The Rising Tide of BDS on California's Campuses

While boycott Israel movement gains traction, opponents take comfort in the trend that what’s done on campus stays on campus.

Noam Eshel

More than 100 students overcrowd the Hispanic student center at Stanford University. It could be a violation of the fire code, notes Kristian Bailey, a recent graduate and now a full-time activist. Bailey is sporting a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, referring to the recent killings by police, one in Ferguson, Missouri. He’s also wearing a kaffiyeh on his shoulders.

“From Ferguson to Palestine and the Wall” is the odd name given to the event. The program includes a short history of the Israeli occupation and an effort to link events in Israel to the disturbances in Ferguson, black-white relations and the situation on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Stanford isn’t just a super prestigious university, with many graduates working in Silicon Valley. It’s also considered liberal and not too political.

The event in the small Hispanic center tells part of the story. The organization is one of 18 campus groups that got together to promote Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, which aims to counter the school’s alleged contribution to the Israeli occupation. In addition to groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Awareness Network, the coalition includes the Black Student Union, two Asian student groups, and even Stanford Students for Queer Liberation.

The event was modest in the context of a six-week campaign launched at the beginning of the semester. On the program: panel discussions, lectures, films and even video chat with students from the West Bank and Gaza.

The campaign preceded a vote by the student senate on a resolution calling on the university to divest from companies that allegedly take part in the occupation. In question are firms such as Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and Hewlett-Packard whose products are used by Israeli security forces in the West Bank.

In short, the campaign is part of the BDS movement advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The vote might appear to be a marginal effort considering the number of anti-Israeli leaflets the campaign has handed out on campus, but maybe not.

Not many Hispanic students attended the event at the Hispanic center. The students who did show up included three wearing kaffiyehs, though one wore an Israel Defense Forces skullcap.

A BDS stand at the University of California Berkeley, January 2015.
Noam Eshel

Dream Hampton, a visiting lecturer who is teaching a course this year at Stanford on activism and new media, made a preposterous claim; she said every Jew who comes to Israel receives a gun from the Israeli army to shoot Arabs. But that didn’t elicit any particular response from the crowd.

Yaron Fishelson, a Jewish Agency for Israel fellow at Stanford, sat near the front and recorded the remarks, noting that this was a less pleasant aspect of his job.

“The things said here are disturbing,” he says. "If a whole room of people now thinks that every Jew who comes to Israel gets a rifle, it’s a violent and inciting act that creates an atmosphere.”

He says a few hundred Israeli students are studying at Stanford for advanced degrees, and around 10 percent of undergraduates are Jewish.

“When someone says these things about a country that you feel close to, you feel attacked,” he says, adding that there is talk of a wider BDS movement against Israel.

“The people leading these efforts don’t believe that the Jewish people have a right to a state of their own, and some Jewish students see this as anti-Semitism,” he says.

“There hasn’t been physical violence and I don’t think there will be, but there’s a tense atmosphere and what is referred to as keyboard violence. I wouldn’t say that pro-Israel students feel persecuted, but I do believe that a lot of people choose not to express their support for Israel publicly.”

Palestine and Missouri

The senate vote came earlier this month. Stanford was the last of California’s major universities where student senates had not voted in support of divestment, but the Stanford kids went the other way. According to The Stanford Daily, the resolution needed a two-thirds vote, but nine members voted for, five were against and one abstained — 64 percent.

Among seven of the nine public University of California campuses, the pro-Palestinian campaigns succeeded. At Berkeley, which is considered the most radical of the campuses, such a resolution was passed a year and a half ago. At UCLA, which is viewed as a center for pro-Israel activity, the pro-Palestinian resolution was passed in November, and a divestment resolution was passed at UC Davis a couple of weeks ago.

There the celebration coincided with the spray-painting of two swastikas at a Jewish fraternity house. Disinvestment resolutions have also been passed at the state universities in San Diego, Irvine, Riverside and Santa Cruz.

In December, the student-workers' union at California’s state universities passed a similar resolution. This group’s members are mostly graduate students who serve as teaching assistants and junior faculty. Following an aggressive campaign, 3,000 members of the organization, which represents 12,000 employees, voted for divestment and 1,136 committed their own personal boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

There is a tendency to minimize the importance of students’ political activities, and with reason. Student politics tends to interest only those involved. None of the university administrations have gotten on board with the anti-Israel resolutions, and none are expected to. Most students don’t get involved in campus politics and are often unaware of the activities. They’re there to study.

Still, the events in California are noteworthy. Anti-Israel demonstrations weren’t only held during last summer’s fighting in Gaza, but also on any given day outside supermarkets selling products made by SodaStream, an Israeli company targeted for having a plant in a settlement. (The plant is being moved to the Negev.)

And then there were the hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who for a second time last September prevented a ship from Israel’s Zim Integrated Shipping Services from unloading at Oakland. Then there was the coalition including pro-Palestinian and pro-minority groups that blocked a San Francisco bridge and flew a Palestinian flag. These efforts may very well affect the atmosphere.

“It’s beginning to take hold. We’re seeing the beginnings of hatred,” says Ben Limonchik, a Stanford MA student in computer science and a founder of the Coalition for Peace, which seeks to bring together students fighting the boycott efforts.

“Compared to other campuses in California, the situation at Stanford in recent years has been good because the Jewish community here is very strong. This year pro-Palestinian organizations have managed to make a connection between their fight and the fight of other minorities. They’ve even turned Martin Luther King into someone who says Palestine has to be liberated.”

Concern in Silicon Valley

The decision makers may sit in Washington, but California has America’s largest economy. It’s also home to the largest community of Israelis. There may be more than 250,000 of them in the state, most in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

Silicon Valley also has a major impact on Israel not only due to the capital that flows to Israeli high-tech through the acquisition of Israeli companies and investment by venture capital firms, but also due to the operations of U.S. giants in Israel. Companies such as Intel, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard employ thousands of Israelis.

The Israeli consulate in San Francisco is currently assessing the anti-Israeli activity in the area. “This is the front line in the United States, from the standpoint of the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry too,” says consul general Andy David.

He notes 133 organizations, “including 95 full-time people who do nothing else. We estimate the budget for the activity of these organizations at $9 million a year just in the San Francisco Bay area,” he says.

“Last summer the BDS movement organized a summer camp in which they trained activists and talked strategy. We don’t know who funded it, but it involved a lot of money and now we’re seeing the effects of the camp. It’s organized diplomatic terror against Israel,” David says.

“It’s an incessant process of demonization and delegitimization of Israel, always with a title referring to justice and human rights. They have the right tactics that accompany the lies. I was at an evening of the student senate at Berkeley before the vote there. It’s a senate of 20 students and there were at least two women with hijabs. Muslims aren’t 10 percent of the students at Berkeley, but they’re gaining control of the committees,” he adds.

“At the workers’ union of the university, what’s the only thing they’re busy with? BDS. What about salaries or tuition? We’re hearing about people who don’t feel free to express their positions, and there are also cases of violence here and there. Now the connection is being made with Ferguson, and I’ve heard the argument that Israel trained the police who shot the black teen.”

So what are Jewish organizations doing to counter all this? David notes that Jewish philanthropists have invested in buildings and contributions to Israel. While one side is putting up buildings, the other side, which David says is largely supported by the Saudis and people from the Gulf states, has put money into education.

“As soon as you contribute a million dollars, you can be involved in the decision over who the professor will be who carries out the program. It’s work that has been carried out quietly over the past 15 years, and in many history departments they are teaching things that, as a Jew, you can’t believe your ears.”

But it’s not all bad, he notes. “We’ve signed a cooperation agreement with the State of California. We’re working with Berkeley on water and energy projects, and then there’s all the high-tech. Ultimately that’s our response, and we’re saying that they will speak and sully us, and we will do things and build things,” he says.

“But at the same time, we need to act against such efforts because you can’t say that it doesn’t have an effect. Such things aren’t the product of last summer in Gaza but rather of [the other side’s] work that has been going on for a decade.”

When it comes to Israel, David concedes that some things need to be fixed.

“We’re trying to call for coexistence and propose positive alternatives and not tarnish the other side,” he says. Studies show that the Palestinian brand is sinking even further when they tarnish us. It hurts both sides.”

Back to the '60s

The Free Speech Movement marked its 50th anniversary in October. Back in the ‘60s, what began as a spontaneous demonstration of Berkeley students against a ban on political activity spawned one of the most revolutionary movements of the decade. Berkeley has remained activist to this day.

A stroll around campus confirms the main subject on the political agenda. The Middle Eastern studies department boasts posters in Hebrew against the occupation and leaflets calling for the support of BDS.

At an improvised stand at the campus entrance, people pass out anti-Israel literature. Every Friday at noon, members of the Women in Black organization hold an hour-long demonstration against the occupation. The routine includes a pro-Israel counterprotest.

At the Free Speech Movement cafe on campus sits Kumars Salehi, a German-studies doctoral student of Iranian origin. Last month he led the divestment campaign among lecturer union members. He says he senses that sentiment is gravitating toward the Palestinians and that the BDS movement is going mainstream, similar to events during apartheid in South Africa.

When I ask him about BDS’ real goal and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says, after thinking for a moment, that he’s all right with Israel’s existence, but it needs to stop infringing on the rights of others.

In November, the UCLA student senate voted in favor of a call for the University of California system to divest of companies doing business in the West Bank. This time, pro-Israeli students didn’t launch an aggressive countercampaign.

“From the experience of previous years, we realized that it was a circus that ... draws attention to the defamation campaign against Israel,” says Yair Vardi, the Jewish Agency emissary at the university. “Human rights is the sexiest topic today in California, and it created a situation in which if you’re anti-Israeli, you’re considered more progressive.”

Vardi says students have received threats by e-mail and there have been claims that BDS opponents have been funded by Israel. There have also been efforts to dissuade student representatives from traveling to Israel on the argument that this would make them biased. “The university condemned this, but I think it had its effect,” Vardi says.

Prof. Ron Hassner at Berkeley’s political science department isn’t overly impressed with the BDS movement’s achievements.

In not one instance has a vote for BDS affected campus policy — in fact, California campuses and universities throughout the United States quickly declare they won’t change their policies toward Israel or companies, regardless of the student vote, he says.

“In other words, this starts as student politics and ends as students politics .... And since it doesn’t affect university policy, it goes without saying that it has no effect on Israel,” Hassner says. “It also has no effect on Palestine because these resolutions aren’t aimed at supporting Palestinians. They aren’t pro-Palestinian but rather anti-Israeli resolutions, which is a shame.”

Students are missing chances to reach out to Palestinians and offer financial, material and emotional support, he says.

“These repeated votes have had one effect only: a deterioration of the campus climate leading to outbursts of anger and even violence,” Hassner says, adding that Jewish students have been subject to verbal abuse and sometimes physical abuse amid a steady rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

“These anti-Jewish outbursts are not surprising since the anti-Semitism is rooted in the BDS movement itself,” he says.

“At divestment meetings on my campus, Israeli has been accused of putting rats in the vaginas of Palestinian women, stealing Palestinian organs and poisoning the water in Gaza. You’ll recognize these as classic anti-Semitic tropes from 19th-century Polish blood libels, for example.”