Israel News

From Durban to Los Angeles: the BDS movement’s long trail of anti-Semitism

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via  Wikimedia Commons.
A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, in a breathtaking display of anti-Semitism reminiscent of Nazi Germany, members of the student government at South Africa’s Durban University of Technology (DUT) called for the expulsion of all Jewish students from their campus. The very next day, halfway around the world, the student government at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) engaged in a similar display of anti-Jewish bigotry, nearly denying a highly qualified young woman a position on the student judiciary board after four student representatives brazenly argued that her Jewishness and affiliation with Jewish organizations should make her ineligible for the position.

Besides a shared proclivity for anti-Jewish bigotry, the DUT and UCLA student governments have something else in common: both bodies had previously voted to embrace the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This is not a coincidence, but rather further evidence of the well-documented relationship between BDS and acts of anti-Semitism, particularly on college campuses. At schools where groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) promote BDS, Jewish students have routinely reported being harassed, physically and verbally assaulted, threatened, vilified, and discriminated against. Jewish students’ property and the property of Jewish student organizations have been defaced, damaged, or destroyed, while Jewish student events have been disrupted and shut down.

The link between BDS and anti-Semitism should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the history of the BDS movement, which ironically emerged at the 2001 U.N.-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance—held in Durban, South Africa. Dubbed by former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler as “the tipping point for the coalescence of a new, virulent, globalizing anti-Jewishness,” the Durban conference and its concomitant NGO Forum featured posters displaying Nazi icons, anti-Jewish cartoons, hecklers chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew,” and wide distribution of the virulently anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” forgery. Tom Lantos, the late member of the U.S. Congress and Holocaust survivor, was part of the American delegation to the Durban conference and said the following: “For me, having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, this was the most sickening and unabashed display of hate for Jews I have seen since the Nazi period.”

BDS was spawned in the Durban conference’s fetid swamp of Jew-hatred and brought into the world through the NGO Forum’s Declaration of Principles, a document that not only laid the groundwork for the BDS movement, but also set the stage for today’s broader landscape of global anti-Israel activism. Written in highly politicized language, the Declaration of Principles declared Israel to be “a racist, apartheid state” and accused Israel of “crimes against humanity, including ethnic cleansing [and] acts of genocide.” According to the declaration, Israel should be punished for its “crimes” by “the launch[ing] of an international anti-Israel movement as implemented against South African Apartheid,” as well as “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state, which means the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, and the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military operation and training) between all states and Israel.”

If the BDS movement was born in 2001 at the Durban Conference and NGO Forum, it came of age in 2005 with the Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS, which virtually all subsequent BDS campaigns—including anti-Israel divestment resolutions on U.S. campuses—have acknowledged as their source and guiding light. Although it was signed by more than 100 Palestinian NGOs, the main group behind the Palestinian Civil Society Call and the subsequent Palestinian BDS National Committee, which facilitates coordination of BDS campaigns worldwide, is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine. The council is a coalition of Palestinian political factions founded by Yasser Arafat at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, for the purpose of opposing Israel and coordinating terror attacks against it. Not surprisingly, many of the council’s organizational members are linked to terrorism against Jews in Israel and worldwide. The council’s chief sponsors and major partners, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, were recently indicted in a U.S. federal court for sponsoring terrorism, and at least three other organizations in the council are on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations: Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the PFLP General Command.

Whether they have terrorist affiliations or not, all of the signatories to the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS—along with all of the groups that have established BDS campaigns in response to that call, including campus organizations like SJP—are committed to the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state and see BDS as an excellent means to that end. This is reflected in the demands of the Civil Society Call, particularly that Israel end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and permit all Palestinian refugees and their descendants “to return to their homes and properties.” The fulfillment of those demands would require Israel to commit territorial and demographic suicide. It is important to point out that denying Israel’s right to continue as a nation-state in which the Jewish people expresses its right to self-determination is a core element of the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Those who monitor global anti-Semitism agree that the number and intensity of attacks against Jews worldwide are at levels not seen since the Holocaust. Given the BDS movement’s anti-Semitic nature, its clear ties to terrorist organizations committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, and the anti-Semitic effects of the BDS movement on Jewish students, it is reasonable to ask: Why are BDS campaigns allowed on college campuses at all?

Students on a few campuses have asked the same question and wisely determined that BDS does not belong on their campus. Last month at University of California, Davis, the student government court overturned an anti-Israel divestment resolution that had been approved the month before, on the grounds that the resolution’s lack of focus on student welfare rendered it unconstitutional. At Virginia’s Liberty University, the student government recently passed an amendment to its constitution that prohibits all legislation promoting BDS.

But surprisingly, university administrators have been unwilling to address or even acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature and effects of the virulently anti-Israel BDS campaigns being carried out on their campuses by university-registered and university-funded student groups such as SJP. While university presidents have consistently refused to accede to student government demands that the university administration adopt BDS legislation, not one university leader has identified the BDS campaign as anti-Semitic or held accountable those who purvey BDS on their campus. This is an outrage.

Now is the time for university stakeholders—parents, alumni, donors, and taxpayers—to demand that university leaders take a firm public stand against the anti-Semitic BDS movement and commit themselves to ensuring that Jewish students are protected from the scourge of Jew-hatred that is rapidly infecting our campuses.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz and cofounder of the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization that combats campus anti-Semitism. 

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