WASHINGTON — Anti-Israel activism on college campuses in the US is shifting away from efforts to push for a boycott of the Jewish state to more dramatic displays of anti-Israel sentiment, such as disruption of events, a report released Tuesday shows.
However, the annual report by the Israel on Campus Coalition, reviewing the 2015-16 academic year, also found support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) initiatives is still gaining momentum among Jewish critics of Israel, with their role shifting from mere supporters of the movement to initiators of anti-Israel resolutions.
The report coincides with the beginning of the school year for many US universities and colleges, considered a critical time for pro-and anti-Israel groups on campus to recruit new members.
The shift in activism from BDS to disruptions of pro-Israel events and other vocal activity is seen as a cause for concern by ICC.
“We’re facing a very serious problem. We’re facing detractors, we’re facing anti-Israel activists who are increasingly sophisticated and who are shifting their tactics almost in real time,” warned ICC executive director Jacob Baime.
ICC is at the forefront of pro-Israel campus activity, working with student groups on campuses and national Jewish organizations to mobilize against anti-Israel initiatives. It also compiles annual reports that provide a barometer of pro- and anti-Israel action and sentiment on campuses.
The report is seen as a guide for fighting anti-Israel efforts on campus, and it advises pro-Israel activists to adapt to the changing tactics.
“After years of focusing efforts and resources on fighting BDS measures, Israel’s supporters must now adapt in order to address a broader range of anti-Israel efforts,” the report reads. “The recent surge in event disruptions challenges pro-Israel activists to strengthen their voices and to engage in increased outreach to the broader campus community.”
“A convergence of trends is shifting the campus landscape across the country, creating a new reality – and new challenges – for the pro-Israel movement,” it adds.
ICC stressed that the preeminent group advocating for BDS on US campuses — Students for Justice in Palestine – seemed to switch tactics in the past year. “Across the country, many SJP students challenged the value and efficacy of BDS efforts, identifying ‘Palestinian solidarity’ as the movement’s primary aim,” the report found.
Instead of offering resolutions and referenda, these activists emphasized the utility of demonstrations, die-ins, and other forms of disruptive activism, it reported. Lecturers, professors and guest speakers were heckled during campus activities seen as pro-Israel, and in other cases, activists staged walk-outs.
Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) was taunted by an SJP activist accusing her of smelling bad – an ancient anti-Semitic canard – and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was forced to curtail a speech at San Francisco State University when activists burst into the lecture hall screaming “intifada, intifada!”
ICC noted that in some cases, doctored videos of these actions were “widely distributed… turning disruptions into international propaganda tools.” The report said that the dissemination of such films was “a new tactic designed to bolster anti-Israel sentiment across the country,” and that the films were sometimes doctored “to portray anti-Israel students as victims of aggressive speakers and professors.”
In November 2015, anti-Israel students presented a doctored tape in order to accuse University of Texas at Austin Professor Ami Pedahzur of attacking protesters who in actuality initiated a physical confrontation during a lecture he was giving on the origins of the IDF, the report said.
At the same time, the data in the report seems to give cause for cautious optimism on the part of pro-Israel advocates: BDS campus campaigns declined by 25 percent from 44 in 2014-15 to 33 in the past year, making this the first year since 2012 to experience a net decline in BDS initiatives. At the same time, pro-Israel activity increased by 3.5 percent, outnumbering anti-Israel events over 2 to 1. Of 5,323 Israel-related events on US campuses tracked by the ICC in the past academic year, 1,437 were defined as anti-Israel while 3,886 were considered pro-Israel activities.
With greater coordination and strategizing among pro-Israel groups operating on campus, visible support for Israel on campuses, including demonstrations and rallies, increased by more than 150 percent, ICC said.
“It is a very serious problem that is shifting rapidly, and I think it is an important message that we as a pro-Israel community are increasingly becoming agile and adaptable in the same fashion [as anti-Israel groups],” said Baime. “I think that’s something to celebrate and I think that’s something to double down on.”
Anti-Israel activity as a whole declined on campus by 12 percent — a rate slower than the decline of BDS initiatives. There was also a 28 percent decrease in the number of campuses hosting Israeli Apartheid Weeks (60 campuses down from 83) and an almost 50 percent reduction in the erection of the mock “apartheid walls” that were hallmarks of campus anti-Israel activities in the previous decade.
But as the anti-Israel movement seemed to scale back in some ways, in others it ramped up its influence, the ICC report found. The total number of campuses at which there were anti-Israel activities increased from 181 to 185 in 2015-16.
Further, the ICC suggested that the decline in detractor activities in 2015-16 was merely a return to levels of activity that had been seen prior to summer 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.
ICC also noted geographic shifts in the focus of the anti-Israel movement, with activity declining on the West Coast and increasing in the Midwest. While the West Coast had previously been at the forefront of such anti-Israel mobilization, Chicago emerged as a new hub for anti-Israel groups and activism in general.
During a congressional hearing in April 2016, Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s Jonathan Schanzer mapped out some of the Chicago-centered networks operating at the margins of the anti-Israel campus movement. American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), one of the organizations mentioned by Schanzer highlighted, serves as a conduit for funding SJP as well as providing professional support to the campus network, the report said.
The ICC’s data suggests that BDS activity in California declined by over 64 percent over the past year, while activism on campuses in the Midwest increased by 27 percent, coupled with a rise in anti-Israel lectures, theme weeks and other events.
According to the ICC, anti-Israel Jewish groups – led off by the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace – continued the previous year’s trend of campus growth. “JVP’s presence on campus proved critical for SJP, helping it legitimize anti- Zionist rhetoric and effectively defend against accusations of anti-Semitism,” the report noted.
In the past academic year, JVP hired its first full-time campus affairs director, appointed a coordinator for a new faculty academic advisory council, and held its first national student summit, which was attended by 25 student representatives.
Jewish Voice for Peace’s activism on campus has also undergone a re-vamp. In previous years, the ICC said, “JVP students played a marginal role in BDS campaigns” and “offered only passive support to SJP chapters,” but in the past year, the organization “emerged as SJP’s equal partner,” including co-authoring BDS measures.
This change, ICC analysts argued, is critical. “JVP’s rise legitimized SJP’s efforts by demonstrating Jewish support for anti-Zionist sentiment,” the report asserted. “The perceived credibility of a Jewish anti-Israel organization, combined with its endorsement of SJP, enabled detractors to refute allegations of anti-Semitism.”