In light of active resistance against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in the U.S., activists discussed their support and experiences with the movement in an event at the Kimmel Center for University Life on Monday.
BDS supports putting economic pressure on Israel through sanctions and divestment from Israeli companies because of the country’s treatment of Palestinians.
Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace hosted co-founder of the BDS movement Omar Barghouti, Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill and JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson. CAS seniors Amanda Lawson and Leen Dweik moderated the event. WSN was not granted access to the event and reported on it using a JVP livestream.
Barghouti was supposed to speak at the event in person, but he had to phone in as a result of being denied entry to the U.S. on Wednesday. At the event, Barghouti said he felt his entry denial was ideologically and politically motivated, and due to the U.S.’s opposition to BDS.
“[Israel] is increasingly outsourcing its outrageous, McCarthyite repression to the U.S.,” Barghouti said.
Dweik spoke about the role of BDS at NYU. BDS has been a polarizing topic on campus, with some students supporting the boycott and others saying that support of the boycott makes them feel unsafe. In spring 2018, 50 clubs came out in support of BDS. Then, in December, the Student Government Assembly passed a resolution inspired by BDS that would have NYU divest from companies linked to human rights violations.
“I feel like here at NYU, we’ve really managed to showcase solidarity across groups,” Dweik said. “We formed a coalition of over 50 student clubs on campus and many faculty and various students in their individual capacities to vocally stand up and support BDS and the human rights of Palestinians. We passed a resolution, but there was a lot of general and institutional pushback.”
Vilkomerson touched on the scrutiny that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota — who also supports BDS — faced in response to her tweets about Israel in 2012. Omar said that Israel has “hypnotized the world,” which some people said played into anti-Semitic tropes.
“I think the tax on BDS, it’s sort of on two levels,” Vilkomerson said. “They’re trying to break the Palestine movement through silence and bullying and intimidation tactics, but they’re also trying to break the emerging left consensus and this new generation of young women and people of color who are leading to us that. That is why the heinous attacks on Ilhan Omar are very much a part of that.”
The panelists found criticisms of BDS as anti-Semitic to be unfounded and felt as if the criticisms detract from advocating for Palestinian rights. In November, when Hill was a CNN political commentator, he made comments at the U.N. in favor of Palestinians and used the phrase, “river to the sea,” which the Anti-Defamation League claimed was the same phrase Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas uses to call for Israel’s destruction. Hill’s comments led to his firing at CNN and he said it put his tenure and professorship at risk at Temple University.
“There is an asterisk on everything from the Constitution to university guidelines to network contracts that says, ‘Except for Palestine,’” Hill said. “That exception, in many ways, determines how we talk and examine [the Israel-Palestine conflict]. The CNN firing was surprising, but what was more surprising was the university response. Temple, where I’m a full professor, was very committed, or certain people were, to taking away my tenure and finding a way to fire me.”
Vilkomerson discussed how witnessing apathy towards Palestinians while she lived in Tel Aviv motivated her to support BDS and noted how it took JVP six years to publicly endorse the boycott after she met with Barghouti in 2009. Vilkomerson has been associated with JVP since 2001 and became the Executive Director of JVP in 2009.
“That was the moment for me when I realized BDS could be an important tool,” Vilkomerson said. “Otherwise, the status quo would’ve stayed the same and there had to be some consequences so that people in Israel would feel that they had to change and couldn’t accept the way things were.”
Barghouti found inspiration to advocate for Palestinian rights in black anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa and meeting other anti-apartheid student activists when he was a student at Columbia University.
“I learned a lot about civil disobedience, I learned a lot about community activism, that liberation in South Africa was liberation for all of us,” Barghouti said. “When I was able to come back to [Palestine] with my wife, with our first child, I saw apartheid as very real, not as a theoretical aspect, I saw what occupation meant.”
Hill believed that the U.S.’s stance on Palestine has not changed under President Donald Trump’s administration, but that the administration serves as a way to emphasize U.S. policy towards Palestine.
“With regard to U.S. policy, let’s not paint Trump as the exception,” Hill said. “He is American foreign policy on steroids, but he is not different. Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is something every U.S. president has gestured to. We don’t want to romanticize Clinton, we don’t want to romanticize Obama.”
Despite the criticism BDS has faced in the U.S., including from the federal government, panelists advocated for BDS as a means to prioritize human rights and decolonization of Palestine.
“I think many oppressed communities do not have much of an imagination because their minds are colonized,” Barghouti said. “The issue of decolonizing the mind is more important than decolonizing the land.”
Email Meghna Maharishi at [email protected]