campus beat

College campuses see increase in anti-Israel activity

The uptick, campus professionals say, is tied to both the virtual learning environment and Israel’s recent conflict with Hamas

Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Two women walk through a mostly empty campus at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, CA on Friday, October 2, 2020.

Amid an uptick in anti-Israel activity on college campuses nationwide, student governments on two University of California campuses debated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions this week. Two other student governments within the University of California system are debating issuing statements condemning Israel over the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

After 12 hours of debate that began Wednesday evening and lasted until Thursday morning, the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara — the only school in the system to have never passed BDS legislation — voted down such a resolution 13-12, with the votes cast by secret ballot. At the University of California, Davis, a BDS resolution was debated for several hours before a final vote was postponed. Student governments at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Cruz will vote next week on whether to issue statements on the conflict.

The debates come at a time when campus anti-Israel activity is on the rise, despite many universities operating remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions. Most student government hearings have shifted to virtual settings, allowing for a broader range of viewers and participants.

Many student governments and universities have struggled to adapt their meeting structures to the virtual environment, in some cases providing a platform for participants — including individuals in other states and countries — to share antisemitic content. 

At a University of California, Irvine student government hearing held on Zoom and streamed on Facebook in February, speakers — students and non-students alike — from around the U.S. and Canada spoke for and against a proposed BDS resolution for several hours. One speaker, a student at the University of California, Davis, shared information about past antisemitic vandalism on campus that occured in the wake of a BDS resolution. In response, another individual — who until last fall was a Students for Justice in Palestine leader at Bard College in upstate New York — used the public comment section on the Zoom call to suggest that Jewish students had vandalized their own property.

The shift to virtual debates, although likely temporary, has concerned campus professionals. “We know that BDS resolutions are political theater,” Matt Berger, vice president of strategic action programs and communications at Hillel International, told JI, “And the concern here now is from the virtual platforms, more people are participating in this theater. And the concern is that more campuses and more activists will launch BDS resolutions in order to have a national platform, as opposed to the localized platform that they would have in person.”

The concerns appear to be warranted. The 2019-2020 academic year saw 18 anti-Israel campaigns, a mix of student government votes and campus-wide referenda. There have been 28 similar campaigns so far in the current school year, with the number continuing to increase in the final weeks of the academic calendar. 

Student leaders looking to weigh in on the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas have pushed through statements condemning Israel at nine campuses: Amherst College, University of California, Riverside, the University of Chicago, Clark University, Claremont Consortium, DePaul University, Louisiana State University, the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University. Students at Boston University and Cornell University blocked attempts by their student governments to issue public letters. Activists on at least 11 additional campuses are pushing open letters, petitions and statements condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Berger noted that the open letters pose a new challenge, as the decisions are made without significant student input.

“These messages can be very problematic because there is no debate or conversation beforehand and little accountability for those who share it,” he told JI.

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