The interview with Omar Barghouti for Democracy Now! is followed by a Mondoweiss report on a panel discussion of BDS and apartheid in Israel.
Panellists at the “The Road to Freedom: The BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights and the Struggle Against Apartheid” including (from left to right) moderator Nadine Talaat, Omar Barghouti, Premilla Nadasen, and Rebecca Vilkomerson. Photo by Jesse Rubin
Interview with Omar Barghouti in New York
April 25, 2017
As more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have entered their ninth day on a massive hunger strike inside Israeli jails, we are joined by the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, who has come to the United States to receive the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award for his work as co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. At the award ceremony, Barghouti dedicated the prize to Palestinians on hunger strike. He was almost prevented from attending after Israeli police arrested him, seizing his passport and forbidding him from leaving the country. An Israeli court eventually temporarily lifted the travel ban.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Boston. Juan González is in New York.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have entered their ninth day on a massive hunger strike inside Israeli jails. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, strike leader Marwan Barghouti wrote, quote,
“Israel has established a dual [legal] regime, a form of judicial apartheid, that provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalizing Palestinian presence and resistance. Israel’s courts are a charade of justice, clearly instruments of colonial, military occupation.”
Marwan Barghouti has since been moved to solitary confinement.
To talk more about the hunger strike and the other issues, we’ll be joined in a moment by the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, who has come to the United States, where he just received the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award for his work as co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. At the Gandhi Peace Award ceremony, Barghouti dedicated the prize to Palestinians on hunger strike.
As I humbly accept the Gandhi Peace Award for 2017, I dedicate it to the heroic Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike in Israel’s apartheid dungeons and to every Palestinian refugee yearning to return home to Palestine to reunite with the land and the homeland.
AG: That’s Omar Barghouti, speaking at Yale University on Sunday. Barghouti almost did not make it to the award ceremony. Last month, Israeli police arrested him over alleged tax evasion, seizing his passport and forbidding him from leaving the country. An Israeli court eventually temporarily lifted the travel ban because of tremendous outcry, or at least people thought it was because of that. Well, Omar Barghouti joins us now in what could be his last trip to the United States.
AG: Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain, Omar, what has happened to you, why you had so much trouble coming back into the United States? You’re both an Israeli citizen and an American citizen, a U.S. citizen?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Good morning, Amy. No, I’m not, actually. I’m neither a U.S. citizen nor an Israeli citizen. As a Palestinian, as a refugee, a son of refugees, I have permanent residence in Israel, and I’m a citizen of Jordan.
I cannot talk about the latest phase of Israel’s repression against me, because I’m under a gag order, so I’ll have to skip the details on that. But we have to put it in context. About a year ago, Israel established a so-called tarnishing unit, established by the minister of strategic affairs, which openly aimed at tarnishing the reputation of Palestinian, international, Israeli human rights defenders who are involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights through the BDS, of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, movement. So this latest phase of repression comes in that context and in the context of a McCarthyite war launched by Israel, for more than three years now, against the BDS movement worldwide.
JG: Now, you were one of the founders of the movement and also a member of the National Committee, the BNC, which is probably the largest—
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Coalition.
JG: —coalition in the Palestinian territories. Could you talk about the importance of the BNC and its role right now?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Sure, yes. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions National Committee, or the BNC, is the largest coalition in Palestinian society, and it’s leading the global BDS movement. So it sets the overall strategies, the objectives of the movement. But this is a decentralized movement, obviously. So the BNC represents Palestinian political parties, trade unions, women’s unions, refugee networks and so on and so forth.
It agrees on the three basic demands in the BDS call that came out in 2005: ending Israel’s occupation; ending the system of racial discrimination, which meets the United Nations’ definition of “apartheid”; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. As such, it does not take any position on the political outcome—one state, two states. We stick to the human rights agenda, rather than the political outcome that the Palestinians might determine as part of exercising self-determination.
JG: And could you share for us, for our listeners and viewers, some of your own experiences that have sort of sealed for you your commitment to this cause?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Well, I think we saw that, especially after the 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice against Israel’s wall built in the Occupied Territories as illegal, that the world failed to move to bring Israel to account on just this one crime, let alone its denial of refugee rights, its apartheid system, its occupation.
So, my colleagues and I thought that we cannot live forever just waiting for the “international community,” under U.S. hegemony, to act to bring Israel to account for its obligations under international law. We had to take the South African path, so to speak, to bring Israel to account by citizens around the world, institutions around the world, civil society, getting together and taking measures that would isolate Israel academically, culturally, economically, and eventually impose sanctions on it, as was done against South Africa. So I was moved with a lot of personal experiences of repression under Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid.
AG: Can you talk about the major hunger strike that’s involving hundreds of Palestinian prisoners right now? Where is it taking place? And its significance?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Yes. The hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, most of whom are political prisoners, suffering from very inhumane conditions in what I call Israel’s apartheid dungeons, or prisons and detention centres, are asking for their basic rights under international law as prisoners. And they’re being denied those rights.
They’re being punished twice, not just with very long prison terms, with the lack of due process, the lack of any semblance of justice in Israel’s apartheid prison system and court system. They’re also denied some basic rights, like visitation rights. Their parents, when they come to visit them, are being humiliated. Many prisoners are tortured and suffer from very inhumane conditions. So, torture is very prevalent in Israeli prisons, in the detention system, in particular including against hundreds of Palestinian children.
So, prisoners are striking, going on this very difficult, very extreme form of resistance, in order to show the world that they are lacking those basic rights, and they demand those basic rights. They refuse to live in such conditions.
JG: I’m wondering your views, now that President Trump is here in the White House and Benjamin Netanyahu still is the prime minister of Israel, what your expectations are of the new American administration? And I understand President Trump will be meeting on May 3rd with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. What you expect from that meeting?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think if we consider the Israeli government, that came into power in 2015 as the most racist in Israel’s history, dropping the mask that once covered Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, the Trump administration has also dropped the mask of the U.S. administration, which was always in bed with Israel’s system of occupation and apartheid, and now it’s in your face. So, the repression that we’re seeing increasingly in the United States and the repression and denial of rights we’re seeing by the Israeli government are coming together and showing ways to connect our struggles.
So we’re facing very difficult times, facing an Israeli impunity on steroids, because of the Trump administration. And at the same time, Israel’s right-wing government is being used by the Trump administration as a model for ethnic profiling, for walls, like the wall with Mexico, and for various sorts of racial policies. Israel is now a model for the U.S. administration. And that’s dangerous for everyone.
AG: You were honoured at Yale University along with Ralph Nader with the Gandhi prize. You also spoke last night at Columbia University. Was there any trouble there?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Well, we had sort of Israel’s McCarthyism reaching the Columbia University and Barnard College. At the very last minute, less than 24 hours before the event last night, the Columbia and Barnard administrations denied the students the right to open the event to the public. So it was restricted to the Columbia University community in a very strange move.
And the reasons were even stranger. They cited an article in some far-right-wing rag saying that this is a controversial speaker, and it might cause a lot of controversy on campus, as if there’s any speaker who has anything to say is not controversial.
So, clearly, the establishment, including the academic establishment in this country, are falling under pressure by the Israel lobby, that are really trying to sell their McCarthyism and their repression in various institutions to prevent Palestinian voices from speaking out and to prevent many Americans from joining the struggle for justice in Palestine, as well as connecting it to domestic struggles for racial rights, economic rights and other forms of justice.
JG: I wanted to ask you about the BDS movement, Israel’s response to the BDS movement. What are they doing in terms of fighting back against it? And also, they’re building a database of Israeli citizens who are supportive of the movement?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Sure. Since 2014, Israel decided that its former policy, former strategy for fighting BDS, the propaganda or “Brand Israel” strategy, was failing, so they adopted a new strategy that is based on using their intelligence services to spy on BDS activists and try to tarnish our reputations; based on legal warfare, trying to pass anti-BDS legislation, as is happening in many state legislatures in this country, as well as in the U.S. Congress and in countries like France, Britain and so on. So they’ve gone from a propaganda war to a full-fledged legal and intelligence war on the movement.
What you mentioned is absolutely important. Recently, Israel passed an anti-BDS ban. It wouldn’t allow any supporter of BDS or even supporters of partial boycotts against Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories from entering the country. They are establishing, indeed, a blacklist of Israelis who support any form of boycott against Israeli institutions to bring about justice and to bring about Palestinian rights. So this McCarthyism is no longer just a metaphor. It’s really, truly happening, as Israel descends into the abyss and as people in the mainstream, as Ehud Barak, for example, are warning that there are signs of fascism taking over in Israel.
AG: What would you like to see come out of this meeting next week on May 3rd between Mahmoud Abbas and President Trump that Juan was just referring to?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think I’m not alone among Palestinians who have very little hope that anything can come out of this. First, the Palestinian officials who are currently leading do not have a democratic mandate to lead. They do not have a democratic mandate to compromise on any Palestinian rights as they’re doing. So they’re not upholding Palestinian rights under international law. They’re not upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the right to live without apartheid or occupation. They’re asking for a very small subset of Palestinian rights. And they’re heeding the dictates coming from the Israeli and U.S. administrations. So I have very little hope. This is a very weak leadership, without any democratic mandate. And we do not expect much coming out of it. We rely more on society, on civil society, popular resistance, and international solidarity with it.
AG: Well, Omar Barghouti, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Palestinian human rights defender, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, or BNC. Israel placed a travel ban on Omar Barghouti as part of its crackdown on BDS. But after he won a temporary suspension of the ban, Barghouti came to the United States to receive the Gandhi Peace Award.
That does it for our show.
Poster and photo from Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace
By Jesse Rubin, Mondoweiss
April 25, 2017
After overcoming multiple legal and administrative hurdles, including an Israeli-imposed travel ban, Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, appeared on a panel at Columbia University last night entitled “The Road to Freedom: The BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights and the Struggle Against Apartheid.”
The event was organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD)—a coalition of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Barnard College Jewish Voice for Peace calling for the university’s divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“Tonight’s panel will allow us all to reflect on what it means to build a movement against apartheid in the 21st Century” said Nadine Talaat of CUAD and moderator of the talk.
Not only does Mr. Barghouti face a strict travel ban, despite being a permanent resident of Israel, he also faces the “threat of targeted civil elimination, a euphemism for civil assassination, for his role in the growing BDS movement,” added Talaat.
Mr. Barghouti’s travel ban was just last week lifted by an Israeli court, allowing him to accept a peace prize at Yale University before coming to speak at Columbia.
Barghouti listed BDS’s many accomplishments since its launch in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, including Barcelona’s recent full divestment from any companies complicit in the Israeli occupation. He further noted that the movement appears to be growing at a faster pace than ever before, suggesting the growth is in tangent to rising right-wing and fascist movements across the US and Europe. Mr. Barghouti said
“Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid stands naked for all to see. As Israel becomes more openly associated with the rising far-right around the world, not just the Trump administration and open anti-semitic figures here in the US, but across the world, especially in Europe…More people and grassroots movements will feel the moral imperative to join the BDS movement for Palestinian human rights as the most effective form of solidarity.”
Barghouti’s commentary was sharp and at times funny, inspiring multiple rounds of applause and two standing ovations from the crowd.
“BDS cannot claim full responsibility for Israel’s growing academic, cultural and increasingly economic isolation” Barghouti said. “For Israel itself deserves a big share of the credit,” noting that Israel’s 2015 election effectively installed the country’s “most racist government ever.”
Barghouti noted that support for BDS is specifically growing among millennial American Jews who have begun distancing themselves from the Jewish state in growing numbers.
Despite this shift taking place among the American Jewish community, the pro-Israel lobby enjoys some support on American college campuses still.
A contingent of Columbia’s Zionist organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI) stood in the back of the hall with signs reading “Lies” and “Anti-semitism.”
Seeming to address the protestors, Mr. Barghouti noted emphatically that “the long path to justice, however, must start with excising our fears and inhibitions and embarking on a radical process of decolonizing our minds. For we cannot possibly pursue freedom while our minds remain colonized and therefore cannot even envision what freedom looks like.”
The panel also featured Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace and Premilla Nadasen, a Barnard History professor and veteran of the movement against apartheid in South Africa.
Vilkomerson spoke about efforts on the US legislative front—both federal and state—to stifle BDS, including the oft-repeated conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Citing the AIPAC and ADL sponsored Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which is currently stalled in Congress, Vilkomerson called it “the culmination of years of effort to redefine antisemitism at the federal level to include criticism of Israel as part of its definition.”
Using the law to fight BDS shows their weakness
“If it had passed, it would have been written into law, at least on campuses, that criticism of Israel would have been defined as antisemitic,” Vilkomerson said.
But the shift to a legislative strategy in fighting BDS, Vilkomerson continued, “is a sign of weakness. They understand that they are losing the grassroots.”
“Besides being unconstitutional, these laws are like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. It’s just too late.”
Public opinion is shifting quickly and the immutable bi-partisan support of Israel “is crumbling” added Vilkomerson.
Premilla Nadasen, a Barnard History professor, spoke about her experiences growing up in apartheid South Africa and the similarities between those experiences and her 2001 trip to Palestine.
On a delegation with ten other women of colour, Nadasen said the trip was organized as a lens to view global feminist solidarity and has since informed her study on intersectionality and grassroots organizing.
“I did not go to Palestine looking for evidence of apartheid,” Nadasen said. “I must say, however, I was struck by the parallels to apartheid that I saw. No comparisons are perfect but the similarities were evident.”
“We did see the more substantive components of a system of segregation and hierarchy, unequal citizenship, dispossession of land, land seizures, displacement of a population, the physical segregation of Palestinian and Jewish communities, hierarchy and inequality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, an identity pass system, the checkpoints, the detentions, imprisonments and forms of torture. The fragmentation of Palestinian communities that I think are so reminiscent of the apartheid homelands that we know so much about,” Nadasen added.
The event, which ignited a thoughtful and constructive conversation, especially between panelists and the Zionist protestors at the back of the room during the question and answer section (a dialogue that in this reporter’s experience is rarely granted to Palestine solidarity activists who disrupt pro-Israel events), almost didn’t happen.
The day before the event the Columbia and Barnard administrations, allegedly under donor pressure, placed tight last minute restrictions on the event, limiting attendance to only 50 non-Columbia or Barnard students.
“It is our hope that Columbia University and Barnard College comes to understand the importance of protecting freedom of expression on campus…In the face of intensified intimidation, we are overcome with disappointment that our university will coordinate and collaborate with our repression before standing up for its students, its values of free speech, and the spirit of open debate. Moreover, we are concerned with the precedent this sets for the restriction on open expression and discrimination based on content,” reads a responding statement on CUAD’s Facebook page.
Mr. Barghouti was more pointed in his criticism of the college administration’s decision to restrict the event.
“When I went to school here at Columbia…I’m so ashamed now to say that,” said Barghouti in his opening remarks. “No one’s perfect.”