Following weeks of controversy, Barghouti and Butler deliver sharp response to critics of BDS movement at Brooklyn College event

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Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti delivered a talk supporting the BDS movement last night at Brooklyn College (Photo: Alex Kane)

Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler delivered a powerful case in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israeli human rights violations in front of a packed crowd of over 200 people at Brooklyn College last night. The event, which came and went without a hitch, took place after a week of escalating controversy over the event and the college Political Science Department’s decision to co-sponsor the talk.

A diverse crowd of Brooklyn College students and Palestinian rights advocates gathered at the school’s student center to hear Barghouti and Butler rebut their vociferous critics and argue in favor of the boycott Israel movement. There was no getting around the security set up outside and inside the event, as a heavy police presence was felt on all floors of the center. Those attending the talk had to go through a metal detector to get in. There were a few people who were removed from the event after they began to try and disrupt the proceedings, though they were uncharacteristically quiet hecklers.

Right before the talk started, Barghouti, a leading Palestinian BDS activist, held forth on the movement in a press conference outside the college. “We are witnessing the rise of a new McCarthyism,” he said, a message that was repeated at the talk. He was referring to the torrent of charges–like the claim that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic and promotes hate–hurled at the movement ever since the panel was announced. The campaign against the talk was led by a host of politicians from across the political spectrum, with some threatening the funding of the college and others pressuring the Political Science Department to rescind their co-sponsorship of the event.

Barghouti, who began his talk with a call for solidarity with indigenous peoples of the United States, celebrated the “victory” over “bullies” and “racists” that Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine had in successfully putting on the talk in the face of calls for censorship. But he also warned that “the war waged on free speech is not over,” and referenced battles waged like what he called the Chuck Hagel “inquisition” and current efforts to tar student activists in California as anti-Semites for their work for Palestinian rights.

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Omar Barghouti speaking at Brooklyn College (Photo: Alex Kane)

Outside the talk, there was a small group of protesters who held up signs decrying the event that said things like “don’t invite speakers who oppose dialogue.” Among them was Assemblyman Dov Hikind, the Orthodox Jewish power broker representing Borough Park who was a leading critic of the college event. Hikind, a one-time follower of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane and the violent Jewish Defense League, had repeatedly inveighed against the event. He claimed that the speakers supported Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda and that the BDS movement was anti-Semitic.

I interviewed Hikind and asked him what he was calling for in response to the event.

“My position has been very clear from the beginning: we do not object, you know the students have a right to invite speakers, whether I find them detestable or not, I do, but freedom of speech,” he told me. “The issue to me has been very clear from the beginning: the sponsorship of the university.” (In fact, it was not the university that was sponsoring the talk; it was merely the Political Science Department, and the college’s president made it clear that she opposed the BDS movement but supported the right of students and departments to sponsor talks that advocated for it.)

I then challenged him on the hypocrisy of his voicing opposition to Hamas and Hezbollah while being a member of the Jewish Defense League, which has been linked to a number of violent attacks against Soviet and Arab targets over the years. “Well, 40 years ago I was involved in fighting for Soviet Jewry, every moment I was involved I’m proud of, fighting for Soviet Jewry, fighting anti-Semitism, all of that were the best years of my life, so I don’t see the connection.” After I interrupted him to say that the JDL was involved in violent attacks, he said: “I don’t understand how [my past in the JDL is] relevant to the issues here tonight. I totally don’t understand how that’s relevant.” After I repeated my assertion that the question was relevant because he was railing against violence while being a past member of a violent group deemed a terrorist organization by the FBI, he said, “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

Across the street from the Hikind-backed protesters were a group of religious Jews affiliated with the Neturei Karta movement, a strongly anti-Zionist, religious fundamentalist sect who were among the loudest of the demonstrators.

Inside the event, Butler, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace advisory board, calmly delivered a presentation aimed at rebutting the critics of BDS and the discussion itself. (You can read her full remarks here, courtesy of The Nation.) She explained that the objections to the event took “several forms,” including the claim that BDS advocates are against all Jews, that it constitutes hate speech and that the event should only go forward with “balance”–and also nodded to “a certain Harvard professor” who argued that the event “ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well.” (Barghouti also said that “we have to give some credit to that professor from Harvard–we have to send him a box of chocolates,” in a reference to Alan Dershowitz’s campaign against the event which generated a lot of publicity.)

Butler’s response to the objection that BDS might bring on a “second Holocaust,” which a New York legislator raised, was to say: “One might say that all of these claims were obvious hyperbole and should be dismissed as such. But it is important to understand that they are wielded for the purpose of intimidation, animating the spectre of traumatic identification with the Nazi oppressor: if you let these people speak, you yourself will be responsible for heinous crimes or for the destruction of a state, or the Jewish people.”

Butler also addressed another of the distortions about BDS that came from progressives like the ones who signed the Rep. Jerry Nadler letter, which claimed that the movement advocates for the blacklisting of Israeli scholars. “BDS focuses on state agencies and corporations that build machinery designed to destroy homes, that build military materiel that targets populations, that profit from the occupation, that are situated illegally on Palestinian lands, to name a few,” she said. “BDS does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. I concede that not all versions of BDS have been consistent on this point in the past, but the present policy confirms this principle.” Barghouti affirmed this principle later on, saying that the BDS movement is not for “blacklisting” of Israeli scholars and that the academic boycott is aimed at institutions.

Additionally, Butler delivered a powerful case against the charge of anti-Semitism that is wielded against the movement. She noted that “some forms of Palestinian opposition to Israel do rely on anti-Semitic slogans, falsehoods and threats. All of these forms of anti-Semitism are to be unconditionally opposed.” But she also said:

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people. There are two major problems with this view. First, the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews understand themselves as represented by the state of Israel. Secondly, the state of Israel should be representing all of its population equally, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

Barghouti began his talk by making the case for why BDS is needed. The Israeli state has dehumanized the Palestinian people, he noted, ticking off various examples like the fact that an Israeli army sharpshooter made a t-shirt that shows a pregnant Palestinian with a bullseye imposed on the image and with words that read: “1 shot, 2 kills.” “It is this context that makes BDS crucial,” said Barghouti. He emphasized that the BDS movement is rooted in international law, and specifically addressed the BDS call’s advocacy for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Barghouti said that many Palestinians live in exile, and that the right to return is a fundamental right.

The Palestinian activist celebrated some of the successes the boycott movement has had recently. Barghouti praised the decision by African National Congress in South Africa to endorse the BDS movement, for example, and credited the power of social media and the Internet with helping the movement out immensely.

And Barghouti emphasized that Americans have a special role to play in boycotting Israel. “It’s your tax money being used for oppression,” he said.

The question and answer session at the end of the event was calm as well, with most of the queries coming from supporters of the BDS movement. One student asked about Barghouti’s time as an anti-South African apartheid activist and whether that movement faced the same type of strong opposition the BDS movement targeting Israel does. Barghouti said that while there was some “stigma” attached to the movement against South Africa–largely the charge that advocates for ending apartheid were communists–it doesn’t compare to the current smears. He said that the charges of being a communist did not have the same “chilling” and “terrorizing” effect that the anti-Semitism charge has.

Barghouti ended his prepared remarks by quoting from an open letter he wrote to the West in the wake of the Arab revolutions. “After Egypt, it is our time. It is time for Palestinian freedom and justice,” he wrote. “It is time for all the people of this world, particularly the most exploited and downtrodden, to reassert our common humanity and reclaim control over our common destiny. I wish you Egypt!”

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