Last week in spite of lashing rains, more than 200 people crowded the offices of Verso Books in Brooklyn to hear Omar Barghouti, a leader of the boycott movement, in discussion with Nyle Fort, an activist and religion scholar. The event is up on Facebook. I got the impression I always get from Barghouti, this is a person of tremendous focus and cogency and dedication, Israel will never defeat him. And he is relentless. Barghouti had just been detained and interrogated by Israel, then prevented from traveling for a while, but he walks into this room like he just had a vacation in the south of France. Not an iota of self-pity. When will Israel and its supporters stop trying to defeat his campaign and simply heed the message: Equal rights?
My job here is passing along several statements Barghouti made last Tuesday, but the two most noteworthy were a personal story about his daughter, and a critique of identity politics.
“So many people asked me, can you share a personal story, I will for the first time ever,” Barghouti said with a smile. He said that last year, when Israeli government ministers threatened boycott leaders and other critics with “civil elimination,” Barghouti’s two daughters were horrified by this news, and the younger one, Nai, engaged her father in a WhatsApp conversation, which Barghouti shared.
So Nai wrote, “I’m just sitting there watching it all and feeling paralyzed.”
So I replied, “that’s what they want– to see us sit idly and do nothing.”
So she wrote, “You’re the most peaceful person on earth, how can they threaten you like that, with civil assassination? I think I’m having a split personality here. On the one hand,” she wrote, “as a Palestinian I’m so proud of you. But as your daughter I just wish you would consider stopping what you do. Enough.”
And she continued, “I know it is selfish of me, and it is impossible for me to accept that you just stop your human rights work. But you’re my father first and foremost, and maybe you’re my father more than Palestine is my homeland.” And then she immediately added, “I know this is stupid of me to say.”
I replied, “You know that I shall never submit to their threats and live as a servile slave. I’d rather die than live like that.”
So she wrote, “I know, this is the first lesson I ever learned from you.”
I wrote, “We have to besiege their siege, not surrender to it.”
To which she replied, “You have chosen the more difficult path that has the potential to change history. There is always a price to be paid, I realize. So what can I do to help?”
A year later, this year in March, she was the main performer at a concert for Israeli apartheid week in Palestine, so she’s discovering her own way of resistance.
I wondered, How many people I know would respond to threats in that fashion, or more to the point, would see the stakes in their own lives as so high?
Next, identity politics. A theme of the evening was the degree to which identity politics are consistent with building a broad coalition for Palestinian rights. Fort first raised the issue, and Barghouti issued a guarded critique.
I think there’s a tension there that’s not easy to address. Identity politics– that is as prevalent in the United States, including among progressive movements– presents major concerns to us outside the U.S. We don’t know how to deal with it. Activists in this country assume this is universal. It’s not. It’s very much a U.S. thing, that we from afar– I lived in this country, but now having lived in Palestine since 1994– I look at it with a very different eye, and we don’t completely understand it.
But one thing we do understand is that there’s a tension between identity politics as understood in the U.S., and forging multiracial, multifaceted justice movements that bring everyone together. And the point is, If I feel that I can only work within my community, and that’s the most important part, because I am belonging to this community– it will in a way deter me from doing work in other places where I can be very influential… Not just helping other communities but bridging the justice movements together.
In other words, I think if we put identity politics ahead of the requirement to be intersectional and to connect to other struggles, we harm ourselves, our cause as well as other causes. And that’s dangerous…
The second thing is if I consider anyone from my tribe as good enough because they’re from my tribe, it’s really problematic. Because many people in my tribe stink. And I need to come out against them. And not everyone who attacks someone from my tribe is necessarily wrong or racist, because some people in my tribe stink.
Later Barghouti was a bit more specific about the tension:
We cannot bring all our identities on the table in every campaign we do. Otherwise we cannot progress. If on every justice campaign we insist on bringing all our identities– that a campaign against a Bank X, should address the trans issue, the gender issue, the racial issue, and so on, all in one campaign, we might fail and then we get nowhere. So I can address the intersectionality of the oppressions in multiple campaigns. But if I insist that all of them must be addressed in every campaign, then we cannot move forward.
So that’s the strategic aspect that we have to consider.
Later he went a bit further and spoke of feminism and coalition building. Beyond “the sacred agreement” among Palestinians on the three pillars of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (end occupation, end discrimination in Israel, and affirm the right of return), Palestinians would agree on few other points.
I am a feminist. Now the BDS movement is not necessarily a feminist movement. So I don’t need to address feminism within the BDS movement in a very blunt way. Of course it comes across. It’s generally a progressive movement. It’s anti-misogynistic and so on. But I can also join other struggles on feminist rights. I don’t need to do it in a BDS campaign against G4S that is doing mass incarceration, for example. That’s a different campaign. That is what I mean by, We don’t need to bring all our oppressed identities on the table in every single campaign. We cannot succeed. We can never go ahead with a campaign and succeed with that.
Though later Barghouti said that sometimes identity politics need to be brought to the fore. If you are talking about women in Saudi Arabia, “you do have to address the identity issue.” Because being a woman in Saudi Arabia is a status that utterly limits her rights. The same is true for a non-Jew in Israel, he said; the identity issue must be addressed. But he implied if he did not say explicitly that campaigns in the west for gay rights and women’s rights within the Arab/Muslim world can be condescending, racist, and manipulative.
Barghouti a couple of times addressed western saviors in a withering fashion. He bridled when a questioner asked about various solutions offered by American intellectuals. “We don’t need any left right or center intellectual living in New York to tell us what the solution should be to this conflict. Former or current gatekeepers who think they should tell us– we little brown kids who cannot tell what we want.. what our future will be– thank you very much.” He went on to praise “self determination” by Palestinians.
A few other noteworthy moments.
Barghouti said that Mahmoud Darwish had expressed the yearning to be liberated from Palestine so he could write about mundane matters like love; and he has a related feeling: “I have a deep desire to end my BDS activism.” Then he would redirect his energy to other struggles: “the struggle by blacks for racial and economic justice, and the struggle by indigenous communities around the world for reparations” (I told you he was focused). But he can’t move on till Palestinians attain freedom, justice and equality.
Ultimately, Barghouti would like to pursue “other passions, philosophy and choreography,” but “I have no choice.” Again I wonder, how many Americans would see their lives in such a directed manner.
On the importance of the U.S.
Our oppression has “Made in the USA” written all over it. Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid wouldn’t survive a year without the massive military, economic, financial, diplomatic, academic support it gets from the United States.
On the ease of boycott.
It’s nothing heroic to boycott. You’re not doing a heroic act. You’re fulfilling a very profound moral obligation to do no harm.
Barghouti related that as an engineering student at Columbia 25 years ago he protested apartheid in South Africa, and fellow students told him apartheid would never fall in his lifetime. “Why are you wasting your time?” one said.
“I said, ‘I don’t believe it will be abolished in my lifetime, but I am doing it out of a moral obligation.’ But it was abolished in my lifetime, and this gives us eternal hope.”
He went on to analyze the end of apartheid.
Apartheid South Africa is not over. Economic apartheid is alive and well. Whites control the resources and goods. The black majority are still disenfranchised economically but not politically. Land ownership, housing, access to resources.
We’ve learned that… political emancipation alone especially in this globalized world where neoliberal economics control the world is certainly not enough. Without associating that with social justice economic justice, that’s useless.
This is one reason that the right of return is crucial, he said; as it represents a more profound form of equity than extending the franchise to Palestinians.
Asked if Israel has a right to exist, he said that Israel was the “only country on earth that maintains this divine right to exist, regardless of what regime it has.” Does a slave owner have a right to exist as a slaveowner? “No hell no.” A slaveowner has a right to exist as any other human being does; but not as slave-owner.
(Again I’d ask: When is the New York Times going to confront supporters of Israel with the widespread view of ordinary Palestinians that they live under Jim Crow and apartheid, a view supported by the U.N., till the report was stuffed down its throat by the powers that be).
Asked by Ari Wohlfeiler of Jewish Voice for Peace, a sponsor of the evening, about selling the Palestinian solidarity movement to the liberal mainstream, Barghouti said that international law might as well be Chinese to Americans, but they do get basic notions of fairness, and the movement must appeal to them.
I think some people on the left are addicted to marginalization. They cannot deal with the fact that you might gain power and strength and become more mainstream. It doesn’t mean you’re selling out necessarily… [It means you’re] appealing to the liberal mainstream by using accessible language that everyone can understand.
That language means explaining the right of return as the fact that Palestinians were turned out of their homes and have not been allowed to return to these occupied villages, and the rationale on the part of the Israel lobby is that the Palestinians have had too many children. “People would get that.”
Finally, Barghouti said that a class analysis of oppression was not enough because racism is a transcendent attribute of human societies.
I’m not aware of any society that does not have anti-black racism. We cannot dismiss the identity issue and just focus on the economic issue alone…
Racism can only be addressed at a very deep level: “it’s at the mental, intellectual and cultural level.” It is more difficult to change such beliefs than to change an economy. “People’s ideas, faiths, religions positive or negative can linger on for 1000’s of years, largely unchanged.”
Barghouti speaks so clearly because he has been thinking about these issues for many, many years, and trying out many approaches to resistance. I don’t think many people, anywhere, are capable of such dedication.