Last night, Brooklyn College hosted a forum on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a non-violent initiative targeting Israel’s suppression of basic political rights for Palestinians, particularly those occupied in the West Bank.

In the weeks preceding the forum, Brooklyn College was under intense pressure to cancel the event, pressure spearheaded by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who curiously chose to argue against the concept of academic freedom by claiming the forum would be a “propaganda hate orgy” and should not be allowed.

New York City Council members soon followed, threatening to cut off funding to the college if the event proceeded, with Assemblyman Alan Maisel stating, “We’re talking about the potential for a Second Holocaust here.

Thankfully, champions of academic freedom stepped in to push back against such bombastic claims, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who bluntly told the City Council:

“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Eventually, political pressure against the event relented and it went on as planned, an event at which UC Berkley professor Judith Butler eloquently explained the BDS movement:

The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is, in fact, a non-violent movement; it seeks to use established legal means to achieve its goals; and it is, interestingly enough, the largest Palestinian civic movement at this time. That means that the largest Palestinian civic movement is a non-violent one that justifies its actions through recourse to international law. Further, I want to underscore that 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.

Butler also explored and, ultimately, expertly rejected accusations that the BDS movement was inherently anti-Semitic:

But still, it is left to us to ask, why would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic? Surely, there is nothing about the basic rights themselves that constitute a problem. They include equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; the end to the occupation, and the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses…why would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic? It would be odd to say that they are anti-Semitic to honor internationally recognized rights to equality, to be free of occupation and to have unlawfully appropriated land and property restored. I know that this last principle makes many people uneasy, but there are several ways of conceptualizing how the right of return might be exercised lawfully such that it does not entail further dispossession.

[...]

If the Jew who struggles for justice for Palestine is considered to be anti-Semitic, if any number of internationals who have joined thus struggle from various parts of the world are also considered anti-Semitic and if Palestinians seeking rights of political self-determination are so accused as well, then it would appear that no oppositional move that can take place without risking the accusation of anti-Semitism. That accusation becomes a way of discrediting a bid for self-determination, at which point we have to ask what political purpose the radical mis-use of that accusation has assumed in the stifling of a movement for political self-determination.

Omar Barghouti, founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, spoke in more populist tones, but was clear in reiterating that the BDS movement rejects all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and is focused on one thing: ending the dehumanization of Palestinians and delivering to them dignity, basic human rights and political self-determination.

In the end, the event was peaceful, cordial and level-headed. A far cry from the small group of protesters outside who yelled that the next slaughter of the Jews was beginning at Brooklyn College.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG

 


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