Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
If any area of the United States can be identified as the epicenter of anti-Israelism on campus, California, the nation’s most populous state, can certainly be said to have earned that dubious distinction. In fact, observers of out of control anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity on campuses consider California’s universities to be the veritable ground zero of such vitriol, with particularly troubling and persistent problems of radical student groups, venom-spewing guest speakers, annual hate-fests targeting Israel and Jewish students, and a pervasive mood on campus in which Jewish students and other pro-Israel faculty and students experienced visceral and real “harassment, intimidation and discrimination,” as a Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights described the situation on one campus, the University of California at Irvine.
In fact, UC-Irvine has for two decades been the epicenter of anti-Israel activism in California—and as a result, in the entire country—and this month, the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) continued that noxious tradition by successfully pushing a BDS resolution through the student government, a bill entitled “UC Divestment from Apartheid 2021,” which, in addition to once again leveling the mendacious charge of apartheid against Israel, suggested that “Israel has terrorized, displaced, and killed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from its founding,” and that “Israel continues to follow the methods of terror from its founding until the present day.”
As anti-Israel activists are fond of doing, the resolution was replete with references to the apartheid alleged to exist in Israel, and, in fact, the resolution asserted without hesitation that “Israel is an apartheid state based on this definition [‘a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race’] and its similarities to the South African apartheid . . . .”
To punish Israel for perpetrating and maintaining the alleged racism inherent in apartheid, the resolution targeted specific companies that, it was claimed, benefit from doing business with Israel and should, in the name of social justice, be divested from the UC-Irvine portfolio. What is the rationale for such actions? Normally, it is to punish companies that continue to do business with Israel after they have been singled out for opprobrium, and, additionally in this case, these specific companies are involved in supplying Israel with material and equipment necessary for the Jewish state’s defense. But either because they do not understand how divestment even works, or they have created a new narrative in which the university’s funds are to be reallocated for socially-responsible purposes, the authors of the resolution claimed that “The UC investments in corporations that enable apartheid are a misuse of student tuition funds,” and “the millions spent on apartheid should be redirected to students who do not have their basic needs addressed.”
First of all, student funds are not invested as part of a university’s portfolio since these cover a school’s operating expenses; it is generally endowments whose funds are used to reap returns and growth of a school’s investments, and universities invest in companies that are expected to reap profits and experience appreciation. This trend of BDS supporters to target defense-related firms for divestment is also particularly troubling since it seeks to deprive Israel of acquiring the material and supplies with which to arm its defense forces and protect its citizenry. So, while BDS proponents disingenuously claim that they seek to punish Israel until it ends the occupation, recognizes the so-called Palestine “right of return,” and permits the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, by attempting to deny Israel the ability to defend itself, BDS reveals its actual, though often obscured, intention: the weakening and eventual destruction of Israel through whatever means necessary.
When a divestment resolution is passed by a student government, as it was in the UC-Irvine instance, there is momentary jubilation by the anti-Israel groups on the respective campuses, but almost without exception the resolutions are meaningless, since university administrations are quick to disavow such BDS resolutions and university officers refuse to actually divest funds from any companies alleged to be complicit in Israel’s unjust treatment of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians. University officials rightly recognize that singling out one country for boycott and divestment—Israel—is both hypocritical and unjust and for this reason student-sponsored divestment resolutions are routinely ignored.
But if actual divestment and economic harm to Israel is never realized as a result of these BDS campaigns, what is their purpose? Why do activists even bother with them? The answer is that actually effecting divestment, or a boycott, or sanctions against the Jewish state are not necessary as part of the relentless agitation against Israel. It is enough for Israel-haters to persistently trumpet the many perceived ills of Israel, its long list of predations, and the catalog of human rights offenses it supposedly perpetrates against the innocent Arab Palestinians as part of its campaign of apartheid, occupation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
The obsessive, unrelenting, and fractious cognitive campus war waged against Israel at UC-Irvine and elsewhere attempts to subsume any factual accounting of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, choosing instead to create a mendacious narrative in which Israel is a brutal, militaristic, murderous occupier of stolen Muslim land and the Palestinian Arabs are an innocent indigenous people tirelessly asserting their irredentist claims to the entirety of a factitious country called Palestine. Since these constructions are largely lies and counter-factual—as was the recent apartheid charge in the UC-Irvine resolution—they must be repeated promiscuously until they are accepted as truth, while opposing views that support history and fact about Israel and its neighbors are derided, ignored, or suppressed so as not to threaten the narrative.
The BDS resolution passed at UC-Irvine is the latest salvo in the caustic demonization and delegitimization of Israel happening there, but that campaign has been going on for almost two decades now and has made Irvine the epicenter of universities with a tradition of anti-Israel activism. According to these Israel-hating activists, “white” Israelis are not only fundamentally racist and maintain a system of apartheid against “brown” Arabs, but Israel even exports this racism by training American police officers how to brutalize black suspects, a program that anti-Israel activists have coined as “The Deadly Exchange.”
In June of 2020, for example, UC-Irvine’s Students for Justice in Palestine, in conjunction with dozens of other social justice groups and individuals, distributed a petition, “Justice for Black Lives: End All University of California Police and Imperial Contracts,” which slandered Israel by tying it into the movement to abolish domestic police forces and absurdly blaming Israel for perpetrating police violence in the United States. “This complicity goes beyond domestic policing,” the statement read. “We also call on the UC to divest from companies that profit off of Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestine, investments that uphold a system of anti-Black racism in the US. We know the Minneapolis police were also trained by Israeli counter-terrorism officers. The knee-to-neck choke-hold that Chauvin used to murder George Floyd has been used and perfected to torture Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces through 72 years of ethnic cleansing and dispossession.”
A UC-Irvine event titled “The Oppression of Zionism,” part of “Anti-Oppression Week 2019” sponsored by The Muslim Student Union (MSU), included a sermon by Sheikh Osman Umarji, in which he repeated the classic anti-Semitic trope that Jews who support Israel have a dual loyalty. “We are here as anti-Zionists,” he ranted. “We are against a foreign body, a foreign entity, coming into our land occupied by existing people . . . So, first, we are anti-Zionist . . . Are we living in an alternate universe, where allegiance to a foreign entity is more important than allegiance to the country you live in?”
In fact, Israel-haters have learned to parse their words very carefully when articulating their loathing of Israel. Since working definitions of anti-Semitism such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) link denying Jews their right of self-determination and equating Zionism with racism as being two contemporary characteristics of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel activists have been trying to sidestep their apparent bigotry toward Jews by claiming that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism and that it is the inherent racism of Zionism which warrants the condemnation of Israel, not its essential Jewishness.
Even the text of the “UC Divestment from Apartheid 2021” resolution opens with an admission by the SJP authors that, just in case anyone should suspect that the group harbors some enmity toward Jews and Zionists, they wanted to state unequivocally that “we’d like to note that this [resolution] is in no way related to Judaism, we acknowledge the rising anti-Semitism and stand in full solidarity with Jewish communities across campus, the nation, and the world . . . .” How thoughtful. And with the same contorted morality that anti-Israel activists employ when they state categorically that anti-Zionism is never, never equivalent to anti-Semitism, the resolution echoed that same weasel language by attempting to separate the Jewishness and traditions of Judaism of the Jewish state from the racist political misbehavior they allege is inherent in Israel’s very existence. “We would also like to note the distinction between the Israeli apartheid and Judaism,” the experts on Judaism and anti-Semitism explained, “while Jewish history is intertwined with Israeli history, the current political and physical violence committed against Palestinians is not related to Judaism.” How comforting that Jews in the Jewish state can divorce themselves from any responsibility for the country’s racism, oppression, and brutal militarism.
Having clarified that they harbor absolutely no ill-will toward Jews in general or to Judaism, these toxic activists immediately move on to the gist of their condemnation, asserting in a now-familiar trope that “Israel has terrorized, displaced, and killed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from its founding in the 1947-1949 Palestine War until the modern day.” Their evidence that “Israel continues to follow the methods of terror from its founding until the present day”? Rather embarrassingly, they have to go back in time before the state of Israel was even created, pointing to “terror groups such as the Haganah and Irgun [which] have committed atrocities on the Palestinians including the Deir Yassin massacre which killed between 100-250 Palestinian civilians in 1948 . . . and the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 that killed 91 people . . . .”
Missing from this resolution, of course, just as it is missing from all rhetoric from the anti-Israel crowd, is any context for the terrorism that exists as part of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and, more significantly, who exactly the terrorists actually are. For example, the resolution glibly stated that “the nearly two million people living in Gaza have not been able to leave the Gaza strip since 2007, which has led to the creation of the world’s largest open-air prison, where civilians consistently lose access to resources and are bombed repeatedly by the Israeli military,” creating the impression that Israel, without motivation and acting immorally and illegally, created a blockade to close down Gaza and capriciously and senselessly bombs the civilian population whenever it feels the need.
Missing from the resolution is any mention of the terrorist thugocracy of Hamas, which has imposed a brutal, authoritarian rule over Gazans since 2006 and which, for more than a decade, has used Gaza as a launching pad for some 15,000 rockets and mortars they have lobbed into Southern Israeli towns with the express purpose of randomly murdering Jews. So, while the activist students had to go back over 70 years to find examples of Israeli terrorism, they had only to look back to the current years, if they had cared, to see active, actual terrorists doing their best to inflict casualties and death on Israeli Jews.
There is no mention in the resolution, of course, of Palestinian terrorism, the Arab’s intractability in refusing many offers of Palestinian statehood, or the genocidal impulses from a sea of jihadist foes that have threatened the Jewish state from its birth, which have necessitated the much-maligned security wall, checkpoints, and even the dreaded occupation. Only Israel’s sins are discussed, and all of the blame for the region’s various social dysfunctions is laid at its feet. That is clearly the SJP’s intention and purpose in sponsoring this type of BDS resolution—vilifying Israel and Jews—not to support the Palestinians; and all the disingenuous talk from university administrators and faculty about “academic freedom,” an “open exchange of ideas,” or an opportunity for learning about difficult issue either ignores or evades what is actually going on with respect to these votes by student governments.
“The whole problem with the world,” observed philosopher Bertrand Russell, “is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” On the UC-Irvine campus, fools and fanatics may have prevailed in the current vote, but, in doing so, seem to have revealed the true nature of their genocidal, anti-Semitic hatred.
And its lethal nature and intent should frighten us all.