BDS gains campus cred in US, but pro-Israel efforts improving, report says

As the new academic year gets underway, Israel on Campus Coalition says ‘disheartening media reports’ have been exaggerated

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

WASHINGTON, DC — Advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on campus in the US are becoming more strategically adept at advancing their cause, but pro-Israel mobilization has stepped up to face the challenge, a report compiling data from the 2014-2015 academic year revealed Thursday.

With a new academic year ripe with fresh challenges poised to begin, the Israel on Campus Coalition’s campus trends report demonstrated that in the previous year, campus advocacy on issues concerning Israel increased on both sides of the binary.

The ICC emphasized, however, that “despite disheartening media reports claiming that the BDS movement has taken over college campuses,” pro-Israel events outnumbered detractor events on campuses by a 2:1 ratio. The ICC is at the front lines of the campus battle, describing itself as a “national network of students, faculty, and professionals dedicated to strengthening the pro-Israel movement on campus.”

“Pro-Israel students and campus leaders are rising to the growing threat of anti-Israel activity,” said ICC Executive Director Jacob Baime. “With the right support, pro-Israel students make a strong and compelling case that the US-Israel alliance is based on shared values and serves both nations well.”

The organization, which monitors pro- and anti-Israel activity on campuses, noted in its report that “new tactics of BDS proponents and anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice (SJP) in Palestine pose concern.”

The new tactics include campus-wide divestment referendums, a strategy that appeared once in the previous academic year and six times in 2014-2015, but only proved successful in a seventh attempt, which was held in a students’ union rather than campus-wide. A more successful tactic, the group noted, was the alliance between BDS organizations and other national organizations, key campus constituencies, and alignments with advocates of social justice issues.

BDS activists, the ICC warned, “have also become increasingly sophisticated, pairing their cause with social justice issues on campus to increase their base of support and their reach.”

Anti-Israel groups built coalitions with progressive campus organizations that deal with issues such as LGBT rights, fossil fuel divestment, private prison reform, racial discrimination, and immigration reform. The ICC said that those groups have a “deliberate strategy” that involves “engaging these largely progressive organizations by forming personal relationships with influential activists.”

Among the coalitions formed was a nationwide coupling by anti-Israel groups of Palestinian rights with the struggle for racial justice in America. At times, the ICC noted, the coupling focused on “the alleged power and privilege of Jewish and pro-Israel Americans.” In addition, some activists have sought to link the nationwide Black Lives Matter campaign with the anti-Israel movement. The slogan “From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime” was used in dozens of protests across the country, including at campus events.

Another alliance highlighted by the ICC was what it described as “efforts within the Quaker community to deepen the group’s involvement in the campus BDS movement.” The organization said that the American Friends Service Committee provides “extensive support to students promoting BDS” and organizes BDS summer camps for undergraduates. The ICC cited two Quaker colleges, Guilford College and Earlham College, as “hotbeds of anti-Israel activity.”

An additional phenomenon was the inclusion of SJP-backed slates and candidates in successful races for legislative and executive positions in student governments. In many cases, the candidates run on platforms that address a wide range of social issues including private prison divestment, minority rights, and fossil fuels.

The ICC observed a series of attempts, primarily on West Coast campuses, by anti-Israel activists to take over student governments and pass BDS and anti-Israel resolutions. While these attempts have proven successful in some cases, University of California, Los Angeles demonstrated a reverse effect.

In November 2014, an SJP-aligned student government passed a divestment resolution, but in the next election, the UCLA pro-Israel community organized a focused campaign to elect pro-Israel student government candidates. The campaign was successful, and pro-Israel students now dominate the student government.

Following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the number of US campuses with anti-Israel activity jumped by 31.2 percent, from 138 during the 2013-2014 academic year to 181 during the 2014-2015 academic year. In 2014-2015, the ICC tracked 1,630 anti-Israel events at 181 colleges and universities nationwide and 3,753 pro-Israel events at 213 schools.

In the same period SJP, the leading pro-BDS group, established a presence on more than 40 new campuses, bringing the total number of campuses on which it operates to more than 150. Meanwhile, the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace established its first-ever student chapters at 14 colleges and universities.

At the same time, the ICC recorded the formation of more than 100 new local pro-Israel campus organizations. The group noted that “pro-Israel students are increasingly disciplined, coordinated, and strategic thanks to the leadership of a broad coalition of national pro-Israel organizations.”

According to ICC data, the number of campuses hosting pro-Israel activity has increased, from 167 during the 2013-2014 academic year to 213 during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Baime, the executive director of Israel on Campus Coalition, said that “pro-Israel groups are building genuine, meaningful relationships with influential students on campus and they’re explaining to them why Israel matters and what the real Israel is like.”

According to Baime, in the face of SJP’s national policy of “anti-normalization,” which rejects dialogue with pro-Israel campus groups, pro-Israel activists have emphasized that they are interested in dialogue and are actively seeking a two-state solution. “Our side is saying, Yes, there are difficult issues — Israel’s not perfect, no country is perfect — but let’s at least have a real, honest conversation about these issues,” he explained.

“When people hear the truth about Israel and about what’s actually happening in the region, BDS fails,” he added. “When people hear the facts, BDS fails.”

Far from its image as spontaneous and based on grassroots campus organization alone, the ICC says that the anti-Israel movement on campus receives “significant professional support” from national organizations such as the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, American Muslims for Palestine, American Friends Service Committee, Palestine Legal, and JVP. These groups provide the campus organizations with cost-free legal representation, political strategists, researchers, web developers, graphic designers, and communications services.

“SJP and the BDS movement on campus styles itself as a grassroots movement and it’s anything but. It’s really important to understand that this is a well-funded, well-organized, professional operation,” Baime said.

SJP has strengthened its national and regional networks and now has seven regional networks, each comprising between five and 35 SJP chapters. SJP members participate in weekly and monthly conference calls among chapters within the same regions, and encourage engagement and regular communication to share best practices and benefit from a more unified movement. At times, members of nearby SJP chapters are shuttled in to bolster local efforts.

Small SJP chapters receive mentorship from larger nearby chapters. Chapters at University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Irvine provided guidance to nearby California State University Northridge. Oglethorpe University’s BDS movement, which passed divestment in spring 2015, received mentorship from Emory University’s SJP chapter.

Although the ICC’s data indicates that the rate of success for BDS initiatives has remained relatively static, the organization noted that “there is no doubt that Israel’s detractors are increasing their efforts on college campuses across the country.

“Recent months have seen a slew of media reports alleging that BDS is taking over college campuses, but ICC-gathered data disproves that theory,” the report emphasized. “Nonetheless, if the current trends on campuses nationwide persist, the result could be dangerously close to that reality.”

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