Behind the BDS curtain: 10 years ago, Israel ignored Barghouti’s movement. Not anymore.

In recent years, no three letters have inspired more passion or pain across America’s college campuses than BDS.
July 9, 2015

In recent years, no three letters have inspired more passion or pain across America’s college campuses than BDS.

“When people, especially people in the Jewish community, hear ‘BDS,’ they think about it as this monstrous, monolithic thing,” said Noah Whinston, a 20-year-old Jewish student at Northwestern University, outside Chicago, referring to the acronym for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement. “For every Jew, there’s something instilled within us where those three letters are really scary as soon as you put them in a line.”

Whinston is the only Jewish member of Northwestern’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. Earlier this year, thanks in large part to SJP lobbying, his private Midwestern college became one of roughly 20 universities in the United States whose undergraduate student governments voted to demand their schools divest from companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. (Until now, SJP has focused primarily on the D in BDS.) Around 75 percent of these student divestment resolutions have passed within the last two years — many of them after being repeatedly voted down in prior years. 

Although to date, the administration of only one small liberal-arts college in Massachusetts has agreed to actually divest — Hampshire College, which also was the first U.S. school to divest during the campaign against South African apartheid — today’s university students have mobilized. No longer does the argument that pressuring Israel is less important than preserving campus unity stave off divestment resolutions like it used to.

[UPDATE 7/13/2015] Correction: Hampshire College's board of trustees clarifies that while the initial review of its investments in 2009 was set in motion by an SJP complaint, “no administrative or board level action took place in support of SJP.” The college's decision to divest from various companies that violated its policy on socially responsible investments was not based on their activity in Israel, according to the board.

Northwestern’s resolution passed on its first run last February.

“This isn’t about campus politics — this is about our survival,” a Mexican-American student from the Chicano Students Movement of Aztlan (MEChA) testified at the hearing. She likened her people’s historic oppression to that of the Palestinians. “You say we’re divisive. ‘Build bridges not walls.’ Why don’t you tell the Israeli government that?” the student said, raising her voice, empowered by the hum of hundreds of finger snaps — the campus equivalent of applause.

“The room had 400 or 500 people in it,” Whinston remembered. “It was packed. I think that was the most well-attended student government meeting in the history of the school.”

At the University of California, more than in any other school system, SJP-endorsed divestment resolutions have spread like wildfire. Elected student reps at six of the UC system’s 10 campuses — along with the greater UC Student Association — have voted that the UC should divest from Israel-invested companies such as Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. Last December, a UC student-worker union voted to support a full call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — becoming the first major U.S. labor union to do so.

Students for Justice in Palestine 

This week, on July 9, the BDS movement marks its 10th year. But many of BDS’ opponents argue that its core narrative was born several years earlier, in 2001, at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. There, various European nongovernmental organizations defined Israel’s social and physical divisions as true apartheid — likening it to South Africa before a global BDS movement pressured it to desegregate.

“The blueprint was there; the South Africa model was there,” claimed Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor. “Omar Barghouti then jumped on the bandwagon, took what was there, claimed credit for it and built it into this website, which he calls a movement.”

Barghouti, 50, is the Palestinian academic widely considered the founding father of the BDS movement. He currently serves as director for the closest thing BDS has to a control room: the BDS National Committee, or BNC, headquartered in Ramallah. 

If Barghouti was not a household name in Israel before this spring’s rash of BDS wins, that has quickly changed. Israeli TV stations have been crediting him as the mastermind behind the FIFA debacle, Wind said. And Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most-read newspaper, recently dubbed him “Explosive Omar” in a front-page story. 

In a rare interview, Barghouti described to the Journal the hot July day 10 years ago when Palestinian organizations from all over the political spectrum came together in support of a new, nonviolent movement. “Within days” of issuing the call for BDS, he said, “171 organizations, parties and unions signed on, turning this into a sweeping manifestation of the Palestinian will to resist injustice and live in freedom and dignity.”

“Within days [of issuing the call for BDS] 171 organizations, parties and unions signed on, turning this into a sweeping manifestation of the Palestinian will to resist injustice and live in freedom and dignity.” — Omar Barghouti

July 9, 2005, also marked the one-year anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s ruling that Israel’s separation barrier defied international law. Barghouti called the decision — compounded by the world’s silence — “the last trigger for the BDS movement.”

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a Northern California resident who’s been involved in the Palestinian rights struggle since the 1960s, sees the July 9 call as “key in bringing different activists around the world together.” It was a clear-cut campaign around which they could rally.

Indeed, by the time the call came from Ramallah, the groundwork for what would become one of BDS’ most effective battlegrounds had already been built in Berkeley by UC professor and radical leftie Hatem Bazian. Back in 2001, he had formed the first chapter of SJP. (To this day, many Israel advocates pass around an old 2004 video of Bazian calling for a U.S. intifada. “They’re going to say some Palestinians are being too radical,” he tells a crowd of supporters at UC Berkeley. “Well, you haven’t seen radicalism yet!”) 

In 2010, and again in 2013, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a pro-Israel group that seeks to call out anti-Semitism in all its forms, published a list of “The Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.” SJP was named in both reports.

The ADL claims SJP-backed divestment resolutions have created a campus atmosphere in which anti-Semitism can thrive. (Recently, at Stanford University and UC Davis, swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish frat house.) It also condemns SJP’s cross-campus practice of tacking mock Palestinian eviction notices to students’ dorm rooms and has accused activists of singling out Jewish students in the process. 

“If the university and college environment can be viewed as the incubator for tomorrow’s leaders, SJP’s success at introducing anti-Israel ideologies to today’s college students is enormously significant,” the ADL said in its 2013 report.

SJP membership has continued to grow rapidly since then. Its leaders now estimate more than 150 SJP chapters are spread across the U.S. — and those chapters have entered into hundreds more collaborative unions with other campus groups that share their principles, many of them representing ethnic minorities. 

“Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer,” Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, then the executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said in a controversial statement after the school’s divestment bill passed. “The coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students — they’re all oppressed minorities.” (At Northwestern’s divestment vote later that month, a student representing the Chicano activist group MEChA quoted Seidler-Feller at the podium. Many in the crowd crossed their arms and shook their heads in disbelief.)

Various Israel advocates and Internet sleuths claimed in interviews with the Journal that SJP is running on significant outside capital. However, the Journal could not find any evidence of this.

SJP’s campus branches are largely autonomous from their parent group, SJP National, which exists mostly to plan SJP’s annual conference. Leaders from a handful of SJP’s approximately 150 campus chapters said they count on student government funds and independent fundraisers to stay active. UCLA’s SJP branch, for example, was allocated about $8,000 in student fees for the 2014-15 school year. And the SJP chapter at Northwestern raised an extra $4,000 toward its divestment campaign via the crowd-funding website Rally.org.

But there’s another group included in the ADL’s top-10 list that has experienced an even more meteoric rise than SJP, and the finances to support it: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

Jewish Voice for Peace

In February, JVP leaders decided to endorse the full BDS call — boycott, divestment and sanctions against all companies and institutions on both sides of the Green Line. 

BNC, led by Barghouti, “has been incredibly patient with us,” JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson said in an interview. In the past few years, she said, BNC leaders “were willing to work with us despite us not endorsing the full call.” 

In the past five years, JVP’s annual budget has catapulted from a few hundred thousand dollars to $2.5 million in 2015. Since this time last year, its roster has expanded from 40 to 60 chapters, its list of online supporters has jumped from 140,000 to 200,000 names, and its social-media following has tripled.

Vilkomerson points to Israel’s 2014 military operation in Gaza as the cause for most of this growth. “Every time there’s a conflict in Israel-Palestine,” she said, “a new group of Jewish people starts to question Israel.”

JVP does not release the names of its donors to the public for fear of harassment. However, Vilkomerson did reveal that the group counts around 9,000 donors, mostly individuals. “People were beside themselves this summer,” she said. “They would just write us checks because they didn’t know what else to do.”

Jacob Manheim, 22, is a recent UCLA graduate who helped found a JVP chapter at the school after a previous divestment resolution failed in early 2014. With JVP’s help, a similar resolution passed in a landslide 8-2-2 vote on its second try. 

“We lobbied student council members and held meetings discussing the myths and facts regarding divestment” in the months leading up to the decision, Manheim said. “Moreover, we were able to show our classmates the diversity of the Jewish community, and that being Jewish does not necessarily mean that you support state violence against Palestinians.”

Campus Maccabees

At a much-talked-about summit at the Las Vegas hotel of American-Jewish mogul Sheldon Adelson in the first week of June, Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged to allocate $50 million toward a new government PR campaign specifically targeting BDS. 

“Delegitimization of Israel must be fought, and you are on the front lines,” Netanyahu told representatives from the 50-plus organizations present at the summit. And the trio of wealthy men who had organized the event — Adelson, Haim Saban and Adam Milstein — called on philanthropists in attendance to match that sum with another $50 million in grants for those fighting BDS.

“You work together and we will raise you the money,” Milstein, an Israeli-born Los Angeles real-estate investor and a co-founder of the Israeli American Council, reportedly told pro-Israel activists at the summit. “You no longer have to worry about financing and fundraising. You just need to be united.”

The new anti-BDS campaign is being called the Campus Maccabees, a nod to the Jewish rebels of ancient Israel.

In an email interview with the Journal after his summit, Milstein said: “The Campus Maccabees will reverse the rising tide of anti-Semitism by bringing together the most effective ideas and organizations, along with the funding necessary to make them successful in winning this battle on campuses and across the country.”

In fact, the Maccabees’ strategy going into the 2015-16 school year isn’t a far cry from that of BDS campus activists interviewed by the Journal. Both said they were focusing on educating the largest possible number of fellow students and faculty members. 

“By creating a new hub for cooperation — which moves the fight against this growing anti-Semitic movement from defense to offense, from a reactive posture to a proactive posture — we can and will win this battle,” Milstein said. 

Many BDS activists see this new $100 million, counter-education campaign as a sign of their own growing success. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Vilkomerson, quoting Gandhi. “Now we’re in the ‘fight you’ phase. We weren’t there 10 years ago. We weren’t even there two years ago.”

Stubborn believers in the peace talks argue that with every BDS victory, symbolic or not, both the Israelis and the Palestinians retreat farther into their respective narratives of victimhood — causing an impasse in negotiations.

But Gideon Levy, one of the farthest-left columnists in Israel’s farthest-left daily, Haaretz, wrote that while BDS may be deepening Israel’s “sense of victimhood, isolationism and nationalism” in the short term, it could also “result in a major change in attitude” in the long run, if the economic pressure becomes too much to bear. 

Others are skeptical about the BDS movement’s underlying intentions. “In the early days, it was relatively easy to show” that BDSers were really calling for the destruction of Israel, said Jonathan Rynhold, an Israeli economics professor and diplomacy expert. “Because they just said it, pretty much. But what’s happened over time is they’ve become more sophisticated and learned to use the language of the liberal left … and blur the difference between ’48 and ’67 lines.” For example, as pro-Israel activists often point out, maps of the region in logos used by groups such as SJP and American Muslims for Palestine don’t leave room for Israel.

BDS co-founder and leader Barghouti rejects this accusation. “Taking any political stance outside our human-rights mandate would have divided us and stripped us of our strongest assets — the near Palestinian consensus behind the movement and the compelling moral quest for universal rights,” he said.

Right now, following Barghouti’s lead, SJP and JVP chapters are gearing up for another year of education campaigns on campus. They plan to set up mock apartheid walls and checkpoints, start new petitions, push more divestment bills, and host lectures and informational sessions. Once they gather enough support on the ground, student leaders said, they expect policymakers will be forced to take notice.

“We’ve been able to present to students in a very factual way about the occupation and our involvement in it,” said Safwan Ibrahim, a 24-year-old UCLA student and SJP board member. “UC funds are invested in these companies that are profiting from the occupation. It’s not so far removed anymore. People are seeing this as a very tangible, changeable issue. People can see it through their own identities.”

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