On October 22, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) at Virginia Tech passed resolution 2021-22N3, titled “Resolution to Divest in Compliance with the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement.” That same day, GPSS President, Jack Leff, whose Twitter handle reads, “PhD Candidate and good Jewish boy,” tweeted, “Vile antisemitism and racism from H*llel and other groups have no place here and we condemn Israeli apartheid violence,” and “We have been the target of the largest anti-Semitic attack on campus in recent memory as a result of our work.”
In a letter dated November 1 and posted on Facebook, Hillel at VT responded by stating they are “proud of the Jewish student leaders who lobbied their senators and articulated the harmful impact of BDS on campus life.” Leff continued to insist that he is a victim of anti-Semitism in an October 28 tweet directed at Dean Aimée Surprenant, “Civility? How about you tell the on and off campus groups to stop sending me holocaust imagery? How about you tackle the anti-Semitic accusations of being a self-loathing and fake Jew?” Jack Leff, other student senate members and Surprenant did not respond to The Jewish Press’s requests for comment.
Aside from referencing its letter, Hillel at VT did not discuss details of its interactions with Leff.
Avi Gordon, executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness, a national organization, said that in the past, other schools have passed BDS resolutions at the student senate level, but that the actual administrations never followed suit.
“A lot of this is symbolic,” he explained, “Students do it so they can ‘stand up for human rights’ and create, quite frankly, a scary environment for Jewish students because it’s such a divisive topic that creates unnecessary stress on those who support Israel and those who are Jewish on campus.”
He continued, “But what happened at Virginia Tech is extra vile because of how it happened and it was unanimous … and it happened rapidly.” He called Leff’s tweets “absurd and alarming,” and stated, “He’s using his platform to call Hillel racist and anti-Semitic, which inherently makes no sense.”
The VT BDS resolution states that they will be “following the guidelines developed by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This includes adopting as a general principle a boycott of all Israeli academic institutions complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and the denial of basic Palestinian rights.” It is important to note that Omar Barghouti, Founder of the BDS movement, has a masters and PhD degree from Tel Aviv University. He is also a permanent resident of Israel, having moved there in 1993 after marrying an Israeli-Arab woman. Palestinian human rights activist and journalist Bassem Eid frequently writes about how BDS boycotts result in increased economic suffering for Palestinians.
Gordon concurred, “BDS certainly affects Palestinians negatively – who live in the West Bank, who have jobs in Israel for Israeli companies … it’s a totally false narrative. I’m pro-Palestinian as well. I want Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace … BDS is the exact opposite. They want Israel to not exist. They just want to completely rid Israel as being a Jewish State … They’re not helping Palestinians in the long run, they’re only trying to harm the true economic benefits of this coexistence that’s happening.”
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, cofounder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to investigating, exposing and combating anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses, noted some troubling aspects in this case: “What I am most concerned about with the Virginia Tech issue is the fact that these are graduate students that teach undergraduates. It’s not just a matter of perspective. It’s not just a matter of, is it right or wrong to call Israel an apartheid state … of course it’s wrong. And of course it’s anti-Semitic. But of course groups and individuals have free speech. What we don’t have freedom to do is to bring that into the classroom and to use that to indoctrinate students to promote a boycott of Israel and to harass and discriminate against students who don’t agree with them, particularly Jewish and pro-Israel students.
“If we get wrapped up in how morally reprehensible this resolution is, or how outrageous it is that the person who is its biggest promoter is Jewish, and uses his Jewishness and wields his Jewishness as a club to beat up pro-Israel students – in my opinion, these days, that’s pretty par for the course. It’s more egregious, I would say, in this case, because he is so outspoken with his venom towards Israel and towards Jews and non-Jews, students who support Israel … and [he] is perhaps more extreme than we’ve seen.”
Brooke Goldstein, human rights attorney and founder and executive director of The Lawfare Project, echoed those sentiments: “My heart goes out to any Jewish person who has suffered so much intergenerational trauma that they feel in order to be accepted, they have to adopt the narrative of Jew haters and advocate for illegal commercial boycotts against Jewish people because of their faith and national origin.
“Throughout history, there have always been Jewish enablers of our oppression. These Jews think that if they somehow separate themselves from their people and work against the interest of the Jewish people, that they too will be accepted. However, history has shown the opposite. Yet, when the Jewish community pushes back again such racism, those enablers of anti-Jewish hatred cannot claim victimhood status based on their Jewish identities. How do we combat this type of self-hatred? With Jewish pride and empowerment.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “The sponsor of an anti-peace, anti-Semitic BDS resolution which seeks to weaken and endanger Israel, home to the world’s largest Jewish population, cannot simultaneously claim to be a victim of anti-Semitism simply because he is a Jew. If he thought being Jewish would protect him from criticism, he is wrong.”
Thirty-five states, including Virginia, have implemented anti-BDS legislation.