When the event is the success
The BDS movement won a new round at Brooklyn College, reports.
LONG LINES formed outside Brooklyn College on February 7 as students and others involved in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement--or simply drawn by the controversy--waited to get through the heavy security measures.
The eager crowd, much of which had to be turned away due to a 200-person seating limit, arrived on a brisk night in the hopes of attending a forum featuring two speakers described by many over the preceding days as "anti-Semitic," "terrorist sympathizers" and agents of a "second Holocaust."
Brooklyn College's Students for Justice in Palestine invited Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to speak about the global BDS strategy of applying pressure on Israel to comply with international law with respect to Palestinian rights.
Pro-Israel boosters fulminated against the event and attempted to whip up a backlash among politicians and academics directed at Barghouti and Butler. Brooklyn College President Karen Gould came in for her share of abuse, as did the political science department for daring to cosponsor the event.
Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, an avid defender of the Israeli state, wrote a Huffington Post column condemning the department for cosponsoring the event, stating, "Freedom of speech, and academic freedom require equal access to both sides of a controversy, not official sponsorship and endorsement of one side over the other." Various elected officials echoed Dershowitz's anti-free speech argument and also publicly condemned the sponsorship, while others condemned the event and topic of discussion altogether.
But students were outraged. "I don't want politicians coming to Brooklyn College telling me, an adult and a student, what I can and can't hear and assuming that I can't form my own reasonable opinion," said Brooklyn College Student Robert C., referring to letters addressed to President Gould and signed by several New York elected officials.
Palestinian-American student Tariq T. gave this reason for his support of the BDS movement: "As a Palestinian, I love that BDS is a nonviolent action. I've been held up at gunpoint by the IDF in the West Bank. We come to events like this so we can stop things like that."
One of the letters denouncing the event was signed by members of Congress, including self-proclaimed progressive Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), as well as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and several City Council and State Assembly members. The other letter, signed by 10 City Council members, contained a thinly veiled threat to the school's funding and described the forum as "odious and wrong."
President Gould refused to cancel the event and defended the political science department's sponsorship as a routine measure that does not amount to the endorsement of any viewpoints--sponsorship of events, she explained, is undertaken by all academic departments in order to encourage and advertise discussions. She did, however, send a letter to Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, which was made public, stating that she and the school oppose the BDS movement and granting Dershowitz's wish for opposing viewpoints:
As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally...We have already begun to develop programming, to be hosted by our Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, that will ensure the presentation and airing of different perspectives relating to the issues.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
JUDITH BUTLER, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, began the forum by reflecting on the controversy surrounding her and Barghouti's visit to the Brooklyn College campus. "It's as if we're all in a war where speech and language have become artillery," she said. She dedicated much of her lecture to the subject of academic freedom and the importance of protecting "those platforms upon which we can address the most difficult problems."
Butler also refuted the assertion that all Jewish people are by default against the BDS movement or other attempts to hold the Israeli state accountable for war crimes and oppression of the Palestinian people. "Jewish people do not oppose international law, and so it cannot be assumed that they oppose this event," she said.
She commented on the frivolous use of the accusation of anti-Semitism to stifle the movement for Palestinian self-determination and discredit those who dare to criticize or resist the state of Israel. "If Jews and others struggling for justice in Palestine are anti-Semitic, no movement can exist without risking that accusation," she said. "The conflation of Jewishness and Zionism demeans Jewish-Palestinian solidarity."
She went on to explain that such conflation is itself a stereotype and a false generalization about the Jewish population that "assumes that they all have the same political ideas."
Both speakers emphasized the BDS movement's nonviolent character. Butler pointed out that the BDS movement, as a nonviolent movement, is the largest civic movement for Palestinian rights.
The largest Palestinian civic movement is a nonviolent one that justifies its actions through recourse to international law...This is also a movement whose stated core principles include the opposition to every form of racism, including both state-sponsored racism and anti-Semitism...To pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is controversial if not contradictory...Jewish majority policy cannot be reconciled with true democratic principles.
Butler also strongly condemned the attempt to "instrumentalize" the memory of the Holocaust in the interest of defending the state of Israel. She stated that the use of the word "holocaust" for anti-BDS propaganda is "a dishonor of the historical memory and is exploitative of it." She explained the term and others are being used as "blunt instruments of censorship."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
OMAR BARGHOUTI, who is one of the cofounders of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and was one of the authors of the original BDS call in 2005, began his talk by asking the audience to celebrate the success of holding the event at Brooklyn College despite the zealous attempts to undermine an open dialogue about Israel's conduct and Palestinian resistance. Barghouti explained that such attempts to "deny the moral rightness of resistance" are undertaken in order to demoralize those who support and take part in it.
Barghouti presented a concrete and comprehensive argument for the necessity and legitimacy of the BDS movement. He spoke about Israel's systematic effort to extinguish Palestinian history and culture. He referenced the destruction of 10,000 books following the 1948 war. He recalled the closure of universities in 1987 following the first Intifada, which led to the establishment of underground classes considered illegal by the Israeli state, thus making Palestinian education a criminal offense.
Barghouti quoted Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, to explain how Israel's inhumane treatment of Palestinians has in turn corroded Israeli society. "As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized," he said.
To illustrate that dehumanizing effect on those participating in occupation, he referred to an exposé by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz about Israel Defense Force soldiers making T-shirts that trivialize and mock the killing of Palestinians. Examples included one featuring a pregnant Palestinian woman with crosshairs on her stomach and the words, "One shot, two kills."
Israeli opinion polls demonstrate that such dehumanization has a sweeping reach across Israeli society, explained Barghouti. Some 58 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Israel practices some form of apartheid in the West Bank, and 40 percent of Israeli Jews support the revocation of Palestinian voting rights. More than half of Israel's Jewish population also believe that intermarriage between Jews and Arabs is tantamount to national treason.
Barghouti also recounted the BDS movement's many successes since its initiation, including the recent adoption of BDS as official policy by South Africa's ruling African National Congress. This will provide even more momentum to the BDS movement, which has already succeeded in persuading various entities to deny billions of dollars worth of contracts to corporations such as Veolia, G4S and Caterpillar because of their complicity in the Israeli occupation.
He concluded by citing "our Israeli partners" as key components of the BDS movement and emphasized the need for cooperative and united resistance rather than passivity in the face of oppression. "Co-resistance has to exist under conditions of oppression," he said. On the contrary, "coexistence would simply maintain the oppression."