On Monday night, student groups Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine hosted three speakers at the University to discuss the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The speakers — Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, Rabbi Alissa Wise, the deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace and Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian American political activist — expressed their belief that BDS is essential to ensure the human rights of Palestinians.
The event organizers hoped the three speakers could dispel any misconceptions around the BDS movement to attending community members. BDS is “not some grand, conspiratorial, nefarious thing, but actually it’s a movement led by Palestinians with very clear demands and goals,” said Ben Bienstock ’20, a member of SJP and JVP.
During the event, Barghouti, Wise and Sarsour explained the primary demands of the BDS movement. Through measures such as boycotts, BDS calls for countries, businesses and universities to cut their economic ties with Israel until the country extends “full equality” to the Palestinian citizens of Israel and ends its occupation of contested territory, including West Bank and East Jerusalem.
All three speakers have played key roles in advancing the BDS movement and other activist causes. Barghouti co-founded the movement in 2005, while Wise helps lead JVP, a Jewish group that works against “anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression.” Barghouti appeared at the panel over video chat after being denied entry to the United States by the U.S. consulate in April. Sarsour, a Palestinian-American, is a member of the Justice League NYC, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform.
To explain the importance of the BDS movement, Wise began by outlining the stark differences between the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ lived experiences despite residing in proximity of each other.
“The parallel universe of Palestinian life under Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (and) … the basic rights Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t enjoy that Jewish citizens do, is harmful,” Wise said.
Wise and Sarsour pointed to and acknowledged the recent deaths of 34 Palestinians, 16 of whom were civilians, following an Israeli air strike in Gaza. “Nobody denies the history of the Jewish people or the persecution of the Jewish people — my question to the Jewish families that support the State of Israel — do you truly believe that anywhere in this world there could be a state that exists or a country that exists for safety and security for one people at the expense of another?” Sarsour asked.
After explaining the BDS movement’s importance to achieving rights for Palestinians, the three speakers also addressed allegations that the movement is anti-Semitic in nature.
“Since there is nothing Jewish about Israel’s regime of occupation, … ethnic cleansing and apartheid, there is nothing inherently anti-Jewish, then, about a non-violent human rights struggle to end this system of oppression,” Barghouti said.
Sarsour added that as an active supporter of the BDS movement, she still believes “in self-determination for the Jewish people. I believe Jewish people deserve to be in safety and sanctity and security, just like every other people.”
“But when you go ask a Palestinian, whose grandparents and great-grandparents were displaced or massacred, so that there could be a state created for the sanctity and security of the Jewish people, that is another valid narrative that needs to be heard. You can’t tell Palestinians what to think about the state of Israel,” she added.
Wise also said that critiquing the movement and its advocates as anti-Semitic undermines its validity and draws unnecessary divisions between Jewish people and BDS activists, as well as other Palestinians and Muslims. To Wise, the BDS movement represents a call for transformation that will “offer freedom and equality for all people” who live in the region, she said.
Wise went on to explain how she became involved with the BDS movement as a Jewish Rabbi. Upon learning of Israel’s occupation of areas such as the West Bank, Wise said she “began a period of learning and unlearning that transformed the rest of my life.”
“ My life’s work became about realizing justice for Palestinians, even as my ancestors were some of the first ones to settle outside the walls of Jerusalem.”
Wise also defended fellow panelist Sarsour from accusations that Sarsour possessed a record of engaging in anti-Semitism. “Linda is more tolerant and more patient of the Jewish community than I am, and stays a closer relationship to Jewish organizations that I find hard to stay connected to,” Wise said. “Every time a Jewish community is under threat, Linda is going to be the first person there.”
Sarsour had previously drawn criticism for her connection with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has made multiple anti-Semitic statements throughout his career. In 2018, he received intense criticism after he posted a tweet that equated Jewish people with termites.
Later that year, Sarsour denied knowing Farrakhan, despite speaking at a 2015 “Justice or Else” rally that Farrakhan had organized. Sarsour stepped down from the board of the Women’s March in July following concerns over her connections to Farrakhan.
During the panel, Sarsour told students “to be clear, I’m anti-Zionist. To be anti-Zionist is not anti-Jewish.”
In a Nov. 18 op-ed in The Herald titled “Before her visit to campus, students should know about Linda Sarsour’s history of anti-Semitism,” Min Tunkel ’19 criticized the decision to invite Sarsour to campus. “I am a Jew. Linda Sarsour is anti-Semitic. You cannot tell me that I’m ‘taking her statements out of context’ or ‘that’s not what she really meant’ — what Sarsour said has hurt me,” Tunkel wrote.
Members of the student groups that organized the event added that they felt criticisms against Sarsour were part of a campaign to discredit her work. Bienstock said the claims against Sarsour represent the “weaponization of anti-Semitism” used to “attack women of color who have some sort of tangential tie to Louis Farrakhan and who support the rights of Palestinians.”
Jonathan Weisskoff ’20 said he attended the event with the hope of forming his own impression after seeing Barghouti and Sarsour “vilified” in the news. “Now I feel I have a first-hand impression that is not in alignment with those vilifications, so that gives me a stronger sense of being able to think independently of things that I might see on media.”
Mohammed Akel ’23, who is Palestinian, attended the event as a member of SJP. “It’s a nice opportunity to educate myself. Even though I’m Palestinian, I still know that there’s so much more to learn,” Akel said. “They’re amazing speakers that I personally appreciate, and I’m just looking forward to seeing the whole Brown community interact with them.”
The panel took place eight months after the undergraduate student body voted in favor of a referendum to divest the University’s endowment from companies “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine” and ask the University to increase transparency about the endowment, as The Herald previously reported. Sixty-nine percent of voters, or 27.5 percent of the student body, voted to pass the referendum.
Because the referendum focused specifically on divestment from corporations rather than Israel as a state, the referendum was not a part of the broader BDS movement.
President Christina Paxson P’19 informed the campus that the University would not act on the referendum’s results, partially as a result of her refusal to embrace any planks of the BDS movement.
Near the end of the event, Barghouti said he supported the undergraduate student referendum, adding that “the urgent matter today is to continue pressuring your university to divest.”
Bienstock said that the student organizers were able to invite the three prominent speakers because they supported the University students’ activism around divestment. But he told The Herald that Monday’s panel is not related to Brown Divest, which campaigned to pass the referendum.
“The broader BDS movement is somewhat ancillary to the very specific demands that Divest is making on non-Israeli companies,” Bienstock said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to one of the contested territories as “West Gaza” due to an editing error. In fact, the territory is the West Bank. The article has been updated to reflect that change. The Herald regrets the error.
Clarification: A previous version of the above correction described the West Bank as one of Israel's contested territories. In fact, the West Bank is a contested territory. The Herald regrets the error.