After overcoming multiple legal and administrative hurdles, including an Israeli-imposed travel ban, Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, appeared on a panel at Columbia University last night entitled “The Road to Freedom: The BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights and the Struggle Against Apartheid.”
The event was organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD)—a coalition of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Barnard College Jewish Voice for Peace calling for the university’s divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“Tonight’s panel will allow us all to reflect on what it means to build a movement against apartheid in the 21st Century” said Nadine Talaat of CUAD and moderator of the talk.
Not only does Mr. Barghouti face a strict travel ban, despite being a permanent resident of Israel, he also faces the “threat of targeted civil elimination, a euphemism for civil assassination, for his role in the growing BDS movement,” added Talaat.
Mr. Barghouti’s travel ban was just last week lifted by an Israeli court, allowing him to accept a peace prize at Yale University before coming to speak at Columbia.
Barghouti listed BDS’ many accomplishments since its launch in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, including Barcelona’s recent full divestment from any companies complicit in the Israeli occupation. He further noted that the movement appears to be growing at a faster pace than ever before, suggesting the growth is in tangent to rising right-wing and fascist movements across the US and Europe.
“Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid stands naked for all to see. As Israel becomes more openly associated with the rising far-right around the world, not just the Trump administration and open anti-semitic figures here in the US, but across the world, especially in Europe,” Mr. Barghouti said, “more people and grassroots movements will feel the moral imperative to join the BDS movement for Palestinian human rights as the most effective form of solidarity.”
Barghouti’s commentary was sharp and at times funny, inspiring multiple rounds of applause and two standing ovations from the crowd.
“BDS cannot claim full responsibility for Israel’s growing academic, cultural and increasingly economic isolation” Barghouti said. “For Israel itself deserves a big share of the credit,” noting that Israel’s 2015 election effectively installed the country’s “most racist government ever.”
Barghouti noted that support for BDS is specifically growing among millennial American Jews who have begun distancing themselves from the Jewish state in growing numbers.
Despite this shift taking place among the American Jewish community, the pro-Israel lobby enjoys some support on American college campuses still.
A contingent of Columbia’s Zionist organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI) stood in the back of the hall with signs reading “Lies” and “Anti-semitism.”
Seeming to address the protestors, Mr. Barghouti noted emphatically that “the long path to justice, however, must start with exercising our fears and inhibitions and embarking on a radical process of decolonizing our minds. For we cannot possibly pursue freedom while our minds remain colonized and therefore cannot even envision what freedom looks like.”
The panel also featured Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace and Premilla Nadasen, a Barnard History professor and veteran of the movement against apartheid in South Africa.
Vilkomerson spoke about efforts on the US legislative front—both federal and state—to stifle BDS, including the oft-repeated conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Citing the AIPAC and ADL sponsored Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which is currently stalled in Congress, Vilkomerson called it “the culmination of years of effort to redefine anti-semitism at the federal level to include criticism of Israel as part of its definition.”
“If it had passed, it would have been written into law, at least on campuses, that criticism of Israel would have been defined as anti-semitic,” Vilkomerson said.
But the shift to a legislative strategy in fighting BDS, Vilkomerson continued, “is a sign of weakness. They understand that they are losing the grassroots.”
“Besides being unconstitutional, these laws are like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. It’s just too late.”
Public opinion is shifting quickly and the immutable bi-partisan support of Israel “is crumbling” added Vilkomerson.
Premilla Nadasen, a Barnard History professor, spoke about her experiences growing up in apartheid South Africa and the similarities between those experiences and her 2001 trip to Palestine.
On a delegation with ten other women of color, Nadasen said the trip was organized as a lens to view global feminist solidarity and has since informed her study on intersectionality and grassroots organizing.
“I did not go to Palestine looking for evidence of apartheid,” Nadasen said. “I must say, however, I was struck by the parallels to apartheid that I saw. No comparisons are perfect but the similarities were evident.”
“We did see the more substantive components of a system of segregation and hierarchy, unequal citizenship, dispossession of land, land seizures, displacement of a population, the physical segregation of Palestinian and Jewish communities, hierarchy and inequality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, an identity pass system, the checkpoints, the detentions, imprisonments and forms of torture. The fragmentation of Palestinian communities that I think are so reminiscent of the apartheid homelands that we know so much about,” Nadasen added.
The event, which ignited a thoughtful and constructive conversation, especially between panelists and the Zionist protestors at the back of the room during the question and answer section (a dialogue that in this reporter’s experience is rarely granted to Palestine solidarity activists who disrupt pro-Israel events), almost didn’t happen.
The day before the event the Columbia and Barnard administrations, allegedly under donor pressure, placed tight last minute restrictions on the event, limiting attendance to only 50 non-Columbia or Barnard students.
“It is our hope that Columbia University and Barnard College comes to understand the importance of protecting freedom of expression on campus…In the face of intensified intimidation, we are overcome with disappointment that our university will coordinate and collaborate with our repression before standing up for its students, its values of free speech, and the spirit of open debate. Moreover, we are concerned with the precedent this sets for the restriction on open expression and discrimination based on content,” reads a responding statement on CUAD’s Facebook page.
Mr. Barghouti was more pointed in his criticism of the college administration’s decision to restrict the event.
“When I went to school here at Columbia…I’m so ashamed now to say that,” said Barghouti in his opening remarks. “No one’s perfect.”