One has to wonder what was more frustrating for the anti-Israel BDS crowd here in Amherst last night: the modest attendance at the featured event—barely a dozen people at the start and even by the end, perhaps 75 at most, I am told—or the massive public relations failure.
The event in question was a talk by Omar Barghouti. A founder of the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, he was making the rounds of our great northeastern institutions of higher learning in order to promote his new book, which "makes the case for a rights-based BDS campaign to stop Israel's rapacious occupation, colonization, and apartheid against the Palestinian people." The goal, as he put it during his talk at Rutgers, is to turn Israel into "a world pariah nation."
The two-state solution—formally endorsed by the Palestinian Authority, the government of Israel, the “Quartet,” and the Arab League—is for him the “apartheid 2 states solution" because it "ignores the basic injustice" done to Palestinians. But while Barghouti and BDS have been pursuing their quixotic quest on American university campuses, others have been quietly accomplishing things on the ground. Acknowledging the efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the UN just the day before the lecture determined that the development of the Palestinian Authority met key benchmarks for statehood. (Speaking of university campuses, critics have not failed to note the irony that Barghouti holds a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University.)
There was some drama in the lead-up to the events because of uncertainty as to whether Mr. Barghouti could obtain a US visa. Here, however, the issue was not drama, but confusion, which haunted the event from start to finish.
Brother, Where Art Thou?
Last week, it was announced as taking place at Hampshire College.
Then, this week, it was suddenly listed as taking place at the University of Massachusetts.
Rumors accompanied the mysterious change. It was asserted in several quarters that the venue had been shifted due to unspecified political opposition at Hampshire. This is untrue, of course (as the President confirmed to me in a conversation yesterday morning). It would be nonsense under any circumstances. Duly registered student groups, acting on their own, and not in the name of the College, are entitled to hold the events of their choosing, provided they do not violate the law or community norms of safety and conduct. In fact, Students for Justice held a much-touted how-to conference on divestment here two years ago without incident (or consequences).
"some confusion . . . with sponsors"
More puzzling than the location of the Barghouti event was the sponsorship.
Among the names listed in the publicity were the usual suspects from the narrow spectrum of passionate activist groups in the Valley, e.g. Students for Justice in Palestine, Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine, and the International Socialist Organization.
I was surprised, however, to find the names of three major University departments or programs: Economics, History, and Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC). I am acquainted with faculty in all three and with the heads of two. It seemed puzzling that they would lend their institutional names to such a controversial event:
(1) It is of political rather than scholarly character.It took only a few phone calls and emails to get to the bottom of the matter. The reactions of the offices in question ranged from disbelief to outrage.
(2) It is highly partisan and divisive.
(3) Its advocacy of cultural as well as economic boycott flies in the face of the principles of academic life. In fact, the American Association of University Professors not only rejects academic boycotts in general, but also explicitly rejects current calls for boycotts of Israel: “In the long run, more, not less, dialogue with Israeli faculty members is an important way to promote peace in the region."
• Economics had explicitly told the activists that it would not sponsor the event, and when the news reached the Chair on Wednesday night, he angrily demanded that Econ's name be stricken from the list. In fact, the departmental website soon displayed a prominent disclaimer.
• Social Thought and Political Economy (SPTEC) had likewise explicitly declined a request to add its name to the program, though it learned of the deception only on the day of the lecture, too late to do much about it. In any case, the calendar was already full: its featured event of the evening was a screening of "Harold and Maude."
• History was perhaps the most perplexed. The Chair stated that she had never even been contacted about supporting the event.
This is one of those situations for which an expression such as “shocked, but not surprised” seems tailor-made. Sadly, as Jon Haber has most effectively documented, willfully distorting the truth or resorting to outright lying have now become standard operating procedure for the BDS movement.
To cite but the most notorious case: that the myth of Hampshire College "divestment from the Israeli Occupation of Palestine" persists in some quarters does not make it any more true. My favorite new example is the myth of divestment at Harvard. That venerable institution removed Israeli companies from an emerging markets fund not out of revulsion at that nation's policies, but because its economy had grown to such an extent that it qualified to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in effect, the small club of the world’s most advanced economies, “a success which,” as Jon says, “unfurled during the very decade that BDS has been tirelessly working to undermine Israeli’s economy."
This week's hijinks were just unusually brazen and foolish.
As things fell apart on the afternoon of the event, another group asked to be added to the list of supporters. An organizer responded by asking for official documentation, explaining, with a touch of chagrin and more than a little understatement: "we've had some confusion with listing the right people as sponsors."
That's one way to put it. Here's another:
1) Economics Department sponsorship: LIE.
2) History Department sponsorship: LIE.
3) STPEC Program sponsorship: LIE.
In baseball, at any rate, they have rules about this: three strikes, and you’re out.
Michelle Williams, "Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti to discuss new book, recent developments in Gaza," Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 14 April 2011.