The multinational boycott campaign targeting Israel, aimed at stopping the country’s perceived injustices against Palestinians, has a venerable history, but the movement showed a new spurt of activism this month.
Most of the attention has focused on the University of California and its campuses, two of which have just come down on opposite sides of the issue following emotional, all-night debates.
On April 18, the student senate at UC Berkeley voted 11-9 in favor of a resolution calling on the statewide UC administration to divest of stock in American companies providing technology or weapons used by the Israeli military in the Palestinian territories.
One week earlier, the UC Santa Barbara student senate defeated a similar resolution aimed at “companies profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine,” by an even thinner margin of 11-10, with one abstention.
Previously, divestment petitions were approved by the student governments at the UC San Diego and Irvine campuses, as well as at UC Riverside, but the latter group reversed its stand in a subsequent vote.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement originated in the 1990s in a worldwide campaign to pressure the white minority regime in South Africa to change its apartheid policies discriminating against the majority black population.
When that campaign was seen as successful, some of its methods and techniques were adopted and re-aimed at the Israeli government as the primary target.
In 2002, the student governments at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) passed divestment-from-Israel resolutions, and some major church bodies in the United States and Canada followed suit in 2004.
The resurgence of the BDS movement at some of the 10 University of California campuses has raised questions as to its effectiveness and its impact on Jewish students.
In terms of practical results, the BDS campaigns have not realized their professed goal of changing Israeli policy by hitting the country, and foreign companies trading with it, in the pocketbook.
As far as the record shows, not a single university administration in the United States has accepted or acted on the various resolutions passed by their respective student bodies.
Typical is the response of UC’s governing body, the Board of Regents, which in 2010 adopted a policy statement introduced by its chair and vice chair, together with UC President Mark Yudof.
Noting the Regents’ existing policy of divesting only “when the U.S. government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide,” the statement declared, “We must take great care that no one organization or country is held to a different standard than any other.
“In the current resolutions voted by the UC student organizations, the State of Israel and companies doing business with Israel have been the sole focus. This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”
Even the BDS Web site, which lists every commercial, academic, government or artistic boycott move across the world in great detail, makes no claim of actual divestment by an American university.
In a month-by-month compilation of achievements in 2012, BDS lists numerous resolutions and petitions, but its closest claim to concrete success in academe is the action by the University of Glasgow (Scotland) in dropping Israel-produced Eden Spring Water from its cafeterias.
Much harder to gauge is the movement’s impact in fomenting anti-Israel sentiment and actions on campuses, as well as the impact on the comfort level of their Jewish students.
UC President Yudof, after hearing reports of harassment of Jewish students, particularly during campus “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and lack of response by campus administrators, appointed a committee in 2010, which interviewed Jewish students on six campuses over a seven-month period.
The voluminous study yielded a number of conclusions and recommendations, some controversial, and emphasized two points: Political and social opinions among Jewish students were diverse, and often opposed, even on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and while many such students felt resentment and outrage at some of the charges and attacks by Muslim student groups, none of the Jews interviewed felt in physical danger on campus.
Veteran journalist Dina Kraft, who has reported for The New York Times and the Jewish Journal, among others, last month interviewed a number of students involved on both sides of the BDS issue for the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Kraft asked whether the movement will now spread to colleges in other parts of the country and got one answer from Amal Ali, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside.
“The University of California has been at the forefront of social protest movements, so when any campus here makes any statement, the rest of the country listens. … This is the beginning, not the end,” she said.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel executive director at UCLA, said he believed at this point the BDS movement was targeting the UC campuses as a testing ground, before deciding whether to expand the campaign nationally. A similar view was expressed by Rabbi Evan Goodman, Hillel executive director at UC Santa Barbara.
Seidler-Feller also noted that an attempt to introduce a divestment resolution at UCLA two weeks ago didn’t get off the ground, thanks largely to preventive moves by Jewish students.
For her part, Kerri Copans, the Hillel director at UC San Diego, emphasized that the BDS movement “does not define the Jewish experience on campus ... we have a vibrant community,” she told Kraft.
Copans said that her group is countering the calls for divestment with a plan for investment by helping to create a university scholarship for students, Jewish or not, to study in Israel.
One of the most interesting viewpoints on the BDS confrontations came from Meggie Le, president of the Associated Students at UC San Diego and the 21-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.
She had worked hard, initially, to tone down and then to defeat the divestment resolution, explaining, “I believe that divestment is horrible for the campus climate. … It divides people on cultural identities, and I don’t believe that’s OK,” she told Kraft.
The reaction to this stand illustrates the intense emotions triggered by the BDS confrontations, with Le noting that she has been the object of persistent verbal abuse by pro-divestment advocates.
In the month preceding the UC San Diego vote on the issue, Le said, she received 11,000 e-mails on the issue from Congress and community members, faculty, students and others.