Challenging the actions of the Israeli government can bring change to prominent issues in Israeli society. What doesn’t create change, however, is placing Jews in a litmus test where in order to be accepted by progressive movements they must renounce their support for the State of Israel. This is what Jewish students face when the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement appears on their campus.
BDS, founded in 2005, seeks to hold the Israeli government to international law by advocating for freedom, justice and equality for all, including Palestinians. It does this through academic boycotts of Israeli academic institutions and professionals, divesting from collaborating with Israeli organizations, and endorsing sanctions.
At first glance, it’s a cause people can get behind — it pulls words from other progressive movements that have achieved success in Western society. And college campuses have long led the march toward justice and equality. Students have advocated for movements that seek to amplify the voices of minorities while bringing to attention global issues, and the Israel-Palestine conflict is no exception.
Upon closer examination, BDS’ sinister effects, including the ramifications Jewish students face, becomes evident.
BDS states it adheres to the UN definition of racial discrimination and thus does not tolerate any act or discourse which promotes different forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and xenophobia. Yet, the co-founder of BDS, Omar Barghouti, has stated that he opposes a “Jewish state in any part of Palestine” while also “categorically” opposing Jews in the land because of their “colonizer” identity. This blatant xenophobia conveniently disregards the cultural and ancestral roots Jews have in Judea, modern-day Israel.
The language used by BDS founders has been adapted by college students, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which has adopted BDS as a policy and has become the leading campus organization that promotes BDS. SJP often endorses motions sent to the student government to be voted on at annual general meetings. If the vote receives the majority, BDS is adopted.
In the 2020/2021 academic year, student governments in the US voted on 17 different BDS-affiliated motions. Eleven of these resolutions passed. One of which was the City University of New York Law School, which passed a resolution that called to divest from companies that are “complicit in the occupation and colonization of Palestine.” The resolution specifically claimed that Jewish organizations, including Hillel and StandWithUs, were lobbying on behalf of the State of Israel and complicit in the harassment of Palestinians. Cutting all ties with Jewish organizations that have sought to create a safe space for Jewish students on campus further ostracizes Jewish students, making them more excluded from the campus community than before.
BDS has been used to justify targeted harassment and vandalism toward Jewish students and clubs. Two months after a BDS resolution was passed at the University of Oregon, the Hillel was defaced with graffiti that read “Free Palestine you fucks.”
Student unions and associations have often held votes during Jewish holidays, leading to less pushback from the group it targets. The University of Maryland’s Student Government Association, for instance, held a BDS vote over Passover in 2019. In 2017, the Democratic Socialists of America held a BDS vote on a Saturday, which limited Jews’ ability to attend, contributing to the 90% victory.
Once resolutions are passed, they put up systemic barriers for Jewish students, making their quality of life on campus deteriorate. The University of Toronto, for example, has had several BDS resolutions passed. At the St. George campus and the Scarborough campus, BDS-abiding student unions have attempted to make it difficult for Jewish students to access kosher food on campus. The student unions stated that the food must be BDS-compliant and therefore have no connection to Israel. The motions reversed course after wide condemnation.
Several governments, including the US and Canada, have condemned BDS. Germany has stated that the movement is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s boycotts of Jewish businesses. Despite world leaders voicing their concerns over the BDS movement, student governments continue to adopt it. This inherently antisemitic movement must be halted before it becomes adopted by governments.
Antisemitism has always changed its face; where in the mid-1900s, Jewish students were barred from universities, today they are cast off from clubs and organizations for their Zionism. While the end goal remains the same, the process by which Jewish students are ostracized changes. In recent years, antisemitism on campus has taken the form of demonizing a movement that is inherently connected to the Jewish people. BDS-affiliated students and groups continue to make life a challenge for the Jewish students who refuse to change their values in order to be accepted by the non-Jewish world.