A Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) conference is set to take place next week at the University of Pennsylvania (PENN). As one would expect, the fact that the conference is taking place has created a furor. The President of the University, Amy Gutmann, released an anodyne statement disavowing any connection with the conference. She released no such statement, however, last year when the faculty and students were incensed about a talk to be delivered on campus by Eric Cantor on the theme of income inequality (Congressman Cantor eventually cancelled his appearance). The goose and gander do not get the same treatment from President Gutmann.
People on campus and in the community who do not want to allow any discussion about Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the US subvention for the Occupation decided to fight back. They will hold a series of events called Israel Across Penn, including dinners hosted by Penn Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Penn Hillel’s Rabbi Mike Uram wants "to mobilize an Israel-friendly community and network on campus.” To counter the BDS conference, the group has also invited Alan Dershowitz to give a lecture on 2 February 2012 entitled “We Are One with Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity.” The Political Science Department will be the co-sponsor his lecture, which will be held at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Dershowitz is billed as “Israel’s single-most visible defender.” There will be no balance in his presentation.
It is not easy in the United States to have a real, factual discussion about Israel. The obvious retort is that a critic of Israel is an anti-Semite. This is a lazy argument, at the "D"- level of thought. Beyond this tar-brush, there is little else. When Norman Finklestein came to give a lecture at my college a few years ago, a small minority of faculty and students were enraged. The agitated faculty boycotted the lecture but the students came regardless. After Finkelstein spoke, students put their hands up, and one after another read from a script seemingly authored by a Hasbara agency. Then, as Finkelstein frowned and held his own, one young man stood up and said, “I have a genuine question….” That was sufficient. The firewall had been breached. He was sincerely disturbed by Finkelstein’s narrative of events against Gaza and could not square his ideology with the circles drawn by Finkelstein’s data.
The student’s hesitation provides one more example for the Jewish American philanthropists who turned to the Republican pollster Frank Luntz to find out why Jewish American college students were not more vigorous in their rebuttal of criticism of Israel on campus. One of the moments that worried the philanthropists was the refusal by the Brandeis Student Senate to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Israel in 2008. Luntz found that the young Jews wanted an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its policies, that “young Jews desperately want peace,” and “some empathize with the plight of Palestinians.” Luntz recommended that the philanthropists use the word "Arab" (“wealth, oil, and Islam”) rather than "Palestinian" (“refugee camps, victims, and oppression”) to spin youth towards a pro-Israel agenda.
Yet the failure of this public relations spin opens the door to discussion of US and Israeli policy in West Asia. The bromides spilled by the public relations pollsters cannot hold back the doubts about the validity of the idea of Brand Israel, the “start-up nation.” The Arab Spring has clearly disrupted the view of the "Arab as terrorist." Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion that Israel remains the “only democracy in the Middle East” and that this accomplishment should be attributed to culture in the midst of the seismic shifts during the Arab Spring constituted an embarrassment of self-delusion.
Netanyahu came to the US Congress in May 2011 to go mano-a-mano against Obama, pushing the United States to throttle the Palestinian case in the United Nations. Netanyahu’s braggadocio and the servile applause from the members of Congress in the face of the uprising in North Africa and West Asia hollowed out what remained of the idea of the United States as an “honest broker” in the region. The unseemly pressure from Netanyahu and the Israel Lobby had the opposite effect on those who pay attention to West Asian politics, and in particular among young American Jews.
Part of this hysteria is the over-reaction to the BDS campaignk, which began at the margins of political life and has now gradually shuffled to the center. The BDS campaign’s ability to ruffle so many feathers so quickly is a victory for the movement. The defenders of Israel, right or wrong, believe that no opportunity to censure those who criticize Israel must be left unseized. Every article must be challenged; every speaker must be condemned; any criticism of Israel must be suffocated. BDS campaigners have pierced this firewall and broken this formidable taboo. BDS is now taken very seriously because of its impact on our intellectual and political lives.
The BDS campaign emerged in 2002 during one of the more virulent assaults by the Israeli armed forces on the Palestinian people. The next year a group of beleaguered Palestinian academics published a Call for Boycott, and in 2005 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel issued its well-known appeal. What is to be underscored about these documents is their measured character. For intellectuals whose access to books and ability to travel is severely limited and who are in constant threat of bombardment, their writing in these documents is not vindictive. Consider that I have just returned from a conference in Beirut, which could not be attended by a professor from al-Quds University to whom Israel has not granted a visa in time to attend the conference. His ticket, like those of other Palestinian academics, had to be bought and forfeited. When I tell another professor that I would like to send him Mary Gabriel’s remarkable book, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, he says not to bother since he will not see it for months. The academic freedom of Palestinian educational institutions has been deeply compromised by the Israeli Occupation. It is in this light that the authors of the 2005 call for BDS proclaimed, with Mahmoud Darwish, “besiege your siege;…there is no other way.”
The point of BDS is not to abjure any contact with Israeli artists or scholars. It is rather to refuse to collaborate with Israeli institutions that benefit from and participate in the Occupation of Palestine. The point is very well developed in the collected essays of Omar Barghouti, Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. It is easy to bowdlerize the BDS position on Israeli institutions, to suggest, for instance, that the BDS adherents are against academic freedom or are anti-Semitic. However, a serious discussion about the condition in Palestine for intellectual, cultural, and academic workers is essential as part of the context for any serious discussion on academic freedoms (or lack thereof) in the region, as is the collusion of Israeli academic institutions with the strong-arm of the military, with its American bursary in hand.
The first BDS-type conference was held at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001, initiated by the Palestine Solidarity Movement. Annual events followed at Ohio State, Duke, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with Students for Justice in Palestine chapters springing up across the country. A three-year gap was broken in 2009, when students at Hampshire College revived the BDS conference once more. It was billed as the first BDS conference, mainly because the link between the Palestine Solidarity Movement and the Hampshire students was not intact, and so the history of the BDS movement was not readily available.
The next BDS conference will be held in the first weekend of February 2012 at PENN. The list of speakers at the conference is impressive: Ali Abunimah, of the Electronic Intifada website, is the keynote speaker. Abuminah will anchor the conference that includes Susan Abulhawa (Playgrounds for Palestine), Max Blumenthal (author, Republican Gomorrah), Noura Erakat (adjunct professor, Georgetown University), Bill Fletcher Jr. (author, Solidarity Divided), Kehaulani Kauanui (professor, Wesleyan University), Nancy Kricorian (Code Pink), Heather Love (professor, University of Pennsylvania), Sarah Schulman (professor, CUNY), Nikhil Singh (professor, New York University), Rebecca Vilkomerson (Jewish Voices for Peace), and Phil Weiss (curator, mondoweiss.net). Participants will also include scholars from Israel such as Dalit Baum (Haifa University). These are all serious people and academics who speak with studious care about the region. The conference website has the full list of panels.
In speaking to several of the panelists and having attended similar BDS events, I can say with some measure of confidence that each and all panels will adhere to protocols of open discussion. This has been the way of the BDS movement: to open a question that has too long remained closed, namely what is the role of the United States in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its garrisoning of Gaza? The US taxpayer not only underwrites the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, but US power also provides the Israeli government with carte blanche to behave in the region without care for blowback.
If the Occupation creates resentment towards the United States in the Middle East, Israel is confident that the United States will vote in the requisite international chambers to, nevertheless, support it. In turn, the United States will lean heavily on the European governments to fall in line. Financial and diplomatic pressure from the United States are both essential to the Israeli occupation. It is this dual US gift that the BDS movement seeks to challenge, particularly in a context where most people have no idea that the United States pays the down payment and is the insurance policy for Israeli aggression.
The virulent reaction to the BDS conference is to be expected. Such reactions have become commonplace but they are also clichéd. That the Israel First groups turn to Professor Alan Dershowitz to anchor their defense of Israel tells you something about the staleness of their position. In 2003, Dershowitz wrote a tired book, The Case for Israel, whose arguments were upended by Norman Finkelstein in his 2005 Beyond Chutzpah, which additionally showed that Dershowitz is a routine plagiarizer. Dershowitz has attacked the BDS movement as putting forward one of the most “immoral, illegal, and despicable concepts around academic today.” He recycles two of the canards about BDS, that it is anti-Semitic and that it violates academic freedom:
- BDS is anti-Semitic. “To single out the Jewish nation for collective punishment has a name,” says Dershowitz, “and it’s called bigotry.” Dershowitz’s complaint that BDS is bigoted or more specifically anti-Semitic, mimics the statement signed by American college presidents against the British BDS campaign of 2007 (this statement, joined by my college’s president, appeared in the New York Times on 8 August 2007). A good response to the anti-Semitism charge is to be found in the philosopher Judith Butler’s essay: No, it’s not anti-Semitic. “It seems that ‘anti-Semitism’ functions as a charge,” writes Butler, “one that does not correspond to a given kind of action or utterance, but one that is unilaterally conferred by those who fear the consequences of overt criticism of Israel.”
- BDS violates academic freedom. Those who trot out this specious argument, including the two 286 American university presidents who signed the full-page advertisement in the New York Ttimes, says nothing about the constrained academic freedom of Palestinian academies. PENN English professor Amy Kaplan wrote an honest and moving account about this in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:
“I spent twelve days driving back and forth between my hotel in East Jerusalem and universities in the West Bank. On each trip I waited at a military checkpoint along Israel’s security wall to have my passport inspected. One thing became immediately clear: Freedom of movement is fundamental to intellectual life. How can ideas and speech circulate freely if teachers and students cannot? In my encounters with Palestinian academics, I was struck both by the obstacles that living in the occupied territories imposes on their mobility, and the creativity that allows Palestinian intellectual life to be so vibrant today.”
BDS has raised several questions about the boycott of Palestinian intellectual and cultural life and more generally about the ongoing occupation of Palestine. Dershowitz asks why we are not as incensed about Syria or Cuba. The answer is that most of us are involved with other countries` issues and events. However, and more importantly, the question of Israel is manifestly more central because of the annual three to four billion US dollars (conservative figure) subsidy given to the Israeli government by the US taxpayer. That—along with distortions produced by the Israel First attitude in the US State Department with regard to West Asian policy—is what makes Israel first amongst our primary concerns. That the PENN BDS conference has raised so much ire is a simple indicator that the BDS dynamic has made an enormous difference in our conversation about West Asia. As Omar Barghouti puts it, “Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!”
[A shorter version of this essay appeared in Counterpunch on 24 January 2012.]