raised the ire of the local Jewish community. Finally, at the University of Cape Town, faculty and administrators will be voting on a boycott proposal.
A recent analysis shows that from 2005 to 2019 a total of 127 BDS measures have been proposed on American campuses and that 83 (65%) were defeated. In no case has any administration adopted BDS measures. It should also be clear, however, that regardless of this margin, the larger goals of BDS – changing hearts and minds of students and faculty on campus, making campus life uncomfortable for Israelis, Jews, and supporters of Israel, and carrying those attitudes into later life and especially the political system – have been achieved.
In the political sphere, the antisemitism crisis within the Democratic Party created by BDS supporters continued. Representative Ihlan Omar ignited another firestorm when she stated "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country." She later added "It's all about the Benjamins," implying that support for Israel has been purchased. In response to widespread outrage, a resolution was proposed in the House of Representatives condemning Omar's antisemitism but was quickly rewritten to condemn all forms of 'hate' without reference to Omar or her specific slurs.
Reports also indicate that a closed door meeting between Omar and Jewish members of Congress was characterized by antisemitic jokes, the participation of the anti-Israel group 'Bend the Arc,' and the unwillingness of Rashida Tlaib to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. When questioned, Tlaib "grew emotional and started to cry as she spoke of her grandmother's suffering in the West Bank at the hands of Israelis."
The report further described how attendees criticized the Jewish members of Congress, "offended that a wealthy white businessman representing an affluent suburban community was suggesting a black refugee such as Omar incited fear." Casting Omar and Tlaib as the victims is designed to provide impunity as well as leverage.
The BDS-led shift to the left on Israel is also having effects on the presidential race, centered on the demonized figures of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC. The Bernie Sanders campaign, which is run by a number of BDS supporters, released a video condemning "apartheid-like" conditions for Palestinians while Robert "Beto" O'Roarke condemned Netanyahu for siding with 'racists.'
The far-left group 'MoveOn' also issued a statement demanding that Democratic candidates boycott the annual AIPAC meeting, alleging "It's no secret that that AIPAC has worked to hinder diplomatic efforts like the Iran deal, is undermining Palestinian self-determination, and inviting figures actively involved in human rights violations to its stage."
Democratic candidates with the exception of Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand announced that they would not be attending the conference, despite the fact that none had in fact been formally invited. Their announcements signaled to the party's left wing that they would accede to demonizing AIPAC, even as many were photographed meeting with AIPAC members. Nonetheless a spate of tweets credited Omar with having influenced candidates and shifted opinion regarding AIPAC.
At the AIPAC meeting House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer attacked the three members of the 'BDS caucus,' Omar, Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as did Vice President Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with various AIPAC officials, and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who stated "a simple, clear, progressive case for the State of Israel." All speakers forcefully condemned antisemitism, BDS, and touted AIPAC and the America-Israel relationship.
Pelosi stated "We must also be vigilant against bigoted or dangerous ideologies masquerading as policy, and that includes BDS." In response, Omar complained that Pelosi's statement was "A condemnation for people that want to exercise their First Amendment rights is beneath any leader." Misrepresenting BDS as solely a speech issue rather than a question of discrimination is a key defensive strategy.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) have introduced a bill condemning BDS as "incompatible" with peace and a two state solution. Another bill condemning antisemitism and Omar's allegations has been introduced in the Senate. The measures set the stage for another round of confrontations within Congress and the Democratic Party over BDS and American policy towards Israel.
The rallying of the party establishment around AIPAC, and various expressions of grassroots support, documented by news accounts indicating Jews are questioning their support for the party, suggest that a backlash against the BDS supporters is underway. At the same time the increasingly strong Republican embrace of Israel heightens the contrast between the parties and complicates bipartisanship.
In the international arena, the 'United Nations Human Rights Council' held its annual day of ritual denunciations aimed against Israel. The decision to focus only on Israel was condemned by the United States and in a first, by several other countries including Britain and Austria. In the end, however, the council voted to condemn Israel for 'war crimes' and to demand and arms embargo.
The horrific massacre of Muslims at two New Zealand mosques also demonstrated the connection between BDS and allegations of 'Islamophobia' In particular, the manner in which Chelsea Clinton was confronted by two New York University BDS activists, one of whom stated "This, right here, is a result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put out into the world," demonstrated the campus to politics conveyor in which BDS has become the wedge for larger issues. Clinton was accused of stoking 'Islamophobia' over her condemnation of Ilhan Omar's antisemitic outbursts in a tweet. Her accusers, after apparently being embarrassed by negative media coverage, justified their actions at length in a national media outlet.
Deeming any criticism of Islam, individual Muslims, or Muslim antisemitism as 'Islamophobia' is a longstanding means to delegitimize critics and shut down free speech. The use of 'Islamophobia' by BDS activists, linking in this case mass murder, is particularly odious but not surprising. This usage, which will certainly expand, capitalizes on the all-purpose allegation that President Trump is 'Islamophobic' and that his rhetoric was somehow responsible for New Zealand massacre.
One of the heads of the 'Women's March' expanded the accusation further, saying "The same language and hate that folks spew against Sisters Linda Sarsour and Rep. Ilhan Omar killed 54 Muslims in New Zealand. You can't stand in solidarity with the Muslim community and simultaneously disavow Muslim women for speaking their truths. American Jewish Establishment, I'm looking at you."
In this formulation, the choice is to permit antisemitism or be accused of inciting murder. The corollary of pattern was seen in the decision of the Norwegian Attorney General not to charge a Muslim rapper with hate speech for saying "fucking Jews" during a concert, since while the statement "seems to be targeting Jews, it can however also be said to express dissatisfaction with the policies of the State of Israel."
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.