The battle over BDS heats up at Columbia

March 10, 2016

Increased activity in solidarity with Palestine is winning new supporters at Columbia University in New York, despite efforts by Zionists to stop them, writes T Keesh.

THE HIGH turnout and enthusiastic response to Israeli Apartheid Week at Columbia University (CU) in early March showed the growing strength of the Palestine solidarity movement on campus--and the lengths that Israel's defenders will go to try to shut it down.

A month earlier, the Columbia chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)--inspired by the increasing momentum of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel--launched Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a joint campaign calling on the school to divest its stocks, funds, and endowments from eight companies that directly profit from the maintenance of Israeli apartheid.

As Samuel Falcone-Coffin reported for, CUAD's launch came after years of organizing by students in SJP, and more recently JVP. These activists also consistently built solidarity with other struggles, making the case that Israel's system of oppression is destructive of the environment, relies on the regular use of sexual violence against Palestinians, and helps train the racist U.S. police forces that occupied Missouri and Baltimore in the past year.

A performance on campus by the Columbia Palestinian Dabke Brigade
A performance on campus by the Columbia Palestinian Dabke Brigade (Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine)

Thanks in part to this solidarity work, nine other activist groups have already issued statements in support of the call to divest from Israeli apartheid. One of the most powerful statements in support of the CUAD'S campaign was issued by the Columbia University Black Student Organization (BSO):

The BSO condemns any co-optation of the Black liberation movement to promote settler-colonialism and a state that perpetuates apartheid. The decision to relate the experiences, past and present, of Black people in the United States in order to further the Zionist movement is, both, misinformed and a blatant subversion of the work that continues to be done in the name of true equity.

We reject the notion that peace may only come at the expense of justice. We refuse to be complicit in institutionalized violence against the people of Palestine. We urge the Columbia community to join us in this stand for justice.

Beyond activist groups, the general response on campus to the campaign has been encouraging (with some notable exceptions, but more on that later). More than 65 Barnard and Columbia professors have signed a petition that stands with CUAD's call to "divest from corporations that supply, perpetuate and profit from a system that has subjugated the Palestinian people for over 68 years."

SUPPORT FOR divestment is sure to grow after SJP and JVP organized the 11th annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) on Columbia's Low Plaza last week. The two groups set up a mock apartheid wall on campus as an educational tool which activists used to portray Israel's continuing oppression of Palestinians to other students.

Moreover, the two groups organized events all week long that aimed to explain how Palestinian rights are not a singular issue but one intersecting with various other struggles. The kickoff event on Monday, February 29, made the case for academic boycott of Israel and featured prominent academics Katherine Franke, Nadia Abu El-Haj and Neferti Tadiar.

The following day, the campaign teamed up with Columbia's Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD) to put on an event about water discrimination and environmental racism in both Palestine and Flint. This event, also cosponsored by the ecological group Divest Barnard, provided a practical example of how solidarity among different activist groups can be built.

Wednesday witnessed the Zochrot Film Festival, featuring a screening and a discussion of three short films (All Rights Reserved, Mirror Image and Roshmia) made by Palestinians and Israelis. The films aim to initiate a discussion about the Nakba, an Arabic word which denotes the campaign of ethnic cleansing that began in Palestine in 1948, and why Palestinian refugees' right of return must be seen as "the imperative redress for the Nakba."

On Thursday, CUAD and No Red Tape, a student group fighting sexual violence on campus, organized an event with Dr. Simona Sharoni on the intersections and commonalities between Israeli Apartheid and sexual assault on college campuses.

Perhaps one of the most powerful statements of the night came when Dr. Sharoni addressed the questions of those who believe that the alliance between survivor groups and BDS might alienate those who do not agree with the goals of BDS. "Empathy and compassion form the foundation of healing," Dr. Sharoni said in response. "If members of a group say they feel for Palestinians who are experiencing violence, does that take away from the compassion you feel for survivors?"

The final event of IAW was Columbia SJP's second annual Palestinian Cultural Night. A couple hundred students attended the Saturday night event, which aimed to highlight Palestinian artistic resistance and included delights ranging from Palestinian cuisine to performances by talented Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi and the fabulous Freedom Dabka Dance Troupe.

All events during IAW were at capacity, with the Barnard and Columbia student body showing an unprecedented interested in learning and supporting the BDS movement.

The largest event of Israeli Apartheid Week, however, was definitely Friday's talk by well-known Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, director of the European Center for Palestine Studies and a fellow of the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in Britain.

Pappé is perhaps best known for his outstandingly well-researched argument, outlined in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, that the expulsions of more than 700,000 Palestinians as a result of Israel's creation in 1948 "were not decided on an ad hoc basis, as other historians have argued, but rather constituted the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, in accordance with Plan Dalet, drawn up in 1947 by Israel's future leaders."

Pappé stressed the settler-colonial project that Zionism is and has always been, and how successive Israeli governments sought to legitimize this project that is only possible through continuous racism, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing.

Pappé's talk did a wonderful job explaining how Israel has managed to fragment Palestinian society, but its hopeful tone regarding BDS and insistence on teaching the history of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid left the packed room buzzing--just as he had the day before at NYU where he gave a wonderful talk that strongly criticized the so-called "peace process" as an utter failure and argued for the strength of the BDS movement.

THE SUPPORT that CUAD's campaign is garnering among faculty and students, activists and non-activists alike, has alarmed pro-Israel forces on campus.

In a continuation of their strategy of attacking the left while drawing attention away from criticisms of Israel's denial of Palestinian rights and violation of international law, Zionists at Columbia have launched false accusations of anti-Semitism and support for "terrorism" and moved in a concentrated, vicious attack on BDS activists and their right to free speech.

This attack comes in the context of a global attempt by governments and campus administrations to restrict free speech in solidarity with Palestine, an attempt which prominent journalists Andrew Fishman and Glenn Greenwald have called the "greatest threat to free speech in the West."

Zionist groups have mobilized their supporters in a smear campaign against the Barnard/Columbia branch of the International Socialist Organization for expressing their support of Palestinian resistance against daily Israeli violence, in an attempt to smear CUAD and BDS more generally by smearing its allies.

As Dorian Bon reported in, the Israel on Campus Coalition and Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel have waged a smear campaign against the Barnard Columbia Socialists, labeling its support of the Palestinian Intifadas as a support for "terrorism", based on their racist mistranslation of the Arabic word intifada to mean "armed uprising."

This mistranslation shows that Zionists can only conceive of Arabic in terms of violent acts, when in fact the two Intifadas represented nothing less than a "popular struggle of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people acting in civil disobedience against occupation and apartheid."

The irony of accusing supporters of Palestinian resistance of "supporting terrorism" and "calling for acts of violence" is that, as Bon wrote, "the First and Second Intifadas weren't acts of terrorism; they were mass rebellions against terrorism--the terrorism of the settler-colony state of Israel" that Zionists at Columbia don't seem too concerned about.

In fact, instances of this counter-violence are rare in comparison to the "mass marches, workers' strikes, the withholding of taxes from the occupiers, mass acts of civil disobedience and the building of grassroots institutions of mutual aid and support to sustain the mass movement in the streets" which were the chief tactics employed during the intifadas.

THIS SAME hypocrisy is playing out in the debate over who is promoting violence and hatred at Columbia. Pro-Israel activists have been working on getting university discipline against the socialists, coordinating the submission of more than 60 complaints from students claiming to feel unsafe and launching a petition accusing the socialists of "malicious incitement".

There is a group guilty of malicious incitement at Columbia: the right-wing Zionist group Student Supporting Israel (SSI). Funded by prominent Islamophobe Adam Milstein, SSI put up large placards on the campus's College Walk during Israeli Apartheid Week that relied on racist and demeaning displays.

One placard had the heading "Palestinians" above an image of two hooded men about to execute a third. Another had the heading "Jewish refugees" above what appeared to be Holocaust refugees from the mid 1940s. As Columbia professor Joseph Massad explained to Electronic Intifada, "The juxtaposed displays were supposed to send a message that Jews are always only sympathetic victims while Palestinians are murderous savages."

This racism is only to be expected from a group that is led by Rudy Rochman, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier "who participated in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014 that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 550 children," according to Electronic Intifada

Last year, Rochman posted a video of his unit dancing and singing "The Jewish people lives" as they were about to enter Gaza to participate in the massacring of Palestinians, and he has also called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, telling the Israeli government to "please take out the trash already, the smell is unbearable!"

Another member of Students Supporting Israel, Alexandra Markus, has referred to Jewish Voice for Peace activists as "kapos" and offered to help the witch-hunters at Canary Mission, which collects and publishes information about Palestine solidarity activists on campus--a fear-mongering tactic aimed to stifling free speech for these activists by attempting to harm their future careers.

Not content with verbal intimidation, another Zionist student and a former IDF soldier, Gal Raid, physically assaulted SJP students as they were taking down the mock apartheid wall last Thursday afternoon.

The response to these incidents from Columbia's administration has been telling: There was all but none at all to the provocations of pro-Israel students, while the Barnard Columbia Socialists were informed that they would be investigated by the Office of Public Safety.

"We believe that the real intent of these complaints and misrepresentations is to stifle the free expression of ideas on campus," wrote the socialists in the Columbia Spectator, "and, specifically, to marginalize and intimidate anyone standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle."

The best way to fight this intimidation is to keep growing the Palestine movement on campus and build on the impressive solidarity that the divestment movement has already attained.

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