BDS and the Movement to Oppose the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism Align

Supporters of the BDS movement in South Africa. Photo: Twitter screenshot.

The most important BDS development in April was the alignment of left-wing Jewish faculty, students, and groups with opponents of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The most dramatic incident in student government took place at the City University of New York (CUNY), where a proposal to adopt the IHRA definition was met by another one co-sponsored by the CUNY Law School Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Law Students Association. That alternative proposal vilified the IHRA definition and proposed a stripped down condemnation of antisemitism based on “white supremacism.”

Whereas the pro-Israel supporters were open to compromise, the anti-Israel faction claimed that outside harassment poisoned the environment and made cooperation impossible. Both resolutions were voted down, which was effectively a positive outcome for anti-Israel students.

Elsewhere, at the University of Iowa, the student government passed a resolution opposing antisemitism, but after lengthy debate removed “controversial” clauses related to Israel. The bill also established a “Jewish constituency senator” in the student government, although press reports noted “some students were arguing that Jews should not be entitled to the same kind of representation as LGBTQ students or Black students because Judaism is a religion.”

Student governments at Notre Dame and the University of Manitoba both adopted IHRA resolutions, while a resolution that featured the IHRA definition was tabled indefinitely by the student government at the University of Pennsylvania. At Arizona State University a BDS resolution was debated and then removed from the agenda, which resulted in harassment of Jewish students.

At Michigan State University, an antisemitism resolution was proposed and approved. But supporters were later told that student representatives had not read the resolution and that, without amendments, it would be vetoed. During two Zoom sessions, commentators (who demanded to remain anonymous for fear of “harassment”) excoriated the bill and its supporters. The resolution was then withdrawn.

At the University of Toronto, the Scarborough Campus Student Union rejected a motion from a Jewish group to revoke a previously adopted BDS resolution, and to submit future resolutions to the equity committee for review. An unnamed student objected, saying, “the solution is attempting yet again to silence Palestinian suffrage through imposing a blatant Zionist agenda.”

The Pomona College student government passed a BDS resolution unanimously. Co-sponsored by the local SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters, the resolution calls on the student government to deny funding to student groups that “invest in or purchase goods or services from companies that contribute to the settlement and occupation of Palestinian occupied territories by the UN-designated companies or the Israeli state.”

Predictably, Jewish students were not informed in advance of the resolution, and no comment period was permitted, in contravention of student government regulations. The terms of the resolution would deny students the right to express support for Israel or purchase some Israeli products. Organizations such as Hillel and Chabad risk being defunded completely. The university administration condemned the resolution.

The alignment between left-wing Jewish students and BDS supporters is an example of intersectional politics, and the effort to rewrite antisemitism solely as a “right-wing” phenomenon, to exclude Israel as an element of Jewish identity — while claiming that hatred directed at Israel is both free speech and an inherent Palestinian right — will characterize debate over the IHRA definition going forward.

This “intersectionality” was reflected in graffiti at the University of Massachusetts that saw “Free Palestine” and “Ahmad Erekat,” a Palestinian killed as he attempted to run down Israeli pedestrians, written alongside the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. More direct impacts were seen in the antisemitic vandalizing of Jewish and college facilities at the University of Kentucky, the University of Connecticut, and Rutgers University, as well as stone throwing attacks against synagogues in New York City.

Elsewhere in academia, San Francisco State University’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) program again scheduled a talk by terrorist Leila Khaled. After protests, the Zoom platform took down the event, as did Eventbrite and Facebook. In the meantime, however, another livestream from the AMED program featured a talk from Yacoub Odeh, another Palestinian terrorist operative.

The reappearance of terror-linked public events has prompted Zoom to revise its terms of service, placing more responsibility onto meeting organizers. Should external complaints arise regarding a speaker or event, the company would then assess potential legal and regulatory risks. The policy is designed to protect the company and, secondarily, to protect academic freedom.

The process of Jews legitimizing antisemitism focused against Israel is being replicated nationally. The two recent antisemitism definitions designed to compete with the IHRA, the Nexus Document and Jerusalem Declaration, both equivocate on antisemitic statements that focus on Israel. Despite claims to the contrary, these are clearly intended to undermine the consensus that has surrounded the IHRA definition.

A number of educational and Jewish institutions hosted events dedicated to undermining IHRA. At the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University a discussion was held on how “definitions, such as that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), become weaponized to shutter criticism of Israeli military occupation and increased state violence against Palestinians.” A report from the event indicated that one of the speakers characterized IHRA as a “plot” by the Israel advocacy “machine” to “silence Palestinians” and to defend “settler colonialism.” For his part, the Jewish faculty moderator indicated that if he were younger he would join a BDS group such as IfNotNow.

The reach of this effort into the political sphere was seen in a letter from a number of Democratic House members to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the State Department to use these two new definitions alongside the IHRA. The mendacious claim that these have been “formulated and embraced by the Jewish community” is designed to undermine the widespread acceptance of the IHRA.

Beyond the IHRA, ostensibly Jewish organizations such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now have now openly aligned with BDS supporters such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace to oppose US support for Israel. Their support for legislation proposed by a prominent BDS supporter, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the “U.S. Commitment to the Universal Human Rights of Palestinians Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act,” conditions US aid to Israel.

The realignment towards BDS-inspired restrictions on aid to Israel was also on display at the annual J Street conference. In her speech, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called for “restricting military aid from being used in the occupied territories,” a demand that President Joe Biden had called in 2019 “outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.” In his speech, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) agreed with the idea of restrictions, adding “it’s about acting in an even-handed way in the region and making sure that American aid works to advance American values, not undermine them.”

In the political sphere, BDS continues to be a contentious issue in the New York City mayoral race. When questioned in an institutional Jewish setting on the Democratic Socialists of America’s demand that they not visit Israel, most mayoral candidates responded that they would be willing to do so, but none expressed outright opposition to BDS.

At a private gathering, mayoral candidate Dianne Morales was revealed to have called Israel an “apartheid state” and added “I cannot advocate for equity and justice in New York City and turn a blind eye to the challenges around those issues in Israel and with the folks living in Gaza and in Palestine.” And the question of New York City pension funds being invested in Israeli entities also arose in the context of the New York City comptroller race, while a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, endorsed by left wing Jewish organizations and Linda Sarsour, is the sister of a noted BDS supporter.

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, where the author is a contributor.

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Author: Alexander Joffe


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