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Reflections on the BDS conference at Hampshire

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The spirit of the Hampshire College conference on Boycott Divestment and Sanctions that I attended last weekend is captured by Adam Horowitz’s post of Sunday. There was a stirring sense of youthful leadership, and a sense that the left in America can no longer seek to divorce itself from the cause of Palestinian self-determination. No, that divorce, which has existed for 40 years and that allowed the likes of Alan Dershowitz to say that he’s a "liberal," is at an end for the young.

But I don’t only reflect the left here. I started this site because of my rage at the destruction of American interests in the Middle East; and my value journalistically here is to report on the BDS movement as it touches on a few questions: 1, Are they young? 2, Are they Jewish? 3, Is it a radical movement? 4. What does it mean to power politics, the world of American foreign policy and Jewish attitudes?

1. Are they young? They’re young. There were remarkably few older people around. Yes it is a campus organizing event, but it strikes me that on Israel/Palestine, these young people don’t trust us at all. They have lost faith in their elders as oppressive hypocrites on this issue. You have given us 62 years of Palestinian statelessness and war against Muslims; meanwhile you cheer a black man for president here and Jim Crow and the charade of the “peace process” there. These young people have great faith in the possibility of change. They were almost every one impressive, thoughtful serious leaders with a purity of belief that I can’t match (and don’t wish to; I’m not young). They are leading themselves, without the need for a lot of older guides.

2. Are they Jewish? A lot of them are Jewish. My guess is 20-30 percent. What is remarkable is that there is no conflict in their bearing or in their minds between Jewish identity and this political action. It is remarkable because ordinarily at this kind of event, I hear Jews keening about their divided families, etc–why, I do it myself all the time. I didn’t hear one such expression. These young Jews are completely comfortable being anti-Zionist, or pro-Palestinian, or critical of Israel, and don’t need to put the Jewish asterisk on every statement they make. Startling. The revolution I’ve sought in Jewish identity is happening organically in these people.

3. Is this a radical movement? Toward the end of my day at Hampshire I heard an organizer speak of the statement the conference will issue, and I remembered the Port Huron statement by the SDS in– wow– 1962. His comment had that sort of generational ring in my ear. I would say, I guess many of the students are radicals, but with this vital stipulation: The One Thing they stand for right now, the Hampshire divestment initiative of earlier this year, is not at all radical. It is eminently moderate. It says that Hampshire will divest from a half dozen companies that do business in the occupied territories, including Caterpillar, which played such a key role in the killing of Rachel Corrie. This is, I repeat, an eminently moderate proposition (that if effected is sure to lead to wider BDS calls I would also support).

Radicalism does emerge around these issues because these students are working against an establishment culture that is both totalitarian and corrupt on this issue. Notice that Hampshire’s own college president has been “sucking up” to Dershowitz, according to the BDS group Students for Justice in Palestine, in trying to retrench on Hampshire divestment. And at Goucher, which was also represented at the conference, a good liberal college president has refused to let liberal Jews who are critical of Israel even speak on campus. Churches have been able to go nowhere with BDS because of pressure and smears. And meantime Israel snatches young people at internet cafes and shoots protesters who are against land confiscation and drops white phosphorus on school children. My touchstone is how I felt in Gaza: the real conditions for Palestinians would radicalize a banker.

These students are justifiably angry that the American political discourse denies these real conditions. Nothing symbolizes this disjuncture more than Ali Abunimah. He gave one of the most compelling speeches on these issues that I’ve ever heard. Later we hope to get up a transcript of it so you can read it over. The speech was essentially liberal: equal rights for all. And of course Abunimah is against partition of Israel and Palestine, he is for the one-state solution. His book on this subject was not reviewed, he told me, by a single mainstream American newspaper or publication, except for The Nation (which was negative). I don’t agree with everything Abunimah says. I’m tempted to support Partition because Partition has been used in a lot of bitterly-divided places, and I don’t know what to think about the Right of Return. But what is critical here from the American point of view is that Abunimah can claim to speak for many Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans, and he doesn’t get to make his argument widely; and meanwhile for 40 years, Jewish expansionists have had unfettered access to our political process and on many occasions actively destroyed the possibility of partition. Religious nationalists, they have enforced the Right of Return for Jews on biblical grounds, even as they’ve destroyed a Palestinian right of return based on present-day title.

I am saying that the American discourse has been monopolized by extremists, and Abunimah is marginalized on a racial basis. Your ideas scare us; and we the U.S. will decide who speaks for the Palestinians. The students at the conference don’t like this. They want Palestinians to speak for themselves.

4. What effect can the BDS movement have on power politics– Washington and establishment Jewish attitudes? Scott McConnell said last week that he supports the two-state solution because the left wing view is just a “sliver” position and has no ability to affect power politics. I’m tempted to agree with McConnell, being realistic, and in my 50s, but the counterargument is that Partition has been completely undermined, and the left has the mojo here. As Anna Baltzer said at the conference, "We don’t need consensus for change. We need a critical mass." The simple idea of equal rights under the law is very powerful, and these students are going to take a stand for them. I want to see their ideas openly debated.

No doubt there is a lot of “psychosis,” as Roger Cohen said in the America-Iran context last week, to get through. And this is where the young especially have power. Young Jews do not feel threatened by Palestinians. Older Jews do. I think that is why Ali Abunimah is censored. Older Jews are afraid of his views. As they were afraid of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, or Edward Said. Any Palestinian with a legitimate grievance. In 2003, the New York Review of Books published a Jew making the one-state argument—Tony Judt—but having put this view forward it seems to have felt singed by the reaction, and it has retreated again and again from the assertion, and has never allowed a Palestinian to make the same argument, and didn’t even review Abunimah’s book. (Or, I bet, Saree Makdisi’s.) And that goes for the rest of our media too. They don’t want to hear from Arabs. They are afraid of them.

The climax of the conference was all about this issue of fear. At the end of his speech Abunimah got two questions in a row, one from a Zionist Jew and another from a Palestinian chauvinist. The young Zionist Jew said, and he spoke with great hesitation, being a minority of one—How can we trust Hamas to govern the Jews? How do you know this won’t turn into a Zimbabwe situation, a complete breakdown of society and turmoil and pogroms? Hamas videos show young Palestinians trained to hate Jews. Etc.

Abunimah handled the question brilliantly. He thanked the young man for coming forward, saying he showed great courage. He said it was a good question. He made two points: first, we don’t know what exactly will happen, these situations are tremendously laden; I cannot guarantee a civil outcome; but if Jews are oppressed, I will take my stand by them, as a person who believes in equal rights; and second, How can anyone justify ongoing oppression, of a far worst sort than Zimbabwe or the old South Africa ever practiced, because of fears of a prospective oppression?

Right after the young man spoke, a fierce young Palestinian spoke. He said things that left me cold when I heard them in Jerusalem and Gaza: that the Jews should leave, that it’s Palestine. I understand where the rage is coming from, but hey, it scares me. Abunimah dismissed the man’s attitude out of hand. I want to end this report in that humanistic space. The young Jew was saying, We oppress the Palestinians because we are so fearful. We oppress them because the Nazis tried to exterminate us. This is a group psychosis; and nothing can justify the oppression and racism that we try and document on this site every day. I realize that I may never convince my Jewish elders of these errors, and that only places a larger burden of leadership on the young. And they are ready.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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