Omar Barghouti’s appearance at Columbia University on Tuesday night felt like a landmark in the Palestinian solidarity movement in the U.S. A large hall at the law school was crowded to overflowing and the mood was celebratory. Luminaries of the community were in attendance, among them Lila Abu-Lughod, Rula Jebreal, Rashid Khalidi, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Dorothy Zellner, Lia Tarachansky. Barghouti’s speech was hugely optimistic. He said that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement was racking up victories far faster than the organizers had imagined when they began nine years ago, faster than the South African movement had progressed. And the BDS movement has the “closet” support of the Netanyahu administration, which was doing its utmost to demonstrate the fallacy of a Jewish democracy.
The suspense of waiting for the Israel supporters to say something was a bit of a fizzle, not the big drama it used to be at such events. Law professor Katherine Franke had urged the crowd not to be civil in discussing one of the most challenging moral questions of our time, and at the end, a man at the back said he had a short question.
“Do you believe that the Jewish people have a right to self determination?” And if so, “Where should it be?”
Barghouti said it was not up to him as a Palestinian to decide whether Jewish communities make up a nation, and where they should have a state. Though he pointed out that there was not consensus among Jews globally about whether they are a people; this is a recent debate, and in fact up till the 1945 the majority of Jews did not support Jewish nationhood. Then he said sharply:
One thing I do know– not at my expense. If they are a nation and have a right of self-determination, not at my expense. That does not give them the right to expel us or to take our land–
The audience broke into applause, the first time that any speaker had been interrupted by applause in two hours. Barghouti swiftly moved on to other questions. The questioner walked out of the hall.
That summed up the spirit of the event. Its title was, “Palestine’s South Africa Moment?” Barghouti said that Palestine appeared at last to be approaching that moment. Speaker Mahmood Mamdani said it is not. I will get to Mamdani’s analysis in the next few days. In the meantime, though, here is a summary of Barghouti’s remarks.
Barghouti began by quoting Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s declaration in 1923 that because Palestinians would never accept the Zionist takeover of their lands, the Zionists must build an “iron wall” and convince the Palestinians that it was impossible to resist colonization. Barghouti said it was realistic in the view of geopolitics then for Zionists to conclude that Palestinians would give up the struggle, and if Jabotinsky could see President Mahmoud Abbas today, he would “celebrate in his grave: ‘See, I told you, They’ve given up.’”
But recent history shows that Palestinians have not given up, and in fact are commanding the world’s sympathy and attention.
The latest discussion in Israel about the Jewish nation state law has brought to the fore the very possibility of the unraveling of the entire Zionist project. And these are not my words, these are the words of certain very important leaders in Israel, who say that. What’s happening is that the oxymoron of the Jewish and democratic identity of the state of Israel is unraveling.
I can understand the frustration of the extreme right in Israel. ‘Why is the whole world, even the US, against us with this new law? Why are they so mad? We’ve been doing it all along, we’re just making it a bit more formal.’
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has always consistently discriminated by law against the indigenous Palestinians. Other than ethnically cleansing them of course. So why is everyone so angry that they’re trying to codify the Jewish identity of the state. Some say it’s at the expense of the democratic identity. What democratic identity? When you have 50 laws that discriminate against a minority of your citizenry, that’s not democracy…
What Netanyahu and his far right government are doing is resolving this oxymoron. It cannot exist any longer. Let’s be very honest, Forget democracy. This is an ethnocracy… this is a Jewish supremacist state. So– no pretense of democracy. And that’s a very important development because it’s revealing Israel’s true nature. The last mask of Israel’s so-called democracy has been dropped.
Barghouti moved on to the tactics and success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
We’ve got to see it as our goal, as part of what we do in this country in the BDS movement… to disabuse Americans of the myth of empire being beneficial to all… Only then will most people in this country realize that Israel does not serve American interests writ large, but the 1 percent’s interests. The great majority of Americans cannot possibly benefit from what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people.
Shabtai Shavit, former Mossad chief, wrote in Haaretz a couple of weeks ago, that for the first time in his life, he’s really concerned about the future of the Zionist project. Shabtai Shavit is no lefty. He’s not your typical Che Guevara but an honest to goodness hard core Zionist. He’s really, really concerned… He’s saying, Europe is closing in our faces, European markets, even the US, our best friend, the relationship can’t be worse, it’s an unprecedented lowpoint. And the third point he mentions as an indicator of this hopelessness, university campuses in the west, like yours, are hothouses for the future leadership of their countries. He says, We’re losing the fight for support for Israel in the academic world. An increasing number of Jewish students are turning away from Israel. The global BDS movement has grown and quite a few Jews are members.
That’s one of the very rare times that an Israeli leader mentions the Jewish dimension of the BDS movement. It’s ignored completely.
Barghouti said that when he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times last January, “Why Israel Fears the Boycott,” he had to insist on including the fact that BDS had small but strong Jewish support. That was an “extremely difficult point that I had to negotiate, with the New York Times.”
At appearances in the States, he is invariably asked to compromise on the third plank of the BDS call, honoring the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In fact, this is the most significant right for Palestinian people. The percentage of Palestinians who are refugees, including those internally displaced in Israel, approaches 69 percent. “That is why the right of return is absolutely the most significant right in the BDS call.”
Then Barghouti moved on to describe the great success of the movement, and why he believes Israel is approaching its South Africa moment.
The BDS call was modeled on the South African boycott and divestment call, but you don’t cut and paste. There are important differences. “Israel is a worse system than South African apartheid in some ways.” Israel had committed ethnic cleansing and massacres that were worse than South African episodes, his partners there have told him.
“We’d never seen F16s bomb us in our Bantustans. We never had different license plates on our cars.” And so on and so forth
Israel has a more sophisticated and evolved system of oppression than South Africa’s. And the BDS movement has moved faster than in South Africa.
Since BDS was launched until now, we’ve achieved far more than we had initially thought possible within nine years. Actually, the movement has gone much, much faster than South Africa. There are many reasons for this. Israel is at the center of universe; Israelis tend to think so– but in some ways they are, because of United States power, the Holocaust, many factors. The internet.
Communiques from the anti apartheid movement in South Africa to supporters at his alma mater Columbia used to come through some clandestine fax in someone’s basement, Barghouti said. Now social media and email make these communications wide and instantaneous.
In 2013, Israel classified BDS officially as a strategic threat, when it transferred the fight against the movement from the ministry of foreign affairs, a propaganda ministry, to the ministry of strategic affairs.
Why should Israel, a nuclear power that’s still very powerful economically, be afraid of this nonviolent nuisance as they called us in the beginning. Well I would be very afraid if I were them. But I can be a bit smarter in how to fight it. But I won’t tell them that. [Laughter] I think their IQ is dipping, I don’t now what’s happening with Zionism. But when I went to school here, Zionists used to be very smart… Either smarter people have abandoned Zionism or the average IQ of Zionists has gone down, but they’re really not thinking straight. Because they haven’t come up with one smart tactic to fight BDS… since 2005. We’re not being cocky about that. I mean, seriously, we’re not facing serious challenges there. It’s becoming an open door.
For several years the battle was over Israel’s image. Israel has pumped billions into rebranding the country as a liberal democracy and a haven for gays and scientists and artists and entrepreneurs, and abused the Holocaust to foster this image, Barghouti said. And still it competes for unpopularity with North Korea, which spends nothing on propaganda.
The problem is again, talking about IQ– you commit one massacre in Gaza, it [the branding campaign] all disappears. It doesn’t work. Ok you can send over your nice ballerinas and musicians. But then you commit one major war crime and it’s gone. People are not idiots.
Barghouti ran down a list of BDS’s triumphs in the last year or two, including many in the academic community and church community. A year ago he could not have said that the movement was having an economic impact on Israel. Now he can. He cited bank divestments in Europe and Bill Gates‘s sale of shares in an Israeli prison contractor, G4S.
There was a time, he said, when the phrase “Made in South Africa” was “toxic, untouchable.” He said: “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”
Israel was aiding this trend.
They’re not coming up with rational solutions to BDS. Not that there is an easy solution….There won’t be a solution till the system of oppression which has been revealed to the world…mainly thanks to the BDS movement and the apartheid government[, ends]. We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu. Without him we could not have reached this far, at this time. It could have taken much, much, much, much longer, but with the help of the Israeli government, our biggest closet supporters in the world, we’re going much faster.
Increasingly it appears that Israel’s South Africa moment is arriving at last, he said.