This Is What Happens When BDS Infiltrates Social Causes That Have Nothing to Do With Israel

The movement is successfully convincing activists that one cannot fight for women's rights, academic freedom or against racism without acknowledging Israel's oppression of Palestinians. This poses a problem for liberal American Jews more than anyone else.

Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow
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A woman holds up a Palestinian flag at the 2014 NWSA Conference.
A woman holds up a Palestinian flag at the 2014 NWSA Conference. Credit: Screenshot from NWSA's Facebook
Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow

At the beginning of December, the National Women’s Studies Association passed a resolution in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. While there is nothing unusual about an academic association adopting a perverse anti-Israel posture, the NWSA’s rationale offers a window into a disturbing phenomenon within the world of anti-Israel activism.

As Emily Shire at the Daily Beast observed, “That NWSA voted to support BDS is not necessarily surprising considering the recent trend in academic institutions What is more curious and alarming is that members of NWSA have framed the BDS support as an expression of feminism.” Indeed, one of the sponsors of the resolution smugly proclaimed, “What is significant about this particular resolution is the rationale; the fact that the resolution makes it explicit that BDS is a feminist issue, that it is an expression of transnational feminist solidarity and that one cannot call themselves a feminist and address inequalities and injustices without taking a stand on what is happening in Palestine.”

Unfortunately, this sort of pretzel logic does not remain confined to the fringes of obscure academia. At Columbia, No Red Tape, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims, authored an editorial defending its partnerships with anti-Israel groups. “The fight against violence and oppression cannot be limited to Columbia’s campus,” the organization explained in the "Columbia Spectator." From New York we travel north to Rhode Island, where at Brown a pro-Palestinian group argued that supporting a convicted female terrorist was a “feminist” imperative. And over in Ohio, students at Oberlin College presented their administration with a list of demands to address perceived racism on campus; one of the demands was divestment from Israel.

What exactly does Israel have to do with these social causes? Nothing. But BDS is successfully infiltrating other social justice movements, convincing activists that one cannot fight for women's rights, academic freedom or against racism without acknowledging Israel's oppression of Palestinians.

It’s all part and parcel of intersectionality, a critical theory lens that examines the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, and how they overlap as interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

But for anti-Israel activists, intersectionality is not just a theory. They use it as an operational manual to guide the strategic logic of the far-left, encouraging activists to link unrelated causes to the fight against the Jewish State. By doing this, they paint Israel as an icon of global injustice.

This has been going on for a while, but it really grabbed attention with the wave of demonstrations against police killings that started in 2014. During the Ferguson protests last year, pundits were frightened to see demonstrators linking police repression in the United States to Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In one such instance, Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush posted on Instagram a picture of a man holding a sign that read, “The Palestinian people know what mean to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity #Ferguson #Justice.”

People rally in Times Square, New York City, in protest to the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case, Dec. 1, 2014.Credit: AFP

If intersectionality, as applied to Israel, sounds like a contrived excuse to blame the Jewish state for everything under the sun, that’s because it is. Anti-Israel circles understand that their cause isn’t even on the radar of the average college student. By hitching their wagon to issues with greater popular appeal, pro-Palestinian activists seek to expand their tent and build a coalition larger than the handful of students fanatic enough to spend their college years slandering Israel.

Ironically, this disturbing phenomenon is hardest not on conservative-leaning Jewish students, but on left-wing Jewish activists who don’t support BDS. Social justice work is increasingly seen as a “package,” and one cannot be for racial justice, gender equality or humanitarianism without also swearing allegiance to the cult of Israel-despisers.

Left-wing Jews hew to the same social vision as the progressive community – but Israel and BDS are thorns for those who still believe in Zionism. An anecdote is instructive. At Brown, where this author is a freshman, student groups organized several events around the Syrian refugee crisis. One of the events was to take place at Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream store, but had to be moved to a new venue after a member of Students for Justice in Palestine circulated a report accusing the ice-cream company of doing business in Israeli settlements. Jewish activists found it particularly uncomfortable being invested in this sundry activist cause while at the same time weathering the rising tide of anti-Israelism.

This discomfort is particularly dangerous because left-leaning young Jews are a weak link in the American-Jewish community’s relationship with Israel. As any exit poll can tell you, American-Jews do not, on the whole, vote based on Israel. American Jews vote for candidates who share their liberal social values. Thus, liberalism trumps pro-Israelism for most secular Jews. What will be when liberal Jewish students are forced to choose between their allegiance to Israel and their commitment to social justice? What will happen when not supporting BDS is seen as a fatal tribal weakness? The answer should frighten anybody concerned with the future of the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel.

Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.

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