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Lawmakers Threaten Funding of Brooklyn College for Hosting Event on BDS Campaign Against Israel

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New York politicians are threatening to cut funding to Brooklyn College if the school hosts a forum Thursday night about the Palestinian-led campaign to boycott and divest from Israel. The Brooklyn College Political Science Department is among the event’s co-sponsors. In response, a group of New York City councilmembers has raised the possibility of Brooklyn College losing taxpayer support. The councilmembers’ threat is just one of several efforts by local lawmakers, from Congress on down, to pressure Brooklyn College to remove its sponsorship or even cancel the event. As the school vows to proceed with the event, we’re joined by one of its featured speakers, author and activist Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement and author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” On BDS, Barghouti says, “It follows in the steps of the civil rights movement in this country and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. … It’s just when we talk about Palestinian rights that some people are trying to criminalize and make it completely unacceptable speech to address Palestinian rights under international law.” We’re also joined by Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian and author of “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.” [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryMar 04, 2010Boycott, Divest From, and Sanction Israel?: A Debate on BDS with Omar Barghouti and Rabbi Arthur Waskow
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of many issues often sparking controversy on college campuses. But in what could be a first, a showdown over a public event featuring a Palestinian author and a Jewish-American professor is leading to threats of one school losing its funding. It’s happening right here in New York City.

On Thursday night, Brooklyn College is set to host a forum with two members of the BDS movement, a nonviolent campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the Israeli government until it complies with international law. The Brooklyn College Political Science Department is among the event’s co-sponsors. In response, a group of New York City councilmembers has threatened Brooklyn College with the potential loss of taxpayer support.

AMY GOODMAN: A joint letter from 10 councilmembers to Brooklyn College says, quote, “We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong,” unquote.

The councilmembers’ threat is just one of several efforts by New York lawmakers, from Congress on down, to pressure Brooklyn College. Speaking at Brooklyn College last week, New York State Assemblymember Dov Hikind called on administrators to remove the school’s sponsorship.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER DOV HIKIND: Extreme radicals, as I said, who basically want the state of Israel to disappear from the face of the earth. And I’ve got a problem with that. They are sponsoring this event. They are supporting this event. That is the issue. And that is absolutely outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: In response to the criticism, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould is refusing to cancel the event or withdraw the school’s sponsorship.

Well, we’re joined now by one of the speakers at [the] Brooklyn College event, author and activist Omar Barghouti, founding member of the BDS movement, the author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.

And we’re joined via Democracy Now! videostream by Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian. He is the author of With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. He has written extensively about the Brooklyn College controversy over the last week.

We invited a number of New York lawmakers who have opposed the BDS event coming on the broadcast, but they declined our request, including Congressmember Jerrold Nadler and Councilmember Brad Lander, Councilmember Lewis Fidler and State Assemblymember Dov Hikind.

Let’s go first to Omar Barghouti. What do plan to say tomorrow night?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: I plan to explain why the BDS movement is not at all odious, actually. It follows in the steps of the civil rights movement in this country and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, calling for equal rights, calling for end to the occupation, and calling for respect for international law. There’s absolutely nothing odious about that. It’s just when we talk about Palestinian rights that some people are trying to criminalize and make it completely unacceptable speech to address Palestinian rights under international law.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to New York City Councilmember David Greenfield speaking at Brooklyn College last week. Greenfield used a dictionary to denounce the school’s sponsorship of the BDS event, which he called part of a, quote, “hate-filled, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist movement.”

CITY COUNCILMEMBER DAVID GREENFIELD: The president of the university should be familiar with the basic meaning of words. The word “sponsorship,” according to the dictionary, means one who vouches or is responsible for another thing. So it really is intellectually dishonest for the administration to turn around and say, “Oh, we’re only sponsoring the event.” What that means is: “We’re only vouching for this event. We’re only responsible for this hate-filled, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist movement.”

AARON MATÉ: That’s David Greenfield saying that this is a hate-filled, pro-terrorist, anti-Semitic movement. Omar Barghouti?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think this is exactly the new McCarthyism that we’re seeing. The Israel lobby and its spokespeople are making it absolutely forbidden to speak about Palestinian rights and to attack Israeli policies, in a very McCarthyist way that’s suppressing free speech and is trying to suppress academic freedom. Any attempt to say that calling for a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic is an anti-Semitic statement, because it’s making Israel and the entire Jewish existence one and the same. It’s saying that all Jews are the same, all of them support Israel, and Israel speaks for them. And that ignores the massive diversity among Jewish opinions around the world. Plus, BDS is based on international law and principles of human rights. It opposes every form of racism, including anti-Semitism. This is not a position that we’ve shied away from. We’ve taken that position from the start, and we’re very explicit about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Your co-speaker at the event?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Professor Judith Butler of University of California at Berkeley, of course, is a Jewish-American philosopher, a very prominent speaker, who has advocated for BDS and has a lot of questions, a lot of debates related to BDS—what exactly are we calling for, and how we’re applying it. Especially how we’re applying it, because very few people will disagree that ending the occupation, ending racial discrimination in Israel, which meets the U.N. definition of apartheid, and the rights of refugees under international law should be respected. It’s how we get there. And we’re trying to explain tomorrow that BDS is about academic boycott, cultural boycott, economic boycott, that addresses the state of Israel, complicit institutions, complicit corporations, in order to end those forms of violations of human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, you’ve been writing extensively about this. Talk about the pressure to—that the college president, Brooklyn College president, has not backed away from supporting her department in supporting this event that will be—that will be happening tomorrow night.

GLENN GREENWALD: Which is an extraordinarily brave and commendable thing for her to have done, given how much extreme pressure has been brought to bear by New York City officials. And I think this is really the key point. Regardless of what you think about the BDS movement or about sanctions against Israel—there are reasonable debates that can take place on that and that should take place on that—whatever your view is of that movement and of this event, it is infinitely more dangerous to have a rule that says that academic institutions and professors in political science departments are only permitted to hold academic events as long as it doesn’t raise the objections of people like Jerrold Nadler or other people in the U.S. Congress or speaker of the—New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, or worse, to provoke threats, as we’ve seen from many New York City councilmembers, to have the funding for this college terminated if this event proceeds. It recalls the worst excesses, the authoritarian excesses, of Rudy Giuliani’s administration, when in 1999 he threatened to have funding terminated for the Brooklyn Museum of Art for the crime of exhibiting art that he, the mayor, found offensive. And a federal court said that that was a profound violation of the First Amendment and a profound threat to core liberties. That’s exactly what is taking place now with the threats aimed at Brooklyn College, all in order to shield and suppress criticisms of Israel.

AARON MATÉ: Omar Barghouti, this isn’t your first icy welcome here in the U.S. I remember last time you were coming here for a speaking tour, and you had problems getting a visa for several weeks. And I believe it took a public campaign to secure that visa. Now you’re here, and obviously there’s this huge campaign to cancel your event, but you’re also receiving unlikely support. There was a New York Times editorial this week actually supporting your right to free speech. Do you think the public opinion is shifting here when it comes to BDS?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: I absolutely think so. BDS is spreading across U.S. campuses. Many human rights groups, many activist groups—LGBT, feminists, antiwar movements—are joining the BDS campaigns in the United States. Tens of campuses have divestment campaigns. It’s truly spreading.

And there’s been a major shift among younger Jewish Americans. We’re seeing that. I’ve been touring the United States, speaking on campuses, and I’ve seen a steady shift of younger Jewish-American opinion in support of BDS, in support of Palestinian rights. And that’s, I think, raising the alarm bells in the Zionist establishment in the U.S. and among the Israel lobby figures in the U.S. They’re extremely alarmed about this.

AMY GOODMAN: You have worked with Jewish groups here in the United States.

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Absolutely. Several Jewish groups have endorsed BDS. Some Jewish groups that have not endorsed BDS but are working on BDS-related campaigns, like Jewish Voice for Peace, Americans—American Jews for a Just Peace. Many other groups have joined BDS campaigns and are doing excellent work to pressure pension funds like TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from the occupation, to get college campuses to divest their funds, as well, from such corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you sense that shift in the media, Glenn, as you read broadly coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue, and particularly the boycott, divestment, sanction movement?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think there’s a paradox, and I think Mr. Barghouti is right that, in one sense, as public opinion turns against the actions of the Israeli government as they become more extremist, more ultra-nationalistic, more committed to the oppression of the Palestinians, you do see more desperation on the part of those who want to exclude and stigmatize all criticisms of Israel, more extreme behavior, like you saw, for example, in the confirmation hearing of Chuck Hagel, where they essentially tried to pillory him and turn him into a terrorist supporter, just like that councilman that we heard from earlier, simply because he had questioned some actions of the Israeli government and U.S. policy.

But I also think that the harm that comes from suppressing debate over Israel and that comes to the United States from its steadfast, blind support for the Israeli government has become so obvious, so patent, that more and more people are now openly questioning these issues. And I think you see in the media a much greater tolerance for entertaining a wider range of views. I think the Internet and shows like yours have contributed to that by democratizing discourse, by inserting into the discourse these kind of ideas that just a few years ago were considered taboo. And so I absolutely think that things are headed in the right direction. And the way in which you have lots of influential defenders defending Brooklyn College and defending this event, I think is indicative of that. Several years ago, it would probably have been very lonely for those of us doing that, and now it’s become a much more mainstream position.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Omar Barghouti, one of the founding members of BDS, a nonviolent campaign to boycott, divest, sanction Israel until it complies with international law. His book is called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. And Glenn Greenwald, columnist and blogger for The Guardian, author of With Liberty and Justice for Some.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to look at another divestment campaign, divesting from fossil fuel companies. We’ll be joined by Bill McKibben. Stay with us.

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