The Anti-Semitic BDS Campaigns on Campus:What is Their Impact?

The conventional wisdom today in the United States and Israel is that American campuses are rife with anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel stoked by the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign. Parents read horror stories and fear that their children may be in physical danger and their spiritual connection to Israel threatened. Max Samarov and Brett Cohen of StandWithUs summarize the perception: “BDS is a serious threat on many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious universities because it is turning the political opinions of many student leaders against Israel, and deepening divides between Jews and other minority groups. The ultimate strategic challenge this poses is that America's future leadership, particularly in the Democratic Party, will be much less supportive of Israel. The threat is certainly growing as this trickles down to more and more schools, and as the narrative of Israel as a guilty party becomes widespread and accepted.”
One of the perplexing questions has been how the BDS movement, particularly on campus, is being financed. How do the organizations manage to stage conferences, lectures, and Israel hate weeks, recruit student government candidates, and give the impression of a well-funded, coordinated and increasingly influential movement?
Through interviews, information published by BDS activists and public documents it is possible to put together a glimpse at the anti-Semitic BDS network and the Israel deniers who are behind it. But first, let’s put aside the hysteria about the campus environment and look at some facts about the main campus activity of the BDS campaign, the drive to convince universities to divest from certain companies doing business in Israel, usually via resolutions adopted by student governments.
The first BDS resolutions were proposed in student governments in 2005-6, of the four introduced, two passed and two were defeated. Only five other resolutions were proposed in the following five academic years combined and three of those were defeated. The campaign began to take off in 2012-13 with 10 resolutions (six were defeated), followed by 19 in 2013-14 (12 were defeated) and 27 in 2014-15 (20 were defeated).
In the last 10 years (2005-2015):
  • A total of 70 votes have been taken on BDS measures – 45 were defeated (64%).
  • Those votes were limited to a total of 44 schools, just 2 percent of America’s four-year colleges. (I count the California Community College Association as one college and exclude the UC Student Association which has no power and represents no individual schools).
  • Of the 44 campuses, 9 are part of the University of California (20%); 24 resolutions were proposed on these campuses and 15 were defeated (63 percent).
  • Only 18 schools have approved a BDS resolution in the last 10 years (.009 percent of universities).
  • Only the University of Michigan Dearborn, UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Davis have passed BDS resolutions more than once.
What are we to make of these statistics?
The movement has grown, but it is not sweeping the nation, and it definitely is not winning. Even the handful of divestment resolutions that were adopted by students have no authority and administrators have repeatedly made clear they have no intention of divesting from Israel. In fact, many of the same schools (e.g., UCI) dramatically increased cooperation with Israel after the votes.
What about the concern that BDS campaigns target elite campuses? Here is the data:
Seven schools ranked in the top 20 have considered BDS proposals and 7 of 8 were defeated.
A total of 14 schools in the top 50 entertained BDS initiatives and 19 of 29 were defeated.
BDS activists are not bothered by their failures because they are publicizing the plight of the Palestinians through these measures. Opponents of BDS often play into their hands by giving them more publicity, or unintentionally reinforcing their message, as in the case of using the “A-word” to defend Israel against charges it is like the former racist regime South African. The BDSers have also succeeded in getting the pro-Israel community to devote huge amounts of time and resources to fighting them that could be used for other priorities.
Alarmists argue the nation’s future leaders are accepting the anti-Semitic premise of these resolutions; however, we might have a little more faith in the intelligence of these students and their ability to distinguish nonsense from reality. The handful of student government officials promoting BDS do not reflect the attitudes of their generation. This is evident from the fact that only a miniscule fraction of the tens of thousands of university students have supported BDS. Most students have no idea what BDS means and oppose it once they’re informed. In the AICE/TIP student survey in 2011, for example, opposition to BDS increased from 34% to 49% once respondents received a description of the campaign’s objectives; only 13% voiced support.
The arguments of the BDSers do not resonate with most students once they are exposed as Israel deniers with no interest in the welfare of the Palestinians, peace, or human rights abuses where Israel cannot be accused. Ken Marcus, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center agrees that there is not much danger “that major universities will actually divest their holdings, but rather that an entire generation of Americans will have a lesser view of Israel.” Students are being brainwashed to believe that Israel is not a democracy, and that they should focus on “whether its iniquities are so gross as to merit the extraordinary remedy of divestment.”
The short-term goal of the BDS movement is to confuse students about Israel’s policies; the drumbeat of attacks has damaged Israel’s image and made students question whether it is a true democracy that is interested in peace and respects human rights. Interestingly, the anti-Israel propaganda has not generated support for the Palestinians; the AICE/TIP poll found virtually no support for them.
Many students are unaware of the long-term objective of the BDS movement articulated by As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California State University Stanislaus: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel….That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.”
Activists also claim that these debates, even when BDS is defeated, creates a hostile atmosphere that makes Jewish students feel unsafe. Susan Tuchman of the ZOA, for example, observes that “Jewish students at UC Irvine, Rutgers University, Brooklyn College and other schools have been subjected to vicious anti-Israel speakers and programs that create a hostile learning environment. Thousands of Jewish kids are thus being confronted with, and affected by, anti-Israel campaigns that often turn ugly, hateful and anti-Semitic.”
The “hostile environment” argument has gained some traction, and has been used to accuse schools of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Muslims now are adopting a similar tactic, claiming that they are the ones subject to discrimination that has made them feel unsafe. Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, argues that anti-Muslim speakers “create a hostile learning environment for Muslim and Arab-American students…designed to demonize Muslim and Arab students.” So far neither side’s complaints have resulted in any penalties against a university.
Tuchman insists that the situation is bad and growing worse. “Why tell Jewish students that that’s no big deal because only 30-40 campuses have been affected so far? It is a big deal if any Jewish student feels unwelcome or unsafe on any campus in this country. And if even one U.S. campus is a hostile place for Jewish students, then that should be intolerable to the Jewish community.”
The good news is that the BDS movement has created a major backlash in the United States. This summer Congress added a provision to the Trade Promotion Authority signed by the president that requires the United States to oppose efforts by the European Union to engage in any form of BDS against Israel. Anti-BDS legislation is also spreading to state legislatures, with South Carolina, Tennessee and Illinois in the vanguard. Each state has slightly different language in their bills, but they resemble the law adopted in South Carolina, which bars public entities from contracting with businesses engaging in the “boycott of a person or an entity based in or doing business with a jurisdiction with whom South Carolina can enjoy open trade.” Though Israel is not mentioned, the impetus for the law was the belief that BDS discriminates against the people of Israel and weakens the economy of South Carolina.
These legislative initiatives are likely to have a greater deterrent effect on the BDS movement than anything pro-Israel organizations do on the campus. In the short-run, they have helped stop whatever momentum the Israel deniers believed they had in their favor.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.