Attempted divestment at UCSB and the BDS machine
Over the last month the UC Santa Barbara student government has been voting on a resolution to divest from companies doing business with Israel. As a UCSB graduate and former student leader, I spoke at two senate hearings and worked with current students to defeat the resolution. It should now be very clear that what we are fighting at UCSB is the local face of an organized, global propaganda campaign against Israel.
Divestment activists at UCSB attempted to portray their campaign as grassroots and local. But evidence to the contrary abounds. Indeed, divestment is part of an increasingly organized and global movement. The language of the resolution introduced at UCSB was strikingly similar to those recently presented at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and elsewhere. The Facebook pages set up in support of divestment at the different campuses were also very similar. These campaigns were carefully synchronized. They hit Stanford first, then UC Riverside, then UC San Diego, then UC Santa Barbara, then UC Berkeley, and finally UC Davis. As the drama was ending at one university it would begin anew at the next one down the line.
Divestment did not happen overnight. It is the result of years of work by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and similar campus organizations. Their modus operandi is simple and extremely effective. They get involved in student politics, build relationships with student leaders, hone their talking points, and lobby. At some campuses, like UCSB, this issue has been elevated to the point where some candidates for student government run on a platform of divestment. The anti-Israel movement has evolved, drastically increasing its participation in the democratic process.
It is clear that there is a well-oiled machine organizing and orchestrating this campaign behind the scenes. The main visible forces behind it are SJP-West, SJP National, and above all, the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Leading BDS organizations such as the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the American Friends Service Committee are making significant contributions as well. BDS heavyweights like Desmond Tutu and Alice Walker are supplying personalized statements to student government leaders and even speaking at student senate hearings in person.
BDS portrays itself as a progressive human rights movement, but nothing could be further from the truth. BDS uses anti-Israel propaganda to promote a fundamentally immoral and illiberal political agenda: the elimination of Israel as the democratic state of the Jewish people. Some BDS leaders and organizations hide this or avoid stating it explicitly. But the undeniable reality is that the third core demand of the BDS movement, the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel, is a call to replace the Jewish state with a Palestinian state. The involvement of legendary anti-Apartheid and civil rights activists like Tutu and Walker has helped BDS gain credibility and influence in progressive circles. But it seems Tutu and Walker left their opposition to bigotry at the door when they joined BDS. Tutu continues to endorse the Free Gaza Movement, which has been widely criticized for racism, despite receiving personal appeals to remove his endorsement. Walker has discriminated against Israelis directly, refusing to allow her book, The Color Purple, to be translated into Hebrew.
Despite the pretense that UCSB Divest was a local initiative, its supporters did little to hide their ties to the BDS movement. They organized a lecture about BDS by the infamous Richard Falk the day before the senate vote. The PowerPoint presentation they used on the night of the debate included slides promoting BDS. Representatives of the US Campaign to End the Occupation and American Muslims for Palestine read statements to the senate in person or by video. And in the nastiest surprise of the evening, a small army of community activists from Jewish Voice for Peace attended and spoke in favor of divestment, while grossly overstating their minimal influence within the Jewish community. It was quite the production.
By the time students began to speak the point of divestment was clear: to put Israel on trial in front of a captive audience. Israeli policies and legitimate Palestinian grievances were distorted and taken out of context. The daily hardships caused by the Israeli checkpoints and security barrier were presented as entirely arbitrary, as if the brutal suicide bombings of the Second Intifada had never happened. International laws were misrepresented or cited inaccurately. Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, which is legal under the Oslo Accords, was twisted into the “illegal” occupation of Palestinian territory. Widely disputed claims were presented as indisputable facts. Israel was mislabeled an apartheid state in the very title of the resolution, trivializing the suffering of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, under real apartheid regimes. But facts matter little in a well-oiled propaganda campaign.
Indeed, the misrepresentations of history and international law were nothing compared to some of the slander and vile innuendo we heard as the evening progressed. Divestment supporters used the infamous fake-Zionist-quote technique, reading a damning quote about Israel and falsely attributing it to Ariel Sharon. They repeated the long-debunked lie that Israel committed a massacre in Jenin in 2002. They took a sensationalized scandal about birth control and distorted the issue even more, charging “racist Israel” with “sterilizing” Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. How birth control turned into sterilization is anyone’s guess. In an especially bizarre and horrifying twist, one student associated Israel with Egyptian Bedouin who harvest the organs of African refugees in the Sinai Desert. And of course, they saved the worst for last. After the senate voted against the resolution, a leader in the divestment campaign went outside and screamed in anger, “Zionism is a form of white supremacy!”
Let that last one sink in. Zionism, the movement for Jewish liberation and self-determination, a movement shared by an international Jewish community of all colors, is now being labeled “white supremacy”. A diverse, historically oppressed minority with indigenous roots in the Middle East cannot advocate for its inalienable right to self-determination on a college campus without being accused of the lowest form of racism. And the worst of it is that some of the accusers have the audacity to call themselves “progressive.”
This scene repeats itself on every campus that divestment hits. The vicious accusations heard at the UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, and UCSB divestment debates echo one another. The new reality is that every student senate floor is a potential stage for the BDS movement’s anti-Israel theater.
But there is another, brighter side to this story. Divestment has mobilized Jewish and pro-Israel students like never before. Motivated, bright leaders have emerged, ready to do what it takes to push the anti-Israel movement back on its heels. Ideally this motivation is something that must spread among pro-Israel communities before they are hit with divestment campaigns.
The global movement to delegitimize Israel has become more organized, more cohesive, and more troublesome. It is time for the pro-Israel community to recognize the new facts on the ground, get better organized, and adapt. Indeed, we find ourselves in a familiar position: having no choice but to stand up and defend ourselves against hate.
Max Samarov is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara and a research assistant at StandWithUs.