Disparate BDS events in February suggest that the anti-Israel boycott movement is being forced to reorient itself due to unprecedented pushback. This included US pressure that was key to the Irish parliament's decision to postpone a vote on BDS legislation and the UN Human Rights Council's decision to release only partial information regarding a blacklist of companies working in the West Bank.
Without effective political leadership and with deteriorating behavioral norms regarding harassment and intimidation, BDS is rapidly degenerating into overt antisemitism.
Some of the most important BDS developments in February took place in the international sphere. Reports indicated that pressure from the US State Department was essential to changing the position of the Irish government from its previous support for BDS legislation, which would have criminalized economic relations with Israeli settlements. The bill reflected longstanding Irish antipathy towards Israel, and would have put Ireland at odds with US and European anti-boycott statutes.
In another case, US and Israeli pressure appears to have caused the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to postpone release of a full blacklist of international and Israeli firms with ties to the West Bank. UNHCR stated that it had not yet contacted all 206 firms, most of which are Israeli, on the blacklist.
The blackmail implicit in the constructing and publicizing of the blacklist is palpable, and reflects the organization's obsession with Israel. The situation is so extreme that a US Congressional resolution has been introduced to reduce funding or cut ties altogether with UNHCR.
In strong contrast, the recent apology by the US Department of Justice regarding the improper refusal of tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to the pro-Israel organization Z Street explicitly acknowledged that the US government targeted the organization because of its politics. A number of other pro-Israel and conservative organizations received similar treatment from the IRS. The case demonstrated that pro-Israel politics and BDS are shaped at the highest political levels in the US and implemented by the administrative state.
In other news, Bjornar Moxnes, the leader of the Red Party in the Norwegian Parliament, announced that he had nominated the BDS movement for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying, "Awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to the BDS movement would be a powerful sign demonstrating that the international community is committed to supporting a just peace in the Middle East and using peaceful means to end military rule and broader violations of international law."
Reacting to criticism, Moxnes claimed that the BDS movement is "not against the people of Israel. It's not against the Jewish people; it's against the policies of a state, which (are) without doubt against international law." Israeli commentators reacted scornfully to the comment, while representatives of the radical group Jewish Voice for Peace expressed their approval.
Another manifestation of the official European fixation with BDS was an invitation extended by a Portuguese lawmaker for BDS leader Omar Barghouti to speak at the European Parliament. Portuguese and Belgian Jewish groups protested the invitation, which "directly undermines [the EU's] own policy stance on antisemitism." An even more egregious example was a speaking invitation extended to convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh, recently expelled from the US, by two organizations in the Netherlands.
On college campuses, there were several BDS related incidents. Most notable was the passage of a BDS resolution by the student government at City University in London. The event was marked by overt harassment and intimidation directed against Jewish students who spoke out during the debate. Students reported being poked and jabbed, and told to "shut the f**k up" during the proceedings.
In contrast, the student government at Northeastern University voted down a BDS resolution that associated university investments in Israel with the "Israeli occupation of Palestine" and "the mass deportation of immigrants from the US by Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
A similar resolution will shortly come under consideration at the University of Illinois. BDS supporters at Tufts University made another "intersectional" allegation that Israel is responsible for police violence in the US; they also complained about the participation of campus police in an Israeli law enforcement exchange.
But there were also several instances in which BDS efforts to manipulate academic administrations backfired.
At Fresno State University a 2017 search for the Edward Said Professorship of Middle East Studies collapsed after procedural abnormalities by the search committee. This failure, however, was quickly attributed by local BDS supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace to "sabotage" undertaken by pro-Israel groups.
One faculty member and BDS supporter stated there had been a "documented campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members by Israel advocacy groups to influence and derail the outcome of the search" — a claim repeated and amplified by many groups, including local Islamic organizations and the Middle East Studies Association.
There was, however, no evidence that anyone outside the university, let alone in the Jewish community, had even heard of the proposed position. Analysis of the university's files, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, also showed that there was no outside involvement, but rather repeated failures by the search organizers.
Clearly, the readiness to allege Jewish conspiracies is characteristic of the paranoid and antisemitic mindset of the BDS movement and a subset of faculty members at Fresno State.
Another unfounded accusation against Jewish and Israeli organizations was resolved at the University of California at Irvine. There, a pro-Israel group whose event had been disrupted by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter was subsequently accused of harassment and other misconduct by the same SJP branch.
After a lengthy investigation the university cleared the pro-Israel group and extended the SJP chapter's suspension to 2019. The incident is another instance of a BDS group leveling false charges in order to use university disciplinary procedures to target pro-Israel groups and speakers.
These and other recent failures must be viewed through several lenses.
First, accusations by BDS supporters successfully poison the campus atmosphere further against Israel and its supporters. Second, because the BDS movement has a quasi-religious mentality that is convinced of its own righteousness, failure and rebuke are interpreted as evidence of institutional corruption, which energizes the hardcore base. Third, the resort to antisemitic allegations of conspiracy is intensifying — and will continue to do so as BDS-related antisemitism poisons more aspects of campus life and as university demographics continue to change.
For example, there were several incidents of harassment directed at Israeli speakers and events at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia. At King's College London former Israeli Minister Dan Meridor's talk was disrupted by screaming protestors. The academic administration had previously promised that protestors would not be admitted. The King's College Israel Society is now threatening legal action against the student government due to its support for BDS.
Finally, at the University of Lille, an Israeli festival was disrupted by protests. After complaints from two faculty members to the administration, the festival was canceled. One of the festival's organizers stated: "The protesters told us that they were coming to demonstrate at all our activities. So we decided to stop. We do not want to create more controversy on this."
In the US political sphere, a bill expressing opposition to BDS is set to pass in the Ohio state legislature. In Kansas, however, a court ruled that the state's recently passed legislation making it illegal for state entities to do business with companies boycotting Israel violated constitutional free speech protections.
A similar challenge is underway in Arizona.
Both legal challenges are being spearheaded by local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in association with Palestine Legal, the lawfare arm of the BDS movement.
The unwillingness of local ACLU branches to distinguish between unrestricted free speech in a private capacity and restricted commercial behavior conducted by a state representative or employee — and their role as an adjunct to the BDS movement — represents a disturbing intensification of the movement away from free speech.
Alexander H. Joffe is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum