[Originally published under the headline: "BDS crisis over student recommendations expands along with Israel entry provocations by activists. US politicians edge closer to BDS as university divestment moves begin."]
The 'free speech' crisis created by the BDS movement expanded in October, with additional university instructors refusing to write student recommendations for study in Israel. Along with the controversial refusal of Israel to admit a student BDS activist, this has heightened the contradictions between professional obligations and free speech, and between free movement and national security. By exploiting the grey areas, the BDS movement continues to erode institutions and norms for the sole purpose of denigrating and destroying Israel.
BDS news in October continued to be dominated by examples of institutions being subverted and manipulated by the BDS movement. In the first, two University of Michigan instructors (one a teaching assistant and the other an assistant professor, John Cheney-Lippold) rescinded offers to write letters of recommendation upon discovering the students planned to study in Israel.
Fallout from the Cheney-Lippold incident expanded as it emerged that the assistant professor had initially told the student that the university supported BDS but later clarified that it was he who was a supporter. Cheney-Lippold also went on to admit that he had previously written letters for students to study in Israel prior to receiving tenure and had discussed BDS during classes. In response, the university stated that it would discipline Cheney-Lippold by refusing him a salary increase and denying him credit toward a sabbatical.
In a second incident, a graduate instructor also informed a student that she would not write a letter of recommendation because she was heeding the Palestinian call to boycott Israel and was protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinians. A third professor, long-time opponent of Israel Juan Cole, made an unsolicited statement that he would write letters of recommendation for students to study in Israel but not at Ariel University, "a squatter institution," located across the 'Green Line.'
In response to the incidents, the university president apologized to the students affected and stated: "we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment." He also established a panel to examine the larger question of how faculty responsibilities and political beliefs intersect.
A variety of academic BDS supporters decried the university's response to the incidents, as did several academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors and the Middle East Studies Association, along with BDS groups such as 'Jewish Voice for Peace' and local Arab American representatives. The university's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies also announced that it would be hosting a BDS event, including a "teach-in," with support from a variety of other departments.
Some Jewish students have pointed to the letter of recommendation incidents as evidence of a deteriorating environment at the University of Michigan. The upcoming BDS event and "teach-in" suggest further that Jewish and pro-Israel students in a variety of departments are subject to a hostile environment. The incidents expose another long-hidden aspect of BDS, behavior by individual faculty members towards Jews, Israelis, and supporters of Israel. It is unknown how many letters of recommendation or similar individual faculty-student transactions, including grading, have been politically tainted by BDS.
A second case of academia and activism colliding had international repercussions. Lara Alqasem, a BDS supporter and former head of the University of Miami's Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, was denied entry to Israel, where she had planned to undertake graduate study at Hebrew University, on the grounds that her presence was potentially harmful to Israel. She was detained at Ben Gurion Airport while a series of legal appeals were undertaken. During hearings, it emerged that Alqasem had deleted her social media history that showed the extent of her activism, which she also misrepresented to the court. The Tel Aviv District Court turned down her appeal, but the case eventually reached the Israel Supreme Court that ruled Alqasem's entrance did not pose a security risk and that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs had overreacted.
Responses to Alqasem's ban were swift and divisive. The ADL, J Street, and the Reform movement decried the decision to ban Alqasem as damaging to Israel's democracy and open society, and that the decision 'silenced' and 'repressed' her 'non-violent political views.' Mainstream media commentators also condemned what was regarded as Israel's overreaction to a non-threat and stated the decision drove a wedge between Israel and American Jews. Heads of Israeli universities also condemned the detention, stating that it caused damage to Israel's reputation as an academic center. Ironically, the BDS movement also condemned Alqasem for making the effort to study in Israel. For his part, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan stated that he was bound by law to prohibit Alqasem's entry, but that she could be admitted if she publicly repudiated her previous support for BDS. Her promise not to engage in BDS while in Israel was unsatisfactory.
Later reports also demonstrated that Alqasem had lied and was associated with BDS groups later than she had claimed, and that her father, a faculty member at the University of Miami, is a BDS supporter. Predictably, BDS supporters hailed the Supreme Court decision while opponents decried it. Israeli academia was also divided by the episode, with some faculty members expressing resentment against the government for having taken action against Alqasem and allegedly against universities and their ideals. In contrast, some Hebrew University students also posted flyers condemning Alqasem. Foreign academic associations, including the Association for Israel Studies, and pro-Israel groups, condemned the initial Israeli response to Alqasem, expressing fears that it impeded academic freedom and that it would be applied to other students and academics.
The Alqasem episode epitomizes the trap that the BDS movement creates for Jewish institutions, from Jewish Studies programs, Hillels, and Jewish Federations, all the way up to the State of Israel as a whole. Institutions can either admit BDS supporters and facilitate their subversion and hatred of Israel, or they can deny entry and be accused of intolerance. This lose-lose situation is a carefully constructed trap designed to divide the Jewish community internally and expose these divisions publicly, inviting condemnation by society at large.
In other campus news, the SJP chapter at Swarthmore College has launched a divestment campaign that has divided the campus. A BDS resolution will also be proposed at New York University by a coalition of groups that includes the local chapter of 'Jewish Voice for Peace.' The vote, to be held early in December, will be closed, with representatives voting anonymously. Also, at New York University, a coalition of 30 student groups pledged 'non-cooperation' with the NYU branch in Tel Aviv. This is an expansion of the Palestinian policy of 'anti-normalization' to American campuses. At Columbia University several Israeli students have reported being harassed and intimidated by members of the local SJP chapter and by other students. After pro-Israel students complaints that the university had ignored the situation for months, a protest was held, but the university's Hillel declined to participate.
At the University of Missouri, posters advertising an Israeli journalist's talk were systematically torn down. At Oregon State, a campus Palestinian group disrupted a panel of visiting ex-Israeli soldiers, while 'anti-war protestors' did the same at the University of Minnesota. At George Mason University, however, the student government passed a resolution condemning antisemitism after a nearby Jewish Community Center was vandalized. And despite repeated calls, including from local politicians, University of California at Los Angeles leaders have made it clear that they will not cancel the national Students for Justice in Palestine conference scheduled to take place on campus in November. In Britain, however, the University of Central Lancashire canceled an 'Israel apartheid week' event on the grounds that it contravened the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Another notable development in October was expanding efforts to expose and impugn anti-BDS projects, primarily by The Forward and Haaretz. The primary target of investigations is the website called Canary Mission, which catalogs statements by BDS supporters at US universities. This effort has been accused of being a 'racist' and 'Islamophobic' 'blacklist' by reproducing and criticizing pro-BDS and antisemitic social media postings. The investigations are aimed at shaming real and potential donors from supporting the project several donations made through two Jewish Federations were withdrawn after exposure, and to determine which organization is behind the anonymous effort.
The allegation behind these allegations is that exposing the BDS movement's antisemitism is inherently illegitimate. This effort is in part an explicit continuation of a propaganda effort by the Qatari government undertaken through the Al-Jazeera network that sought to expose the machinations of the 'Israel lobby' in the US. New aspects of this include the accusation that a pro-Israel advocate popular on American campuses, former Israeli soldier Hen Mazzig, is an 'unregistered foreign agent,' and that 'mainstream' American Jewish organizations such as AIPAC were 'attacking' murdered Saudi writer Jamal Khasshogi by pointing out that he was a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson and an opponent of Israel.
Overall, the goal is to impugn opposing BDS and to remove the ability to expose individuals involved in BDS, by alleging they directly connected with 'right-wing' American Jews, attack the Netanyahu government's handling of the issue, to implicitly legitimize if not BDS as a whole then boycott of 'settlements,' to split young Jews from the community and Israel, and elevate left-wing organizations at the expense of the Jewish community's broad consensus regarding BDS and Israel. In this sense the effort resembles Cold War 'anti-anti-communism,' which alleged that opposition to communism and the Soviet Union were more destructive than communism itself.
In the political sphere, the US midterm elections demonstrate the manner in which campus BDS and intersectionality have expanded antisemitism into politics as a whole. A variety of Democratic candidates have expressed anti-Israel and pro-BDS sentiments, a trend that has finally been noticed by mainstream media.
In a first, Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota described Israel as an 'apartheid' state as she received an award from a leading BDS group, the 'US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.' In New York State, Congressional candidate Antonio Delgado stated "Israel is not a Jewish democracy. Those settlements make it so that it can't be."
Also well-known are the anti-Israel positions of Democratic Socialists candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and far left Democrat Leslie Cockburn. The growing willingness of mainstream Democrats such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand to appear alongside far-left icons such as BDS leader Linda Sarsour and Louis Farrakhan champion Tamika Mallory is another sign of flirtations with an anti-Israel position.
Israel and BDS have become issues in a number of races, including the Florida governor's race, with allegations that the Democratic candidate, Tallahassee Andrew Gillum was associated with a pro-BDS group called Dream Defenders. The issue was raised during a debate between the candidates and Gillum defended himself strenuously. Reports also indicate that supporters of Gillum's opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, have run ads criticizing Gillum's Israel credentials. The Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, Ben Jealous, also implied to a Muslim group that he would rescind Governor Larry Hogan's executive order prohibiting the state from doing business with firms boycotting Israel while stating the opposite to a Jewish group.
Democratic Congressmen and strategists have responded to these incidents by condemning specific statements and claiming the party's support for Israel and opposition to BDS is strong. The sheer number of incidents, accusations, and defenses, however, demonstrate the degree to which BDS and Israel have been made into wedge issues in American politics.
Finally, in an especially perverse example of hijacking by BDS and intersectional groups, leaders of 'Jewish Voice for Peace,' the Women's March, and IfNotNow offered vocal support for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. BDS leader Linda Sarsour was also featured at a protest held outside the White House condemning the violence and which implied that President Donald Trump's rhetoric was enabling antisemitism. The irony of the BDS movement condemning violence against American Jews that it would overlook or condone against Israeli Jews is striking, as is the Hamas movement's condemnation of the event.
Alexander Joffe is a Ginsburg-Ingerman Fellow of the Middle East Forum.