PSU won’t abide apartheid

October 31, 2016

John Monroe reports on the sweetness of victory in the face of rabidly racist opposition--and the patience and persistence it took to win it.

THE BOYCOTT, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has won another victory, this time at Portland State University (PSU). On October 24, a resolution put forward by Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) calling on the university to divest from five corporations profiting off of Israel's occupation of Palestine passed by an overwhelming majority in the student senate.

Despite months of obstruction, disinformation and intimidation by pro-Israeli groups, SUPER and its allies, which included Jewish Voice for Peace, the International Socialist Organization and the PSU Student Union, were successful in passing a resolution (22 to 2 with one abstention) that unequivocally denounces the Israeli apartheid state and the massive corporations benefiting from decades of flagrant human rights violations.

This was the fifth debate on the floor of the Associated Students of PSU (ASPSU), an elected student government that, as a former ASPSU president pointed out from the floor, has stood against South African apartheid, fossil-fuel profiteering, the Dakota Access Pipeline and other attacks on human rights. Few if any of these other social justice causes have been as contentious as this BDS resolution. Despite a solid majority in the student senate that supported the resolution from the very beginning and a strong student and community presence advocating its passage, a small but determined pro-Israel faction deployed a variety of methods to obstruct the process.

Palestine solidarity activists at Portland State University build support for divestment from Israeli apartheid
Palestine solidarity activists at Portland State University build support for divestment from Israeli apartheid (Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights)

This has included smearing SUPER and its allies as "anti-Semitic," threatening to remove students from the International Affairs Committee (IAC), which first brought the resolution to ASPSU on behalf of SUPER for a vote, and using bureaucratic maneuvers to send the resolution back to committee time and again. While these methods may have delayed a vote, the defenders of Israeli apartheid couldn't gain any traction.

Even the intervention by PSU President Wim Wiewel, who wrote an open letter smearing BDS activists and calling on the student senate to vote down the resolution, couldn't change the outcome.

WHEN THE resolution was first introduced last spring, many on the pro-Israeli side resorted to racist attacks, demonizing all Palestinians as inherently terrorist. One student went so far as to claim that they deserved the military oppression that Israel doles out.

But this Zionist jingoism only served to prove that racism is needed to justify the Israeli occupation. So as time went on, the pro-Israel side dropped the outright xenophobia for the language of "conflict resolution." They claimed that there were two sides to the issue and that by taking a side, the students of ASPSU were only adding fuel to the fire.

SUPER and its allies responded by laying out the history of the occupation and giving firsthand accounts of life in occupied Gaza and the West Bank, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the heartbreaking state of Palestinian refugees throughout the region and around the world.

One of the students on the IAC summed up the key weakness of the pro-Israeli side right before the final vote: despite their many attacks on the resolution, no one had been able to deny that there were blatant human rights violations going on in Israel. Over the course of five meetings, despite many claims that identifying Israel as an apartheid state was somehow "false" and "anti-Semitic," it was impossible to erase the horrific crimes of the Israeli state and its military forces.

This shift in the debate over Palestine is a result of the accumulating successes of the BDS movement internationally. BDS has challenged the carefully tailored story of the so-called "Israel-Palestine conflict." This narrative asserts that there are two sides of a never-ending struggle, each roughly equivalent in power. The roots of the conflict are ancient and are largely based in ethnic and religious differences. The Israeli state is the more rational and democratic of the two, which is why the U.S., being a neutral power only interested in bringing peace to the region, tends to privilege it over the Palestinian people.

But under the weight of the BDS movement, this well-crafted narrative of imperialist mythmaking has been collapsing. As Wael Elasady pointed out in an August speech at the World Social Forum in Montreal:

The BDS movement has successfully shifted the discourse to one that accurately identifies Israel, at minimum, as the aggressor and chronic violator of international law and human rights. At best, the movement has created an environment in which the idea that Israel is a colonial-settler state engaged in ethnic cleansing is now common sense in some circles.

THE SUCCESS of the BDS movement is being met with a well-orchestrated counterattack internationally, led by Israel and the U.S. Blacklists such as the Canary Mission seek to destroy the lives of pro-Palestine activists, and interventions at the state level, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent executive order, aim to punish institutions that stands with the call of BDS.

Already, the right-wing press is reacting to PSU's passage of the BDS resolution. But victories like this continue to expose the myth of Israeli democracy and U.S. neutrality.

BDS, a civil-society campaign called for by the people of Palestine against the apartheid state of Israel, now faces some of its toughest challenges. Yet, the lesson of the PSU campaign is that in the face of this repression, continuing to push forward gets results.

The resolution passed because SUPER had a large base of support, made its case publicly and proudly, and mobilized a wide range of people to make the case against Israeli apartheid from a multitude of perspectives.

And in the end, the attacks by the pro-Israel side only served to confirm that justice is on the side of BDS activists. "The student government saw that people tried to hold this back, that there's stuff that they don't want us to see," Sarah Abuelkhair told Electronic Intifada's Nora Barrows-Friedman. "The narrative is changing and people who aren't listening before are starting to listen," said Abuelkhair, adding that such a significant success was almost unimaginable just a few years ago.

We can only expect that the defenders of Israeli apartheid and U.S. imperialism will continue their repression of the BDS movement. But as the struggle at PSU illustrates, if we fight back, we can win.

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