America’s increasing diversity is nurturing the BDS movement

ActivismUS Politics
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Students
Columbia student representatives from a wide array of organizations show their support for a divestment campaign (Photo courtesy of Columbia SJP)

The current and future battle over the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement will be decided by America’s changing demographic face. That much is clear from divestment campaigns on California campuses and the recent back-and-forth over Alicia Keys’ July 4 concert in Israel.

This was a point touched on in a smart piece in Haaretz by Simone Zimmerman, a recent graduate of the University of California (UC), Berkeley and the president of J Street U’s national board. “When I arrived as a freshman at UC Berkeley ready to defend Israel, I expected to do so in alliance with other minority communities on campus,” writes Zimmeran in a piece titled “Blind Israel advocacy will lose to BDS.” But there was a hitch to Zimmerman’s expectation of what minority communities would say about Israel:

I did not anticipate standing on one side of a room among Jewish students opposite a diverse pro-BDS coalition of progressive Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, and other allies. Nonetheless, that reality defined much of my experience as a pro-Israel student on campus when I advocated multiple times against divestment resolutions that charged Israel as a ruthless occupier.

Indeed, on California campuses across the state, the pro-divestment campaigns worked in concert with a wide and diverse variety of activists–queer groups, black groups, Latino groups and more. As student activist Rahim Kurwa notes in his review of recent divestment campaigns, this coalition was crucial to the successful drive at UC San Diego that pushed the student government to recommend divestment:

They were supported by 16 student organizations, ranging from the Mexican and Chicano Students Association to Asian Pacific Student Alliance, the local chapter of the graduate union, the Black Student Union, and the Coalition of South Asian Peoples…

At Santa Barbara, the process of organizing around the bill produced a list of 30 endorsing groups and beautiful expressions of solidarity across struggles. Moving statements were read by students of color, whose experiences of colonialism, displacement, imperialism and racism were knit together in solidarity with the Palestinian call for divestment.

The Palestine solidarity groups on campus were continuing work that was first solidified when M.E.Ch.A. (Movi­miento Estudi­anti­l ChÃican@ de Aztlán), a large Latino youth association, endorsed the BDS movement in 2012. This type of coalition-building has continued as Palestine solidarity and Latino groups make connections between militarization on the U.S.-Mexico border and the separation barrier in the West Bank. And if Palestine solidarity groups want to spread their message far and wide, the Latino community is ground zero for that effort.

The black community, too, has seen battles over BDS break out. Alice Walker’s letter to Alicia Keys urging her to boycott Israel–an effort that was unsuccessful, as Keys is set to perform there tomorrow–sparked media coverage of BDS in black publications like The Grio. Walker’s letter was followed up by a wide array of prominent black activists likewise urging Keys not to perform and saying that the conditions Palestinians live under are similar to Jim Crow in the American South.

It’s tough to tell how much support there is for BDS in these communities. The movement hasn’t yet reached a critical mass where it’s a hot topic of conversation for political and civic groups in those communities, though on campuses, it appears that non-white groups are firmly in the BDS camp.

But the battle over hearts and minds is raging now, and Israel lobby groups recognize that. As the Jewish Daily Forward’s Nathan Guttman reported in March 2012, AIPAC has aggressively organized an “outreach effort” to make the group a home to “many non-Jewish supporters of Israel,” like “Christian evangelicals, African Americans, [and] Latinos.” Other Israel advocacy groups will likely take their cues from AIPAC on this front. And as Robin Kelley, a black professor at UCLA, recently noted, the black group Vanguard Leadership Group has taken shots at Students for Justice in Palestine. 

The United States is expected to have a non-white majority by mid-century. So the future of many political questions, including BDS, will increasingly be decided among non-white communities. The battle over Palestine in these communities is just getting started. Both sides of the debate recognize that. 

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