NEW YORK — The lecture hall had filled quickly. Several students arrived wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian headscarves, while in the front row, a young man sat draped in the Israeli flag. As the meeting opened, a student government officer reviewed the rules of debate, warning physical confrontations would not be tolerated. “We want this to be safe for everyone,” she said.
It was time for a ritual that has become increasingly commonplace on many American college campuses: a student government body, in this case at the University of California, Davis, would take up Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and decide whether to demand their school divest from companies that work with the Jewish state.
In the United States, Israel’s closest ally, the decade-old boycott-divestment-sanctions, or BDS, movement is making its strongest inroads by far on college campuses. No U.S. school has sold off stock and none is expected to do so anytime soon. Still, the current academic year is seeing an increasing number of divestment drives at colleges and universities, stretching from the University of California system to Northwestern University and beyond. Since January alone, student governments at four universities have taken divestment votes.
While the campaigns unfold around resolutions largely proposed by chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, outside groups have become increasingly involved — from American Muslims for Palestine and the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee, on one side, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, on the other. At some campuses, candidates for student government are being asked their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The heated rhetoric has led to claims of anti-Semitism and of infringement on free speech.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised when they hear a BDS movement is coming,” Ira Stup, a 2009 Columbia University graduate and former director of J Street U, the college arm of the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street, which opposes BDS. “It’s becoming a regular occurrence.”
“It’s creating a debate. It’s creating a significant amount of conversation in the entire community and it’s set on the terms the activists want it to be set on,” said Rahim Kurwa, a doctoral candidate and member of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The boycott-divestment-sanctions movement grew from a 2005 international call from Palestinian groups as an alternative to armed struggle over control of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and Palestinians seek for an independent state.
Supporters of Israel say that boycotting the country is no way to make peace, especially since many BDS supporters do not differentiate between protesting Jewish settlements on occupied lands or Israel as a whole.
But BDS advocates have a range of views, and advocates say the movement, based on the campaign against South African apartheid decades ago, is aimed at Israeli policy, not Jews, in response to two decades of failed peace talks and expanded Israeli settlement of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In the United States, activists have pressed for boycotts of Israeli products and cultural events, and for divestment by churches and investment funds. None of these efforts has gained as much momentum in the U.S. as the campus divestment movement.
College activists organize lectures and workshops on Israeli policy and Palestinian history, while staging protests that include mock Israeli military checkpoints, or a mock West Bank separation barrier that activists call an “Israel apartheid wall.” Flash mobs perform the dabke, or Arabic folk dance, to highlight Palestinian culture.
Advocates write op-eds for campus newspapers with appeals to protect Palestinian human rights, often accusing Israel of colonialism and racism. Pro-Israel groups counter with their own demonstrations, lectures and opinion pieces. When divestment proposals come up for a vote before student governments, the hearings can last for days, drawing campuswide attention, whether or not the measure prevails. The 2013 hearings at UC-San Diego stretched over three weeks.
“It helps get the plight of the Palestinian people into mainstream discourse,” said Taher Herzallah, national campus coordinator for American Muslims for Palestine, an Illinois-based education and advocacy group that provides advice and support for student activists.
Protesters at some schools have taken a harder line in their activism. Palestinian advocates generally will not engage in dialogue or joint public events with pro-Israel students, calling such interactions “faithwashing” meant to weaken the movement.
The student divestment votes are symbolic. University administrators and boards — not student governments — oversee investments, and trustees have rejected the resolutions for several reasons, including that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too complex to single out one country.
Only a few dozen student governments have cast ballots on divestment proposals since 2012. Of those votes, about a dozen have won passage.
Yet, the number of campus campaigns has grown steadily in recent years, and Israel and Palestinian advocates say the 2014-15 academic year, which started soon after Israel’s war with the militant group Hamas in Gaza, is shaping up as one of the busiest so far.