Calls to boycott Israel grow on US campuses

Calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions in support of Palestinian rights are gaining momentum.

The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a growing movement on US campuses [Scott Denny/Flickr]

On December 4, the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted unanimously to endorse the call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions (USACBI), becoming only the second academic association in the US to do so. The decision was described by the ASA as an “ethical stance”, which “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians”.

Support for the resolution was described to Al Jazeera by author and Professor of American Studies Alex Lubin as “nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called ‘America’s last taboo’Creating a space within US society to break through the enforced silence on Israeli occupation“.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Distinguished Professor at University of California-Riverside, David Lloyd spoke about the conference that preceded the historic vote: “There was an incredible swell of applause and enthusiasm for the speakers who supported the Boycott.  All expressed in different ways that this [boycott] was a fundamental matter of justice. This event indicates just how much things have shifted within the academy.”  

Palestine solidarity movement

The vote follows what many view as a trend in academia made evident by the growth of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) movement on US campuses. The student groups work in “solidarity with the indigenous Palestinian peoples” endorsing the campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.

Following the conference professor Lubin wrote, “Although the Palestinian solidarity movement has existed for a long time, it has been the growth of SJP activism across American university campuses, more than anything else perhaps, that has expanded the possibilities for discussion of Palestinians within the American academy.”

Since its beginning in the early 2000’s, SJP has gained considerable ground, catching the attention and concern of Zionist organisations and Israel Advocacy groups

A recent publication by the David Project, a non-profit Zionist organisation that seeks to shape the campus discussion on Israel, implicated SJP as part of the “pervasive negativity toward Israel on key leading American Universities and college campuses, which could erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish State”.

Earlier this year the Anti Defamation League came out with “The Top-Ten Anti-Israeli groups in America” with SJP among them.

Oren Seagal, Director of ADL’s Centre on Extremism told Al Jazeera:  “SJP is one of those organisations that we feel – in terms of the tactics and messaging – is hell bent on providing a very biased, non-nuanced version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not conducive to dialog.”  

“Both in its tactics and how widespread the organisation is at campuses around the country, and its various campaigns, we are very concerned about SJP,” Seagal said. 

Brett Cohen, National Campus Programme Director for the global Israel Advocacy group StandWithUs, told Al Jazeera, “Their only goal is to create ill will against the State of Israel. It is clear that SJP and BDS supporters are trying to fight the Middle East War on campus.”

Accusations like these have been part of the US discourse for years. The problem, many argue, is that criticism of Israel can lead to legal challenges, university administrative pressure and accusations of Anti-Semitism.  

The Palestine Solidarity Legal Supportinitiative was formed to address the escalating legal repression against Palestinian solidarity activists. As attorney Liz Jackson said, “These Zionist organisations purport to fight anti-Semitism, but really their goal is to establish legal precedent, any way they can, that equates anti-Israel with anti-Semitism. They are attempting to squash freedom of speech. This is becoming the primary first amendment issue of our time.”

These challenges have not halted the growth of SJP and BDS. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Anna Baltzer National Organiser of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation spoke about BDS’s recent successes. “We’ve seen successful boycott and divestment campaigns at more than 10 universities. Recently eight other major US universities passed resolutions recommending university divestment from US companies profiting from the occupation.”   

SJP has seen its membership swell; more than 130 chapters are now active at US campuses. 

Danya Mustafa, co-founder of the University of New Mexico SJP chapter told Al Jazeera, “The movement has grown tremendously. You have more SJP’S branching up at colleges all over the county. Momentum is building.”

SJP’s success has expanded dialog about Israel/Palestine that was previously unimaginable at US campuses, in part though SJP’s coalition with other solidarity movements helping locate the Palestinian struggle within a broader critique of imperialism, colonialism, racism and apartheid.

Growing support

“Palestine has become a core issue for US progressives and leftists in a way it was in an earlier era globally. But for a long time it has been so suppressed,” Sunaina Maira, an Asian American Studies Professor at University of California-Davis told Al Jazeera. “Now it’s been revived and incorporated, as US academics and activists are seeing it through the lenses of colonialism, apartheid and indigenous rights movements.” 

Yet a large pro-Israel sentiment within the US public remains. 

Some, however, argue that this starting to change due to the increased public awareness of Israeli actions in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper.

SJP has been around more than 10 years. But in the last 5 years it has really expanded

by Sunaina Maira, professor

“Can you really have a state that calls itself democratic where people of one religion or group have more rights than other people?” wondered Les Field, an Anthropology Professor at the University of New Mexico. “Is that the American ideal? The idea that an Arab citizen of Israel could become president, that is not possible in Israel.”

Sunaina Maira claims that it is this awareness has led to the growth of SJP. “SJP has been around more than 10 years. But in the last 5 years it has really expanded. One of the reasons for this growth is public awareness that Israeli continues to act with impunity, war after war.”

Campus climate

While the growth of SJP and BDS is clear, many caution against assuming a pro-Palestinian sentiment is taking over US campuses. 

 “There are more than five thousand campuses in the US. In terms of those that have a consistent level of anti-Israel activity, it is a small portion of that number,” the ADL’s Seagal said. “No one should think that all this terrible anti-Israel stuff is taking place at every university.”

Yet the American Studies boycott vote coupled with the growth of Palestine solidarity activism throughout the US, is evidence to many that a change taking place in the US in regard to the questions of Palestine. 

Professor David Lloyd said: “I myself believe, and I am not optimistic by nature, that we’re going to win because we’re beginning to win a moral fight. We’re moving from a point where it can be labeled the kind of minority obsession by a bunch of leftists, to a point where it becomes the defining moral issue for students at the university. And, at that point, you have five thousands students cramming into a gym demanding that the university divest. I think that time is coming.”

Source: Al Jazeera