Perhaps the most enlightening statement on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) thrown up by Naomi Zeveloff’s interviews for The Forward with Jewish college presidents came from Judith Shapiro, of Barnard College until 2008.
In 2002, Shapiro publicly opposed BDS measures alongside Columbia President Lee Bollinger, in the name of open dialogue and discourse. “I felt that I needed to make a statement, because just as I don’t like making Israel so sacred that it can’t be criticized,” Shapiro told Zeveloff, “I don’t like Israel being singled out as a great evil that we have to focus on.”
This notion of a double standard, or more precisely the application of a higher moral benchmark to Israel above other nations, even those deemed to have patently oppressive or totalitarian regimes, is a leitmotif which weaves its way through the testimonies Zeveloff collated. The University of California’s Mark Yudof put it more bluntly: “In my judgment, but for it being the Jewish state, it would not be on their list for a boycott.” There’s just something about Israel.
I can attest to witnessing the application of this double standard, when I served on the editorial board of London Student – the newspaper of the University of London’s 19 colleges. The issue of Israel, Palestine, and a campaign to smack the Jewish state with sanctions, boycotts and divestments was an ever-present undercurrent which occasionally reared its extremely ugly head.
To begin with, the Union President, Clare Solomon, was a student leader who fulfilled everyone’s most hackneyed stereotypes of an old-fashioned socialist with a decidedly pro-Palestinian bent. She was reprimanded in the national press in December 2010 for the following comment she placed on Facebook:
“The view that Jews have been persecuted all throughout history is one that has been fabricated in the last 100 or so years to justify the persecution of Palestinians. To paint the picture that all Jews have always had to flee persecution is just plainly inaccurate”.
(Her defence: it was a “badly-worded comment” written “in haste” – you be the judge).
BDS will strengthen the hand of those parties in Israel who benefit from her ever-increasing isolation.
By May of the next year, the Union had passed BDS measures against “companies guilty of violating Palestinian human rights as set out by the Palestinian Boycott National Committee” by a 10-1 vote. In doing so, those who supported the motion compared their pathetic efforts to the noble work London’s student union undertook in the 1980s, boycotting companies including Barclays Bank who colluded with the supremacist Afrikaner regime in South Africa.
Since then, the matter has gone national. The British National Union of Students, as opposed to a blanket boycott, has chosen to go after two companies in particular. The first, Mey Eden – a mineral water marketing company – which operates out of Katzrin in the Golan Heights. The second, Veolia – who operate public transportation networks throughout the tri-state area – are being targeted for supplying the carriage for the recently-opened Jerusalem Light Rail, which crosses through both Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods east of the Green Line.
In opting for a more surgical approach to sanctions, the NUS are evidently seeking to give credence to the main argument often propagated in favour of BDS, namely that it targets institutions and companies, not people. BDS, in other words, looks to punish companies which break international law by trading in the West Bank or the Golan, but not the citizens of Israel or her supporters en masse.
On the contrary, the campaign in favour of divestment is a disturbing trend, particularly on college campuses, precisely because of its crude, anti-intellectual qualities. Far from tactically targeting companies, and in doing so igniting argument and challenging ideas, BDS effectively shuts down debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by labeling Israel an apartheid state, and those who continue to support the Jewish state racists, complicit in the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.
The strength of the American student body is in its diversity, but BDS surely in stymieing debate only serves to open up fissures, heighten acrimony, and entrench division on campuses across the nation. This runs contrary to the role of student associations and governments, which is after all to represent and act in the best interests of student community entire, and facilitate discussion and dialogue.
Just last month, a Jewish student from the LSE’s nose was broken on a skiing trip to Switzerland, after he objected to other students taking part in a Nazi-themed drinking game, which included arranging cards on the table in the shape of a swastika and required players to “salute the Führer.” Surely, student governments would be better off working to ease community tensions, than pouring additional oil on the pyre.
BDS, then, is self-destructive, and if the intent of those pursuing process of boycott and divestment is to influence the politics of the region, as to force the hand of the Israeli government into disengaging from settled areas, then they will find that their efforts will ultimately fail.
BDS will at once strengthen the hand of those parties in Israel who benefit from her ever-increasing isolation, whilst marginalising peace organisations including Peace Now, Yachad, or the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, whose work in raising awareness in Israel of the ongoing reality of the occupation is constantly under threat as it is. American students would be wise, then, not to follow the lead of their British comrades.