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Is the BDS Movement Failing? Depends on Your Definition of Success.

Israel’s haters on campus are less and less effective in stopping institutions from collaborating with the Jewish state, but increasingly good at making Israeli speakers feel unwelcome

Armin Rosen
December 18, 2017
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
University of California at Berkeley police officer Debra Schnek guards a door to a building where dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators held a sit-in during a protest April 9, 2002 at the school in Berkeley, CA.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
University of California at Berkeley police officer Debra Schnek guards a door to a building where dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators held a sit-in during a protest April 9, 2002 at the school in Berkeley, CA.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Twelve years after its official founding, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel has failed to isolate the Jewish state. As of September, Israeli exports were on pace to cross $100 billion in a single year for the first time in history. Meanwhile, Israel’s diplomatic relationships in Africa, Asia, and even the Arab Middle East are improving, with countries from Bahrain to India eager to expand ties. If the BDS movement’s goal was to turn Israel into a pariah state, it’s not really working as intended.

There’s evidence the BDSers aren’t meeting many of their less ambitious objectives, either. On American college campuses, BDS is in the midst of a quiet losing streak, as its strategy of using student government resolutions and campus-wide referenda to prohibit business, cultural, or academic contacts with Israeli companies, institutions, and individuals has yielded few enduring results. At the same time, one of the student organizations that’s sustained and coordinated the movement on a national scale saw a sizable year-to-year drop-off in attendance for its national conference, which was held in late October.

A few high-profile campus votes held in 2017 went the BDS movement’s way. Last spring, the Tufts University student senate voted to recommend that the school divest from four companies with business in Israel, and a similar motion succeeded in University of Wisconsin’s student government around the same time. But the majority of campus BDS efforts failed. Campus-wide referenda at Ohio State and the University of Illinois fell short, and pro-BDS student government resolutions were soundly defeated at Columbia University and UC Santa Barbara. A much-discussed BDS measure at the University of Maryland month didn’t even make it to a vote last month. Where the movement did succeed, its victories were often less impactful than they appeared to be. The BDS movement’s biggest recent win came last month at the University of Michigan, where the student council voted to call on the university to investigate the possibility of divesting from certain companies for their alleged complicity in Israeli policies in the West Bank. The university’s administration then swiftly announced that the vote would have no effect on the school’s investments, and that it was unlikely a committee would even be formed to explore the possibility of divestment.

There is a constellation of organizations that assist student groups looking to bring pro-BDS activism to their campuses. A one-page flyer, reproduced in the program for Students for Justice in Palestine’s conference in October, advertises the Campus Palestine Support Network, a “joint effort” aimed at providing nation-wide institutional backing for campus BDS campaigns. Each of the network’s members serves a separate but mutually reinforcing function: Palestine Legal handles any law or procedure-related challenges, while Jewish Voice for Peace works to give an impression of Jewish student and communal support for a boycott of Israel. In a video taken on the sidelines of a debate over the University of Maryland resolution and shared with Tablet, a satisfied-looking Kareem el-Hosseiny, a government relations coordinator for the pro-boycott American Muslims for Palestine, tells a Maryland pro-BDS activist that a speech she gave “terrified the Zios.” Among other things, the video demonstrates there’s a degree of outside guidance for campus BDS efforts.

Still, at least one national BDS organization might be having trouble keeping people engaged. According to research conducted by the the Israel on Campus Coalition, this year’s Students for Justice in Palestine national conference saw only a fraction of the attendance of last year’s. The group could identify only 50 attendees from 22 universities at this year’s conference, compared to 150 from 52 institutions who appeared to have participated last year. It’s also difficult to figure out who actually presented at the conference, since most of the panel and event descriptions don’t indicate who will actually be speaking. The document gives the impression that participants wanted to conceal their level of involvement at the conference—perhaps because of the Canary Mission, a controversial website aimed at identifying pro-BDS leaders, including college students. Potential online backlash was one reason that the student government BDS vote at the University of Michigan was held by secret ballot, in a break with typical protocol at the school.

The SJP conference might have seen an attendance drop-off because of its location this year. The event was held in Houston, Texas, far away from many of the more active campuses for Palestine solidarity activism. The last few years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have also lacked the kind of dramatic, galvanizing crisis that often drives activism—the last full-scale war between Israel and Hamas was over three years ago. It’s also possible that SJP itself is simply too extreme, even for college students. The group is considered to be the campus wing of American Muslims for Palestine, an offshoot of the now-shuttered and Hamas-aligned Islamic Association for Palestine and a group whose chairman, the Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, who apologized after sharing a series of anti-Semitic images on social media last month. Although anti-Israel activism is often framed as a progressive cause, it’s easy to imagine more left-wing students bristling at a movement that lapses into such queasy rhetoric. El-Hosseiny’s listeners seemed comfortable with his rhetoric about the “Zios,” a term often heard within alt-right or white supremacist circles—but not everyone is, even among hardcore critics of Israel.

These setbacks might do little to slow the BDS movement’s long-term momentum—after all, they’re only “setbacks” if the movement’s objectives are narrowly understood. If BDS activists’ goal is to remove Israeli products from college campuses, or end academic exchanges with Israeli institutions, they’ve failed so far. A BDS activist at Cornell has slim hopes of ending the school’s relationship with the Technion, especially since the two schools opened a joint campus in New York’s Roosevelt Island in September. But if the movement’s goal is to make any Israel-related topic poisonous, or to make students wary of associating themselves with the Jewish state in any way, its success has be measured against nebulous and largely unknowable criteria. In the future, the movement might get more mileage out of interrupting or “no-platforming” Israeli speakers, as recently happened to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University in April of 2016, or stigmatizing participants in Birthright—the goal of a newly launched JVP campaign—than from organizing campus boycott efforts. The movement’s recent of losses could presage a move away from tactics that the US’s organized Jewish community has grown accustomed to fighting over the past few years, and towards an even more chaotic battle for students’ hearts and minds.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.