The campus “divestment against Israel” campaign is known for its grassroots, media-grabbing student demonstrations, but was the entire movement actually orchestrated by Palestinian government operatives? It appears that University of Illinois Professor Francis A. Boyle, the man credited with initiating the campus divestment movement in November, 2000, was also moonlighting as a Palestinian strategist during the campaign’s inception.
The goal of the campus boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement (BDS)—whose chapters usually go by the name Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is to pressure universities into divesting from Israeli companies or companies that do business with Israel. Through the use of “social justice” rhetoric, the youth BDS campaign has attempted to portray itself as just another organic, liberal student movement. “We are organized on principles to promote justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination,” wrote the University of Pittsburgh SJP on their website. The campus organizations often claim that they are “dedicated to peace and justice in Palestine and Israel.”
“Grass-roots campaigns are resurfacing at colleges and universities to pressure endowment officials to divest from international companies that are involved in or profiting from the recent violence in Gaza,” reported Pensions and Investments on Jan. 29th. But is this campaign really grassroots? The murky history of the campus BDS movement tells a different story.
Most accounts of the campaign trace its roots back to a November 30, 2000 speech by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign law Professor Francis A. Boyle.
Boyle, who fashions himself as the “Noam Chomsky” of third-tier colleges, has taken dubiously academic positions on a whole host of issues—from calling 9/11 a government conspiracy to alleging that the U.S. is illegally occupying the state of Hawaii. Boyle’s off-kilter views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are no exception. His speech that sparked the BDS movement referred to Israel as an “apartheid state” and urged students to implement tactics used during the divestment from South Africa to bring about a divestment from Israel.
And some students listened. According to a 2008 article by Abraham Greenhouse in the BDS-focused al-Majdal magazine, the “November 2000 speech by international law professor Francis Boyle calling for divestment from Israel as a means of supporting the Palestinian struggle was subsequently published as an open call. The speech was widely read and discussed by student activists, and the campus divestment movement which emerged attracted copious media attention, stimulated massive public debate, and sent anti-Palestinian activists flying into a panic.”
By Boyle’s own account, he was a major force in organizing these emerging BDS students groups. The professor, who served as an advisor for Yale University’s divestment campaign, told Arab-American Business Magazine in May 2003 that he has helped organize the movement at several schools. “It has to make sense for each campus…I always recommend looking at what was done regarding South Africa. No one is reinventing the wheel,” he said.
The professor credits the internet with helping the campaign gain momentum. “[The] internet is very important for organizing … The whole divestment campaign [was] organized on the internet,” he told the Palestine Media Center.
But Boyle is not just your average activist professor with a Jimmy Carter complex. A brief glance into his past shows that Boyle actually spent several years serving as a legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—and continued to advise Palestinian leadership during his formulation of the student BDS movement in the Fall of 2000.
After completing his studies at the University of Chicago and the Harvard University Center for Middle East Studies, Boyle went to work for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1987-1989 while they were still a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Once that tenure ran out, Boyle served as the legal advisor to the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Delegation from 1991-1993.
But the professor’s involvement with the Palestinian government did not end there. According to the product description of his 2002 book, Palestine, Palestinians, and International Law, Boyle still “provided the leadership of the Palestinian people with advice, counsel, and representation” up until the book was written.
The professor even held personal meetings with former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat until 1997, when he advised the Palestinian ruler to sue the Israeli government for genocide, he wrote in his book.
Boyle maintained a close relationship with other Palestinian leaders, including the late Gaza politician Dr. Haidar Abdul Shaffi, who helped co-write Boyle’s 2002 book. According to an article the professor wrote in The Link in January/February 2002, Shaffi was “a man of great courage, integrity, and principle. I would fight the Devil himself for Dr. Abdul Shaffi.”
But other accounts portrayed Shaffi in a different light. After co-founding the PLO with Yasser Arafat in the 1960s, Shaffi went on to serve as founder and chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), a medical supply center in Gaza that occasionally doubles as a Hamas missile launch site, reported Newsweek on Jan. 20th. According to Michelle Malkin, the PRCS has also been involved in several terrorist attacks. “An intensive-care ambulance carrying the acronym of the Palestine Red Crescent Society was used to deliver an explosive belt found underneath a stretcher on which a sick child was lying in spring 2002. Female suicide bomber Wafa Idris, who blew herself up in a January 2002 attack in Jerusalem, was a medical secretary for the PRCS,” Malkin wrote on June 2, 2004 in a World Net Daily article.
On April 21, 2000, seven months before Boyle’s initiation of the BDS movement, the professor and Shaffi held a dual press conference, where Shaffi was set to “issue a strong warning to the Israeli government regarding the Palestinian right of return and restitution,” said a press release issued by media analyst Sherri Muzher. At this point in time, Boyle was also serving alongside Shaffi on the board of the Palestinian political strategy organization called the Council on Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation, according to the press release.
On October 7, 2000, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian Authority announced a boycott of Israeli goods, reported the Sunday Herald. Three days after that announcement, on October 10, 2000, Shaffi’s name headed a petition signed by prominent Palestinian leaders echoing the call for an Israeli boycott, according to Al-Ahram Weekly.
Boyle’s speech beseeching students to boycott Israel came only a month later. “During the course of a public lecture at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal on 30 November 2000, I issued a call for the establishment of a worldwide campaign of disinvestment/divestment against Israel, which I later put on the internet. In response thereto, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California at Berkley launched a divestment campaign against Israel there,” wrote Boyle in a May 20, 2002 article in Counterpunch magazine.
Whether the student BDS campaign is part of the Palestinian leadership’s official strategy goals is unclear. What is clear is that Palestinian government officials called for an international boycott in October of 2000, and that Boyle, an advisor and strategist to the Palestinian leadership, initiated the campus BDS campaign shortly after.
In a Dec. 15, 2004 interview with the United Arab Emirates-operated Khaleej Times, Boyle reflected on the growth of the campus divestment movement. The professor, who the article referred to as “the man behind the [divestment] campaign in support of Palestinians” told the paper that the BDS movement was “initiated after the second Intifada in 2000 and is doing quite well, with 70 to 80 college campuses on board and the Presbyterian Church having already divested themselves of businesses in Israel, while the Episcopal Church is considering the move.”
Boyle explained the strategy goal behind his initiative in a Jan. 30th, 2009 column in the same paper. “Some future American President must likewise order Israel out of Palestine. It was towards obtaining that end that I had originally called for the establishment of an Israeli divestment/disinvestment campaign in November of 2000. Free Palestine!” he wrote, making his allegiance clear.
The professor continues to work on behalf of the Palestinians, even participating in the Arab Strategy Forum in 2004. “The demand by the Bush Jr. administration and its Zionist neo-conservative operatives for democratization in the Arab world is a joke and a fraud,” Boyle told the forum.
But it seems that the only fraud is the phony “claim” by the campus BDS movement that they are a grassroots student campaign working toward a “fair and just” peace between Palestinians and Israelis—and the only joke is the fact that radical Palestinian strategist Boyle is still working in academia.