Freed to Travel to U.S., BDS Founder Accuses Israel of Being 'Drunk With Power Since Trump's Election'

At Columbia University event on Monday, Omar Barghouti says Israel has 'dropped thin mask of democracy'

Omar Barghouti speaks during a conference at the ULB university in Brussels, on April 30, 2013.
Omar Barghouti speaks during a conference at the ULB university in Brussels, on April 30, 2013. AFP

NEW YORK – “The Israeli government is drunk with power and impunity, particularly since Trump’s rise to power,” said Omar Barghouti at a Columbia University event on Monday. “Israel has dropped its thin mask of democracy and is moving at dizzying speed to build more settlements,” the co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement said, in a speech peppered with references to Palestinians as indigenous people and Israeli Jews as colonizers.

Barghouti was in the United States only because an Israeli judge lifted the travel ban on him last week while he faces an investigation into suspicions of tax evasion. He was allowed to accept a peace prize at Yale University on Sunday. While here, he added two events in New York City with the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace.

At the Columbia University event, Barghouti ran through a list of BDS accomplishments. He included universities whose student governments have adopted pro-BDS resolutions – although no American university has divested from any company that does business in Israel – and the fact that just a few of the NFL football players who were supposed to go to Israel on a government-sponsored “goodwill” trip in February actually did so.

Barghouti refused to speak with Haaretz at the event, responding to an interview request by writing, “I do not do interviews with the main Israeli media.”

He was given a standing ovation Monday as soon as he walked to the Palestinian flag-draped podium in the crowded hall at Barnard – the women’s college at Columbia University. Pro-Israel students stood at the back of the hall holding signs saying “Lies!” and “Anti-Semitism.”

“The Road to Freedom: A Panel Discussion with Omar Barghouti” also featured JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson and Premilla Nadasen, a Barnard history professor who was born in South Africa when it was an apartheid state. The speakers sat at a table fronted by a large “Boycott Israel” banner.

Each labeled Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid,” and described Palestinians as “indigenous” and Jewish citizens of Israel as “colonizers.” “The nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, has never come to an end,” said Barghouti.

Barghouti said he dedicated his award “to every BDS activist,” and that he donated his prize money to five different organizations: JVP; the U.S. affiliate of the international BDS movement; the national organization for Students for Justice in Palestine; the Movement for Black Lives (whose platform last year accused Israel of “genocide” against Palestinians); and Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian group.

Less than a day before the event, the Barnard administration informed organizers that only people with a Columbia or Barnard ID, plus 50 outsiders, could attend. Vilkomerson claimed during her speech that this was because “there is an attempt to keep people from hearing what we have to say.”

She spoke about Israel advocates’ recent focus on getting legislation passed at the municipal, state and federal levels that would prohibit governments from working with organizations that ascribe to BDS, and in some cases include anti-Israel views in the official definition of anti-Semitism.

“The shift to a legislative strategy by our opposition is a sign of weakness,” said Vilkomerson, to applause. “They understand they are losing the grassroots. … These laws are like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. It is just too late.”

Dore Feith, president of the Columbia pro-Israel student group Aryeh, said in an interview after the event it is common practice for university administrators to limit attendance to mostly university students whenever someone deemed controversial is speaking on campus. Some Aryeh events have had the same limitation, said Feith – a junior at Columbia College and a son of Doug Feith, who served in the George W. Bush administration as undersecretary of defense for policy.

BDS Movement co-founder Omar Barghouti, speaking at Columbia University, April 24, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Barghouti “didn’t say anything new” said Feith. “He left out that he has a degree from an Israeli university, that he lives in pre-1967 Israel and that of course Israeli Arabs serve as judges and legislators. He left out a lot of the obvious realities of Israeli society. He made it seem like discrimination is uniform and enshrined in law in every situation,” added Feith.

Feith also noted Barghouti neglected to mention that BDS resolutions lost student government votes at several colleges this semester. Also unmentioned was that on April 2, the Columbia College Student Council decided – by a 28-5 vote – not to hold a college-wide referendum on BDS.

In his talk, Barghouti said the BDS platform is simple and focused on human rights. It calls for Israel to end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the wall,” referring to the West Bank separation barrier; to recognize “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”; and to “respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.”

Feith countered that the BDS platform is “premised on the lie that Israel is an apartheid state, and doesn’t explain that they consider all of Israel occupied territory. The BDS movement creates intentional ambiguities,” he said.

“They are not advocating a peaceful Palestinian state beside a Jewish state,” he continued. “They’re advocating a Palestinian state instead of a Jewish state.”

Officially, the BDS movement advocates for the cultural, academic and economic boycott of Israel, as well as divesting from companies that do business in Israel and for government sanctions against Israel.

Barghouti was born in Qatar in 1964, is married to an Israeli-Arab woman and a permanent resident of Israel, in the northern city of Acre. He was released on bail after questioning last month, following his arrest by Israeli tax authorities, but was required to turn in his passport. However, an Israeli court temporarily lifted the travel ban so he could accept the Gandhi Peace Award from a Connecticut organization called Promoting Enduring Peace.

Sunday’s ceremony took place at Yale University, in space booked by a student group, though PEP is unaffiliated with the Ivy League institution. Yale took the unusual step of issuing a statement distancing itself from the event, saying that the speakers’ views “do not represent the university as a whole.”