Campus Battle Heats Up Over BDS

Some 10,000 demonstrators marched on the White House in Washington, DC, to protest Israel's offensive in Gaza, August 2, 2014. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

Campus Battle Heats Up Over BDS

On April 14, the Doctoral Students Council (DSC) at the City University of New York Graduate Center passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Citing Israeli-imposed barriers to Palestinians' right to education, the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in military research and technology, and the DSC's history of taking action on issues of justice and social change, the resolution passed with 42 votes, 19 opposed, and 9 abstentions.

The response is sure to be swift and fierce. Over the last several months, extremist pro-Israel organizations have escalated their campaign against advocates of Palestinian rights on CUNY campuses. In February, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) sent a letter to the CUNY administration demanding an investigation into what they've framed as a pervasive problem of anti-Semitism at CUNY. ZOA singled out for attention the advocacy of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a decentralized campus-based group of activists for Palestinian rights.

Political pressure is mounting at both the state and city level on the CUNY administration to address the purported crisis of anti-Semitism on campus by punishing Palestinian rights activism. New York City Council's Jewish caucus, for instance, is preparing a resolution on combatting anti-Semitism at CUNY. The New York State Senate invoked CUNY's supposed failure to deal with anti-Semitism in part to rationalize a nearly $500 million dollar budget cut to the university system. Thirty-five New York state lawmakers, led by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, sent a letter to the CUNY administration calling for the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on 23 CUNY campuses. Hikind is notorious for showing up in black face to a Purim party, calling for racial profiling on the New York City subway, and being a member of the Jewish Defense League, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has named as a violent extremist organization. Although ZOA has a clear political agenda, many of its allegations of anti-Semitism are unconnected to SJP, and its past efforts to file Title IV cases against Palestinian rights organizing have been dismissed due to lack of evidence, these allegations have brought to bear powerful forces against the freedom of speech for activists for Palestinian rights at CUNY.

What's happening at CUNY isn't an isolated case. At the University of California, hawkish pro-Israel organizations led by the AMCHA Initiative campaigned to get the UC Regents to adopt an expansive definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism and legitimate criticism of Israel. Pushback from Palestinian rights activists, civil rights groups, the graduate student union, academic freedom groups, faculty, and students resulted in the Regents ultimately passing a resolution that distinguishes (if vaguely) between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. As Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote in an op-ed opposing a draft of the policy in Haaretz, growing numbers of Jews identify as anti-Zionist, and "[f]ar from being discriminatory, their beliefs are motivated by values of equality and human rights for all human beings."

Over the past few years, shifting public opinion among key constituencies in the Democratic Party, including mainly young people and people of color, has helped to change the dynamics of the conversation about Israel/Palestine. Recent polling has found that 47% of Democrats consider Israel to be a racist state, and that nearly 49% support applying some kind of economic pressure on Israel on the issue of settlements.

Growing support for Palestinian rights--and to put economic pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns targeting companies complicit in human rights abuses and violations of international law in local municipalities, campus endowments, and churches--has provoked an intensive backlash from Israel's defenders. Jewish establishment organizations, Christian Zionist organizations, and other Israel lobby groups are competing for the millions of dollars that pro-Israel funders have mobilized to address what they see as a public relations problem. Rather than question the increasingly extremist policies of the Israel government and leveraging their power to change it, these organizations are deflecting well-deserved criticism of the Israeli state's policies with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Unable to defend Israel's increasingly repressive policies, advocates have turned to new tactics to shut down the conversation about Palestinian human rights. They have slipped anti-BDS amendments into federal trade legislation, pushed resolutions at the state level to condemn the BDS movement as anti-Semitic, supported legislation to prevent states from contracting with companies that boycott Israel or Israel's illegal settlements, and created blacklists of groups and companies that support economic pressure to change Israeli policies.

Israel advocacy groups have zeroed in on a much-criticized definition of anti-Semitism the State Department uses to monitor anti-Semitism globally to conflate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. The definition includes the so-called "3Ds"-- demonize, delegitimize, and apply a double-standard to Israel--that can and have been used to silence activism for Palestinian rights.

None of this is to say that incidents of anti-Semitism do not occur or that they should not be addressed and confronted when they do. But those whose political agenda is to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the subsequent treatment of Palestinians, both currently and historically, have been applying this expansive definition of anti-Semitism.

Despite this pressure, student activism for Palestinian rights is gaining momentum. Just this week the student government at the University of Chicago passed a divestment resolution, and the graduate student union at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst passed a resolution endorsing BDS. Given Israel's rightward shift and the stalled (and flawed) peace process, there is growing recognition that political and economic outside pressure will be necessary to bring about a semblance of justice and security for all people living in the region.

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