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Anti-Israel protestors on university campuses across the U.S. are calling for their schools to divest holdings from companies they say do business with Israel and/or are “complicit” with Israel’s response against Hamas in Gaza. Protestors are also demanding their universities end partnerships and joint programs with Israeli universities. In some cases, they are calling for universities to boycott and sever ties with Jewish community organizations, such as Hillel.

What is BDS and the call for divestment from Israel?

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is an international campaign, begun in the mid-2000s, aimed at delegitimizing and pressuring Israel, through the diplomatic, financial, professional, academic and cultural isolation of Israel, Israeli individuals, Israeli institutions, and, increasingly, Jews and others who support Israel’s right to exist.

Divestment campaigns, such as those being called for today, aim to delegitimize and pressure Israel through, among other methods, the financial isolation of Israel.  

On campus, while the specific calls to action might differ, most divestment campaigns are focused on university endowments and their investments. Some also call for divesting from Israeli companies directly, or lists of American or multinational companies they allege are enabling Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza.  Some don’t even reference Israel, and ostensibly focus on broader human rights issues, but are implicitly directed at Israel.  

Over the past decade, despite numerous student governments passing BDS resolutions on campus, the impact of such divestment efforts has been minimal. In many cases, these campaigns have primarily been used as a PR mechanism to draw attention to their narrative of Israel’s singular culpability for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Isn't BDS a reasonable, non-violent way to support Gazans and all Palestinians?  

  • Some campus supporters of BDS action may be unaware of the broader goals and implications of the BDS movement, and instead believe it is a vehicle to promote a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to support Palestinian rights. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
  • BDS campaigns are fundamentally biased and unconstructive.  
  • ADL believes that many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, which effectively reject or ignore the Jewish people’s right of self-determination, or that, if implemented, would result in the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state, are antisemitic.
  • BDS campaigns on campus frequently contribute to divisiveness and hostility, and many have featured antisemitic rhetoric and incidents, directly impacting Jews and those who feel a connection to Israel.  
  • The BDS movement does not support constructive measures to build Israeli-Palestinian engagement, nor does it promote peace negotiations or a mutually negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. The BDS movement doesn’t seek a two-state solution; it aims to dismantle the Jewish state.  
  • The movement’s regressive policy of “anti-normalization” forbids people-to-people exchanges, dialogue opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians, or even interactions between “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” groups and advocates (even Israeli/pro-Israel groups who support a Gaza ceasefire and are strong advocates for Palestinian rights) unless the parties involved first recognize the BDS narrative of Israelis as “oppressors” and “colonizers” and denounce Zionism.  
  • BDS rejects the pursuit of dialogue and understanding, and instead actively works to dehumanize Israelis, Zionists, and those who feel connected to Israel. BDS opposes the fundamental building blocks for Israeli-Palestinian understanding, peace-building, and ultimate reconciliation, even at the grassroots level.
  • We all seek to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work toward conditions that can end the current Israel-Hamas war. This conflict is complicated, and any sustainable solution will require mutually negotiated agreements which guarantees security, self-determination and dignity. BDS wants no such thing. BDS campaigns portray Israel as singularly responsible for the conflict, as an illegitimate entity which should be targeted at every level, and advocate measures which would lead to Israel's eradication. At the same time, BDS does not hold Palestinian officials and Hamas responsible for refusals to recognize Israel's right to exist, for decades of terrorism and the launching of thousands of rockets on Israelis civilians. Current campaigns for divestment fail to even condemn Hamas atrocities on October 7 or include a call to release the hostages as part of their advocacy.

Have divestment resolutions succeeded?

No, divestment resolutions have not influenced university endowments, nor have they had any impact on the ground for Israelis or Palestinians.

Even in cases when such resolutions have been passed by student government bodies, the university does not have an obligation to engage in BDS. In almost every case, the president or chancellor has publicly declared (sometimes even before the vote) that they reject BDS and will not carry out the call for divestment.

While divestment initiatives rarely succeed, they do create a lot of tension and divisiveness on campus. Often, the campaigns’ vilification of Israel and its supporters creates an atmosphere that can isolate Jewish and pro-Israel students, including in a manner that has emboldened antisemitic actions or expressions.

What about calls for severing ties with Israeli universities or boycotting Israeli academic institutions?

The cornerstone of higher education is the pursuit of intellectual inquiry and academic growth. Shutting down the possibility to study abroad in Israel, or to engage with Israeli academics, is detrimental to these values and the right for students to pursue first-hand study, exchange and intensive immersion.

ADL is committed to free speech and certainly does not deny that students have the right to express strongly held views. But when they advocate for action that prevents students from pursing honest intellectual inquiry and academic growth, that is not merely an exercise in freedom of speech or an expression of political opinion. It is an interference with core principles of academic freedom in higher education and a step toward denial of students’ access to academic opportunities.  

Institutions and associations committed to higher education have labeled academic boycotts as contrary to the cherished principle of the free exchange of ideas. This includes the American Association of University Professors, the American Association of Universities, and scores of other reputable academic institutions and associations.

These restrictions may also make students of all backgrounds who wish to study in Israel, or study with a particular Israeli academic, even outside their university structure, hesitate to do so, thereby limiting their academic opportunities, and ability to engage with experts in their fields.

How should colleges and universities respond to calls for divestment and boycotting Israeli academic institutions?

  • ADL recommends that colleges and universities re-affirm their opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whether a resolution has been proposed on campus or not, to showcase to the campus community that the movement is antithetical to campus values.
  • Colleges and universities should also proactively affirm their commitment to the free exchange of ideas and wide access to academic opportunities, including with Israeli academic institutions and academics. American universities should counter these unconstructive calls by publicly elevating their partnerships with Israeli institutions, encouraging students to consider study abroad opportunities in Israel, feature the work of Israeli scientists and researchers on their faculty, or who collaborate with their faculty, and highlight the benefits these associations provide to students and the institution.  
  • A backgrounder on the BDS movement can be found here.
  • Sample Statements Opposing BDS:

Why is it problematic for university administrations to capitulate to BDS demands?

  • Protesters who violate codes of conduct and policies, intentionally fan the flames of antisemitism and hate in general, and wreak havoc on campus life, should not be rewarded – especially not through schools caving to BDS-related demands. The BDS movement is illiberal and antithetical to campus values. It limits the free exchange of academic ideas, and it ascribes all responsibility for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on Israel.  
  • Capitulating to BDS demands will only incentivize future rules violations and further fuel antisemitism on campus.

What can students who oppose BDS do?

Countering a divestment campaign requires short-term and long-term strategic planning. Building successful coalitions against BDS can help defeat a resolution if and when it is introduced, and educate the wider campus community on this complex conflict.  

  • Be proactive. Consider helping to organize events that showcase multiple narratives and projects dedicated to promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and understanding.  Highlighting constructive initiatives can provide alternative understanding and approaches to the divisive and one-sided nature of BDS.  
  • Mobilize like-minded students to work together.  Work with Hillel and other pro-Israel groups on campus to develop a unified strategy to respond. Testify before student government, meet with the university administration, the university’s investment committee, write an op-ed for the campus newspaper, explain your concerns to your friends and acquaintances. Pro-Israel campus groups can help you develop talking points and arguments to refute specific allegations in the divestment campaign.  
  • Consider campus-wide initiatives that students concerned about humanitarian and social justice causes can constructively embrace, including raising funds for organizations who promote dialogue and peace.    
  • Monitor the ongoing social media conversation surrounding divestment.  Document any antisemitic or threatening rhetoric that appears in online or in-person comments. Notify campus personnel if any of the language used to advocate for the resolution or within the resolution itself makes you feel threatened or unsafe.

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