Uproar Over Upcoming BDS Conference at Penn

It is not easy in the United States to have a real, factual discussion about Israel. When Norman Finkelstein came to give a lecture at my college a few years ago, a small minority of the faculty and students were enraged. The faculty boycotted the lecture, but the students came. After Norman spoke, these students put their hands up, and one after another read from a script seemingly authored by a Hasbara agency. Then, as Norman frowned and held his own, one young man got up and said, “I have a genuine question….” That was sufficient. The firewall had been breached. He was sincerely disturbed by Norman’s narrative of events against Gaza, and could not square his ideology with the circles drawn by Norman’s data.

The student’s hesitation before the facts resonates with what Peter Beinart noted in the New York Review of Books (2010). Beinart recounts a survey conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz for several prominent Jewish philanthropists who wanted to know why Jewish American college students were not more vigorous in their rebuttal of criticism of Israel on campus. One of the moments that worried the philanthropists was the refusal by the student senate at Brandeis to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Israel in 2008. Luntz found that the young Jews want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its policies, that “young Jews desperately want peace” and “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” Luntz recommended that the philanthropists use the word Arab (“wealth, oil and Islam”) rather than Palestinian (“refugee camps, victims and oppression”) so as to spin the youth to a pro-Israel agenda.

The failure of this PR opens the door to discussion of US and Israeli policy in West Asia. The Arab Spring has clearly broken the view of the Arab as terrorist. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to the Arab Spring, that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East” and that this has to do with culture, was an embarrassment of self-delusion. Netanyahu came to Congress to go mano-a-mano against Obama, the US felt forced to throttle the Palestinian case in the UN, and then, more absurdly, the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler suggested that Netanyahu send a Mossad team to assassinate President Obama: this kind of unseemly pressure had the opposite effect on those who pay attention to West Asian politics, and in particular among young American Jews.

Part of this hysteria is the over-reaction to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign that began in the margins of political life and has now gradually shuffled to the center. It is a victory for the BDS campaign that it has been able to ruffle so many feathers so quickly. No longer is it being discounted. The defenders of Israel right or wrong believe that no opportunity to censure those who criticize Israel must be left unsiezed. Every article must be challenged, every speaker must be condemned: any criticism of Israel must be suffocated. BDS is now taken very seriously because the movement has had an impact on our intellectual and political life.

BDS emerged in 2002 during one of the more virulent assaults by the Israeli armed forces on the Palestinian people. The next year a group of beleaguered Palestinian academics published a Call for Boycott, and in 2004 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel put out its appeal. What is to be underscored about these documents is their measured character: for intellectuals who have little access to books and almost none to travel, as well as constant worry about bombardment, their documents are not at all vindictive (I return from a conference in Beirut, which could not be attended by a professor from al-Quds, who did not get his visa in time – tickets are bought and forfeited; when I tell another professor that I would like to send him a book, he says not to bother since he’ll not see it for months). The academic freedom of the Palestinian institutions of learning have been deeply compromised by the Israeli occupation. It is in this light that these academics proclaimed with Mahmoud Darwish, “besiege your siege…there is no other way.”

The point of BDS is not to abjure any contact with Israeli artists or scholars. It is rather to refuse to collaborate with Israeli institutions that benefit from and participate in the Occupation of Palestine. The point is very well developed in the collected essays of Omar Barghouti (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions: The Global Struggles for Palestinian Rights, Haymarket, 2011). It is easy to bowdlerize the BDS position: to suggest, for instance, that the BDS adherents are against academic freedom or are anti-Semitic. A serious discussion about the condition in Palestine for intellectual, cultural and academic workers is essential as part of the context, and so is the collusion of Israeli academic institutions with the strong-arm of the military (with its American bursary in hand).

The first BDS conference was held in 2009 at Hampshire College. Hampshire’s students should be proud that they were the first in the country to support the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa, and are on record as the first to support the BDS campaign.

The second will be held in the first weekend of February at the University of Pennsylvania. The list of speakers at the conference is impressive: Ali Abunimah, of the Electronic Intifada website, is the keynote speaker, and he will anchor a conference that includes Susan Abulhawa (Playgrounds for Palestine), Max Blumenthal (author, Republican Gomorrah), Noura Erakat (prof, Georgetown University), Bill Fletcher Jr. (author, Solidarity Divided), Kehaulani Kauanui (prof, Wesleyan University), Nancy Kricorian (Code Pink), Heather Love (prof, UPENN), Sarah Schulman (prof, CUNY), Nikhil Singh (prof, NYU), Rebecca Vilkomerson (Jewish Voices for Peace), and Phil Weiss (curator, mondoweiss.net). There will also be scholars from Israel, such as Dalit Baum (Haifa University). These are all serious people. Rebecca Vilkomerson (Jewish Voices for Peace), Liza Behrendt (Young, Jewish and Proud) and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (Jewish Voices for Peace) are going to lead a seminar on “BDS, Hillel and the Question of Anti-Semitism,” while Max Blumenthal, Phil Weiss and Helena Cobban are going to share their thoughts on “Palestine and the Media.”

None of the panels seem sealed off from the protocols of open discussion. That has been the way of the BDS movement, to open a question that has too long remained closed, namely what is the role of the United States in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its garrisoning of Gaza? The US taxpayer not only underwrites the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, but US power also provides the Israeli government with carte blanche to behave in the region without care for blowback – if the occupation creates resentment, Israel is confident that the US will vote in the requisite international chambers to back it, and the US will lean heavily on the European governments to fall in line. Money and diplomatic pressure from the United States are essential to the Israeli occupation. It is this US gift that the BDS movement seeks to question, particularly in a context where most people have no idea that the US underwrites, and is the insurance policy for Israeli aggression.

The BDS conference is now under attack from those who do not want to allow any discussion about Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the US subvention for the occupation. They have decided to hold a series of events called Israel Across Penn, including dinners hosted by Penn Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Penn Hillel’s Rabbi Mike Uram wants to “mobilize an Israel-friendly community and network on campus.” To counter the BDS conference, the group has invited Alan Dershowitz to give a lecture on February 2 entitled “We Are One With Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity” (it is free, but requires registration). UPenn faculty who had committed to some panels pulled out under pressure, and the President of UPenn, Amy Gutmann released an anodyne statement disavowing any connection with the conference. She released no such statement when the faculty and students decided to Occupy Eric Cantor last October. The goose and the gander obviously don’t get the same treatment from President Gutmann.

Dershowitz attacked the BDS movement as putting forward one of the most “immoral, illegal and despicable concepts around academic today.”

“To single out the Jewish nation for collective punishment has a name,” says Dershowitz, “and it’s called bigotry.” Dershowitz mimics his Harvard colleague Larry Summers, who criticized those who raise questions about Israel by saying that they are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent” (September 17, 2002). This is the kind of statement signed by college presidents against the British boycott campaign of 2007 (the statement, joined by my college’s president, appeared in the New York Times on August 8). A good response to Summers and to the charge of anti-Semitism is to be found in the philosopher Judith Butler’s essay in the London Review of Books, from August 2003, “No, it’s not anti-Semitic.” “It seems that ‘anti-Semitism’ functions as a charge,” writes Butler, “one that does not correspond to a given kind of action or utterance, but one that is unilaterally conferred by those who fear the consequences of overt criticism of Israel.”

BDS violates academic freedom. Those who trot out  this specious argument, including the 286 American university presidents who signed that letter, say nothing about the maimed  academic “freedom” of the Palestinian academies. University of Pennsylvania’s English professor Amy Kaplan wrote a  moving account of this in the Chronicle of Higher Education (November 7, 2010, “In Palestine, Occupation Hazard”): “I spent 12 days driving back and forth between my hotel in East Jerusalem and universities in the West Bank. On each trip I waited at a military checkpoint along Israel’s security wall to have my passport inspected. One thing became immediately clear: Freedom of movement is fundamental to intellectual life. How can ideas and speech circulate freely if teachers and students cannot? In my encounters with Palestinian academics, I was struck both by the obstacles that living in the occupied territories imposes on their mobility, and the creativity that allows Palestinian intellectual life to be so vibrant today.”

BDS has raised the questions of the boycott of Palestinian intellectual and cultural life and of the ongoing occupation of Palestine in general. It has forced us to consider that this is not just any atrocity. Dershowitz asks why we are not incensed about Syria or Cuba; the answer is that most of us are involved with other events, but the question of Israel is manifestly more central because of the annual $3 billion (conservative figure) subsidy given to the Israeli government by the US taxpayer. That, and the distortions produced by the Israel First attitude in the US State Department with regard to West Asian policy, is what makes Israel first amongst our concerns. That the BDS conference in Penn has raised so much ire is a simple indicator that the BDS dynamic has made an enormous difference. As Omar Barghouti puts it, “Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!”

Note: It has come to my attention that several of the UPENN faculty who withdrew from the conference did it on their own volition, and not as I had indicated “under pressure” (least of all from the President of the University, who said that the BDS conference “is not an event sponsored by the University. The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel”). It has also come to my attention that the talk being given by Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University entitled “We Are One With Israel” to be held at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the UPENN campus is to be co-sponsored by the UPENN Political Science Department.

VIJAY PRASHAD is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This Spring he will publish two books, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: Being South Asian in America (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).