In December, the most important BDS-related developments came in the wake of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This designation will eventually culminate in the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reportedly within the next three years.
Despite loud complaints from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, their calls for “Days of Rage” produced only minor protests in the Arab and Muslim world. In US and European cities, there were a number of large protests — many of which were organized by the BDS movement and by Muslim and Arab groups; in Sweden, several Jewish institutions were firebombed.
In America, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters at various universities took leading roles. Their overall tone was expressed by social media postings from the New York City chapter, which stated: “jaffa, where the US embassy is currently located, is no less palestinian than jerusalem, and it is ours just as jerusalem is ours just as the rest of the land from the river to the sea is ours.”
More ominous were public protests in Times Square, at which calls for “intifada” were heard, along with chants of “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammed is returning” — an Islamic reference to a 7th century massacre of Arabian Jews. Representatives of communist groups also participated in the protests and hailed Palestinian “resistance.”
The various protests served — once again — to clarify the goals and motivations of the BDS movement and its allies. Simply put, the BDS movement reject’s Israel 1948 “borders,” not simply the 1967 “occupation” borders, which usefully exposes the BDS movement’s core rejection of Israel as a state. The invocation of genocidal Islamic tropes and the rhetoric of “resistance” shared by Islamist and communists during these protests also demonstrated a shared commitment to violence.
Elsewhere on campus, the first ever divestment resolution passed by a student government at the University of Michigan drew a response from the school’s regents. In a statement, the regents made it clear that they would not form a committee to investigate the school’s investments in Israel, nor would they actually divest from companies working in Israel.
While the Michigan announcement was a setback for BDS activists, at the University of California, Irvine, the administration has relaxed sanctions on the local SJP chapter. That SJP chapter had been placed on probation after violently harassing participants at a pro-Israel event in May. The university gave no explanation for removing the group from probation, more than a year earlier than initially mandated.
During the fall semester, the BDS movement’s legal strategy of crying “racism” — and associating itself with other causes — became even clearer. At the University of Wisconsin, a November letter from Palestine Legal, the legal support wing of the BDS movement, complained that restrictions on pro-BDS students and “people of color” constituted harassment and infringement of freedom of speech. In general, universities have indulged SJP harassment of Israelis and Jews, imposing sanctions only reluctantly and after interminable “investigations.” The BDS strategy of accusing universities of “racism” will certainly exacerbate this trend.
At the same time, a small-scale survey of campus attitudes towards Israel and BDS indicated that Jewish students generally did not perceive antisemitism to be present at their schools, or think that their campuses were hostile to Jews or Israel. Some students, however, did claim to have witnessed anti-Israel hostility. But these cases were limited, and centered on a relatively small number of a highly vocal student activists and faculty supporters, especially at certain schools.
Regarding faculty, one of two lawsuits against the American Studies Association was dismissed on the grounds that no injury occurred when the organization began to support a BDS policy. A second lawsuit that effectively alleges that BDS members undertook a conspiracy to assume control of the organization is still being litigated.
BDS efforts to control the narrative regarding anti-Israel bias and antisemitism expanded in December. Strong opposition continued to the nomination of Kenneth Marcus as assistant secretary of education for civil rights. Marcus, the head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has been a leader in pushing for definitions of antisemitism that include anti-Israel bias, and in defending rights of Jewish students on campus.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the nomination. That group also continued its efforts to control narratives regarding antisemitism — and to exclude anti-Israel abuse — with a panel discussion at the University of Massachusetts co-sponsored with the local SJP chapter. One speaker there characterized antisemitism as “a very, very effective silencing mechanism” aimed at quashing criticism of Israel. This came on top of JVP’s seasonal efforts to subvert the Hanukkah holiday by decrying Israel and celebrating Palestinian terrorism, and its increasingly routine protests aimed at Birthright.
Efforts to create pro-BDS Jewish groups to subvert Jewish support for Israel have also recently advanced in Britain.
A new Labour Party group, “Jewish Voice for Labour,” was created to fight the correct impression that the party has a severe and growing antisemitism problem in both its leadership and grassroots, as well as an explicit anti-Israel animus. The new group is also intended to “break the Zionist monopoly” by directly challenging the long-established Jewish Labour Movement and its pro-Israel orientation.
In the US, there were several incidents where BDS leaders were accused of behaving abusively. In one, Hatem Bazian, an SJP co-founder, “Islamophobia” pioneer, and a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted a number of images depicting Israelis as Nazis, and accusing them of murdering Palestinians for their organs. Despite an outcry from students, faculty and Jewish leaders, the university has taken no action against Bazian.
In another strange turn, noted BDS supporter and recent left-wing icon Linda Sarsour was accused of enabling the sexual harassment of a junior colleague while on the staff of the Arab American Association. Sarsour, who recently headlined a discussion of antisemitism at the New School, is alleged to have told the victim — a Muslim woman — that “sexual harassment doesn’t happen to someone who looks like you.” Sarsour has denied the charge, as have a growing number of defenders. Recent reports indicate that this defense extends to Wikipedia, where editors have repeatedly undone changes to Sarsour’s page regarding the incident.
The Bazian and Sarsour cases demonstrate that certain left-wing figures are protected, despite their actions. But it also demonstrates how BDS leaders are frequently both crude antisemites and duplicitous individuals willing to sacrifice the well-being of others.
The tendency for the BDS movement to infect completely unrelated areas of politics — and to declare itself the victim when this is pointed out — also expanded in December. A noted BDS supporter on the Berkeley City Council was accused of dismissing a city transportation commissioner because he declined to answer questions regarding his attitude toward Israel. In response to news coverage of the incident, the city council member claimed that, “For this to be considered news worthy is another reflection of the ongoing suppression campaigns to smear anyone who supports Palestine.”
In the international sphere, Denmark and Norway both announced that they would cease funding NGOs that promote the BDS movement. The moves came after reports detailed how Scandinavian countries were funding the “Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat” and other BDS groups. The decisions were particularly interesting given Norwegian and Danish hostility towards Israel, and growing antisemitism in both countries. Danish interests were also affected when New Jersey announced that it was ending its investments in the Danske Bank as a result of the Garden State’s new anti-BDS law. The bank has been targeted by various US states due to its refusal to do business with several Israeli firms.
Less positive was the decision by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to downgrade South Africa’s relations with Israel. The country’s embassy in Tel Aviv will be renamed a ‘liaison office.’ While activists claimed the move was in response to the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, observers noted that the ANC has longstanding relations with Hamas — who were present when the vote to downgrade relations was taken.
Finally, in the cultural sphere, the New Zealand pop singer Lorde abruptly canceled her scheduled performances in Israel after pressure from BDS activists. Reports indicated, however, that she would continue with her performances in Russia. The Tel Aviv-based promoter the concert expressed sorrow at her decision, but also noted that Lorde is a young person who should not have been expected to have the maturity to withstand pressure from the BDS movement.
Lorde was excoriated by music industry professionals, Jewish groups and pro-peace activists, who complained about her decision to boycott Israel and her hypocrisy of performing in Russia. This unusually severe backlash is unlikely to produce a change of course when it comes to the singer, but it usefully highlights the hypocrisy of artists who routinely perform in actual human rights abusing states, including their own “settler-colonial” countries.
The calendar year ended with the BDS reliant, as always, on its masquerading as a human rights movement and on hijacking other causes — but with few tangible gains. The movement’s underlying antisemitism is harder to disguise, but, as figures like Sarsour show, all will be forgiven if a specific offender falls into a category protected by a larger cultural trend.