What is the Role of Academia in Political Change?: The Case of BDS and Israeli Violations of International Law

In addition to a collection of rich individual interviews and special segments, Status also publishes panels and lectures with every issue of the audio journal. For Issue 2.1, we highlight….

In addition to a collection of rich individual interviews and special segments, Status also publishes panels and lectures with every issue of the audio journal. For Issue 2.1, we highlight the debate on academic freedom at the December 2014 meeting of the American Anthropological Association, and provide an exclusive audio recording of the panel.

Leading up to the 2014 American Anthropological Association Meeting, over 1,000 anthropologists signed a boycott pledge to protest Israel’s systematic and widespread violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Many spoke and wrote publicly about why they now feel boycott is the best way to address the injustices that have become so systemically entrenched.

Anthropologists campaigning for the boycott elected not to pursue a resolution at the December 2014 American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting in favor of building the broadest possible support among members over the coming months.

Despite this, opponents of the boycott sought to short-circuit the debate by forcing the AAA to take an anti-boycott position now. On the agenda of the business meeting was a proposed resolution against boycotting Israeli academic institutions. This effort to shut down the boycott discussion backfired spectacularly. Some 700 people gathered at the annual business meeting of the Association, an event that often attracts fewer than a handful. The atmosphere in the room was electric, as anthropologists from across the profession discussed the boycott and the ongoing violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Members present overwhelmingly voted down the anti-boycott measure, which mustered a mere 52 supporters.

A series of panels were held at the conference to raise awareness about the boycott and about human rights violations in Palestine. These panels, some of which attracted audiences of 200-250 people, promoted conversation about the possibility of the AAA passing a resolution to boycott Israeli institutions complicit with the occupation. One of the panels, a Public Policy Forum entitled “What is the Role of Academia in Political Change? The Case of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and Israeli Violations Of International Law,” featured a conversation among legal scholars, anthropologists, and social justice activists, who discussed BDS as a significant policy issue of our time.

The goal of the forum was three-fold: first, it was designed to educate the public about BDS, its goals and methods; second, it sought to raise awareness of the legal framework of the conflict; and third, it helped to open debate about the influence anthropology and an academic association such as the AAA can and should have in pressing for academic freedom and human rights for Palestinians, both those living as second-class citizens in Israel and those living under Israeli military occupation.

The panel was moderated by Lori Allen, and included Omar Barghouti, Richard Falk, Noura Erakat, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Saba Mahmood, and Dan Segel as speakers.

The panel below includes six parts that you can click on separately. (Segel’s portion will be shared at a later date.) Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.

Panel Discussion Transcript

Transcribed by Samantha Brotman


Lori Allen (LA): Thank you all for joining this discussion. This public policy panel format is encouraged by the AAA to “provide a place to discuss critical social issues affecting anthropology, public policy issues of interest to anthropologists, and public policy issues that could benefit from anthropological knowledge or expertise.”

Just to say a couple of words, this panel came together partly in response to Palestinian civil society’s call for the academic and cultural boycott of institutions that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. The horrific events in Gaza this summer confirm the urgency of the task at hand, which is to find ways to contribute to a growing international effort to end Israel’s impunity. What we are trying to do with this panel and with other panels that have come together today at the AAA is to educate the membership about key issues related to Israel-Palestine, about academics and anthropologists’ responsibilities, and to open the conversation about academic boycott. On that point, I would just like to encourage you all to please attend the AAA business meeting that will be happening tomorrow at 4:30pm in Salon Two, because there is a resolution going to be put forward there to end this conversation about BDS, so I strongly encourage you to come and vote against that resolution. Just a couple of points of information and order: Anyone who is interested in signing on to the call for BDS, there are people in the front row who can take your signature. And a final point of order: AAA is recording this session and only those who have prior authorization from the AAA are meant to be recording. So, that is AAA press policy, and I ask you to respect that.

I will be introducing each speaker in turn and throw out a couple of questions, and each speaker will speak about fifteen minutes or so.

Panel Discussion

LA: Omar Barghouti, our first contributor, is a co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the BDS movement. So, Omar, can you explain to us the logic behind academic boycott? What are its primary goals, and how is academic boycott a way to achieve those goals?

And, as part of your discussion, perhaps you can explain why there is an insistence on distinguishing between individuals and institutions that are complicit in the occupation? Some people have said, after all, aren’t Israeli faculty, by simply being employees of their universities, also technically complicit with their government’s violations? On the other hand, critics of the boycott say there cannot be a meaningful distinction between academics and their institutions, and therefore any boycott would be a breach of academic freedom. How would you respond to this?

Omar Barghouti (OB): Since its launch in 2004, PACBI, has endorsed a boycott of institutions, rather than individuals and this is not because individual Israeli academics are not complicit, the great majority are in fact, in many different ways. From serving in the occupation army as reserve soldiers to providing research to the institutions that are committing violations against Palestinians. But, we have, on principle, rejected McCarthyist political testing. Who is a good Israeli academic, who is a good bad Israeli academic? We do not do that on principle. With institutions, it is ethically clear and much better, because with Israeli institutions, we have a long record of their complicity in planning, implementing, whitewashing and justifying Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. We have very well documented information on every single academic institution in Israel and how it is complicit in those violations. There are many examples of this complicity: developing weapon systems and military doctrines used in the commission of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, to systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research — on archaeology, demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, so on and so forth, even anthropology — to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories that show Arabs being degenerates or whatever, to denial of the Nakba. And suppressing the academic freedom of Israeli academics who research on Zionism and the Nakba (the forced dispossession and eviction of Palestinian Arabs during the creation of the State of Israel) beyond a certain limit; to building dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as not just Ariel has done, but Hebrew University, one of its two campuses is predominantly built in occupied East Jerusalem, on confiscated private Palestinian Jerusalemite’s land. So the PACBI call is against those institutions and calls for isolating those institutions in order to end their complicity in this regime of oppression.

It is very important to say that we do not target individual Israeli academics. The fact that an Israeli academic is affiliated to his or her university does not make it okay to boycott them. As Israeli citizens, they have to work in Israeli universities. So, we call on all academics to boycott Israeli universities. But we do not call on Israeli academics to boycott their universities and we do not call on Palestinian academics in Israel to boycott Israeli universities. They cannot, as citizens in the Apartheid state, they have got to work in those universities.

The PACBI call of 2004 and the BDS call in general in 2005 are based in international law and the universal declaration of human rights. As such, it rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and we are very clear about that. But it also sticks to UN definitions of academic freedom. I know in the United States international law is not very meaningful, you tend to ignore that and you tend to develop—including AAUP—develop its own definitions of academic freedom that are not in line with international law, with what the UN says about academic freedom. You are entitled academic freedom so long that you do not infringe on the academic freedom of others, you do not discriminate, you do not participate in violations of international law. If you do that, you cannot claim academic freedom, “I have a right to call Arabs monkeys,” there is a limit to what you can and what you cannot do, even under academic freedom. In our argument against AAUP, we discuss that.

LA: Many people who are on the fence, unsure of whether to support the boycott, and even some supporters of the boycott, are confused as to how they would implement it. Could you explain, with an example or two, how the boycott would work or what effect it is having now? What would and would not be subject to the boycott?

OB: Okay, there is general confusion, sometimes-intentional confusion, about how the boycott would apply. If we invite an Israeli academic to the AAA—if the AAA adopts BDS, let us say, hopefully in 2015—would it mean that we can not invite Israeli academics? Where is that found? What is that based on? There is absolutely nothing in the boycott that we are calling for, the institutional boycott, that says we should ostracize Israeli academics. The boycott that we are calling for increases dialogue, increases debate, opens up areas for discussion that have been closed. As long as Israeli academics are not representatives of their institutions, there is absolutely nothing in the boycott that prevents any institution from inviting them. So Israeli academics can still travel, do joint research, lecture, so on and so forth, as long as they are not sent by Israel propaganda campaigns, they are not sent by the state to be ambassadors, cultural ambassadors, academic ambassadors of the state. If they are honest to goodness academics who want to pursue academic work around the world, publish and so on, nothing in the boycott prevents that. What the boycott does call for is:

Refraining from any institutional link with Israeli universities. We call on everyone not to deal with Israeli universities. 

  1. Advocating a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions and associations like yours;

  2. Promoting divestment from Israel by international academic institutions and associations. If you have a pension fund, we would like to see that pension fund cleaned of dirty money, money invested in companies that violate our rights; 

  3. Condemnation of Israeli policies;

  4. Establishing direct links with Palestinian academic institutions without forcing them to go through Israeli institutions. Without forcing them to work together with Israeli institutions, as US and European funders often do. “We will give you money for this academic project a Bir Zeit, only if you work with Hebrew University.” “I do not want your money and I do not want to work with Hebrew University,” is the response they usually get from Palestinian universities.

LA: One of the responses to the call for boycott is, why pick on Israel? Why have Palestinians not call for boycotting the United States, for example?

OB: There are various facets to my response to this. Our direct oppressor is Israel and its complicit institutions.Yes, the US establishment is in bed with Israel, it is the main partner that enabling, allowing Israel to continue its regime occupation, settler colonialism, and Apartheid against us. But our main oppressor is Israel. If we were to call for a boycott of every single partner that is enabling Israel’s regime of oppression, we would be falling into what I call armchair gesturing, which in situations of dire and intensifying oppression and violations of human rights, is not just a luxurious privilege we cannot afford but are outright unethical. As human rights defenders and activists, we have limited resources and we have to use them strategically to achieve maximum impact to achieve our basic rights.

BDS, after all is not an academic exercise; it is a deeply ethical praxis aimed at realizing our freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people.

Morality aside, and as Naomi Klein once said, how can you boycott the United States, even if you wanted to? It is the only super power, it is hegemonic, it is dominant, especially in academia. It would not work. So we do not do intellectual exercises, we do practical reflection and action that can change reality. Even if we called for a boycott of the United States, it would remain theoretical. No one can do it today. Maybe in ten years, but not now.

LA: What does PACBI mean when it refers to “co-resistance”? How do you see this as being a feature of BDS?

OB: Co-resistance is a term that was coined by a young Palestinian activist. It is the opposite to coexistence under oppression. Under a system of oppression, coexistence by definition is unethical because it is accepting an asymmetrical oppressive relationship as a perpetual fact and living with it, coping with. So, co-resistence becomes the only ethical relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Fighting together to end oppression. That is, people of conscience within the oppressor community, the only natural relationship, normal relationship, that they can have with the oppressed community is working with the oppressed community to end all oppression. Then we can achieve ethical coexistence, not unethical coexistence.

Some examples of normalization are projects between Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other side, that tend to artificially present a symmetric relationship, as if colonizer and colonized are equal, ethically or otherwise. That type of whitewashing, making a colonial relationship appear as if it is a husband and wife kind of conflict is deceptive, it is immoral, and it whitewashes the actual relationship and structures of oppression that exist. Therefore, it does not advance the struggle to end oppression.

In a nutshell, there are two conditions without which a joint relationship can be one of normalization between Palestinians/Arabs on the one side and Israelis on the other. There are two conditions that have to be met in order for that relationship not to be one of normalization:

First, the Israeli side must believe, must support Palestinian rights under international law. We are not asking for the moon, we are asking for basic rights like all humans. If we are not equal humans, then we will not have a conversation, then you will be up there and I will be down here. It will be a ladder, not a bridge. That is not a dialogue, that is somebody dictating. We do not want that relationship. Either you believe that I am an equal human that is entitled to human rights, or there is no conversation. That is the first condition, support Palestinian rights under international law.

Second is co-resisting, it is not enough that you theoretically believe I am entitled to equal rights. Our relationship has to be one of resisting. Let us say you are an Israeli academic and I am Palestinian researcher, you believe in our rights and you want to do cooking together for peace. That is normalization, and I am not making this up, they do this all the time. Those Europeans are nuts, they spend their money on all kinds of normalization projects. That is not good enough. Cooking for peace? What is cooking for peace? It has got to take a position. We are not inventing this, we learned this from South Africa. Any white person who wanted to do a project with a black institution or black activists, or artists, or academics, had to first and foremost say, “I am against Apartheid” and the project had to have an anti-Apartheid dimension to it, a co-resistance dimension.

LA: Thank you.

— –

LA: We will move to our second speaker. Richard Falk is an American professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He just completed a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He was appointed to this role by the UN Human Rights Council, in 2008.

Israel has an intricate set of laws and policies and standard practices that result in discrimination against and oppression of Palestinians. This is too vast to summarize in a few words, but could you recount from your experience as UN Rapporteur what you think are some of the most negative Israeli policies against Palestinians?

Richard Falk (RF): I will try my best. The underlying structure of Israeli discrimination against the Palestinian minority living within the 1967 green line borders is both disguised to the outside world and sinister for those subjected to its strictures. It is based on presenting to outsiders the facade of equality of rights for all Israeli citizens, while making numerous humiliating and exploitative restrictions based on a distinction drawn in Israeli nationality laws that discriminate between Jews and non-Jews living in Israel. The most sordid feature of the nationality laws is the familiar right of return of Jews wherever they may currently reside even if their link to Israel is non-existent as contrasted with the denial of such a right to Palestinians who can demonstrate generations of connection with the land. This kind of discrimination also is applied to Palestinian families. In the event that a Palestinian marries another Palestinian from the West Bank the spouse has no right to live in Israel. Also there are numerous constraints on Palestinian property rights and land ownership, as well as discriminatory features associated with loss of citizenship and residency permits. To live as a Palestinian in Israel is to be in a constant condition of human insecurity with restrictions and suspicions imposed, and rights of expression and assembly infringed upon. Any close familiarity with this discriminatory pattern that has existed since the establishment of Israel in 1948 would raise serious doubts about the claim that Israel is a democratic country respectful of fundamental human rights of its citizens. This discriminatory pattern is being unabashedly reaffirmed in the current Nationality Bill that has been endorsed by a 14-6 vote of the Netanyahu cabinet, and is expected to be enacted into law by the Knesset shortly, reinforcing by a sweeping law the preexisting second-class status of Palestinians and self-consciously establishing an overtly Apartheid structure within Israel.

LA: You have called for a boycott of Israeli institutions in UN forums; why do you support such a move? Some might say we need to dialogue with the Israelis not isolate them. Shouldn’t the diplomatic track be pursued instead?

RF: I did urge support for the boycott during my term as Special Rapporteur for Palestine for three principal reasons: first, moral outrage at the continuing and pervasive violation of the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people, especially associated with the manifest conversion of the temporary occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem into a permanent condition of intolerable rightlessness for the entire Palestinian population that is made subject to the daily ordeal of an occupation that has lasted for more than 47 years, and shows no signs of ending; secondly, Israeli defiance of international law by implementing such central policies as continuing settlement expansion, construction of the separation wall, and the collective punishment of the beleaguered civilian population of Gaza coupled with the reality of impunity and non-accountability of Israeli political and military leaders; and thirdly, the futility of relying on mere resolutions passed by the UN or the Oslo-style peace process that has had more than twenty years to find a solution for the conflict, but has actually functioned to facilitate Israeli land grabbing for the settlements and ethnic cleansing in relation to Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Bedouin communities of the West Bank.

For all these reasons, I think that diplomacy has to have been judges as a failure, and will continue to be a failure until the political preconditions for compromise and accommodation are present on the basis on the equality of the two peoples. Israel has demonstrated its contempt for diplomacy by its behaviour, and to continue to rely on a diplomatic approach presided over by the partisan U.S. Government is to consign the Palestinians to a permanent condition of subjugated rightlessness. The boycott is a nonviolent alternative that relies on the pressure of people rather than the manoeuvres of governments or the empty rhetoric of UN censure. While serving in the UN, it seemed important to lend the symbolic legitimating support of a UN endorsement of the boycott to the civil society initiatives of the BDS Campaign and other related initiatives.

LA: There are a lot of bad countries doing a lot of bad things in the world these days. Do you think the UN singles Israel out excessively or unfairly, or holds Israel to a higher standard than other countries?

RF: I know this is a frequent complaint about the UN. There are two aspects to this question. Why does the UN emphasize Israel to the extent that it does? And is Israel being held to a higher standard than other states? On the first point, it is important to recall that the problems of Israel/Palestine unlike any issue in the world are to a significant degree of the UN’s doing, and before that the League of Nations in connivance with British colonial administration. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire rather than apply the principle of self-determination, Britain and France manipulated the Versailles peace negotiations to gain control over the entire Middle East. The whole notion of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine was endorsed by the League and the partition plan in 1947 was decreed as ‘the solution’ without taking the slightest account the views of the indigenous population. In effect, the UN has a special responsibility for the tragedy that has ensued, and if anything, has failed to give sufficient and effective attention due to the geopolitical obstacles created by the U.S. and Europe.

On whether Israel is being held to a higher standard, the issue is linked to the visibility associated with its relationship to the UN as just explained. Also, Israel claims for itself a higher standard, and then complains if judged accordingly, or if accountability is sought at any point. Besides, the kind of violations that are established are so flagrant and the cause of so much suffering that again the proper criticism is the failure of the world to do more to stop them, not the sin of excessive attention.

LA: Many people who agree that the Israeli occupation should end do not think that a boycott, and especially not an academic boycott, can help achieve that goal. Many point to the way that the boycott in South Africa ended up penalizing or damaging people who were opposed to Apartheid, and on that basis oppose the boycott of Israel. Do you think they have a point?

RF: I do not think that there is any reasonable basis for suggesting that the imposition of the boycott is something that is harmful to the Palestinians and to those who are subject to the present regime of occupation or the situation of living in exile. As with the South African boycott, which I also supported, as is the case with the boycott aimed at Israel, was strongly encouraged by those who spoke most authentically on behalf of the South African people. I heed the counsel of my friend and colleague here, Omar Barghouti, and other Palestinians, who have come to represent the Palestinian people and their aspirations far better and more legitimately than do the quasi-collaborationist formal leadership in Ramallah or the more sectarian Hamas leadership in Gaza. Of course, Palestinian unity is one of the preconditions for a political solution, but whether that unity is achieved at a formal level of govern mentality or on the part of the people is something that remains to be seen. As far as I can tell at the present time, the voices of palestinian civil society are the most trustworthy basis, as far as I am concerned, in judging the legitimacy of the boycott so far as the Palestinians themselves are concerned.

I find myself most challenged by the academic boycott, but I have come to believe that it too is valuable and justified: Israeli academic institutions have openly endorsed unlawful Israeli uses of force and contributed to the implementation of its security policies vis-á-vis the Palestinian people; furthermore, it is amply documented that Israeli institutions of higher education discriminate in a number of manifest ways against Palestinian students. So, in my view, the case is overwhelmingly made in favor of imposing and respecting an academic boycott.

LA: Thank you. We will move to our next speaker.

— –

LA: Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney, activists, a founding co-editor of the wildly successful online journal, Jadaliyya. She is currently an Assistant Professor at George Mason University and she also taught International Human Rights Law at Georgetown University.

Noura, as you know, part of the goal of the boycott is to encourage support for Palestinian academic freedom. Can you tell us some of the ways in which this freedom is regularly violated? How would the boycott achieve Palestinian academic freedom?

Noura Erakat (NE): First, I want to thank everyone’s historic efforts for trying to stop that. And though it seems conspiratorial we should keep in mind that yes, we will win. So even this should not stop us. But here I am picking up where Richard left off about the value of academic boycott and what it means, and the systematic infringement, in material ways, of academic freedom of Palestinians. So, I will just list a few of those statistics—that you could imagine and one could conjure—are useful.

Between 1972 and 1993, The Israeli Army forced Birzeit University to close fifteen times amounting to 7 years of school closures.

In 2004, as a result of the ongoing the Bantustanization of the West Bank, and these violent bifurcations territorially and politically that are evident in the West Bank itself, divided the Jenin government in ways where the students could not travel to Birzeit University, and their enrollment dropped by 100%, so that zero students from Benin could enroll in Birzeit University because of these closures and forced separations.

Last year, from 2013 to 2014, the main campus of al-Quds in Abu Dis, was subject to several raids, which resulted in the arrest of sixty students for their on-campus political activities, which resulted in the canceling of 640 classes, and resulted in the evacuation of twelve thousand students from the campus on three different occasions, all within the last year. So, when we talk about academic freedom and take it to a level of abstraction from these material conditions, I think that we are diluting its value. What is the value of academic freedom if you do not have the basic conditions to be able to exercise it, to be able to get an education, to be able to even meet with your cohort? So, one of the values of an academic boycott is to highlight these contradictions, but also to do what Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions does, which is to apply a moral pressure onto Israel, which has been absent. It has been absent as a result of intimidation, and real repercussions, or, on the international scene, the work of the United States to incapacitate any kind of accountability, whether it be legal or diplomatic or otherwise. It actually seems a little bit pathetic that the best thing that one can do in response to these conditions, which are very self-evident and have been recounted, that the best that one can do is pass a resolution to boycott academic institutions that are complicit in this process.

LA: As anthropologists, we are keenly aware that the law does not always side with the oppressed, and that, like anthropology’s past, it can be the handmaiden of colonialism. You have yourself been critical of law’s power and reach. How do you see a rights based movement, embedded in international legal precepts, working for Palestinians?

NE: This is one of the most recurring questions that I get because of my title as a human rights attorney. This idea of, “Why are you placing undue faith in a product that is derivative of a colonial administration meant to maintain the status quo in relations between states and the subjugation of certain peoples in ways that we see international law as applied from the global north to the global south, never in the other direction, often as a coercive proxy or for politics, and so and so forth. It would be really fun to have that conversation. That is not the point. The point is, notwithstanding all that we know, why then would we draw on the law to give meaning or to somehow articulate what the demands of the Palestinians are. There is first a caveat, which is to say that international law and human rights norms should not—and in this case do not—supplant the meaning of justice for Palestinians, should not and do not supplant the meaning of justice for Palestinians. I think it is quite tactical to draw on these laws, given the conditions that exist, and one of the most blatant conditions, and the most formative, is the collapse of a formal, political, legitimate leadership. That begins with the Oslo Accords in 1993 that collapses the Palestinian Liberation Organization into a Palestinian National Authority, which is meant to have an administrative, short-term function—something like, picking up garbage, and administering the distribution of water and other civil services—that now comes to represent internationally all Palestinian claims, even though formerly, the PNA only represents 33% of the Palestinian national body. Worse, since 2007, even that truncated administration has been bifurcated further between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

So, we are at a loss of a national leadership that would provide that articulation. So, the largest swath of Palestinian civil society drawing on international human rights norms did what was absolutely necessary in order to transcend this political impasse. Which is not to preclude a political project that gives this movement additional meaning, but is meant in that moment to transcend a political impasse, to unite Palestinians who are otherwise not united on a political vision. So that is one.

The second is that using international law works to highlight that Israel is not being singled out, but that Israel is already in a state of exception. What international law does by its universal norms is to highlight that state of exception: that it is already quite different and benefitting from that difference and transgressions.

Third, it works to recalibrate the ills of the peace process, which forcefully removed and cast aside international law from the political process, unlike examples in Bosnia-Herzegovina, unlike examples in South Africa and North Ireland, where these human rights norms become the principles upon which political solutions are sought. In this case, they are cast aside, as somehow being impediments, and then saying that only politics will govern the peace process. [For] anyone who understands politics and power [knows] that that can only be disastrous, when Israel is the eleventh-most powerful military in the world, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, benefits from the unequivocal support of super power against a stateless, effectively defenseless, scattered Palestinian population that does not have the power to even have negotiating leverage in response. So international law—very imperfect, obviously—does the work of pushing back and recalibrating that imbalance.

LA: On the Palestinian right of return: Some people (Chomsky) argue that UNGA resolution 194 –which as you know is the UN resolution passed in 1948 that asserts Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in historic Palestine – some people claim that it does not have the force of law. It is not a security council resolution. Others don’t care what the UN says and assert that the right of Palestinian return is just not feasible because Israel would be threatened as a Jewish state. Can you explain how this demand as well as the others are rooted in international law?

NE: There are two issues here- one is asking about the value and the weight of UN General Assembly resolutions versus UN Security Council resolutions, and whether or not that is law. And I think that is secondary to what the issue is really about, which is about the political demand for the right of return. So that political demand is what casts anxiety onto—well, is UN General Assembly resolution even law? And so I will address that, and here just rehash the basics, which is that Israel in its establishment sought to establish a Jewish state that necessitated an 80% majority of Jewish people in a land where there was not an 80% majority of Jewish people and there is an indigenous population. To establish an 80% majority what was necessary is the removal of that indigenous population by force—well documented by new Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris and others—then, after the removal of that Palestinian population, to maintain an 80% Jewish majority by social engineering. And here is where the problem is. Because the anxiety cast on the right of return is that if 6.6 million refugees are allowed to return, that would then destroy a Jewish majority. But that assumes that there are actually Israeli borders. And that assumes that there is actually a separation between Jewish Israelis and Muslim, Christian, however you want, Palestinians. That does not exist.

A few things on that: One, Israel has never declared its borders, so it is constantly expanding. It even expanded in its latest attack on Gaza, 44% into the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, it still has control of 62% of the West Bank, so the populations live inextricably and the only thing that separates them is the vast difference created by law that provides a superior status to Jewish nationals and certain priveleges that are denied the Palestinian population. That work that happens in law works to reduce the Palestinian population in order to continually socially engineer a majority that does not exist.

As of October, 2012, there are 6.1 million Palestinians in in Mandate Palestine—from the river to the sea—and 5.9 million Jewish persons. Already, that demographic majority has been disrupted. The only way that we can justify maintaining it is to actually elide the subjugation of Palestinians that is on going today. And by even just focusing on the refugees and their return, we are taking for granted a policy of on going ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, and dispossession that takes place on a daily basis in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel proper.

The issue should not be about whether or not we are okay with the return of Palestinian refugees and if that is a negotiating chip. We can take that off the table and still have a serious problem. Because Israel is not only worried about its demographic majority, but also about establishing a hegemonic narrative where Palestinians never existed. So internally displaced Palestinians who are few kilometres from their homes in Bi’rin are prohibited from returning from their original villages even though they have no impact on the demographic balance. So here one has to ask, what is the real issue? And what Palestinians have, and are, saying, is that this project of maintaining a demographic majority by social engineering and eliding a history of Palestinian presence—basically a project of settler colonialism—is neither legitimate nor defensible.

LA: Thank you. We will move to our next speaker.

LA: Rebecca Vilkomerson is the director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Rebecca has been an active member of that organization since 2002. In 2010, the Forward recognized her as one of the 50 most influential Jewish leaders in the United States.

Critics of the boycott often claim the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Why do you believe otherwise? Many people who object to the boycott, and ask why there is a boycott against Israelis specifically, are implicitly voicing a concern about anti-Semitism. Some people feel especially wary of advocating a boycott of Jews, given the history of anti-Jewish use of boycott, when at “the end of the 19th century, the anti-Jewish boycott became one of the basic weapons used for victimizing the Jewish” populations in parts of Europe. How would you respond to those concerns?

Rebecca Vilkomerson (RV): Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions are tactics that have been used for good and for ill in many social movements throughout history. As tactics themselves they have no implicit moral value, though for every Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses one could name many historic movements, like the Montgomery bus boycott, the anti-Apartheid movement, and the boycott of sugar to end the slave trade in the 18th century in England, that have used these tactics for good.

I think we need to make distinction in how we talk about these tactics, in terms of who are the parties asking for them and who they are being used against. Though they are both called “boycotts” there is a qualitative difference between a boycott being asked for by oppressed people against their oppressors (like the cases I just mentioned), and one by a state power or politically dominant population in order to further weaken and humiliate a targeted minority, as in the case of the Nazi boycott against the Jews.

In terms of this Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement specifically, it is not-anti-Semitic.

First of all, it is a call for BDS against a state, not against the Jewish people, and its’ leaders are very, very clear on this point, as Omar said earlier.

It is of utmost importance not to conflate the Jewish people with the state of Israel. Though Israel claims to represent all the Jews in the world (more so than its own citizens, almost 25% of whom are not Jewish and have less rights than Jewish Israelis and in some ways, Jews around the world), it does not represent Jews around the world. Jewish Voice for Peace, and groups like ours around the world, are here to say that this conflation of the state of Israel with Jewish communities worldwide could not be further than the truth, and in fact is a remarkably dangerous assertion. Our work in the U.S.—which is starting to succeed—is to make it clear that the Jewish community is actually increasingly split on this issue. That is why there are so many Jewish people and organizations, like ours, who support the BDS movement, and have been welcomed into it with no hesitation.

Second, the demands of the BDS call are rights-based and conditional. This is not a call against Jews as a people forever and always, it is a call for action against a state that is committing human rights violations every day with impunity. The three demands are an end to occupation, for full equality of citizenship, and for rights of refugees. These are all internationally recognized human rights. There is a clear path to BDS actions being lifted when those three conditions are met.

Finally, Mis-use of the term anti-Semitism makes a mockery of truly anti-Semitic incidents and makes it dangerously possible for people to take true anti-Semitism less seriously. Those making these accusations are really not acting responsibly.

LA: Some people are against the boycott but are supporting divestment. What is your response? Why should we not just advocate for divestment and leave the more controversial boycott aside?

RV: Again, both boycott and divestment are tactics, and in my view neither one nor the other is more or less effective or more or less controversial. When you are choosing a campaign, ideally it will be based on the factors that are important to you and your group local, what Omar Barghouti has often referred to as “local context.” You want to choose a target that helps move the public conversation forward, that educates people in your community and inspires them to take action, and where you have a chance to win, whether that win is symbolic or has real economic impact. All of those factors depend very much on where you are and who is in your networks and what corporations are in your community.

For example, for students and faculty it probably makes sense to target your university’s investments for divestment, because that’s where you can be most effective and have the greatest forms of leverage. In a community group that wants to build a coalition with other local groups, a target like G4S, the worlds largest security firm, which runs prisons in Israel and the U.S., may be the most appropriate, so you can make common cause with local prison reform and anti-racist groups. If you are located in the Bay Area near the world headquarters of a major boycott target like HP it may make sense to target them—and HP is a good example of a company that is targeted both through divestment and through boycotts.

This also applies to sanctions, which are usually a more advanced form of BDS. The recent move of the European Union to force Israel to label settlement products is a form of sanction. Similarly, using the Leahy Law, which requires cutting military aid to countries that are violating U.S. human rights policies, would be an interesting route to applying sanctions in this country. So it all depends on context.

I do want to address the concept embedded in the question that in pursuing different tactics in this movement it is best to do whatever is least controversial. I think this is actually a mistaken perception. Clearly we will not be successful if we try to do something that has no public support. But it is also important to push the boundaries of what is considered successful. I am sure you all remember that only a few years ago gay marriage was considered too controversial, and many leaders, as well as more timid NGOs urged people to be satisfied with the less controversial domestic partnerships. When you limit your political imagination, you limit what you can do.

The fact is that this is hard work, and it requires taking risks and telling truths. That doesn’t mean not being strategic or smart about how and when you pursue your campaigns, but as Frederick Douglas said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

LA: In a recent post, Peter Beinart, who opposes the boycott, made the argument that Israeli academic institutions “incubate some of the most passionate opposition to [occupation] policies. … many Israeli professors and students do speak out against their government’s policies, because compared to most students and faculty in the world, they enjoy considerable freedom of speech.” Beinart, like some others, argue that isolating academic critics and critical thinkers does not help strengthen their efforts to, quote, “defend liberal, cosmopolitan ideas against the hyper-nationalism of the Israeli right.” What do you think of that argument?

RV: Two nights ago I was at a talk at Columbia about BDS and Dr. Mahmoud Mamdani put this beautifully. He said that the correct way to talk about academic boycott is whether we fight for academic freedom for those who already have it, or academic freedom for all. I think that’s a really helpful frame. I think Noura and Richard have already talked a lot about what academic freedom is and who has it. Just as in the case of the South African boycott some Israelis would feel the consequence of an academic boycott (though the PACBI call specifically targets institutions, not individuals). But this conversation has to be about what is happening to Palestinians and their academic freedom: Faculty and students who get Fulbrights but don’t get permission from Israel to get to an airport and lose those opportunities; long-term closures of Palestinian universities by Israel at any pretext; the bombing and total destruction of schools and universities in Gaza.

I have a friend from Qualquilya who was studying nursing, and to get to his studies in Jerusalem, traveling entirely inside the West Bank, it took him four hours to get there because of internal checkpoints and the route of the Wall. Eventually he had to drop out. Palestinians do not have academic freedom. They do not have the right to an education. That is what this conversation should be about.

Beyond that, I think Peter Beinart’s quote is fundamentally inaccurate. Yes, there are a few very active, very admirable Israeli professors who stand up against Israel’s policies. Many of those in fact endorse BDS, even if it affects them personally. But Israeli universities have for decades been the incubators and innovators of the occupation infrastructure. They are not just complicit, but directly responsible for many practices of the Occupation. There has been no outcry from any of the Israeli universities when universities in the West Bank or Gaza have been shut down or destroyed. At most, a few hundred faculty out of thousands have signed weak statements of concern. There have not, as yet that I know of, been any concrete actions taken along the lines of the support of Steven Salaita in this country, where over 5000 professors have declared a boycott of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

In fact, over the summer, there were several incidences in Israel when individual faculty members merely expressed concern about the deaths of civilians in Gaza who were then publicly censured by their universities.

So there is absolutely no evidence that Israeli faculty are doing anything more to end the occupation than any other group of people. In fact, it is an elitist argument—Peter has endorsed the call to boycott settlement goods from the West Bank, so apparently he is willing to threaten the livelihood of farmers but can’t countenance the idea of a professor missing a conference.

LA: Given that you are director of Jewish Voice for Peace, do you think that Jews have a particular responsibility to support the boycott?

RV: I think that Jews of conscience have a responsibility to support BDS, but so do all people of conscience. That is especially true here in the United States, where our tax dollars are enabling Israeli policies.

That being said, just like all the other communities that are part of the BDS movement, there are a few places where we can be particularly helpful as Jewish supporters of the boycott. First, when the Israeli government claims to speak for all the Jews in the world, we need to contest this. It is both dangerous and untrue.

Second, as educators in our own communities. Palestinians should not be asked or expected to help Jewish communities work through their grief and fear as they think about these issues. As many Palestinians have said, your emotions do not trump our human rights. If we want to grow the movement, one thing we in the Jewish community can do is help people in our own community to go supportively through a journey to political awareness and hopefully action.

Last, and most importantly, the accusation of anti-Semitism when talking about Palestinian rights is enormously potent and powerful, especially in this country. Because the organized Jewish community has not hesitated to use accusations of anti-Semitism to suppress debate, we do have a particular responsibility to make it clear that they do not represent the Jewish community as a whole.

A good example would be the decision by the Presbyterian Church in June to divest from three companies profiting from the Occupation. JVP worked with and supported our allies in the church for ten years to help get this resolution passed. We were able to assure them that standing up for Palestinian human rights and acting according to the ethical teachings of their church is not anti-Semitic, which was something they genuinely worried about.

Of course, there are counter-examples. In 2010, when Berkeley students were considering a divestment resolution, the hearing turned into a discussion between Jewish students against the boycott, and Jewish students and supporters in favor of the boycott. In that case, the voices of Palestinian-Americans and other Muslim and Arab voices were marginalized and silenced. In the second hearing, Jewish students in favor of boycott stepped back; to ensure that other student leaders would be heard.

So we have to be aware of the privileging of Jewish voices, and the racism and Islamophobia that underlay that privilege. It’s a balancing act and not an easy one. Its about an awareness of playing into notions of who is entitled to speak out about Israel and Palestine and making sure we are not replicating the very systems of privilege there that we are working so hard to break down, while also being willing to use our voices as Jews to change and challenge some very deep preconceptions.

Basically, we are one part of a very broad movement that includes Indigenous, Arab, African-American, Latino, LGBT, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, South Asian—all kinds of people—in response to a call from Palestinians. It is the broadness of that coalition that gives it strength and power.