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Report-back: Omar Barghouti at SFSU

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has been gaining ground and achieving a number of successes recently… but the US is lagging behind.

photo by Ramsey El-Qare

photo by Ramsey El-Qare

That was the message of Omar Barghouti’s frank and motivational talk at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Those of us at BACEIA were very excited to co-sponsor his talk on November 3rd as Mr. Barghouti is a recognized leader of the BDS movement. The event on November 3 was a celebration for the second anniversary of the Edward Said Cultural Mural, a project of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) at SFSU. The evening also included remarks by Ken Monteiro, Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU, Dr. Jess Ghannam, community activist and scholar, and Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU.

For those who have heard Mr. Barghouti talk in the past, such as at the divestment conference at Georgetown University in the spring of 2006, it came as no surprise that his talk at SFSU was poignant and inspirational. Previously he has talked mostly about his work on cultural and academic boycott of Israel as a founding member of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. At SFSU, Mr. Barghouti discussed BDS more generally, providing the history, context and motivation behind pursuing BDS against Israel. He discussed the closure of schools during the first intifada, the parallels to the South African anti-apartheid struggle, and a bit of history around the 2005 call for BDS by Palestinian civil society.

The frank, and at the same time motivational, themes of his talk were punctuated with the remark that in many respects “the US lags behind Europe and the rest of the world.” First, the US has lagged behind Europe in its understanding of the cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Here he carefully explained an important aspect of that work: a few years ago PACBI clarified that their call is not to boycott Israeli individuals but to boycott Israeli institutions. There are a number of Israelis who oppose that county’s apartheid structure and BDS organizations should not be in the business of providing litmus tests for individuals’ political stances. Instead, the cultural and academic boycott should focus on the relations with Israel institutions that as a whole are complicit in maintaining and justifying apartheid structures. (See Basic PACBI Documents for a further discussion.)

The second area that the US has lagged behind is in winning campaigns. BDS has been winning some major victories lately and Mr. Barghouti discussed the details of some of them. Besides gaining endorsement from major labor unions and other organizations around the world, the BDS movement has been able to influence some major corporations to cancel business plans with Israel. The announcement by the French company Veolia Transport that it would pull out of the highly controversial Jerusalem light rail project is one such example. But these key victories have not yet happened in the US but in Europe and elsewhere.  (See the BDS Movement website for information about the victories & all things BDS.)

photo by Ramsey El-Qare

photo by Ramsey El-Qare

Though US groups may not yet be at the point of influencing the decisions of major corporations one can’t help but feel that we are not far behind. One key point that Mr. Barghouti made about BDS is that how it is implemented at a local level should be based on the local conditions. The 2005 call does not ask people to pursue BDS in any pre-prescribed manner, rather targets and methods should be based on the local context. Those of us pursuing BDS in the US know that the conditions here are different than those in Europe and the rest of the world. For us, the take away is one of hope: BDS is a global movement that is rising because of the leadership of courageous Palestinians like Mr. Barghouti and because there is collective grassroots pressure coming from around the world in response to the call for action. The goal of BACEIA is to provide a significant contribution to this global movement by building BDS locally. So, the take away for us is that BDS is a dynamic strategy to end apartheid in Israel that now, more than ever, we need to be a part of. We need to continue our efforts to build a broad base of support for BDS locally and work toward achieving victories, big and small.