Issues

Yale Taps BDS Activist as MLK Day Speaker

Angela Davis
Angela Davis / Getty Images

For a Martin Luther King Day event, Yale University tapped a keynote presenter who is an outspoken supporter of the Israel boycott movement and has faced accusations of anti-Semitism.

Yale selected prominent black power movement leader Angela Davis to speak at its MLK Day commemoration event on Thursday. Davis is an outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which wages economic warfare on Israel. Davis also has faced accusations of anti-Semitism for her support of the Soviet Union's suppression of Jewish dissidents.

Davis was selected to keynote the event by assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Risë Nelson, according to the Yale Daily News. The decision was supported by the MLK2020 planning committee.

Davis's participation in the event is just the latest instance of an American university promoting a BDS leader. The promotion of BDS at U.S. colleges has long been a focal point in the pro-Israel community's efforts to combat growing anti-Semitism on campus, an issue that has received renewed scrutiny in the wake of several violent attacks on Jews across the country.

Davis rose to prominence as a leader in the black power movement in the 1970s. She served as a member of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party chapter and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a militant black power group. Davis spent more than a year in prison on charges of participating in the 1970 armed takeover of a California courtroom.

Davis's support for the BDS movement led an Alabama civil rights organization to revoke an award to her in January 2019.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was slated to award Davis with its Fred L. Shuttlesworth honor, named after the civil rights leader, but revoked the accolade after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center wrote a letter expressing its concern over Davis's support for BDS.

In an interview with Democracy Now! during the controversy, Davis affirmed her support for boycotts against Israel.

"I have never concealed my support for the boycott, sanctions movement," she said. "As a matter of fact, when BDS was created, in 2005, I believe, as a response to efforts by Palestinian civil society to take measures that are in the spirit of the civil rights movement, as a matter of fact, it has been characterized as a nonviolent effort by Palestinian civil society to challenge the repression that is so pervasive in occupied Palestine. I have been a supporter of justice for Palestine almost as long as I can remember, at least since my years in college."

Jewish political commentator Jonathan Tobin, in discussing the controversy, noted that the incident was not the first time Davis was accused of anti-Semitism.

"As a radical celebrity in the 1970s as well as a prominent Communist and supporter of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, she was asked to support the struggle for human rights in those countries," Tobin wrote. "In particular, some on the left pleaded with her to aid Jews who were persecuted by the anti-Semitic Soviet government, which refused them the right to leave for Israel or to practice Judaism at home."

Davis once said of Czech dissidents, "They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison," Tobin noted. "According to Alan Dershowitz, who also asked for help for Jewish refuseniks and other prisoners of conscience, she told him, ‘They are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.'"

Yale University and the Yale Daily New did not respond to requests for comment.

Last week, Congress held hearings on "Confronting the Rise in Anti-Semitic Domestic Terrorism."

"If you are an anti-Zionist today you are, at best, indifferent to the fate of the only viable Jewish community remaining in the Middle East," Clifford May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified before Congress's subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism. "In other words, to an anti-Zionist, Jewish lives don't matter."

"If anti-Semitism is a disease, what we're experiencing today is a global epidemic. Jew hatred has become not just widely acceptable but edgy, if not fashionable—even in lands where there are virtually no Jews," May said.