The BDS movement surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict has started more conversations on campus than we can count this semester. In the last few weeks, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has asked a variety of social-justice oriented VSA organizations to endorse a Vassar Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel.
Some organizations such as the Multiracial-Biracial Student Alliance (MBSA), the Vassar Prison Initiative (VPI) and the Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP) have already endorsed the resolution. Others, such as Challah for Hunger and J Street U, have declined to endorse the resolution or were not invited to do so.
Some orgs declined on account of their chapter status. The logic being that the national organization has to endorse BDS before local chapters can. Others simply don't want to get in the political fray.
Then there are those who have embraced the resolution, as well as all the entrapments of the political movement surrounding it. VPI, for instance, considered condemning the vast Israeli system of criminal justice, in which Palestinian men are spending time in and out of prison and are subjected to solitary confinement. Angela Davis's lecture was thrown in the mix, as some cited how interlinking of different types of oppression can affect us. As we are complicit with systems of violence overseas, it makes it easier to allow them at home.
At the end of this month, the BDS resolution along with its endorsements will be taken to the VSA, which will then vote on the adoption of the resolution on March 6. If adopted by the VSA or the College's administration, the BDS resolution would result in the boycott of several Israeli and American companies that are of economic importance to Israel and fulfill guidelines laid out by the Palestinian BDS National Committee.
Some of the changes we would be seeing on campus would include the disappearance of Sabra hummus and Ben and Jerry's ice cream in the Retreat. "The resolution would reflect internal perceptions at Vassar but will have little bearing on day-to-day life," says SJP member Paul Kennedy '19.
The BDS movement began in 2005 when Palestinian Civil Society called for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions after the International Court of Justice ruled Israel's West Bank Barrier illegal. The Palestinian Civil Society is made up of over 200 Palestinian organizations including unions, refugee camps, women's groups and children's groups.
The Palestinian BDS National Committee laid out three criteria for companies to be targeted: "First, the level of complicity: focusing on companies and products that are most clearly and directly involved in Israel's human rights violations; second, cross-movement alliance possibility: prioritizing companies or products that enable the creation of broad, cross-struggle alliances; and third, the potential for success: a BDS campaign should have a realistic chance of success."
The movement was inspired by the successful boycott campaign against the South African Apartheid and calls for similar international support. In America, and especially in American universities and colleges, the movement has been picking up steam. The Vassar BDS website provides a list of "BDS Successes in US Schools" at institutions ranging from West Coast UC's to East Coast Ivies. The level of commitment varies with each institution, some choosing to divest while others embrace the boycott too.
Here at Vassar, the debate over BDS has been cropping up around campus more and more over the last several weeks. J Street U, a pro-Palestine, pro-Israel Vassar Student Organization, held a meeting to discuss their position on the Vassar BDS resolution this past Monday. The meeting included discussions on whether or not the BDS movement is truly the best path of action. Informational handouts on alternate courses of action were passed around.
The meeting highlighted several key fears the organization had regarding BDS. Campus climate was an initial concern, but issues of academic freedom hit home hardest. They posited that liberal, pro-Palestinian voices that were in some way linked to Israeli institutions would not be able to come to campus, thereby silencing voices. Another concern was that the VSA would be unwilling to give funds for events or speakers. Evidence to this effect was presented, as some members spoke out against the extreme difficulty to raise funds through the VSA finance committee in the past for events such as these.
The meeting ended with general concern that adopting BDS could be misconstrued by the larger community as being antisemitic. Members voiced concern that their more conservative communities at home would be worried that they were attending an institution that had adopted a BDS resolution. The discussion went so far as to say that prospective students might opt not to attend Vassar if the resolution were adopted.
In their column last week in The Miscellany News, J Street U condemned the Vassar BDS movement. The piece termed BDS pat on the back activism, saying, "It does more to make individuals feel better about themselves than it does to tangibly support the rights of the Palestinian people. BDS is passive and doesn't take courageous action on behalf of Palestinians."
Besides criticizing the resolution as ineffective, there was also the concern that "BDS inhibits activism rather than fostering positive discourse and effective action towards ending the occupation of the West Bank" by being "dismissive of Israelis who are pro-Palestine, anti-racism and pro-human rights."
Sara Abramson '16, a member of J Street U, clarified, "SJP did not ask J Street to endorse the BDS resolution." She explained, "Adopting the resolution gives the VSA precedent to not help fund any speakers that come from Israeli institutions which is a huge problem from an educational standpoint. It also demonizes all Israeli institutions, even ones that have very liberal members."
J Street U wrote last week, "Our primary purpose isn't to fight BDS. As the sole pro-Israel organization on campus, we intend to be an active participant in the dialogue surrounding the resolution." However, BDS was not what J Street had in mind. As Abramson put it, "I think J Street, an anti-occupation organization, will be disproportionately effected by this. Because we are the only pro-Israel organization on campus, we are demonized."
This feeling of being at the receiving end of an attack is echoed in J Street's article, in which they stress that they do not stand in opposition with SJP but have failed to be able to work with them over the years. J Street U lamented, "Not only is this disheartening, but it is also an impediment to ending the occupation on the West Bank. If our pro-Palestinian organizations worked together, we would be much closer to achieving Palestinian statehood."
When the BDS resolution is voted on by the VSA at the beginning of next month, many will be waiting intently to hear the decision and wondering what it might personally mean. If the resolution is not adopted, J Street will only have momentary vindication as SJP intends to take it to a referendum, meaning a student vote on the BDS resolution.
Kennedy is determined to see the resolution adopted. He defended the movement saying, "Foremost, it's always important to establish firmly that it's not an antisemitic movement." He then emphasized that there is a fraying connection between the BDS and academic freedom. He explained that the BDS resolution being proposed is not designed to target individuals, such as potential speakers, but is meant to target companies and institutions.
In "Boycotts Work: An Interview with Omar Barghouti," a reading distributed by SJP, Barghouti states, "In principle the academic boycott that PACBI is calling for and all our partners are adopting is institutional; therefore, it does not infringe on the rights and privileges of Israeli academics to go out and participate in conferences and so on so long as this is not the product of an institutional link—we are calling for cutting all institutional links, not to cut off visits by individual academics, or artists or cultural figures to participate in events and so on—they can and they do and that will not stop—so it's really very hypocritical and deceptive to call the academic boycott a form of infringement on academic freedom."
Kennedy clarified, "BDS in and of itself is not the only possible campaign to secure justice for Palestine, however at the moment it is the only viable movement towards ending the occupation that is gaining momentum and support in the international community. BDS has gained traction because of how clearly wrong the situation is and how clearly this is a situation of the oppressor and the oppressed. The apartheid in Israel has awoken a moral outrage and outcry around the world."
It is meaningful for American institutions to adopt BDS as well, asserts Kennedy. "I also think that within the U.S., BDS is especially important when you consider how complicit we are in the occupation through billions of dollars of aid to Israel," he remarked.
This semester the campus has already hosted several pro-Palestine events. This past weekend, M1, a member of the Brooklyn rap group Dead Prez, came to campus to perform for the event Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation. Several of the leaders of campus organizations attended a brunch with the performer on Saturday morning in UPC, hosted by SJP.
The week before that, on Feb. 3, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University Jasbir K. Puar gave a lecture in Rocky 200 titled "Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters." The talk centered around the Isreal-Palestine conflict and included accounts of cruel tactics used by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers against Palestinian civilians such as using live ammunition to cripple Palestinian men.
The talk was received well by the crowd at Rocky. Outside the room, SJP was tabling for their future events and publicizing their campaign for the Vassar BDS resolution. However, there were other opinions voiced, not publicly, but to friends in reaction to the lecture. Abramson shared that a younger student had said, "If [that student] didn't know anything about Vassar or the lecturer and took everything [Professor Puar] said as truth [that student] would be terrified to go here."
Sadly, Professor Puar's lecture was not the only potentially disturbing event for this student recently. The J Street U meeting and the push for Vassar Student Organizations to endorse the BDS resolution is also coming on the heels of antisemitic posts on the social media app Yik Yak. In response to a Zionist post, a user anonymously replied "F**k Jews" setting off ripples of fear and unrest at Vassar.
Here at Vassar, the decision is looming and campus will soon be forced to come to a decision of whether or not to support the movement. One resource Vassar students are consulting in their attempts to learn more is the word of Omar Barghouti, sometimes called the father of the BDS movement. Barghouti is adamant in his defense of BDS. He once stated, "Conflating time-honored, human-rights-based boycotts of Israel's violations of international law with anti-Jewish racism is not only false, it is a racist attempt to put all Jews into one basket and to implicate them in Israel's crimes against the Palestinians."
In an interview by Electronic Intifada, Barghouti was asked about the effect of BDS on academic freedom. This is a debate that has deep historical roots, and though Vassar is relatively new to the forum, it's important not to forget the conversation's roots. Barghouti responded by saying that denying Palestinians their rights in Israel also denies academic freedom. Yet, he laments, "We never heard those liberal voices when Israel shut down Palestinian universities during the first intifada. We haven't heard much of an outcry among those liberals who are now shouting academic freedom. Is academic freedom a privilege to whites only?"