BDS on campus: When does ‘anti-Israel’ become anti-Semitic?

BDS demonstration at the White House in 2010 (Creative Commons)
(J) — Liana Kadisha, a senior at Stanford University, says some Jewish students on her campus feel they have to hide who they are. The 22-year-old knows of several who tuck their Star of David necklaces inside their shirts, self-conscious about drawing attention to their Jewish identity.
That’s not the only worry for Jews at the bucolic Palo Alto campus.
Last month, Molly Horwiz, a Jewish candidate for the Stanford student senate, found herself grilled by members of a campus club who questioned her ability to think independently because of her “Jewish identity,” she said. Days later, vandals painted swastikas on a Stanford frat house.
Those incidents followed a student senate debate over an Israel divestment resolution in February. The bill passed on a second vote, after failing in a first round.
“The night of the first vote, one of the pro-divestment students got up and shouted ‘Long live the intifada’ and stormed out of the room,” Kadisha recalled. “That was extremely disturbing.”
After the resolution passed, more than 150 current and former faculty members and researchers signed an open letter condemning the “single-minded ferocity” of the divest-from-Israel campaign on their campus. Its goal, the letter claimed, “wasn’t to open up discussion on these complex matters but to dictate simple, outright excoriation.”
Steven Zipperstein, a Stanford professor of Jewish culture and history, helped craft the letter, telling J. in March that the tenor of the campus debate on Israel was worrying.
“I understand why Israeli politics would enrage,” he said in March. “I’m enraged by many of the politics in Israel. But the fact that outrage against Israeli politics is the one issue that captured more attention at Stanford than any other political issue in the last 30 years, as stated by our president — that’s bizarre.”
Student demonstration outside One Illinois Center in Chicago (Courtesy of StandWithUs)
Student demonstration outside One Illinois Center in Chicago (Courtesy of StandWithUs)

Something bad is happening on American campuses, and it’s not unrelated to the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. A survey by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law found that 54 percent of Jewish college students experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-14 school year, including incidents of harassment, violence or a “hostile environment.”

Incidents can range from swastikas scrawled on frat houses to student committees questioning whether Jewish students are fit to serve in student government. The latter occurred earlier this year at UCLA as well as Stanford, though university administrators immediately intervened in both cases and the inquisitorial students apologized.
It could be worse. At a university in Durban, South Africa, one student government body called for the expulsion of all Jewish students on the chance they could be Zionists.
In this country, experts agree, such incidents tend to occur on campuses with an active BDS presence.
On its face, the BDS movement formally organized in 2005 to oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The idea is to put political and economic pressure on Israel, publicly, in order to force an end to the occupation, among other stated goals. Tactics include  boycotting goods made in Israel or the settlements; barring Israeli academics from international conferences and pressuring international artists and scholars not to visit Israel; and, on campus, putting forward student resolutions asking universities to divest holdings in companies that do business with Israel.
However, BDS critics — including some who are critical of Israeli government policies — believe the movement’s true aim is not to pressure Israel, but to eradicate it.
As former Harvard President Larry Summers once said of BDS, it is “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.”
“[BDS] is a concerted campaign by people who seek the elimination of the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Doug Khan, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “At the very least, it’s a nonviolent means to a violent end.”
Critics of BDS link the movement to overtly anti-Semitic activity, pointing, for example, to swastika graffiti that emerges after divestment bills are passed — or not passed. Jewish supporters of BDS dismiss these charges, calling them desperation tactics by pro-Israel advocates who want to shut down any criticism of Israel.
“There’s no evidence of any kind that [swastika graffiti] has anything to do with the Palestinian solidarity movement,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, co-director of organizing for the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which endorses BDS. “It’s sloppy and unethical to suggest a connection. [Pro-Israel activists] use [anti-Semitism] to deflect a conversation about what is happening inside Israel, over policies that are discriminatory, violent and deny basic human rights to Palestinians.”
ASUCD senator Azka Fayyaz, left, at a UC Davis protest (Creative Commons)
ASUCD senator Azka Fayyaz, left, at a UC Davis protest (Creative Commons)

It is true that the vandals who scrawled swastikas at Stanford last month and on the walls of a Jewish fraternity at U.C. Davis in January have never been caught, and no one knows their motives.

But sentinels on the lookout for anti-Semitism believe the BDS movement must accept its share of blame for the increase in incidents and overheated rhetoric. They say the movement hides its true agenda, which they contend is anti-Semitic at its core.
Correlation is not causation. But when it comes to BDS and anti-Jewish rhetoric, some Jewish community watchdogs see the two overlapping too often.
Seth Brysk, Central Pacific regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, makes his living detecting anti-Semitism. The ADL does not level the charge or use the term lightly, he says, but BDS matches the description.
“The positions of BDS leaders advocating the unqualified right of return of all Palestinian refugees [to Israel], a one-state solution, would lead to the demise of Israel as a Jewish state,” Brysk said. “People who advocate that promote an idea that at its core is anti-Semitic.”
Though he concedes that not everyone involved in BDS is anti-Semitic, Brysk cites examples of supporters using incendiary rhetoric, expropriating Nazi terminology to describe Israel and Israelis. For example, he says, some BDS adherents charge Israel with perpetrating a “holocaust” against Palestinians, and he points to a new anti-Israel term du jour — Zizis, short for Zionist Nazis, used to describe Israelis and their supporters.
Even when activists temper their rhetoric, Brysk says the BDS movement makes anti-Semitic acts and speech “acceptable and more inevitable,” creating an atmosphere that normalizes anti-Jewish behavior.
“It takes an extremely one-sided approach to a complex problem,” he added, “and rather than really engage in peaceful protest, it’s a disingenuous and prejudiced movement.” Roz Rothstein, founder and director of the pro-Israel nonprofit StandWithUs, employs a litmus test to determine whether criticism of Israel veers into anti-Semitic speech: the “three Ds” of delegitimization, demonization and double standard. Those are key parts of the State Department’s official definition of anti-Semitism.
“If you apply the three Ds, you can see that [BDS] does qualify,” Rothstein said. “The movement targets [only] Israel, blaming it for the lack of peace. The movement conveniently does not discuss its goal, which is not peaceful coexistence.”
Rothstein points to some of the more extreme examples of imagery seen in anti-Israel protests: posters that replace the six-pointed Jewish star with a swastika, blood-spattered Israeli flags, or political cartoons that contort Israeli leaders into hook-nosed ghouls out of the pages of the Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.
“The Jewish star to the Jewish people signifies their religion,” she said. “It’s very scary. People don’t understand how egregious this is.”
Such imagery may disturb, but the First Amendment protects anti-Jewish speech, no matter how hateful. And there is little university administrators can do to stop it, one of them notes.
“I’m a First Amendment maven,” said Mark Yudof, the former president of the University of California and a professor of constitutional law. An ardent supporter of Israel who is active in the Bay Area Jewish community, Yudof says that in no way diminishes his stance on this issue. “I believe in free speech. I honestly believe people can be highly critical of Israel and not be anti-Semitic. It’s painting with too broad a brush to say everyone who doesn’t agree with you on policy toward Israel is tarred and feathered with anti-Semitism.”
Still, though he defended free speech and peaceful protest during his tenure as U.C. president, Yudof always found the BDS movement and its agenda contemptible.
“You get suspicious sometimes,” he said. “I’ve listened to the narratives. Sometimes it’s not that Israel is wrong or it should do this or that. The [BDS] narrative is that Jews are too powerful, too privileged, have too much influence with Congress and the media. It strikes me as containing an anti-Semitic element.”
Yudof once met with indignant pro-Palestinian students, who told him he was wrong to defend the free speech rights of Israel supporters because “the First Amendment is only for marginalized people, and not privileged people like Jews.”
If anyone is marginalized, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin would say it is the pro-Israel college student. The U.C. Santa Cruz Jewish studies lecturer and co-founder of the Amcha Initiative, which combats anti-Semitism on campus, believes that sticking up for Israel has grown dangerous.
The nonprofit’s website has a tracker monitoring anti-Semitic incidents on campus. Since January 2014, the tracker has logged 29 incidents of swastika graffiti on or near American campuses, among them U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis and Stanford.
“It’s becoming more clear, more explicit every day,” she said of the link between BDS and anti-Semitism. “What used to be Israel Apartheid Week is now called Anti-Zionism Week. No more ‘Let’s criticize the policies of the government of Israel.’ Now it becomes opposition to Israel’s very existence.”
And since making Israel disappear would require the disappearance of 7 million Israeli Jews, that would amount to anti-Semitism, Rossman-Benjamin argues.
“There is a certain hostile environment for Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state,” she said. “So when there are divestment resolutions, you have a climate that is actually toxic. It spills over into acts against Jews. In the minds of those carrying out BDS activities, it’s about the Jews, the Jewish state, and the Jews who support the Jewish state. It can’t be a coincidence.”
Jews who are active in BDS say their very presence in the movement disproves the charges of anti-Semitism.
“You have StandWithUs and Amcha that use a claim of anti-Semitism as a political weapon,” said JVP’s Wise. “That desensitizes people to actual incidents of anti-Semitism and makes it harder for those of us concerned with Jewish safety and anti-Jewish oppression to counteract and address it. To me it reads as a last-gasp attempt to maintain the status quo of Israeli right-wing policy.
”Gabi Kirk, 24, echoes Wise’s sentiments. A San Jose native and former counselor at Camp Tawonga, Kirk most recently served as the campus liaison for JVP. Though she left the organization last month, she still agrees with its criticism of Israeli policy and considers BDS a legitimate tactic.
Not only does she believe BDS is not inherently anti-Semitic, she thinks the status quo the Israeli government maintains in the Palestinian territories incites anti-Jewish sentiment more than any campus campaign could do.
“We believe ultimately that occupation, militarization and systems of apartheid harm everyone,” Kirk said. “They harm Jews by eroding moral values and pitting people against each other.”
Kirk said any time she encounters anti-Semitism from within the BDS movement on campus, she calls it out. When someone spouts anti-Semitic tropes, she tries to explain that their actions are no different from Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry. “Anti-Semitism exists,” she added. “We don’t deny that.”
Kahn says JCRC works to combat BDS on campus. But the organization also wages the fight in other arenas, such as liberal Protestant denominations, labor unions, and even grocery stores.
He cites past victories, such as persuading Sonoma County not to cancel a contract for buses made by a company that does business with Israel, and convincing San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery co-op to resume stocking Israeli goods, which had been targeted for boycott.
But he concedes the battle is growing tougher. Kahn estimates the number of pro-BDS organizations in the Bay Area has risen from 60 to 130 in the past five years. Outside some campus actions, Kahn says one of the most notorious local anti-Semitic incidents was last summer’s Block the Boat campaign at the Port of Oakland, which turned away an Israeli-owned cargo ship under the banner “Zionism is not welcome in Oakland.”
To Kahn it’s a short hop, skip and jump to a banner that one day could read “Zionists not welcome in Oakland.”
The JCRC counter-strategy has been to expose extremism. In 2010, the pro-Palestinian Christian organization Sabeel, which promotes church divestment from Israel and companies that work with Israel, held its biennial in San Anselmo, with more than 450 attendees and dozens of sponsors. Kahn says the thrust of the conference was to advocate for BDS.
“They had many speakers who wanted to see no Israel,” he recalled. “We sent a large delegation, not to make waves but to attend every session.” JCRC then shared what it heard at those sessions with sponsors, which led to many pulling their sponsorships from the next conference after “we exposed how extreme [the organization] was.”
As for BDS on campus, Kahn acknowledges that anti-Semitism likely does not animate a majority of activists, but he worries anyway. As a textbook case he points to the chain of events at U.C. Davis, which passed an Israel divestment resolution in January, immediately followed by a Facebook posting from one of the bill’s proponents claiming “Sharia law has come to Davis” and the swastika scrawled on a Jewish fraternity.
“The vitriol injected by the BDS movement, the repetitious espousal of hate for Israel and its supporters, potentially creates an atmosphere in which an individual may get his or her wires crossed and engage in a blatantly anti-Semitic act, such as painting a swastika,” Kahn said.
“Whoever perpetrated the act ultimately bears responsibility. By the same token, people who so readily create a hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel and Jewish students on campus cannot ultimately absolve themselves of responsibility, either.”
By aligning with BDS, Kahn says, Jews such as Wise and Kirk and organizations such as JVP merely provide the movement with a veneer of diversity.
Wise counters by noting that JVP has grown in the last few years to 30 chapters, with 200,000 supporters who donate or take action of some sort. That adds up to many Jews who, presumably, do not consider themselves anti-Semites.
“I would never advocate anything that I think would do harm to Jews,” Wise declared. “One of my biggest pet peeves is when people accuse me of that. If I believed the work I was doing was putting my family and friends in Israel in harm’s way, I wouldn’t do it.”
Even as the BDS movement gains strength on many campuses, particularly in California, pro-Israel activists note examples of growing pushback.
Student councils at UCLA, U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Barbara have adopted the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism (including the three Ds), though how it might be enforced on campus is unknown. Supporters of BDS, furthermore, believe this definition would silence legitimate criticism of Israel.
A biennial global forum for combating anti-Semitism just wrapped up in Jerusalem, recommending that governments and websites around the world adopt new, more stringent standards for hate speech.
The ADL has launched a program, Words to Action, to push back against anti-Semitism and inoculate younger generations against it. It is designed to teach high school and college students how to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic speech, actions and symbols, and how to respond.
Yudof has been consulting with organizations such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation to devise strategies to combat BDS. He urges a more aggressive, national approach. That’s the StandWithUs modus operandi, with its marked presence on campuses in terms of student volunteers, staff and educational materials.
The tide may be turning.
In recent weeks, divestment was rejected at Bowdoin College in Maine, Princeton University, San Diego State University, the University of New Mexico, University of Texas at Austin and U.C. Santa Barbara, as well as the general assembly of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (resolutions did pass at Oglethorpe University in Georgia and Earlham College in Indiana).
In California this month, 57 rabbis from across the state joined 23 Jewish organizations in writing to U.C. President Janet Napolitano, drawing her attention to “anti-Semitism on U.C. campuses” and urging the system to adopt the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.
Kahn believes the majority of college students are not very engaged in Middle East politics, but says that with enough effort, a convincing pro-Israel message might sway the persuadables.
“Increasingly [students] know that a tiny fringe is trying to push the campus in a direction that is both divisive and embarrassing when it engages in this blatantly biased beating up of Israel,” Kahn said. “There’s an opportunity for Jewish students to build coalitions that may address anti-Semitism and this broader challenge around anti-Israel activity.”
At Stanford, even though the divestment resolution passed, pro-Israel activists took heart from the backlash that followed — not only the open faculty letter opposing the resolution, but a petition signed by thousands of students concerned over what they felt the resolution, and the BDS movement, might portend.
“There’s a small but very strong group of Israel supporters on campus,” said Kadisha, the Stanford senior who formed Coalition for Peace to work against future divestment efforts. “I have total faith that they will continue to educate the campus and have this conversation in the best way possible going forward. Instead of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students fighting each other, there should be a place where their interests are one and the same.”