Black Lives Matter and BDS

December 14, 2015

Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities, a new book edited by Ashley Dawson and Bill V. Mullen, explains why scholars and students around the world should cut all ties with Israeli institutions. The book's essays address the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining the occupation of Palestine, the repression of academic and political freedom for Palestinians and the growing movement for an academic and cultural boycott until the just demands of Palestinians are met. The following presentation by Bill Mullen was one of several at the New York City launch event for the book.

ALI ABUNIMAH begins his great book The Battle for Justice in Palestine by saying, "The Palestinians are winning." Ali is registering the global solidarity that has emerged around Palestinian civil rights, and particularly around the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. It was this emergence that Ashley and I wanted to document and support in Against Apartheid. We wanted to create a toolkit and a handbook for people trying to sustain and build new BDS campaigns, and particularly academic boycott resolutions.

There has been a wave, one that hasn't yet crested, of successful boycott resolutions. Just in the last three years, we have seen the Association of Asian American Studies (the first in North America), the American Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicanos and Chicano Studies, and, most recently, the National Women's Studies Association vote to boycott Israel universities. There are several major organizations taking up new boycott resolutions as I speak.

Loyola SJP leads a solidarity action on campus linking struggles from Ferguson to Palestine

Globally, the National Union of Teachers in England (the largest union of teachers in the Commonwealth) has endorsed BDS, as has the Irish Teachers Union. In the U.S., the United Electrical Workers voted to endorse BDS. This is really big news. It's big because it's labor. We all know the Coalition of South African Trade Unions played an enormous role in helping to bring down apartheid, and the North American labor movement in the mid-1980s for a short time partnered with it. We need that to happen again. We need trade unions in addition to academic unions to get on board with BDS. In California last year, the University of California's Graduate Student union (UAW Local 2865) became the first local of a national American union to endorse BDS, another very important development.

Of course, as always with the Israeli occupation, there is constant death and woe and tragedy. Just in the month of October, at least 70 Palestinians were murdered by Israeli forces, most of them young men under 30. Thousands of Palestinians have been wounded by occupying forces.

We also continue to see the Palestinian Authority act as an oppressive local force over its own population. Although it has promised to dismantle its security apparatus that collaborates with Israel, it has failed to do so as of yet. It is continuing to work with Israel in policing and repressing Palestinian resistance. Hamas is also still struggling to articulate a leadership position that people outside Gaza can support.

And the United States continues to write checks. Netanyahu was just here in the U.S. again to buddy-buddy with Obama, and it's nauseating. We get sick of seeing it. That's why it's a cycle we have to break.

BDS HAS been one tactic to try to destroy that cycle. Not the only tactic, but one. In my estimation, there are two contributions in our book that speak to the moment we find ourselves in--of winning, but needing more wins, in urgent ways.

One of the essays in our book is by Kristian Davis Bailey. Kristian is a young African American who just finished his degree at Stanford University. He's a remarkable young activist, who co-authored with Khury Petersen-Smith the "Black for Palestine" statement that gathered more than 1,000 signatures from African American writers, activists and intellectuals.

While Kristian was at Stanford, he took a trip to Palestine with a delegation of students and met with students at Birzeit University, which is the flagship university in the West Bank near Ramallah.

Birzeit has an important activist organization called "Right to Education." If you're interested in keeping track of and monitoring Palestinian university closings, arrests of students, killings of students, and shutdowns of schools under the occupation, "Right to Education" has a website which almost daily tracks those things. Kristian went and talked with students at Birzeit and with "Right to Education" about these closings, arrests and killings. For him, as he writes in the book, it was one of these turning-point moments in his life, where he recognized as an African American who'd grown up under racism exactly what it was that some of these Palestinian students were facing.

When Kristian came back, he helped organize a delegation that came to the U.S. from Birzeit, some of the same group of students he had worked with. They happened to be here during the Ferguson uprising, and helped give life to the important rallying cry that came out of that protest: "From Ferguson to Palestine!" That coalition was built out of the solidarity with those students who traveled together to Ferguson to take part in those protests. I think it's absolutely critical right now that Black-Palestinian solidarity becomes and remains a leading wedge of the BDS movement.

In fact, just in the last two weeks in the United States, at Loyola University in Chicago, a group called Loyola Black Voices, which is pressing demands on the university to address racial discrimination, has included a call for divestment from the university from Israel. That's the first I know, so far, of a Black student organization including BDS as a "Missouri-style" demand.

That's critically important. If Black Lives Matter chapters across U.S. campuses begin to include divestment from and boycott of Israel as part of a platform against campus racism, we would be roughly back where the Black Panthers were in 1968. Go back and read the Black Panther newspapers of 1967 and 1968: there was no separation of Black Liberation and Palestinian Liberation. It was "Five fingers, one hand."

I THINK that's where this movement is beginning to go since Ferguson. I'll give you another example. I live near Indianapolis. In response to the Israeli massacre in Gaza in summer 2014, we had hundreds of people out in the streets protesting. Since then, we have three brand new Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in Indiana, and a Jewish Voice for Peace chapter.

Then, just three days ago, at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI), the Black Student Unions released this statement:

In the past two weeks, IUPUI's Black Student Union has participated in or led demonstrations to bring awareness to the deaths of the people of Palestine and to stand in solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri. In neither instance did IUPUI administration acknowledge the genocide taking place in Palestine or the racial injustices and hate speech taking place state side. And there was certainly no substantive show of support on official University social media accounts, as there was today [in reference to the Paris attacks]. When thousands of Nigerians were murdered in a Boko Haram attack, IUPUI remained silent.

As an institution of higher learning there is a responsibility to respond in ways that are reflective of the entire student body, which also includes countries where students of color originate.

This is internationalism. It's what BDS is founded on, the principle of international solidarity with an oppressed national group.

Obviously, Black Lives Matter is not over, and BDS is not over. A lot of us are working at the intersections of these movements. We need to make those bridges really sturdy right now. We need to put all kinds of pressure on American university administrations to both address domestic racism and to take up boycott and divestment, to mobilize faculty around these issues.

At Purdue, I'm happy to say that 200 of my colleagues last week signed a statement of support for the "Fire Next Time" protests on our campus, which included a set of demands to the university to end racism. Now, our Purdue SJP group is forming a group to consider how to go about building a divestment campaign.

To understand how intersecting struggle and internationalism really is critical right now, what it can build, I urge you to read Kristian Davis Bailey's essay in Against Apartheid. His essay helps us appreciate what it means for Palestinians when BDS activists outside Palestine take up solidarity with their cause. This is what Kristian wrote about what the Palestinian students who came to Ferguson did when they went back to Birzeit in December of 2014 after having taken part in the Ferguson protests:

Since returning to Birzeit, the R2E (Right to Education) students have hosted a number of events and demonstrations to educate their campus about Black American struggles and resistance. In December 2014, protesters placed posters of Black resistance figures around campus--Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Huey Newton and Malcolm X. The posters featured captions in English and Arabic, along with the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter. The students also placed a picture of Michael Brown's parents on their memorial to Sajit Darwish, the 18-year-old Birzeit student whom Israeli forces killed in March of 2014. Later in the month, R2E hosted an event at Birzeit about race and solidarity with the Black struggle before an audience of 100 students. The following week, R2E staged a silent demonstrations at Birzeit, holding signs including the Assata Shakur chant: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom/It is our duty to win/We must love and support each other/We have nothing to lose but our chains."

Each of our campuses needs to build this kind of solidarity.

THE SECOND essay from the book I want to briefly touch on is by Joseph Massad. Massad is a Columbia University professor who has been one of the strongest voices for Palestinian liberation and a supporter of BDS, and also one of the first professors in the U.S. to be attacked by AMCHA and other Zionist groups.

Massad wrote a very important piece for the book, which also speaks to the moment we're in. He said there are people in the world who want to co-opt BDS. He talks about the European Union states, which about a year ago started passing resolutions--without asking the Palestinians what they thought--saying "we support a Palestinian state."

Massad said some of the EU states were, in his estimation, trying to use BDS as a kind of leverage against Israel, which would be buttressed by this vote for two states as a way of actually saving Israel's Zionist state. This would do so by proposing a Palestinian state, which would by definition hold Israel's ethno-nationalist state intact, as a solution.

About two weeks ago, the EU said it was going to begin putting labels on products coming into Europe from the West Bank. Massad would want us to ask if this is a real attempt to support Palestinian liberation or if this is a finger wagging at Netanyahu to get him back into the "peace process" in the name of saving Zionism? As a friend of mine in Palestine says, the peace process is this: Israel takes one piece, then takes another piece, and another piece...

To prevent the co-optation of BDS, we must underscore that the original planks of the BDS movement are anticolonial planks. When the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) called for academic and cultural boycott in 2005, it demanded equal rights for all Arab citizens in the West Bank, Gaza and within Israel and the Occupied Territories; the dismantling of the apartheid wall; and the right of return for all refugees.

Israel knows that if all three of those planks were to be realized, Israel as a Zionist state would not exist. There would have to be a radical social transformation of the relationships within that society. The platform of BDS, in other words, is radical in its understanding of the occupation and of Israel as a colonial settler state. It's meant to dismantle that. It's also implicitly a critique of Zionism as the political ideology that holds apartheid in place.

I WANT to end by reading a statement that was drafted just a few days ago by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). The statement was written to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the BDS movement. USACBI wanted to mark the moment of this 10-year anniversary and of its successes. This is what is included in the statement:

The three principles of the Palestinian BDS call--the end of the occupation and dismantling of the wall; full equality for Palestinians in Israel; and the right of return for Palestinian refugees--together constitute a decolonial paradigm that demands justice for all segments of the Palestinian nation. The situation in Palestine is a colonial condition. What is so often euphemistically referred to in U.S. media as "the conflict" is at its core a struggle between the colonizer and the colonized in the context of a vast power imbalance between the two. We believe that justice in Palestine must mean full decolonization and a dismantling of the Zionist settler-colonial framework that has for over 67 years been erected on the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the theft of Palestinian land.

The academic and cultural boycott of Israel is an active means by which scholars and cultural workers may put their anti-colonial principles into practice, as BDS principles embody a fundamentally decolonial framework. We know that appeals to human rights law and international bodies are not enough. It is the action of people of conscience, of social movements, of grassroots organizations, labor movements, and antiracist movements, that is needed to stand with the Palestinian people and their call for decolonization. The three demands of BDS are a reflection of that call and of the fundamental principles of national liberation. Their implementation is indeed radical in effect, posing a distinctly antiracist and anti-Zionist challenge to settler colonialism and Jewish and white supremacy in the Israeli state.

This is the message we constantly need to put in front of people and return to. It is what BDS really stands for.

Further Reading

From the archives