BDS Takes on the Ivory Tower

Bill Mullen Jan 28, 2014

Recent victories in the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid have opened up new possibilities for the movement.

First, the American Studies Association (ASA), with more than 4,000 members worldwide, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) voted to join the boycott of Israeli universities. Then, the 27,000-member Modern Language Association (MLA) passed by a narrow margin a resolution criticizing Israel for restricting the right of U.S. scholars to enter the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities. Earlier in 2013, the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) passed its own boycott resolution.

Predictably, this wave of anti-apartheid activism has predictably been met with an apartheid wall of opposition.

More than 150 university administrators, mostly well-paid university presidents, leapt to condemn the ASA vote and defend Israel's denial of rights and self-determination. Leading newspapers, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times,editorialized against the ASA. And 134 members of Congress signed on to an open letter attacking the ASA and supporting Israel.

But the impact of the courageous stance taken by these academic associations is nevertheless unmistakable: Israeli apartheid is on the defensive, and the global BDS movement has inched closer to what co-founder Omar Barghouti has called a "tipping point."

Students and Palestinian solidarity activists around the country are strategizing about how to build on these victories; public discussion of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and U.S. support for Israel has broken into the mainstream media; and chinks in Israel's armor of political and diplomatic support are beginning to emerge.

The recent actions by these academic organizations reflect the steady growth of the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). In the aftermath of Israel's violent assault on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009, USACBI was launched in solidarity with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

PACBI and USACBI are modeled on the movement against apartheid in South Africa, which included an academic and cultural boycott to raise global consciousness of the many injustices of apartheid.

Both PACBI and USACBI stand in solidarity with the three demands of global BDS movement: an end to Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, its colonization of Arab lands and its apartheid wall; full, equal rights for Arab-Palestinians in Israel; and full implementation of UN Resolution 194 guaranteeing the right of return for Palestinian refugees forcibly displaced since the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) of 1947-49. Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that there are nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.

The ASA resolution, which passed by a 2-to-1 margin, targeted the complicity of Israeli universities in Israel's illegal occupation and other violations of international law. Several Israeli universities, for example, Tel Aviv University, are built on stolen Palestinian land. The Israel Institute of Technology, or Technion, develops weapons that have been used against Palestinian civilian populations in violation of international law.

The ASA resolution pointed out that scholars and students at Palestinian universities face restrictions on travel and research and live under constant threat of violence. In December 2008, the Islamic University of Gaza was partly destroyed by Israeli bombs. Just days ago, dozens of students at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem were injured during an Israeli campus raid.

The ASA resolution also argued that the U.S. government "plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians."

Making explicit the role of U.S. imperialism in the Israeli occupation has made the ASA the target of a predictable counterattack that exposes the unspoken alliance between American university administrators, many of them former government officials, and the state itself.

For example, leading the attack on the ASA was former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. On the Charlie Rose Show, Summers, also a former chief economist of the World Bank and an appointee of both the Bush and Obama administrations, called the boycott movement a violation of academic freedom and "anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent."

After Summers' criticism was featured on PBS, university presidents lined up behind him, invoking "academic freedom" in order to criticize the ASA–while of course ignoring the many arguments that opposing Israeli apartheid is part and parcel ofextending academic freedom.

What the ASA and MLA resolutions really challenge is the pursuit of U.S. economic and political interests in the Middle East, such as oil, while running roughshod over international law and human rights. As was well documented in both resolutions, the U.S. provides more than $3 billion a year in military and other assistance to Israel. The Israeli occupation is also supported by a roster of multinational corporations, according to the "BDS Handbook Targeting Israeli Apartheid," issued by the London-based Corporate Watch.

The ASA and MLA resolutions have also helped draw attention to the role of Middle East capitalism in sustaining the occupation. As Adam Hanieh, author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, said in a recent interview: "In the case of Palestine…we need to go beyond considering the Palestinian struggle as just a 'human rights' issue, but rather see it as integrally connected to the ways that capitalism in the Middle East has formed under the aegis of Western domination."

Hanieh documents in his book and elsewhere the many ways that the Palestinian Authority is propped up by neoliberal policies that make life more difficult for an already subjugated and colonized Palestinian working class–which explains the support given by workers' rights groups and unions within Palestine to the PACBI movement and the ASA resolution.

In fact, more than half a dozen unions have endorsed PACBI, including the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions–and the Birzeit University Professors and Employees Union in Ramallah, representing more than 700 university staff, has issued a solidarity statement with the ASA boycott resolution.

In the wake of these boycott successes, 2014 will likely see an increase in BDS campaigns and the struggle for Palestinian liberation globally. Ha'aretz, one of Israel's leading newspapers, has reported that even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu of a "boycott campaign on steroids" if current "peace talks" with the Palestinian leadership fail.

The ASA, MLA and NAISA resolutions have also energized Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across the U.S. More than 30 SJP campus chapters affiliated with the national SJP endorsed the ASA boycott, and SJP members at Tufts, Bowdoin, Harvard, Ohio State and Northwestern have written open letters denouncing their university leaders for their criticism of the ASA's stance.

Activists of all sorts–in the labor movement, for civil rights, immigrant rights and so on–should seek out opportunities to work in solidarity with existing BDS and Palestinian rights networks, including SJP chapters, to broaden education about the Israeli occupation, advance new boycott resolutions and underscore the essential role of U.S. imperialism in sustaining Israel's colonization of the Middle East. In the process, we can encourage solidarity between struggles that will strengthen the cause of justice generally.

Anti-racist and anti-imperialist organizing around BDS also needs to spread to U.S. labor unions and workers' associations–as it has in Palestine. It should be remembered that strikes by South African trade unions and solidarity actions taken by U.S. unions and employee organizations spread the strategy of divestment and helped bring down apartheid.

The Palestinian struggle for economic, political and social justice is one that can and should unite the multiple strands of existing struggles against the system as a whole. BDS is one important tool in that struggle.

Bill Mullen is a professor at Purdue University. First published at

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