Targeting BDS in California

California legislators are seeking to tarnish the growing BDS movement by labeling it and all other criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitic,” explains Jeremy Tully.

BDS activists on the march in Oakland, Calif.BDS activists on the march in Oakland, Calif.

THE CALIFORNIA State Assembly has passed a resolution declaring criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic--in a clear attack on the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement.

Passed by a bipartisan majority of Democrats and Republicans, the resolution--known as HR 35--specifically defines as anti-Semitic any speaker, film and event that describes Israel as "guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide," as well as "student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel."

HR 35 smears the BDS movement as anti-Semitic by mixing it in among genuinely anti-Semitic phenomena, like campus vandalism involving swastikas--actual hate crimes which have been perpetrated with disturbing frequency in recent years on California campuses.

But the reality is that in opposing racist and genocidal policies of the Israeli state, BDS is an anti-racist movement, and it is supported by people of all races and faiths around the world, including many prominent Jewish voices, such as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, South African anti-apartheid fighter Ronnie Kasrils, and the organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

The California resolution is the latest in a series of attacks on an increasingly effective BDS movement. Last year, members of pro-Israel groups filed lawsuits attempting to force campuses to put a halt to such activism, but were rebuffed when the court dismissed the suit.

These attacks come after several years of highly visible and successful actions in support of Palestine on University of California (UC) campuses and throughout the state--such as the protest of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in 2010 at UC-Irvine and the successful blockade of an Israeli cargo ship in 2008.

It is because of these successes that supporters of Israel are employing more aggressive methods of intimidation against activists in an attempt to slow the movement's progress in delegitimizing Israel's colonial project.

The intent of HR 35, which is a non-binding resolution, is to intimidate the BDS movement in order to create a political climate on campuses that is more favorable to Zionists and the right wing. Already, UC administrators have reacted with severe repression against students who dare to speak out against Israel's crimes and challenge the UC's complicity with them.

For example, UC administrators and the Orange County District Attorney (DA) cracked down on the 11 students who interrupted a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine in 2010. Oren was speaking in defense of Israel's crimes during Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,417 Palestinians in Gaza were killed, and the Israeli military targeted major components of Gaza's civilian infrastructure, including schools, governmental and administrative offices, and water-treatment and energy facilities.

Not only did the DA level criminal charges against the students, but UC administrators violated the students' right to privacy when they voluntarily turned over their personal e-mail accounts to prosecutors, who then published them in an act of brazen public intimidation. The 11 were ultimately convicted of misdemeanor charges and sentenced to community service time as well as academic sanctions at school.

The persecution of the Irvine 11 illustrates the close relationship between university administrators and elected officials--and how the two work together to stymie protest and dissent, especially when it comes to solidarity with Palestine.

By officially declaring protests like those of the Irvine 11 to be anti-Semitic, California political representatives want to embolden administrators to stifle opposition to Israel's crimes and the UC system's complicity with them. HR 35 will be a handy statement for administrators to reference and employ in order to justify repression of Palestine solidarity activism.

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FORTUNATELY, IT wasn't long before there was a strong rebuke of the California State Assembly--and it came from UC students themselves.

On September 15, the University of California Student Association (UCSA), which represents hundreds of thousands of students and is the biggest student organization in California, passed a resolution "condemning recent attempts to censure boycott and divestment efforts by Palestinian human rights activists on campus, and demanding that the UC stop profiting from Israel's human rights violations."

The resolution took a strong antiracist stance, expressing "the UCSA's opposition to all racism, whether it be the racism of campus and global anti-Semitism or the racism of Israel's human rights violations, neither of which our campuses should tolerate, support, or profit from."

A statement from Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine announcing the resolution elaborated on the reality of Israel's apartheid policies and UC's complicity with them:

Israel is engaged in a 45-year-old military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, which is illegal under international law. Currently, the UC holds millions of dollars in investments in Caterpillar Inc. and Hewlett-Packard.

Caterpillar bulldozers are used by the Israeli army to destroy Palestinian homes and agricultural land, build illegal Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land, and to construct the West Bank wall, which was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. Hewlett-Packard's products are used by the Israeli Navy to enforce Israel's blockade of Gaza, which has also been deemed illegal by the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It is because of this reality--and the tireless efforts of Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists in shining a light on it--that the UCSA not only condemned HR 35, but took a position of active support for BDS by encouraging "all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments in companies implicated in or profiting from violations of international human rights law."

The growing strength of the BDS movement and its successes in exposing Israeli apartheid are pushing supporters of Israel to pursue all means at their disposal--from racist hate ads on public buses to FBI witch-hunts of prominent antiwar and Palestine solidarity activists--in order to repress the movement. These attacks often have not just an anti-Palestinian, but an Islamophobic character, as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry are the twin ideological props of Zionism and U.S. imperialism.

"Criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism" is a tired slander that supporters of Israel are finding increasingly difficult to make stick. Supporters of liberation for Palestine can oppose their efforts by declaring their opposition to HR 35 and by supporting BDS events and efforts wherever they are organized.