On Oct. 24, the Associated Students of Portland State University passed, in an almost unanimous vote, a resolution calling for the school to divest from all companies that do business with or are based in Israel. The resolution cites numerous human rights violations committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians using products manufactured by companies in which PSU invests, including Motorola and HP.
This is not a unique move: colleges across the country have seen a recent surge in similar resolutions, collectively part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The PSU resolution was supported primarily by Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, a vocal BDS proponent that has been pushing for the resolution since last November.
The BDS movement raises legitimate concerns about human rights violations. The Israeli government commits acts of violence and oppression against Palestinians and this is an issue that ought to be addressed. However, the methods used by the BDS movement are more divisive than they are productive, and they create an environment that encourages and normalizes the marginalization of Jewish students.
The movement uses rhetoric based around the vilification of not only the actions of the state of Israel, but also anybody who supports the state’s existence. They deny the possibility of a two-state solution. They refer to Israel as an apartheid state and often compare Israelis to Nazis. Pro-BDS individuals often condone acts of terrorism perpetrated by Palestinians, claiming that the actions of Israelis justify them. BDS organizes large groups to attend events where Israel-Palestine issues are discussed, often with protest signs and Palestinian flags, with the intention of preventing pro-Israeli views from being heard. This is not the rhetoric of protest; this is the rhetoric of hate.
The demonization of all things Israel leads to an implicit demonization of Judaism as a whole. BDS on paper is by no means anti-semitic. However, the tactics they use create a hostile environment towards Jews because they conflate the state of Israel with Judaism as a whole. This is not pure speculation: incidences of anti-semitism are higher on campuses with active BDS groups and Jewish students often report feeling unsafe around BDS activists. At Brown last spring, anti-Israel activists attempted to prevent a transgender-rights speaker from coming to campus because the event was sponsored by Hillel, a Jewish student group. Closer to home, a student at Reed was called a “radical Zionist” for speaking out against an anti-semitic comment made by the student body president, despite the fact that neither the comment nor her response had anything to do with Israel.
All of this forces us to ask an uncomfortable question: in an environment where checking privilege and acknowledging microaggressions are common, why does the BDS movement still thrive on college campuses? The movement breeds a culture of hostility that would be unacceptable in other contexts, or so I would hope.
With President-elect Donald Trump preparing to enter the White House, it has become even more important that we look critically at the effects of political movements. He has revealed that there is a large faction of the country that does not take issue with hate-filled language and will gleefully chant for the unwarranted arrest of political opponents, not to mention the deportation of American citizens. “Never again” means never again, in America or abroad, to Jews or to any other group. Human rights violations cannot go unaddressed, but that cannot be at the cost of the rights of others.