Activists Speak about the BDS Movement at Brown University

“Colonial powers are never convinced,” said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, to a packed auditorium of students last Monday. “Globalized oppression necessitates globalized resistance.”  On November 18, over two hundred students, activists, and community members filled Metcalf-Friedman Auditorium at Brown University to engage in conversation about the BDS Movement and Palestinian liberation. Co-hosted by

Published on November 25, 2019
By Sara Van Horn

Colonial powers are never convinced,” said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, to a packed auditorium of students last Monday. “Globalized oppression necessitates globalized resistance.” 

On November 18, over two hundred students, activists, and community members filled Metcalf-Friedman Auditorium at Brown University to engage in conversation about the BDS Movement and Palestinian liberation. Co-hosted by student organizers from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the panel of speakers included Linda Sarsour, an award-winning racial justice activist, and Rabbi Alissa Wise, national co-director of JVP, as well as Mr Barghouti, who spoke over video call because the United States government has denied him entrance into the country. The panel was moderated by Professor Ariella Azoulay.

Two student organizers opened the conversation by acknowledging that the event was taking place on Wampanoag and Narragansett lands, emphasizing that people committed to a Palestine free from settler-colonialism have an imperative to stand in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally. Student organizers also outlined the ethical urgency of the conversation by acknowledging the murder of eight members of a Palestinian family by the Israeli army in Gaza on November 14. “The indiscriminate use of violence and oppression inflicted by the Israeli government against Palestinian people should not be tolerated by any human standards,” organizers said. “This is why a conversation around BDS is so urgent and needed.”

Launched in 2005 by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society groups, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement is a Palestinian-led movement of nonviolent resistance against Israel’s regime of settler-colonialism, apartheid, and occupation. The movement calls for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the recognition of the right of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and the protection of the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194.

In his opening remarks, Barghouti highlighted the importance of globalized solidarity, emphasizing that the international “network of mutuality has never been as evident or as needed as it is today.” For Barghouti, this type of solidarity is an essential part of the BDS Movement. Along with the climate and gender justice movements, he asserted, “BDS belongs to an evolving, modern paradigm of globalized solidarity and globalized resistance to oppression.” He described the movement as “anchored in the universal declaration of human rights” and inspired by social justice movements around the world, especially the movement to end apartheid in South Africa.

Perhaps as evidence of this solidarity – and the importance of historical justice movements as precedent for BDS – all three panelists cited a myriad of historical and contemporary social activists as inspiration for their work, including Desmond Tutu, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Steve Biko, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Bernie Sanders, among others. Sarsour also named Dr Martin Luther King Jr as an especially important leader. In addition to emphasizing his importance as a Black radical revolutionary – in contrast to his whitewashed depiction as a figure of reconciliation – Sarsour referenced his teachings of nonviolent resistance. “I’m trained in Kingian non-violence,” Sarsour emphasized. “I’m a non-violent resistance activist.” For Sarsour, this tradition demands that “when the Palestinian people say to support us – join the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement – then you go with the oppressed people.”

For Wise, her history and moral commitments inform her choice to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. “It’s not about righting the wrongs of my ancestors, exactly,” she told the packed auditorium. “It’s about being connected to my own history and being attentive to the ethical and political demands of the time when I’m alive and able to act.”

Both Wise and Sarsour emphasized the importance of Jewish-Muslim solidarity to the BDS Movement. “If we are to be sure to be safe as Jews,” Wise argued, we must “ensure that all people are safe and free.” She also celebrated the way that Sarsour models this solidarity. “Linda is more tolerant and more patient with the Jewish community than I am,” Wise said. “Every time a Jewish community is under threat, you know that Linda is going to be the first person there, loud as hell, defending Jews when we need it.” Sarsour was also clear about the importance of JVP in her ability to continue her activism. “I wouldn’t be able to do this work without Jewish Voice for Peace [and] Jewish activists across New York City and across the country,” she emphasized. “We cannot do this without each other.”

Both Wise and Sarsour also highlighted the intentional politics of separation that affect students on college campuses. “What they want more than anything is for you to give up,” Wise told the audience. “This is a policy of separation that is an official policy of the Israeli government.” Sarsour agreed: “The reason why there is so much divisiveness is because they know that when Muslims and Jews are in solidarity, when we are in relationship, when we are looking out for each other, when we are with one another, when we are organizing, we are powerful.”

After opening remarks from all three panelists, Professor Azoulay asked each speaker to describe their dreams for the future. “I dream of living in dignity, equality, and justice,” Barghouti said. “And I dream of a world where my identity does not diminish my entitlement to rights. We are dehumanized; we are treated as relative humans and we want to assert our humanity.” Sarsour also articulated her hope “that my grandchildren can travel freely to the home of their ancestors, that they can be let in with open arms and they can experience the full experience of their heritage and their lineage.” And Wise, frustrated with having to spend organizing energy fighting false charges of anti-Semitism, asserted that “I have the dream of a fair fight.”

When asked by UpriseRI about what a fair fight might look like, Sarsour asserted that “a fair fight would be hearing Palestinian voices on mainstream national television. A fair fight would mean us having the same resources to protest and to really build a consistent movement.” For Wise, the fight around BDS has always been about refuting the accusation that BDS is anti-Semitic. “It’s about the tactic. And its not about what are we doing on the ground around Palestinians being denied their freedom,” Wise told UpriseRI. “I’ve been longing just to have a fight about that. Like could we actually just talk about Palestinian freedom? That would be a relief.”

Additionally, Sarsour emphasized the importance of student organizing to UpriseRI. “Student organizing is crucial to any moment in history,” she asserted. “Students need to understand their power. There would be no Brown University without the students who come here.” Wise agreed. “Every social movement in the US has been fueled by a student movement,” Wise told UpriseRI. “I feel very clear that for BDS to be successful, it has to have behind it the fire and the energy and the commitment of a massive student movement.”

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Last spring, Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) held a student referendum on whether Brown should divest from human rights abuses in Palestine. On March 21st, the referendum – with voter turnout one of the highest in the history of UCS elections – passed with 69 percent of participating students voting in favor of divestment.

Following the referendum, university president Christina Paxson issued a statement to the Brown community, writing that “Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues.” In response, more than 90 faculty published a statement that defended the student organizers, urged the University to listen to the demands of the referendum, and criticized President Paxson for her “unacceptably narrow” conception of what constitutes productive student activism.

On Monday, despite this hostility from the university president, student organizers were unequivocal: “Students will not be quiet, will not back down, until the University dissociates itself from Palestinian suffering.”

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