BDS, Academic/Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Omar Barghouti

A Palestinian call for comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel was issued in August 2002, a year after the idea was introduced at the first United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism in Durban. The “Durban Strategy”— a term coined by NGO-Monitor‘s Gerald Steinberg—attempts to demonize the Jewish state as apartheid and isolate it with the same boycott and divestment tactics that were used so successfully to dismantle South Africa’s apartheid regime.

While the comparison of Israel to South Africa is a patently false one rejected by people who have lived and suffered under actual apartheid rule and which has been throughly debunked, it is gaining traction among those who seek an end to the Jewish state. And while the Palestinian-initiated Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement has not managed to inflict economic harm upon Israel, BDS is wielded as a propaganda tool with which to delegitimize that country.

One of its few early successes came in 2004 and 2005 through a group of liberal Protestant (or “mainline”) churches in the United States that promoted divestment from companies doing business with Israel, although similar anti-Israel resolutions were defeated at subsequent national church gatherings. This campaign was covered in depth by CAMERA’s Christian media analyst Dexter Van Zile (see “Mainline American Christian ‘Peacemakers’ against Israel“) who points out that, “largely because of their shrinking numbers, the churches involved in this campaign have had little impact on the American public’s attitudes toward Israel.”

Over the past year, however, BDS activists have been ratcheting up their efforts. They seized upon the biased and mendacious Goldstone report to endorse their goals, claiming that “the report, and the media attention given to it, moved the terms of international solidarity with Palestine into a new plane, where calling for BDS is no longer considered ‘unrealistic’ or ‘counterproductive.'”

PACBI and Its Co-founder

A subdivision of the global BDS movement is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which calls on “academics and intellectuals…in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel‘s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid…”

PACBI’s global efforts have resulted in few tangible results. A 2005 vote by the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) to sever all academic and cultural links with Bar Ilan and Haifa universities was rescinded just a month later and there have been no academic boycotts of an Israeli university since. Perhaps this is because of the rank hypocrisy embodied by the movement and its leaders: The notion of scholars boycotting academic institutions runs counter to the very essence of intellectual and academic life, where exposure to diversity and freedom to challenge, debate and engage is the cornerstone of acquiring knowledge. Moreover, Israeli universities play a major role in educating numerous Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians.

In fact, Omar Barghouti, a PACBI co-founder—who travels from campus to campus denouncing Israel as an apartheid state and opposing Palestinian-Israeli collaboration as “providing a fig leaf covering up Israel’s …crimes against the Palestinian people”—is himself enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy (ethics) at Tel Aviv University.

When challenged about this blatant double standard, Barghouti dismisses it as irrelevant. “My studies at Tel-Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting,” he answered a Maariv reporter who questioned him about it. “Oppressed people don’t have a choice of where they go to school,” he responded to a student during a recent Q&A session at Loyola Law School.

But Barghouti is hardly an “oppressed” Palestinian with no choices. Born in Qatar, he grew up in Egypt and attended Columbia University in New York before moving to Ramallah as an adult. He could have continued his studies in Qatar, Egypt, or New York, or he could have attended either Bir Zeit University or Al Quds University near his home and thus support a Palestinian academy. Instead, he chose to take advantage of the educational opportunities at an Israeli institution (which he presumably supports through fees) – one which he demands everyone else shun.

Barghouti does not merely call for sanctions against supposed racist policies; his professed goal in calling for boycott, like that of other BDS supporters, is to permanently end Jewish autonomy in the region. He advocates for a Palestinian state to replace a Jewish one within all of historic Palestine.

His charges of Israeli racial apartheid are supported with distortions and outright canards. For example, he claims that Israel uses water as “a tool of apartheid and a means of ethnic cleansing” by stealing Palestinian resources. In fact, the opposite is true. Since 1967, when Israel began to administer the territories, the Palestinians have received far more fresh water than ever before. Under Israel’s administration, Palestinians’ share of water from aquifers that extend across both sides of the Green Line has risen while Israel’s own share of water from these aquifiers has decreased. In addition, and despite water shortages of its own, Israel transfers more than 40 million cubic meters of water per year to Palestinian water providers from aquifiers inside pre-1967 Israel—which is the principal source of Israel’s water.

Barghouti also accuses Israel of perpetrating “an act of genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza through a “hermetic siege of Gaza, designed to kill, cause serious bodily and mental harm, and deliberately inflicts conditions of life calculated to bring about partial and gradual physical destruction.” Of course, Israel does not and can not “hermetically” besiege Gaza, which shares a border not only with Israel but also with Egypt, which has likewise imposed sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. As for the Israeli closures, Israel allows humanitarian aid through border crossings. In addition, Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, uses its vast tunnel system to import all types of goods from Egypt, from food to weapons, and to dispatch terrorists to Israel. Israel’s control of its border with Gaza is determined by its ongoing security assessments. No country is obligated to freely open its borders to those who are committed to its destruction. The fact that Israel does not is not “an act of genocide” but an act of self-preservation.

Barghouti’s many unscholarly lies and deceptions are easily refuted. But perhaps what best belies Barghouti’s apartheid charge is Tel Aviv University Rector Zvi Galil’s measured response to petitions (bearing tens of thousands of signatures) demanding the expulsion of the radical student:

A university campus should be a place that encourages and tolerates free speech, no matter how offensive the expressed opinions may be to the majority of students and faculty at that institution, or indeed to the public at large. Our university has adopted a similar policy also in previous occasions….The University cannot and will not expel this student based on his political views or actions. He will be assessed only on the basis of his academic achievements and excellence…

In other words, even Barghouti—who seeks not only the boycott of the very institution he attends, but also the destruction of the Jewish state – is not discriminated against on any level, not racial, not national, and not political.

Unsurprisingly, Barghouti was less than thrilled with Galil’s response. Scrambling to undo the damage caused to his boycott campaign, he stated:

The anti-boycott lobby will now jump to use this as a weapon in their increasingly desperate attempts to fend off the growing threat of academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, arguing that these institutions respect the academic freedom “even” of boycott advocates. Other than the evident trivialization of academic freedom implied in such a claim, it misses the point completely on why PACBI, BRICUP (British Committee for Universities for Palestine), USACBI (U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel), among many other small academic boycott groups in France, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Australia, South Africa, etc., have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions..The well documented complicity of Israel’s academic institutions in the state’s colonial and racist policies remains THE main factor standing behind the boycott call. Whether TAU expels me or not, this compelling factor remains true. Expelling me would have added just a bit more fuel to an already blazing fire!”

A public statement by PACBI furiously lashed out at those who publicly condemned Barghouti’s contradictory situation. It declared such criticisim “underhanded,” a “witch hunt,” a “McCarthyist campaign” and a “smear campaign.” PACBI weakly attempts to justify Barghouti’s hypocrisy by alleging that “successive Israeli governments, committed to suppressing Palestinian national identity in their pursuit of maintaining Israel’s character as a racist state, have made every effort possible to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian university inside Israel. The only choice left to Palestinian students and academics in Israel, then, is to go to an Israeli university or leave their homeland to pursue their studies or academic careers abroad, often not possible due to financial or other compelling reasons…”

Indeed, the argument that Israel does not establish a “Palestinian university” within the Jewish state, as opposed to accomodating Arab students within Israeli universities, which Israel presently does, just underscores PACBI’s underlying goal of erasing Jewish/Israeli nationalism and replacing the Jewish state with a Palestinian one. After all, Palestinian students and academics do have “another choice” other then “attending an Israeli university” or “leaving their homeland.”– and that is attending a Palestinian university in the West Bank or Gaza – which is what many Palestinians do. The most recent Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistic figures available online indicate that as of 2006-7, 158,132 Palestinian students were enrolled in a total of 40 higher academic institutions in the Palestinian territories – eight universities, three colleges and 16 community colleges in the West Bank and six universities, three colleges and four community colleges in the Gaza Strip. Most of these universities were established or expanded after1967 under Israeli administration. That PACBI rejects this choice and condemns the fact that Palestinian universities are not available within Israel’s pre-1967 borders is evidence of their true agenda.

It is no wonder, given all the fabrications, distortions and hypocrisy by members of PACBI, that most academicians have not joined its mission. The movement has suffered one failure after another, the latest being the overwhelming rejection by the board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to adopt the recommendations of a PACBI-inspired petition to boycott.

Fabricated Successes

Successes, in fact, have been so scarce that proponents of academic boycott have been reduced to inventing accomplishments. For example, in February 2009, PACBI’s Web site triumphantly blared that “as a direct result of a two-year intensive campaign by the campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine,” Hampshire College had become the “first college in U.S. to divest from Israeli Occupation!” Shortly afterward, however, a joint public statement of clarification by Hampshire College’s President, Vice President, and Board of Trustees Chair explained that “the investment committee’s decision [to transfer assets held in a State Street fund to another fund] …did not pertain to a political movement and it was not made in reference to Israel.

The only tangible success PACBI can boast of in the academic world, so far, is the University of Sussex’s student union decision not to stock Israeli goods in their campus stores.

Recent cultural boycott attempts by PACBI have not fared much better. For example, PACBI endeavored to have the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto cancel its exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, falsely alleging that the scrolls were “illegally stolen” from “East Jerusalem during Israel’s 1967 military invasion and occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.” The Canadian exhibition went ahead and was a record-breaking success, drawing the largest crowds for any single exhibit in almost a decade.

Similarly, highly publicized efforts to convince renowned singer Leonard Cohen to cancel his September concert in Tel Aviv failed, as did efforts to convince fans to boycott that concert. PACBI, however, did announce that it “received confirmation from the Palestinian Prisoners‘ Club Society that they will not be hosting Leonard Cohen in Ramallah.” The Tel Aviv concert, entitled “A Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace” played to a sold-out audience of 47,000 and the $2 million dollar profit was donated to organizations promoting Israeli- Palestinian co-existence.

More recently, a letter invoking a PACBI call to boycott the June 2010 Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival was sent to film schools by two BDS activists—York University film professor John Greyson and filmmaker Kathy Wazana. The letter listed two signatories—director James Cameron and actress Jane Fonda. But upon learning of this, both Cameron and Fonda denied ever having signed or having known about the letter, and rejected its contents.

Clearly those interested in genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace and co-existence do not sign on to the BDS mission. And informed and educated scholars and students recognize the movement’s falsehoods. Nevertheless, even outright lies repeated often enough are eventually accepted as truths, and the BDS movement is intensifying its campaign of dishonest apartheid allegations against Israel.  Those who believe in honesty and truth must recognize the underlying goal of BDS is to dismantle the Jewish state and stand against this hypocritical and dishonest movement.

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