From BDS to Ferguson: Columbia U. Panel Takes Aim at Israel

Profs declare: 'There’s no future for a Jewish state.'

The nexus between boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and Black Lives Matter activists that began with the 2014 protests following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri culminated in a recent panel discussion at Columbia University. The second in an annual BDS series sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies, “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement: Struggle and Solidarity” took place at Columbia Law School. Students, faculty, BDS activists, and community members socialized prior to the event as the capacious, semi-circular lecture hall began to fill with about 100 people.

In her introductory talk, Nadia Abu El-Haj, professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University/Barnard College, set a repugnant tone by implying that Zionism is a direct development of Nazi racial science. Author of the book, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, El-Haj employed a clinical, academic tone to feign scientific objectivity, but her contempt was obvious:                       

Jews could not be merely a religion in the language of the day if they were going to make claims for a nation state… . Jewish scholars turned to race science in order to produce their own understanding of what they referred to as the Jewish Question… . That version of racial thought, of Jewish self-racialization … was one powerful strand of Zionist thinking.  

El-Haj dismissed the study of Jewish genetics as the purest form of European racism, a euphemism for Nazism: 

In practice, the deep European racial vision stood at the center of this project of Israeli population genetics, one that drove the desire to find a shared biological substance among all Jews, and yet, at the same time, one that sowed fundamental doubt into whether European and Oriental Jews were really born of the same race [emphasis added].

She then established that her academic research is aligned with the goals of the BDS movement: 

It is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement which has framed its political struggle around the apartheid political struggle and in speaking of Israel as an apartheid state has been a key player in bringing the question of Israel as a racial state back into the open and onto the Euro-American stage.

El-Haj introduced the next speaker, Robin D.G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles, with the ludicrous rhetorical question, “Is Gaza more like Ferguson or more like Falluja?”

In an affectionate reference to Center for Palestine Studies director and former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, Kelley extolled the proceedings as “Rashid’s house.” A specialist in African-American history, he conceded that the BDS movement was not his area of expertise, “but it’s something I care deeply about.” He then outlined the spiritual marriage between BDS and Black Lives Matter based on the incidental overlap in time between Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and the protests in Ferguson in 2014: 

Activists in the streets of Ferguson, in New York City, in L.A… . drew connections between Israeli racialized violence in the name of security and the U.S… . It wasn’t simply Ferguson to Gaza; it was also drawing connections to drone strikes abroad, and the killing of black men and women and transgendered people at the hands of police.

In other words, every injustice he holds near and dear converges in Gaza.

At one point, Kelley made the preposterous claim that the academic boycott is also a fight for Israeli academics, which will usher in an age where there is a “flourishing of intellectual thought … rich, varied and exciting.”  In his mind, the many Nobel Prizes awarded to Israel’s scientists, economists, mathematicians, and writers and its extremely robust technology sector indicate that the country is in need of an intellectual reboot.

To audience laughter, Kelley reported derisively that critics at his lectures question him from a list of talking points. Meanwhile, he proceeded to recite a predictable litany of grievances he deemed essential for a “a truly free Palestine”: “ending the occupation”; “all settlers” moving “back inside the pre 1967 borders”; “dismantling all vestiges of apartheid”; giving all Palestinians a right to return”; and “fair compensation for one of the greatest colonial crimes of the 20th century.”

In this projected “utopia,” Palestine will be noticeably Judenrein. One must assume the vestiges of statehood under the morally repulsive Hamas and the corrupt agents of Fatah will simply wither away in revolutionary fervor once every Palestinian demand is met and the world is remade in a more just mold. 

The final talk was given by Abdul Rahim al-Shaikh, a philosophy and cultural studies professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Palestine Studies, who took a philosophical turn.      

For al-Shaikh, the formative event of “modern” Palestinian history was the “_Nakba_” (the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” used to describe Israel’s founding in 1948), which, he claimed, has “deformed” Palestinian history with “Kafkaesque events”:

[T]he Nakba was the mother of all events in modern Palestinian history; its impact went beyond being a mere master event.  The Palestinians [in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem] have been living their ongoing Nakba for nearly seventy years.  The Nakba in each and every geography became a structure of oppression, suffering, and despair.

Conveniently, al-Shaikh rendered the Nakba, and thus, Israel responsible for every negative consequence that followed, absolving Palestinians of responsibility for their own actions.   

Throughout al-Shaikh’s lecture, he attempted to disenfranchise Jews from their historical homeland by falsely equating Palestinians with “aboriginals” and alleging that, “Zionists constructed a fabricated history and a culture to replace that of the natives [emphasis added].” 

Towards the end, he offered an apologia for Palestinian terrorism by asking, “What is more cruel? The occupation or the fight to end the occupation?” He then concluded ominously:

The slogan of all war crimes committed by Israel throughout the history was: Israel’s existence is more valuable than Israel’s image. It’s about the time for the Palestinians to reverse this slogan. 

This precisely describes the ongoing project of the BDS movement: to destroy Israel’s image by any means, including conflating the Palestinian cause with that of various minority struggles, however dissimilar, in order to attract sympathizers.  Once utterly delegitimized, its adherents expect Israel’s destruction to follow forthwith.  

During the question and answer period, Robin D.G. Kelley explicitly stated this goal. “There’s no future for a Jewish state in that region,” he announced, adding that, “he might get in trouble for saying this,” an assumption belied by the aggressive presence of BDS activism throughout his own California state university system.   

Indeed, it was the audience of BDS supporters who demonstrated its intolerance by hissing loudly following a question that challenged the panel to address Israel’s history of concessions in the face of mounting Palestinian aggression, including the recent “stabbing intifada.” Al-Shaikh’s equivocating response, “Israelis have the right to live, but they do not have the right to colonize,” was met with loud, sustained applause.

Thus, the panel “discussion” consisted of little more than BDS advocacy via the ahistorical equation of Palestinians with African-Americans. Willing to exploit any grievance in the cause of Israel’s delegitimization and to wreak havoc in a region already suffering from bloodshed, such academics offer no solutions, only further violence.

Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. She wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.