South African model Shashi Naidoo at a press conference organized by the BDS campaign on June 20, 2018. Photo: BDS South Africa.
The coronavirus pandemic that began in China has now engulfed the entire world. Among the casualties was higher education in North America. Campuses have shut down and courses have been moved online. What this $600 billion industry will look like after the crisis remains uncertain.
Before the shutdown, BDS on campus scored several important victories. A faculty-student board at Brown University published its previously announced recommendation that the university corporation divest from companies doing business in Israel. While the university has not yet taken a stand, the notional pressure from faculty bodes ill for any such future decision.
A newly established BDS group at Harvard also reviewed a portion of that institution’s investments, and claimed to find some $200 million invested in a single travel company whose subsidiaries do business in Israeli communities. It is likely that some of those specific investments, and university portfolios generally, could be restructured as a result of the global economic crisis prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. The BDS movement will then try to exploit those changes as indicators of successful pressure.
Generating the appearance of consensus through campus referenda — and thereby circumventing the opportunity for rebutting arguments — continues to be a favored BDS tactic.
At Columbia University, President Lee Bollinger issued a strong statement opposing BDS and antisemitism. Bollinger stated that he opposed a BDS referendum since it “imposes a standard on this particular political issue that is not right when one considers similar issues in other countries and in other contexts around the world. To my mind that is unwise, analytically flawed.” Jewish groups expressed support for Bollinger, as did a number of Columbia faculty members. But despite the campus shutdown, the referendum will be held via online voting.
At the University of Illinois a BDS resolution that had been vetoed by the student government president also faced nullification by the full body. At Tufts University, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) branch is campaigning for a referendum to end the institution’s tiny involvement with a police training program in Israel, using the now familiar accusation that Israel is at the root of American “police violence” and “militarization.”
BDS activists continued to demand other anti-Israel restrictions on campuses and to hijack causes and events. At Florida State University, the SJP branch has launched a campaign against students who attended the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington, DC and thereby “legitimiz[ed] racists, Islamophobes, and genocide deniers.” At Butler University, the SJP branch joined with a “diversity” group to protest a speaker from the Israel LGBTQ organization A Wider Bridge. And at Harvard University, BDS supporters joined other groups in protests that disrupted the annual Junior Family Weekend, advocating for a number of causes.
BDS activists continue to extract funding from student governments. Usually the process and decisions are opaque. At Tufts University, the Arab Student Association was awarded $3,045 to sponsor the appearance of antisemitic professor Rabab Abdulhadi during “Apartheid Week,” while the SJP chapter was given $2,250 for two additional speakers, by a vote of 28-0. The Muslim Student Association was awarded a further $3,200 for five speakers.
Finally, the BDS movement continues to police speech on campus. In a particularly disturbing episode at the University of Michigan, the student government president, who is Jewish, was condemned for statements he made as a high school senior. Ben Gerstein was unanimously condemned by the student government for questioning whether Palestinians deserved a state because of their use of violence and terror. Faced with accusations of “Islamophobia” from BDS activists, Gerstein recanted and apologized for the “harmfulness of my language, the offensiveness of my words, and the active role I played in the silencing of Palestinian voices.”
With campuses shut but political campaigns only slowed by the pandemic, most BDS attention has been focused in that latter sphere, particularly the presidential race. Senator Bernie Sanders appointed BDS supporter Umi Selah (née Phillip Agnew) as a senior campaign adviser. Selah/Agnew, of the group “Dream Defenders,” has participated in several trips to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, organized by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and has a long record of denouncing Israel and Zionism as a “racist” ideology.
The endorsement of Bernie Sanders by IfNotNow represents a direct alignment of the BDS movement with that candidate, as does continuing support from Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). But the Sanders campaign did condemn past statements from Dearborn Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, who introduced the candidate at a March rally. Al-Qazwini had denounced gay marriage and claimed ISIS was an Israeli conspiracy. Ironically, the condemnation came from Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who was a prominent opponent of anti-BDS legislation while at the ACLU.
Democratic candidates for the House could bolster BDS support in Congress. The primary victory of other BDS supporters such as Democrat Marcie Newman in a district with a heavy Arab-American population was another sign of the party’s grassroots shifts. The group Democratic Majority for Israel declined to support the incumbent Dan Lipinski, a BDS opponent, because of his opposition to abortion. Jewish Voice for Peace has also endorsed a number of BDS supporters, including Tlaib and Omar.
In local races, the victory of Nida Allam, who has strongly expressed anti-Israel and anti-police sentiments, for the Durham, North Carolina County Commission represents the same pattern. Other candidates, such as Azam Nizamuddin, Democratic candidate for Circuit Judge in Dupage County, Illinois, represent the expansion of Islamists into localities. The rise of these candidates could jeopardize state level anti-BDS legislation, such as that which was passed in the Oklahoma House.
Democrats in the House of Representatives also blocked consideration of a Federal anti-BDS bill, and 60 Congressional Democrats signed a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that Israel stop demolishing illegally constructed buildings using US-sourced equipment. The campaign was partially organized by J Street.
The coronavirus crisis has also revealed and amplified antisemitism in society and around the BDS movement. In one example before the campus shutdown, the University of Maryland SJP chapter held a “Corona and Countering the Occupation” event that stressed the allegedly excessive impact of the outbreak on Palestinians — but, in keeping with “anti-normalization” rhetoric, downplayed Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. South African BDS activists also claimed that Israel was refusing to issue coronavirus information in Arabic for Israeli Arab citizens and Palestinians.
Predictably, Palestinian, Turkish, Nation of Islam, and other antisemitic sources blamed the existence of the virus on Israel. Since the pandemic prompted the shutdown of Israel’s borders and economy, the entire slate of BDS organizations, including Human Rights Watch and IfNotNow, have conducted a relentless campaign vilifying Israel for allegedly preventing health supplies into Gaza and the West Bank. A notable faculty BDS supporter, As’ad AbuKhalil of California State University-Stanislaus, claimed that “Israel will — I am sure — have different medical procedures for Jews and non-Jews” and “non-Jews will be put in mass prisons.”
As is frequently the case, social media was the medium for small but telling expressions. In one example, the former head of the New York University SJP chapter tweeted a celebration of the first Israeli coronavirus death, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor: “Anyway should I paint my nails red or green today?” In an unusual move, an NYU spokesman denounced the comment as “shameful and callous.”
In another example, BDS supporter Mairav Zonszein tweeted “6 million Jewish Israelis will now get a taste of what around the same number of Palestinians have experienced for over a half a century.” Sarah Leah Whitson, Managing Director for Research and Policy at the recently established Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, then responded that Israelis were experiencing “Such a tiny taste. Missing a tablespoon of blood.” Whitson, formerly of Human Rights Watch, is a prominent BDS supporter, while the Quincy Institute is staffed by a variety of anti-Israel activists, including Trita Parsi, co-founder of NIAC.
In the international sphere, fallout grew over the UN blacklists of companies operating in Israeli communities across the Green Line. Two trade unions cited the blacklist in a letter to Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, urging divestment from the companies. Meanwhile, the US has reiterated its opposition to the blacklist, which violates US law and threatens US companies.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, the announced boycott by LGBTQ filmmakers of a Tel Aviv festival demonstrated again how virtue signaling completely overwhelms reason. The pledge, organized by the BDS movement and a Palestinian queer group, represents a “new, proactive stand by queer film artists in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity,” despite the fact that homosexuality is outlawed in the Palestinian Authority and anathema in traditional Islam.
Explaining the cognitive dissonance inherent in this can only be explained either as antisemitism or as a deliberate decision to ignore reality in order to maintain status within a political community.
Dr. Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. A version of this article was originally published by SPME.