Palestinian activist urges University to divest from Israel

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By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 11, 2014

With a focus on universal human rights and activism, Omar Barghouti — a key member of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel — received a standing ovation from those in attendance at his guest lecture in Hutchins Hall Friday night.

“The very basis of BDS is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in that, a very basic concept that has been forgotten to an extent: that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Barghouti said.

Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and commentator, explained BDS’s mission by focusing on what he said were oppressive Israeli policies, including a lack of access to education for many Palestinians.

“BDS was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005 specifically because the United Nations has been unable or unwilling to help Palestinians attain rights under the hegemony of the U.S. government and Congress,” he said.

Barghouti highlighted statements made by United Nations officials that he said deemed Israel, by international standards, an apartheid state, drawing comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. In his lecture, he accused the Israeli government of being a racist regime, pointing to the lack of an official Israeli national identity as evidence of discrimination.

“If you recognize an Israeli nationality, that means equality for Arabs and Jews within Israel, and that cannot be allowed,” Barghouti said of the Israeli government’s motives.

Students Allied for Freedom and Equality sponsored Barghouti’s visit to the University. SAFE collaborated with the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Students for Justice in Palestine at University of Michigan, Dearborn to host his lecture.

The lecture followed last month’s controversy over #UMMockEviction, and a month after the American Studies Association and Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.

“We are trying to generate some kind of action for the University to divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation,” said LSA senior Yazan Kherallah, a SAFE member.

However, following the ASA endorsement of BDS, University President Mary Sue Coleman and Provost Martha E. Pollack released a statement opposing the academic boycott.

“At the University of Michigan we are committed to global engagement at all levels and believe the free exchange of ideas is essential to advancing knowledge and strengthening mutual understanding,” Coleman and Pollack wrote in their statement.

The administrators’ stance was criticized at the event Friday. Asian-American Studies Prof. Scott Kurashige, the opening speaker, expressed his disappointment with the University within the first few minutes of the program.

“I’m proud of the leaders of AAAS and ASA,” he said. “I’m not as proud of the Michigan president and provost, who rushed to issue their statement denouncing our resolutions by slavishly parroting the press releases others had drafted before them.”

Barghouti’s speech explored how Palestinians face difficulty in obtaining access to education in Israel.

Barghati’s remarks were contested during a question-and-answer session later in the night. While Barghouti has Master’s degrees from Columbia University and Tel-Aviv University, one student called his stance hypocritical, questioning Barghouti’s involvement in the Israeli education system he admonishes.

“Palestinians living under oppression with Israeli IDs who pay tax to the Israeli system of oppression, to the apartheid state, have no choice but to use the services of the oppressor,” Barghouti said.

University alum Amer Zahr was a Palestinian activist when he attended school in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. He said he recalls attending pro-Israel discussions at Hillel and noted that Friday night’s discussion seemed canned. Zahr also pointed to a change in the climate of activism on campus.

“What I heard today was talking points to poke little holes in the debate, rather addressing humanitarianism as a whole,” Zahr said.

Some felt that the Q&A created a one-sided atmosphere. LSA sophomore Erica Mindel, the president of Israel – Leadership, Advocacy, and Dialogue, said she felt there was not much room for conversation.

“I went to the event tonight to listen and ask questions,” she wrote in a statement to The Michigan Daily after the lecture. “I felt that the speaker’s response, but especially the audience’s reaction, shut down the opportunity for discussion. As a student, I felt our academic institution was overtaken by closed-minded community members.”

Barghouti explained BDS’s mission prior to the Q&A, focusing on addressing what he said are oppressive Israeli policies. He emphasized that although BDS is an anti-Zionist movement, it strongly opposes anti-Semitism.

History Prof. Victor Lieberman teaches a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict and said the BDS movement oversimplifies the complicated political and sociological situation within Israel.

“The occupation embodies a reciprocal dynamic over many years in which visceral insecurity, provocation and a zero-sum mentality have captured both sides,” Lieberman wrote in a statement. “Without nuanced perspectives, stable political solutions seem to me unlikely.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misidentified an organization that sponsored the event as the Jewish Force for Peace. The organization is called Jewish Voice for Peace.