How anti-BDS laws paved the way for the assault on critical race theory

Right-wing groups are using similar tactics to silence progressive views on U.S. racism and Israel. So why are many American Jews only opposing the former?

(Center left to right) Sachiel Rosen, Hassani Bell, Ahkeel Mestayer, and Julia Retzlaff, four students referred to as the Third World Liberation Front 2016, who were on a hunger strike to defend the funding of the San Francisco State College of Ethnic Studies, raise their joined hands during an emergency press conference in the Quad, May 9, 2016. (Melissa Minton/CC BY 2.0)
(Center left to right) Sachiel Rosen, Hassani Bell, Ahkeel Mestayer, and Julia Retzlaff, four students referred to as the Third World Liberation Front 2016, who were on a hunger strike to defend the funding of the San Francisco State College of Ethnic Studies, raise their joined hands during an emergency press conference in the Quad, May 9, 2016. (Melissa Minton/CC BY 2.0)

During the final month of 2020, weeks after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for the American presidency, many elements of the right-wing movement in the United States were focused on contesting the election result — calling for audits, supporting protests, and fomenting a coup attempt. The powerful corporate-backed bill mill American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), though, was focused on something else.

In December, ALEC brought together state legislators from 20 states, corporate representatives, and conservative activists for a virtual workshop entitled “Against Critical Theory’s Onslaught.” The goal, as the title suggests, was to urge lawmakers to ban the teaching of critical race theory  — a decades-old academic field of study that interrogates the social construction of race and institutionalized racism, and which in recent years has turned into a catch-all for any progressive social studies education.

This was hardly ALEC’s first foray into legislation that curtails speech deeply critical of a state and its society. Several years earlier, ALEC met with U.S. legislators urging them to enact laws that would effectively ban the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — the nonviolent, Palestinian-led campaign to end global complicity in Israeli violations of Palestinian rights under international law. Such anti-BDS legislation, civil rights advocates have warned, threaten to directly infringe on Americans’ constitutional right to free speech — generating the same repressive effect as other bills promoted by ALEC.

For many activists, organizers, and academics in the Palestine solidarity movement, this year’s uproar in the United States over critical race theory, and the accompanying efforts to ban it from being taught in schools, feels very familiar. Over the past decade, and particularly during Trump’s presidency, pro-Israel organizations and politicians have sought to redefine antisemitism to include certain criticism of Israel by using the working definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA), in an attempt to silence such views in classrooms and on college campuses across the country.

While they do not necessarily share the same roots, the movements to ban these critical perspectives from U.S. education resemble each other in myriad ways, sharing an array of financial backers, legislative tactics, and political motives to quash legitimate criticism of the racist and colonial practices of increasingly embattled states.

Florida's Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee, Leon County, Florida, August 31, 2013. (Michael Rivera/CC-SA-3.0)
Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee, Leon County, Florida, August 31, 2013. (Michael Rivera/CC-SA-3.0)

For many Jewish Americans and their best-funded, longstanding institutions, the attacks on critical race theory present them with a conundrum: while many oppose the bans on the theory, some are simultaneously supporting the crackdowns on speech critical of Israel.

“One thing I feel pretty strongly about is that the right wing has used Palestine and the Palestinian solidarity movement as a test balloon for tactics that they use more broadly against progressive issues,” said Tallie Ben-Daniel, director of special projects with Jewish Voice for Peace. “This is one of the ways that this is happening.”

Exposing ‘real intentions’

Republicans have used critical race theory as a tool to harness the kind of energy and anger that fueled their political revival during the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Indeed, veteran Republican operatives seem to believe that the furor over the academic field is a goldmine.

In May, for example, Politico reported that Trump was teaming up with former Congressman Newt Gingrich to craft a new “Contract with America” to run on for the Republican Party in 2022. “It should be positive,” Gingrich said of the hypothetical contract. “School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the ‘1619 Project,’ eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing. We should say, ‘Bring it on.’”

Republican-controlled state legislatures have gotten the message. As of early September, 27 states have introduced legislation or taken steps through other avenues to curtail discussions of race and gender-related topics in classrooms. Twelve of those states have already enacted bans, including those led by presidential hopefuls like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas.

The language in a number of these critical race theory bills is astonishingly vague. In one case, a bill targets the teaching of what it simply describes as “divisive concepts,” leaving educators unsure about what they can and cannot teach while giving states the ability to expand the definitions as they see fit.

The consequences of the critical race theory craze thus far, however, have been anything but vague. School board meetings across the country have turned into conflict zones, featuring mainly white parents screaming about the perils of critical race theory and COVID-19 safety guidelines. As school board members resign due to the meetings’ hostile climate, Republican groups are also investing to ensure that they win the newly-vacated seats.

Protesters seen in support of the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program, March 11, 2013. (Arizona Community Press/CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Protesters seen in support of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program, March 11, 2013. (Arizona Community Press/CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Legacy American-Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which enthusiastically support defining certain criticism of Israel as antisemitic, have not been so bullish on the bans on critical race theory. In June, the ADL published an article basing the anti-critical race theory movement in virulently antisemitic white nationalism, arguing that the debate is being used to propagate the myth that the “white race is under attack.”

Yet some of these same pro-Israel organizations have also battled advocates of a more inclusive American history education. In California last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed an ethnic studies bill on the grounds that it was “insufficiently balanced and inclusive” of “all communities” after a proposed ethnic studies model curriculum did not include content on Jews amid other concerns. Newsom credited the opposition of pro-Israel groups as decisive in his decision.

Teresa Montaño, professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at California State Northridge University, was a member of the group that wrote the model ethnic studies curriculum for the state last year. The hypocrisy of pro-Israel groups supporting ethnic studies without the inclusion of course content on Palestine, for instance, is a “contradiction I couldn’t live with,” she said.

“I think groups like the ADL and others that have some history in the multicultural movement — today they’re being much more exposed for what their real intentions are,” Montaño said. “You can’t say you’re about equity if you’re not going to question race and racism and colonialism.”

The ADL declined a request for an interview for this story. 

Though it remains to be seen how many of these bans on critical race theory will function in practice, experts have warned that the parameters of the legislation could severely complicate how Jewish history — including the Holocaust — is taught in schools.

Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, August 2, 2015. (Karen/Flickr/CC 2.0.)
Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, August 2, 2015. (Karen/CC 2.0.)

Some already believe there is cause for alarm. At a meeting of the Missouri state legislature in August, a member of the state’s Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission asked representatives whether a bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory would mean that teachers could not, for instance, tell students that Nazis systematically targeted Jews. Republican Rep. Ed Lewis replied, in part, “You wouldn’t want me to say, ‘Well, you’re inherently a racist or a[n] antisemite because you’re a German.’ That is kind of the implication of what critical race theory would do if we were to apply that to the Holocaust and its history.”

Aside from specific concerns about Holocaust education, an anti-critical race theory, anti-ethnic studies approach to education would, in many ways, upend how Jews have long conceptualized and taught their history more broadly.

“There is something fascinating about the Jewish opposition to critical race theory, because Jews teach history like that,” said Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth University. “They’re always teaching it from the perspective of the victim… because that’s how they see themselves in the world. And then suddenly another group does it, and implicates the Jew on the other side [as perpetrator], and it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s not good.’”

‘Antisemitism is not really what’s at stake here’

As the BDS movement gained momentum following the 2014 Gaza War and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, pro-Israel forces worked to counter the movement, as well as mounting public criticism of the occupation, by broadening the definition of antisemitism to include speech critical of Israel.

In 2016, IHRA adopted a working definition that characterized a range of criticism of Israel as antisemitic. That definition has since been adopted by more than 30 countries, including the United States.

In parallel, American states began moving en masse to deter and penalize support for BDS, characterizing the nonviolent protest movement as antisemitic. Thirty-five states have passed anti-BDS legislation since 2015, with wide-ranging consequences for educators, activists, and pro-Palestinian organizations.

Protesting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, New York, February 3, 2019. (Gili Getz)
Protesting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, New York, February 3, 2019. (Gili Getz)

Trump, who received millions in campaign backing from pro-Israel individuals and organizations, added to this effort in late 2019, when he issued an executive order to penalize colleges and universities for failing to take action to combat antisemitism using the IHRA definition.

A group of scholars released an alternative definition in the spring, called the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, to counter the IHRA definition. But while the document was cheered by a number of academics and left-leaning U.S. Jewish groups, organizations like the ADL and the American Jewish Committee have opposed it, and the State Department has declined to adopt it.

For Magid, the conflict over antisemitism definitions is a red herring. “This so-called debate over antisemitism between the IHRA document and the Jerusalem document, it’s not really a debate about antisemitism,” said Magid. “It’s really just a debate about Israel under the guise of a debate about antisemitism… Antisemitism is not really what’s at stake here.”

What is at stake, Magid continued, is hegemonic U.S. support for Israel, especially at a time when young Americans are becoming increasingly critical of the occupation. Laws targeting anti-Israel speech are a way for Jews to “criminalize critique,” he said. “That’s kind of what it’s doing, and then once you do that, you can slowly extend and expand what critique fits into that. And that is clearly a response to fear.”

‘The tip of the spear’

The logic behind both the bans on Israel speech and critical race theory functions in similar ways: equating critiques of nation-states with criticism of individual students in classrooms.

“These videos of parents being, like, ‘My child is being harmed by this person saying [white people] are racist,’ to me, feels very similar to [the notion that] by talking about Israeli apartheid, or the wall, or settlements, you are creating a hostile climate for Jewish students on your campus,” said JVP’s Ben-Daniel.

That logic is not the only area of overlap. Both movements have reshaped the definitions of existing terms on racism and antisemitism, and used them to introduce legislation that severely restricts speech threatening to the political right. Moreover, both movements are receiving financial backing from a number of the same organizations and funders.

Protest against ALEC by the Occupy movement and other groups, St. Paul, Minnesota, March 13, 2012. (Fibonacci Blue/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Protest against ALEC by the Occupy movement and other groups, St. Paul, Minnesota, March 13, 2012. (Fibonacci Blue/CC BY 2.0)

ALEC has long been involved in pushing legislators to oppose the BDS movement and suppress pro-Palestine speech on college campuses under the guise of antisemitism. In 2018, The Guardian reported that ALEC had brought state lawmakers together in Texas to discuss legislation on antisemitism that would encompass criticism of Israel; shortly thereafter, the state of Florida passed a law banning antisemitism in public schools based on the IHRA definition.

The organization has been similarly active in the fight against critical race theory. After its virtual workshop last December, a number of the state legislators it hosted went home to boost anti-critical race theory bills in 2021.

ALEC is not the only right-wing group straddling both movements. As far back as 2015, the Koch brothers, the libertarian business magnates, were part of a small group that invested in excess of $300 million in the effort to “silenc[e] dissent and solidarity with Palestine.” This year, organizations with ties to the Koch network have published an onslaught of articles on critical race theory, helping to fuel the ensuing moral panic. 

There is further overlap in major donors and leadership between a number of right-wing think tanks in the United States and right-wing think tanks in Israel, including the Heartland Institute, the Tikvah Fund, and the Kohelet Forum, many of which have pushed for laws cracking down on anti-Israel speech, critical race theory, or both.

It is perhaps no coincidence that bans targeting speech on Israel preceded bans on critical race theory. “[Palestine] is the testing ground,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. “It’s both physically the testing ground and laboratory for weaponry, surveillance, and technology, but it’s also a testing ground ideologically around what’s possible in terms of a right-wing agenda here in the United States.”

According to Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Israel — whether its backers intend it or not — is often used as a wedge issue to make reactionary policy palatable to liberals and progressives. Once reactionary policies designed to help Israel are passed, they are often expanded upon to other fields. Friedman pointed to legislation in states like Texas that targets private businesses for discrimination against the gun, oil, and gas industries, which are based in part on anti-BDS legislation. These Israel-related bills, she said, are “the tip of the spear to destroying free speech.”

The Senate Chamber in the Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas. (Wally Gobetz/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Senate Chamber in the Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas. (Wally Gobetz/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Battles over the ideological content of U.S. education are not new, and Palestine has not always been so prominent in them. But both Friedman and Magid said that the impetus for the new bans on antisemitism and critical race theory is a growing sense that public opinion is turning against both the Israeli and American national projects.

“The anti-BDS laws… [are] clearly a response to fear,” Magid said. “And critical race theory and the Jewish response to critical race theory is also a response to fear.”

It is little coincidence that efforts in recent years to target Israeli settlements through labeling, bans, and boycotts in the United States and in Europe sparked a rash of anti-BDS legislation. Similarly, the racial justice uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer ignited a backlash against a national reckoning with the content and purpose of U.S. history education.

“For folks who have not been super down with more progressive rethinking of U.S. history… [critical race theory] was something they could basically ignore,” Friedman said. “But there is a zeitgeist right now around this, and as that zeitgeist has more energy, there is a need to not just ignore [the theory] and marshal it, but to demean it and possibly kill it.”

The trajectory is striking to many activists and educators who are interested in teaching the history of Israel and Palestine in a more critical light. They recognize that to teach honestly about Israeli land theft, militarization, and occupation is to necessarily implicate the United States — and vice versa.

“Clearly,” said AROC’s Kiswani,” there is a broad spectrum of alignment as it relates to ensuring students don’t have access to liberatory, anti-colonial, anti-racist education — that students don’t have access to tools that would allow them to have an analysis of race and power.”