campus beat

BDS resolutions on college campuses have almost disappeared. What comes next?

A decade ago, there were dozens of efforts to get universities to divest from Israel; this past year, there were three

Over the last decade, supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel have focused their campaign in the U.S. primarily on college campuses. But the once-thriving effort to push BDS-related legislation through student governments has significantly lost momentum over the last academic year, a sharp contrast from its peak in the 2014-2015 school year when U.S. campuses saw 44 BDS votes. 

The resolutions rose briefly in the wake of the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza but have since plummeted again. Last year, there were three.

But Jewish groups who monitor college campuses caution that the falloff does not signal that all is well for Jewish students on campus.

The drop in BDS resolutions on college campuses comes amid rising antisemitism and anti-Zionism in other forms, including anti-Israel activity on college campuses, which has nearly doubled over the previous year, according to a September report by the Anti-Defamation League

The ADL, which releases an annual audit of anti-Israel activism on college campuses as part of its regular reporting about nationwide antisemitism, found that during the 2022-2023 school year, there were a total of 665 anti-Israel incidents, up from 359 in the previous school year. The findings include nine instances of anti-Israel vandalism and no instances of physical assault. The ADL, which released the report as it faces scrutiny from both the left and the right over whether it deviates too much from its mission of tracking and responding to antisemitism, did not speculate why BDS resolutions dropped.   

Mark Rotenberg, vice president of Hillel International, emphasized in an interview with eJewishPhilanthropy that antisemitism on campuses is still just as concerning, despite taking forms other than BDS.  

“Bullying, intimidation and exclusion of Jewish students has morphed,” Rotenberg told eJP in August while attending the Israel Campus Coalition (ICC) conference in Washington, D.C. “The tactics have changed. The reason classic BDS is no longer the preferred tool is because Jewish students and organizations attacked that challenge in a very direct way, and we now have administrators who understand the unlawfulness of this kind of boycott activity, who appreciate that a fundamental value, academic freedom, is at stake. Boycotts are fundamentally inconsistent with basic principles that govern universities.” 

Rotenberg said the Jewish community has effectively shut down BDS through “persistent and dogged efforts.” He noted that while three schools – Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Grinnell College and University of Texas at Dallas — saw BDS campaigns last year, “there are really no examples of actual BDS resolutions of any substantial context on American universities today.” 

Many of the resolutions try to force universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel. At CWRU, the USG General Assembly voted decisively on Nov. 8 in support of a resolution that calls on CWRU administration “to investigate whether any of its financial assets are invested in companies that support violence against Palestinians, and divest from them if they are found to do so.” The resolution names specific targets for divestment, including U.S. technology companies Raytheon, which co-manufactures Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, and Lockheed Martin, which produces F-35 fighter jets and other weapons, in addition to various companies that “facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements, outposts, and settler-only roads and transportation systems on occupied Palestinian territory.” 

Although the resolutions aren’t binding or likely to change university policy, support for the initiatives can lead to a divisive atmosphere on campus.

A medical student at CWRU who requested to remain anonymous told eJP she “would receive hate for speaking about this issue.” 

“I brought it up in the lab once and the Muslim undergrad got upset,” the student, who also attended CWRU for her bachelor’s degree, said. “Case [Western Reserve University] is very anti-Israel. I used to be afraid of saying I’m Israeli in undergrad because there were anti- Israel posters everywhere from the Palestine club.” 

Rotenberg said that detractors and adversaries have morphed their tactics. “We now see more direct attacks on Jewish and Zionist-identified students,” he told eJP. “For example, instead of asking the administration to divest stock from Caterpillar Inc., [a construction company that has been the target of boycotts for supplying bulldozers to the Israel Defense Forces for use in Palestinian home demolitions and military activities], we see student orgs demanding that their membership condemns Zionism. That’s an attack on the students’ identity. In many ways, Jewish students are now the focus because they’re a softer target than a committee on a board of trustees.” 

Rotenberg pointed to Hillel programming such as the Campus Climate Initiative (CCI), which launched in 2020 to address antisemitism on more than 50 college campuses, for contributing to the decrease in BDS resolutions. 

“We have developed a curriculum for Jewish students, as well as other students, to help them understand how antisemitism presents in 2023,” he said. “Our students have reacted in diverse ways, there is an increase in activism and standing up for who you are, learning about Zionism.” 

Rotenberg added that Hillel has also turned its focus to university administrators “to make sure they understand their legal and moral obligation consistent with our mission of diversity, equity and justice for all students. Most administrators already want to provide an equal educational opportunity for Jewish students but they are challenged because their DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] offices invariably were not initially created with a mission that included Jewish students. Getting the administration to understand how antisemitism has warped and is targeting students now and encouraging them in many different ways, political, legal, educational, to include Jewish students within their DEI mission is another approach that we’re working on as part of our CCI program.” 

A 2021 study from the ADL and Hillel found that a substantial number of college students say they have experienced or witnessed antisemitism, sometimes because of their real or perceived support for Israel.

Rotenberg added that antisemitism is more politically divisive than ever. 

“Antisemitism from the right is more easily understood by students because many students see antisemitism from the right, [such as a] swastika or white nationalist rhetoric as kooky, crazy and inconsistent with the values of their institution,” he said. “Antisemitism from the left, however, is much more challenging for many students because it’s not perceived as some outside kooky source?? — it emanates from faculty, from students orgs on campus and that’s a bigger challenge for our students. That’s why we emphasize the multifaceted nature of antisemitism in 2023.” 

Jacob Baime, CEO of ICC, told eJP that the drop in BDS resolutions is “not an accident,” but rather is due to “a deliberate effort” to educate students. 

“The reason, in my view, that the number dropped is that [national campus organizations] renewed our commitment to civic engagement,” Baime said. 

“What we have to understand and appreciate is that the anti-Israel activists and organizations are investing very heavily in recruiting and training anti-Israel student activists to take over their student governments and to exploit those positions for propaganda,” Baime explained. 

“We started very seriously doing the same. That’s why a lot of the campus work happening is about equipping students to understand the importance of civic engagement and making sure they have the tools, especially on higher-risk campuses where we expect problems, to run for student government office. It’s been a deliberate effort and it doesn’t end.”