Kenneth Waltzer

Anti-BDS Defeat at Portland State University

Portland State University (PSU) President Wim Wiewel, in a timely statement in early June 2016, spoke out against a divestment motion pushed by adherents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  The motion was about to be voted by the Associated Students of Portland State University.  President Wiewel called the motion “ill-advised and divisive,” and worried openly about the tenor of the conversation stirred by BDS on campus.

Wiewel said: “The tone and tenor of the BDS movement has made members of our community feel unsafe and unwelcome at PSU, and it is not acceptable to marginalize or scapegoat them. Antisemitism cannot and will not be tolerated on our campus.”

Earlier Wiewel had pointed out any divestment measure would actually have no real effect.  PSU does not directly invest its funds. Rather it is one of six Oregon public universities whose funds are deposited in the Public University Fund managed by the Oregon State Treasurer.  There could be no effect of a divestment motion other than a symbolic one and the creation of division on the campus.

Nonetheless, BDS adherents pushed the motion ahead but, partly owing to Wiewel’s intervention, the motion was tabled and held over to this academic year.  On Monday, October 10, the motion was considered again and students substituted a more radical divestment motion in its place.

Fast forward to the present.  Members of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) introduced the new motion, offering a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and describing occupation as beginning in 1948, not 1967.  The motion calls on PSU to divest any current and future holdings in the following companies: Caterpillar Inc., Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard Enterprises and HP Inc., and G4S. It is alleged these companies have profited from human rights violations committed by Israel against Palestinians.

The motion also calls on the university to put in place an internal investment screen prohibiting investment in companies providing weapons or equipment used to displace Palestinian families, construct settlements, or maintain the “separation wall.”  The concern is not a broad one about companies or countries that use weapons or violence to displace, say, Syrians from Aleppo or Darfuris from western Sudan or Ukrainians from Crimea. It is that PSU should have its own foreign policy on one conflict only, Israel/Palestine, reflecting the BDS view.

The initiative is part of a broader national BDS movement effort to delegitimize Israel as a pariah state, using campuses, churches, even local governments to serve as megaphones.  Hence, a similar divestment initiative is aimed too at the city government, involving a Human Rights Commission resolution that Mayor Hales has rejected and called “hurtful for the communities involved” and “divisive within the community of Portlanders.” The aim is also to draw on the prestige of and alliance with domestic black and indigenous movements fighting racial oppression to mobilize support not for racial justice but for the BDS program.

The BDS campaign led by SUPER scored a victory on Monday October 24  with passage of the anti-Israel divestment resolution, 22-2. More than 30 anti-Israel agitators attended the meeting wearing keffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags, and holding signs reading “equality for all.” Many were not students but activists from the wider community. There were few anti-BDS faculty or students to beat back the BDS initiative. Some students there felt bullied by the larger BDS throng. A retired faculty member in Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) misinformed people that the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marked with Martin Luther King, Jr., supported BDS. Despite the circulation of President Wim Wiewel’s earlier statement, BDS triumphed.

Faculty and students at Portland State who share a more complicated view of dynamics in the Middle East now have their work cut out.  Although the disinvestment motion is symbolic only, there is a teaching about the Middle East spread through such efforts.  The first casualty is truth in any complex sense.  The resolution states that only Israel takes action, only Israel acts in history.  Palestinians are hard-pressed, maltreated victims, acted on in history.  There is no accounting for past aggressive wars against UN partition plans or aimed at eliminating Israel from the region.  There is no accounting for suicide bombers, terrorist campaigns, explosions in pizza parlors and old age hotels, or rockets fired against innocent civilians.

The second casualty is dialogue.  BDS proponents openly oppose dialogue and strategies aimed at mutual conciliation between peoples.  Their Manichaean world view states there only exist oppressors and the oppressed.  There is not a conflict to be mediated or negotiated, there is only a villain to be slain and isolated.

This is the down side of the struggle against BDS currently happening on many campuses in the United States.  My sense is this is very far away from the attention of most sraeli readers who, after all, have Hezbollah and Hamas on the borders, and hence more pressing things to think about.  Many do not comprehend there is an open struggle taking place for the mind of the next generation on campuses in the United States about Israel.  Even while BDS efforts have been beaten back in leading professional associations and on many Midwest and Eastern campuses where larger numbers of Jewish students and allies have organized, the conflict continues.

On campuses like PSU, with a limited Jewish presence, it is difficult.  At Portland, what is needed now are faculty and students who might stand up together to complicate the simplistic picture BDS retails. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict needs to be understood as one between two peoples for national sovereignty in a shared land.   Any real response to the conflict will explore finding a path of pragmatic initiatives, if they exist, to reaching a negotiated solution recognizing the aspirations of both.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.