Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton called the Israel boycott movement “alarming” in a speech Monday, characterizing activists as anti-Semitic and accusing them of “bullying” Jewish students on college campuses.
“Many of the young people here today are on the front lines of the battle to oppose the alarming Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement known as BDS,” said Clinton, speaking at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate, and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.”
BDS is a global movement of activists looking to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of the West Bank and restoring the rights of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens. Opponents of BDS activism on campus frequently accuse BDS activists of “bullying opponents into silence” or trying to “de-legitimize Israel.”
In the past couple of years, AIPAC has aggressively promoted anti-BDS legislation, including legislation in some states to block funding for public universities that adopt divestment resolutions.
This is not the first time Clinton has signaled opposition to the BDS movement. Last year, in a public letter to Haim Saban, she called the movement an “attack” and “the latest attempt to single Israel out on the world stage.”
Jewish peace activists were quick to respond to Clinton’s remarks.
“At Columbia, the launch of our BDS campaign last month has created very healthy and necessary conversation within Jewish spaces on campus,” said Eva Kalikoff, co-chair of Columbia’s Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. “The idea that pro-Palestine students are bullying anti-Palestine students is offensive to the movement for Palestinian liberation.”
“The reality is that the campus supporters of BDS are condemning the Israeli government and its actions, not any student on campus,” said Abby Harms, a Palestinian rights activist at Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. “University divestment campaigns were the initial successes of the boycott movement against South Africa that eventually led to global sanctions and divestment.”
Pro-Palestinian activism faces harsh resistance and censorship on college campuses. A report released last year by Palestine Legal documented hundreds of incidents of punishment and reprisal, including the firing of a pro-Palestinian professor, numerous suspensions of pro-Palestinian activists, the de-funding of student groups, and a student forced to take down a Palestinian flag.
Jewish peace activists have also been victims of exclusion from campus Jewish communities. Hillel Israel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has published “Standards of Partnership,” instructing college Hillel groups to exclude organizations supporting BDS.
“I think that such characterizations do a disservice to any Jewish people who have been subject to true forms of anti-Semitism,” said Eitan Peled, the coordinator of Open Hillel at UCLA, an organization of Jewish students dedicated to making Hillel fellowships inclusive of dissenting views, in a statement emailed to The Intercept. “There is nothing anti-Semitic about promoting equal rights for Palestinians.”
According to Peled, when the UCLA chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace applied to be a member organization of UCLA’s Hillel fellowship, students were instructed to fill out a detailed, five-page questionnaire asking about their views on BDS, Hamas, Palestinian media, and whether “students at Hillel … feel bullied by pro-BDS students.” The chapter was denied membership.
In a statement emailed to The Intercept, Hillel International responded: “We welcome our students to express a diversity of opinions about Israel. Outside groups or speakers that are anti-Zionist, support the BDS movement, or deny Israel’s right to exist will not be hosted or given a platform by Hillel International.”
“If there is any institutional exclusion regarding this issue, it is the exclusion of Jewish activists who support BDS,” Peled said. “Jewish institutions such as Hillel International have essentially introduced a political litmus test within the Jewish community. There is no such political litmus test in the activist spaces I support.”
Opposition to BDS activism has an even stronger foothold overseas. In October, France’s highest appeals court ruled that BDS activists handing out fliers were guilty of “incitement and discrimination,” and last week, a woman was arrested for wearing a T-shirt that read, “Boycott Apartheid Israel.” In February, the U.K. government announced that it would block universities and public authorities from supporting Palestinian rights through investment practices.