February saw dramatic setbacks for the BDS movement as legislators and politicians imposed restrictions and voiced unprecedented opposition. At the same time, BDS in universities and elsewhere continued to degenerate into overt antisemitism. These developments demonstrate that the BDS movement is still marginal, unacceptable to the mainstream because of its discriminatory and antisemitic nature, and that political leadership can lead to its delegitimization.
In February the global BDS movement was dealt a series of dramatic setbacks. One of the most important was a “Policy Procurement Note” by the British government, which clarified to all authorities in the United Kingdom, including local councils, that “boycotts in public procurement are inappropriate, outside where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the UK Government.” Press accounts misleadingly described the document as either a legislative proposal or government decision rather than a restatement of existing policy. The notice was also opposed by the Labour Party, which claimed the policy was “an unethical attack on local democracy.”
The notice was issued in part to enforce existing World Trade Organization (WTO) rules regarding national and local procurement policies. Several local councils in Britain have or are currently boycotting Israel. Analyses from legal scholars opposed to BDS pointing out WTO issues, and Conservative Party-led realization that BDS is fueling rising antisemitism in Britain, appears to have prompted the notice.
The BDS movement suffered losses on other fronts. In Germany accounts belonging to a BDS umbrella group were shut down. Reports were unclear whether this was due to anti-discrimination or anti-terrorism concerns. It was also unclear whether the closure affected BDS accounts held only in Germany or elsewhere.
Reports indicate that the controversy between the European Union (EU) and Israel over new regulations requiring labeling of products from Israeli communities across the Green Line has been resolved. After the regulations were announced Israel responded by stating publicly that the EU would have no role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This resulted in quiet negotiations and an apparent EU concession that permits individual countries to determine whether to apply the labeling regulations.
The Paris Municipality passed non-binding resolutions condemning BDS, as did the Canadian Parliament by an overwhelming margin. The Canadian resolution also calls on the government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.”
In the United States President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act but noted that it would not enforce provisions that applied equally to “any territory controlled by Israel,” that is, Israeli communities across the Green Line. The inclusion of “Israeli controlled territories” had been opposed by a variety of groups including J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
A bipartisan group of Senators, however, reacted angrily to the president’s move, accusing the Obama Administration of misrepresenting the bill; “These provisions are not about Israeli settlements…. Rather, consistent with U.S. policy, they are about discouraging politically-motivated commercial actions aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions outside the bounds of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”
Also significant are bills in Congress that would authorize state and local governments to divest from companies boycotting Israel and another that would remove labeling guidelines for Israeli products originating in communities across the Green Line. The latter has been criticized for making Israeli goods from both sides of the Green Line indistinguishable and thus effectively supporting the BDS narrative that all of Israel should be boycotted. Others pointed out that critics have effectively conflated opposition to settlements with support for boycotts.
Anti-BDS legislation is also expanding in US states. Alabama and Virginia have adopted non-binding resolutions condemning BDS. Bills prohibiting the state from contracting with or investing in corporate entities that boycott Israel were passed in Florida and Iowa, where opposition was led by the American Friends Service Committee. Legislation is also pending in California, New York, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Pro-BDS supporters have represented these types of legislation as a ‘blacklist.’
Possibly as a result of being pushed back in the political sphere, the BDS movement is increasing public protests and overt antisemitism. In one notable incident, some 500 posters condemning Israeli “apartheid” were illegally placed on London Underground trains. The action was quickly condemned and the posters were removed.
On campus there were a number of important BDS developments. Among the most important was the passage of a divestment resolution by the University of Illinois-Chicago student government. After considerable effort, the original resolution aimed exclusively at Israel was modified to call for divestment from companies allegedly complicit in human rights violations in the US, Britain, China, and elsewhere. This dilution of the original resolution was ignored by pro-BDS forces, who represented the vote as a victory.
Elsewhere, a BDS resolution was adopted by the student government at McGill University but was not ratified by the larger student body. Afterwards the university administration stated “while we respect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, the administration of the University will have no part of the BDS movement.” Pro-peace students reported harassment by BDS activists during the voting process, both in person and on social media. Another resolution was defeated at Warwick University.
The other important BDS development were revelations regarding antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour Club. The club’s co-chair resigned after their decision to endorse “Israel Apartheid Week.” He complained of
members of the Executive throwing around the term ‘Zio’ (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explitictly [sic] defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former Co-Chair claiming that ‘most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’, a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews. The decision of the club to endorse a movement with a history of targetting [sic] and harassing Jewish students and inviting antisemitic speakers to campuses, despite the concerns of Jewish students, illustrates how uneven and insincere much of the active membership is when it comes to liberation.
These revelations prompted widespread press attention and condemnations, an official inquiry by the Labour Party, and admissions from party members that an antisemitism problem exists. The party’s reluctance to release its report on the situation also prompted accusations of a cover-up. A perceived Labour Party antisemitism problem was furthered by reports that party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s son manages the York University Palestinian Solidarity Society, which recently performed Caryl Churchill’s antisemitic play “Seven Jewish Children – A Play for Palestine.”
Antisemitism at British universities and its connection with BDS has been brought into sharper focus by recent incidents, such as the attack on former Israeli admiral and Labor Party Knesset member Ami Ayalon at King’s College London. A report by the college on the incident concluded that BDS protestors who “chose to behave inappropriately crossed a line and should be held accountable for doing so.” Whether condemnation of the antisemitic campus environment by British parliamentarians will result in changes is unknown.
Campus antisemitism and protests against calls for peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis also increased in the US. Pro-Palestinian protestors at the University of Chicago disrupted and shut down a talk by Palestinian dissident Bassam Eid. The local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter also protested a talk at Brown University on “Jewish journeys” by actor Michael Douglas and human rights advocate and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. BDS protestors also disrupted a pro-Israel talk at the University of South Florida and were removed by police, as well as at Florida International University.
In a novel development at Brooklyn College, BDS protestors invaded a faculty meeting yelling “Zionists off campus” and called one faculty member a “Zionist pig.” The Brooklyn College incident was condemned by the school’s president, who called for an investigation, and by local politicians. Other, including media outlets, have pointed out that the incident was one of series orchestrated against Jewish students by Students for Justice in Palestine chapters.
Reports from Vassar and Oberlin indicate that BDS has intensified antisemitism in the same manner as British universities. At Vassar, an upcoming BDS resolution vote was framed by the appearance of a speaker who accused Israel of stealing organs from murdered Palestinians, as well as a spate of antisemitic harassment on social media. BDS supporters disputed that the widely criticized talk was antisemitic.
At Oberlin, the growing controversy over a pervasive atmosphere of antisemitism, which culminated in an open letter by over 200 alumni, was recently highlighted by revelations regarding a faculty member who accused Israel of being behind ISIS and 9/11.
One result of the growing antisemitic environment of North American campuses is that donors are reconsidering relationships with universities. Canadian film executive Paul Bronfman, for example, withdrew his support for York University after the school refused to remove a mural in the student center depicting Palestinian violence against Israelis.
In cultural news, reports that Jennifer Lopez will perform in Israel sparked a wave of protests from BDS supporters, as did unconfirmed reports that Bruce Springsteen might perform there. International soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo was also condemned for appearing in an Israeli TV ad. Finally, the inclusion of an all-expense paid trip to Israel as part of the prizes given to Academy Award nominees prompted widespread protests from BDS supporters.
Editor SPME / BDS Monitor
Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.
Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.
In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.
Latest Articles by Alex Joffe
- Feb 29, 2016
BDS movement suffers legal setbacks globally as nations and states impose restrictions, but legislative provisions split the White House and Congress. University protests continue with prominent antisemitic harassment.
- Feb 12, 2016
Healthy Institutions Don’t Boycott Israel
- Feb 1, 2016
BDS protests in January include violence. U.S. joins West Bank product labeling push. Opposition to BDS in academia and state legislatures is successful but new attacks emerge.
- Dec 30, 2015
BDS-led discrimination against Jewish groups grows on campus but fuels backlash. European Union labeling aimed at Israeli communities across the “Green Line” continues but more countries reject guidelines as local restrictions on BDS increase.
- Nov 30, 2015
American anthropologists vote to recommend Israel boycott as campus BDS becomes more confrontational and overtly antisemitic. European Union announces labeling for Israel ‘settlement’ products, generating backlash.