An Israeli diplomat issued a stark warning to a roomful of Jewish communal professionals at a major Jewish convention last fall. The campaign to impose boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel, he said, amounts to putting “a practical warhead on the tip of an ideological rocket.”
The Israeli official, a public diplomacy officer with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named D.J. Schneeweiss, was not alone in describing in drastic terms the threat posed by the international anti-Israel campaign, known by the acronym BDS, at the New Orleans convention of the Jewish Federations of North America. Since the blow-up months earlier at the University of California, Berkeley, over a student government resolution calling on the school to divest from firms selling weapons to Israel, concern over the BDS movement had been at the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda. Communal officials warned that it gave everyday activists a concrete outlet for their efforts.
And they were willing to do more than just talk: At the convention, officials announced the launch of a $6 million organization that would fight what supporters described as efforts to delegitimize Israel.
But there is little clarity from pro-Israel advocates on the precise scale of the threat, particularly as it exists on North American college campuses, a central battleground in the Israel debate. And while BDS leaders claim to be inspiring a sea change in the American discourse on Israel, they can enumerate few specific gains.
An extensive national survey by the Forward indicates that, despite a sharp increase in the past year, significant BDS activity on North American campuses is limited to a handful of instances since 2005, the year of the official launch of the BDS campaign. The Forward counted 17 instances at 14 campuses over the past six years of a boycott or divestment effort that was significant and well-organized enough to draw an active official response from a student government or campus administrative body.
In no instance has BDS action led to a university in the U.S. or Canada divesting from any company or permanently ceasing the sale of any product.
Both BDS activists and Jewish Israel advocates argue that the small number of significant campus BDS campaigns fails to capture the importance of the movement. But the Forward’s count calls into question the dire rhetoric and far-reaching claims employed by both the proponents and critics of BDS.
Though efforts to impose boycotts on Israeli goods or to divest from firms doing business with Israel date back decades, leaders of the current movement cite as their inspiration the July 2005 statement by scores of Palestinian civil society groups, calling on international supporters of the Palestinian cause to adopt tactics similar to those used to mobilize worldwide action against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era,” the document reads.
Since the 2005 call, BDS activists have had some success in convincing European universities to adopt boycott measures. Their impact in North America, however, has been limited. BDS efforts here have largely focused on Christian denominational organizations and college campuses.
The South African BDS movement, which reached its peak in the 1980s, also began with a focus on campuses and Christian denominational organizations, according to Mike Fleshman, former human rights director for the American Committee on Africa, a leading anti-apartheid group. “Once we got those two key sectors organized, that was the way we got the issue from the margins of the American political system into the middle of it,” Fleshman said. “It took a good 20 years to get to the height of the movement, when we had hundreds and hundreds of campuses that had taken action, dozens of states and hundreds of cities.”
The Palestinian campaign has met with harsh condemnation from Israel and its advocates. Critics cast it as part of a broader campaign to “delegitimize” Israel by challenging its place amongst the nations of the world. BDS activists themselves agree.
“The reason that there is so much effort put into fighting BDS is only partially economic,” said Anna Balzer, national coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “It’s also because BDS is changing the perception of Israel as a normal country.”
A statement published in February by scores of Jewish groups, including Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, warned that BDS treads close to anti-Semitism.
“We recognize and accept that individuals and groups may have legitimate criticism of Israeli policies,” the statement read. “Criticism becomes anti-Semitism, however, when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.”
In recent months, Jewish groups have committed significant resources to opposing BDS and the larger delegitimization effort of which they say BDS is a key part. Most high profile has been the founding of the Israel Action Network, the $6 million collaboration between the JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced at the November JFNA convention.
Other organizations have mobilized to confront BDS, as well. The Israel on Campus Coalition split from Hillel in November to serve as a stand-alone clearinghouse and umbrella for Jewish campus groups’ efforts to oppose delegitimization and to promote Israel education.
In order to count significant campus BDS instances, the Forward polled BDS activist groups and Jewish groups that work to oppose the movement. The Forward compared incident lists — some provided privately, some available online — maintained by the ADL, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the pro-Palestinian Institute for Middle East Understanding, among others.
Those lists included some relatively minor incidents that did not make the Forward’s final count. Protests or calls for BDS that were not part of coordinated campaigns leading to specific administrative or student government responses were considered expressions of speech and were not counted. Some petition drives that targeted outside investment funds rather than the universities themselves also were not counted. And some efforts still at an early stage, including a well-organized petition drive targeting two universities in Toronto, were also excluded.
Significant incidents which made the Forward’s count include:
• Multiple votes on non-binding student government resolutions to divest from companies doing business with Israel or, in other cases, companies with business in the occupied territories;
• A failed student body referendum on whether Princeton University should offer alternatives to Sabra brand hummus due to donations by a Sabra owner to an IDF unit;
• The creation of a committee chaired by the controller of the University of Vermont to consider divestment from firms that profit from the occupation.
Of the divestment efforts listed, only three appear to involve individuals or governing bodies with the power to actually withdraw university funds from targeted corporations. Student governments that consider divestment measures have no power themselves over investment policy but can pass resolutions calling on their university’s trustees to actually divest. The 2009 incident at Hampshire College appears to be the closest BDS activists have come to actually causing a school to change its investment policy.
Activists on both sides of the issue criticized the Forward’s count. Pro-Israel advocates argued that only including efforts that were acted upon missed those that were stopped through lobbying and organizing efforts before they made headway.
“There’s an exertion of resources, there’s an exertion of effort, the effort is so successful it doesn’t hit your list,” said Israel on Campus Coalition executive director Stephen Kuperberg.
Other BDS opponents emphasized the importance of being proactive. “We are not sitting around waiting for the BDS movement to pop up on a given campus for us to encourage the community to work with Hillel and other on-campus partners to promote a positive image of Israel,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Action Network.
BDS advocates, for their part, argued that some campus groups are active in divestment campaigns that don’t directly target their university, including the broad effort to push financial services firm TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from the occupation.
“If you counted the full array of campaigns that are gaining momentum all the way to campaigns which have had successes, which of course is a smaller number, and if you counted the full array of different types of BDS, I think the number would be a lot higher,” said Balzer.
Although instances included in the count reach back to early 2005, most took place since early 2010. But they continue to be relatively localized. Three of the incidents occurred at the University of Michigan’s campus in Dearborn, a city near Detroit with a large Arab population; two took place at Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor. Two of the incidents since the beginning of 2010 took place at University of California campuses.
The incidents split evenly between those calling for targeted boycott and divestment against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and broad boycott and divestment against Israel as a whole. Though Jewish groups have criticized both targeted and broad BDS efforts, some — including Raffel — have signaled that not all efforts at limited BDS should be considered attempts at delegitimization.
Jewish communal mobilization against BDS has sometimes been overwhelming in its scale and, at times, apparently effective. In April 2010, local offices of the ADL, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council and J Street collaborated with the Berkeley Hillel and Israel’s consul general in San Francisco to devise a lobbying strategy to deprive BDS supporters at Berkeley of the student senate votes needed to overturn a presidential veto of a pro-BDS resolution that had passed days earlier. Intensive joint efforts by the groups succeeded in changing the votes of two senators and causing one to abstain. The attempt to overturn the veto failed.
But other campus BDS efforts appear to have drawn outsized reaction from Jewish organizations. At a February meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado, a sole alumna proposed that the board divest from firms doing business with Israel. According to a report in the Boulder Jewish News, representatives of the Boulder office of the ADL, the Boulder JCC, StandWithUs, and the Denver JCRC attended the board meeting. The local ADL branch boasted on its website that it “sprang to action” upon hearing of the divestment proposal.
But the Boulder Jewish News noted that internal university issues had dominated most of the trustee’s meeting, and that the local newspaper’s coverage had not even mentioned the BDS proposal. The Jewish News’s headline for the story: “CU Divest Attempt Almost Non-Event.”
Jewish officials claim that their response to BDS has been proportional. They argue that the small number of major campus incidents does not imply that the movement is not having, or capable of having, a serious impact.
“I think that the failure of delegitimizers to succeed in forcing the sale of stock or preventing the purchase of products should give us little comfort,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of JCPA, who has been deeply involved in opposing divestment efforts by Christian denominational organizations. “The frequency with which demonizing narratives are being promulgated is frightening. There is a movement not just to insert multiple narratives, but to erase Jewish narrative. And that is growing rapidly.”
Officials also argued that the sharp uptick seen in significant incidents over the past year reflected a qualitative change in the nature of the movement on campus.
“When Berkeley and Stanford and [the University of California, San Diego] last semester had in their student governments local students introducing resolutions, for me that was a flag of concern because it was not merely a parachuted-in speaker,” said Hillel president Wayne Firestone. “When it happened bottom-up like that, that’s far more problematic for me.”
Advocates of BDS, meanwhile, say that the lack of concrete victories is incidental to the movement’s success.
“From an organizing perspective, the tactics of BDS provide a common platform and points of unity for people in the United States to start working on,” said Yaman Salahi, a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine group at Yale University, where he is a law student. “BDS provides a concrete way for students and people outside of campuses to directly connect with the issues… and it also provokes a discussion that is often difficult to provoke.”
Supporters also argue that the movement has had an impact on how people think about and discuss the conflict. “It’s been great in affecting the discourse and just mobilizing people,” said Balzer. “Suddenly the discussion on campus is, do Israel’s atrocities merit divestment? Which is a very different question than, is Israel angelic?”
Additional reporting by Gal Beckerman, Maia Efrem and Katherine Clarke.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the video associated with this story misidentified a photo as having been taken University of Michigan, Ann Arbor during Israel Apartheid Week in 2011. The photo was actually taken in 2008 or 2009. There was no Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2011.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.