An April 23rd conference organized by the University of Southern California's [USC] Peace and Conflict Studies Program started out reasonably enough. Entitled "The Shamrock and the Olive Tree: From Belfast to Bethlehem," the conference's goal was to analyze whether strategies from peace making in Northern Ireland could be used for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
About 55 people, including a smattering of students, community members, and almost a dozen and a half students from a nearby high school, made up the audience. The high school students were taking a class on international conflicts, and their teacher had told them to attend though it wasn't clear if their attendance was a requirement or not.
The first two speakers certainly exposed these students to the kind of scholarship one expects at University-level events. Their scholarly discussion and theoretical models were based on their research into peacemaking in Northern Ireland. But with the subsequent four speakers, scholarly and analytic standards abruptly disintegrated, replaced by anti-Israel screeds, demagogic advocacy of anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions [BDS] and extremist positions that made a mockery of the concept of conflict resolution.
Andrew Manning, Director of USC's "Peace and Conflict Studies" program and organizer of the conference, apparently had come under fire for the roster of speakers. He felt compelled to announce that Peace and Conflict Studies "is not pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The program I direct is pro-peace." Then he declared that "if you have come here to hear ceaseless damnation of one side and celebration of the other, you have come to the wrong university and the wrong conference."
Yet, damnation of Israel was all the audience heard. History, context, and analysis disappeared. All four speakers implicitly agreed that Israel is an illegitimate state, which they denounced as a European, racist, settler-colonialist project hell-bent on stealing land and water and ethnically cleansing Palestinians. All four denounced the peace process and negotiations as merely cover for Israel's continued "settler colonialist expansion."
Israel's legitimate claims and the Jews' 3,000 year connection to the land weren't mentioned. The history of Arab wars against Israel disappeared. Terrorism was either ignored or justified. There was not even a whisper about the bitter war between Hamas and Fatah, about Hamas' agenda to murder Jews and "obliterate" Israel, or about its connection to Iran and the radical Islamist movement. There were constant complaints about the "asymmetrical" nature of a conflict between militarily powerful Israel and "unarmed" Palestinians. The solution presumably was to disarm Israel or arm the Palestinians. There was no dissenting voice, no one to present an alternative perspective or to explain the realities on the ground and in the region.
Given the speakers' backgrounds, Manning should have anticipated this would be the case.
The screeds began with the third speaker, David Lloyd, USC English professor with a specialty in Irish literature and co-founder of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He claimed that Israel imposes strict segregation, builds walls, and is ethnically cleansing eastern Jerusalem, conveniently ignoring terrorism and the growth of Jerusalem's Arab population. He charged that Israel was "founded on discrimination" and is not a fully democratic state. He disparaged the Palestinian leadership, saying that the Palestinian papers leak, which indicated that Palestinian leaders were willing to compromise, actually exposed the fact that the PA had betrayed Palestinian aspirations. He claimed the US has not been and cannot be an honest peace broker. Therefore, he called for grassroots mobilization to pressure Israel with global civil society organizations forcing Israel to meet demands for "social justice" and "human rights."
The next speaker, Mahmood Ibrahim, professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona, simply amplified Lloyd's charges. Ibrahim has delivered the same litany of complaints on campuses for the past eight years. He began with an emotional story about how brutal Israelis forced his family to become refugees in 1948. He never even hinted at the Palestinian Arabs' refusal to accept the 1947 UN partition plan or at the brutal war that Arab and Palestinian leaders launched to destroy the newly established state of Israel. Students in the audience could only conclude that Israel is indeed a power intent on ethnic cleansing. Ibrahim played up the sad plight of Palestinian refugees, implying that they still live in tents like those temporarily set up in 1948, and he blamed Israel for their plight even though Arab countries, including the PA, are in control of the refugee camps which today are cities and towns, not Israel. He bemoaned the checkpoints and road blocks but never breathed a word about the terrorist war of suicide bombing that forced Israel to implement these counter-terrorism measures.
Ibrahim mocked Israel's concerns about security and derided the peace process as "bunk," charging that the US cannot be a partner for peace because it is only a partner for Israel, and "AIPAC and Congress are sometimes synonymous." And he, like the other speakers, bemoaned the disparity of military power between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo Peace process failed, he charged, because the proposals "were outside international legitimacy," in large part because they did not include the right of return, which he alleges is an inalienable right of Palestinians.
USC Professor Laurie Brand, president of the International Studies Association, did not appear as scheduled. Instead, she was replaced by Matthew Bowles whose only credentials were that he had an MA and had been a co-founder of Stop US Tax Funded Aid to Israel Now (SUSTAIN). With Bowles, any pretense at scholarliness ended. He stood up and called for rousing applause for the high school students in the audience, and directed all his comments to them in style more suitable for a pep rally than academia.
"They tell you to be objective and above the conflict," he explained, and then told students why they shouldn't be. "Break through the rhetoric they use," he advised. Don't buy it when "they" try to tell you it's about conflicting national movements, or ethnic or religious strife. Such analyses "hide" the root evil—"the fact that Zionism is a settler-colonial movement. That means someone comes over and takes over someone else's land and displaces or kills the inhabitants," he helpfully elaborated. He never mentioned the Jews' 3,000 year long connection to the land. He whitewashed terrorism. "Terrorism sounds bad like something we should oppose." But in fact, he explained, it's no different than state-sanctioned violence, only it's done by non-state actors, the "low power group."
Bowles derided dialogue between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians. "Just sharing narratives takes energy away from starting a movement to dismantle the colonialist-settlement project," he warned. He also derided the idea the US could be an honest peace broker because it's a "pro-Israel actor in the conflict. It would be the same as asking Hamas to facilitate discussions." The only solution for ending the conflict was to "dismantle" the "Jewish supremacist state."
The concluding speaker, Mohammed Abed, Professor at California State University at Los Angeles whose field is philosophy, had actively worked to get the University of Wisconsin to implement BDS when he was a graduate student there. He also apparently had recommended Bowles as the replacement speaker for Brand. An articulate young man, Abed essentially repeated all of Bowles' points although he couched them in more respectable and seemingly rational academic language, and added a few new choice distortions. He claimed that the 160,000 Arabs who took up Israel's offer of citizenship to the Arabs in its new state in 1948 were in fact those few who had "managed to escape ethnic cleansing." He charged that a state that "is guilty of such crimes" against the Palestinians clearly isn't serious about peace, and that Palestinians, not Israel, are the ones who don't really have a partner for peace. He, too concluded by saying that the only hope for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was for "international civil society" to join the BDS movement against Israel.
After the conference, I briefly spoke to the group of high school students as they were filing out of the room, and told them that this was a very one-sided conference and that there is another side to the story. They shouldn't make the assumption that Israelis are all bad and Palestinians are all good. They looked relieved, smiled, and thanked me.
It is not clear what Manning was thinking when he organized this conference. But it is clear that his choice of speakers was irresponsible and that this conference bore no resemblance to a serious or scholarly discussion about the conflict and how to resolve it. The conference irreparably stained the reputation of USC's Peace and Conflict Studies program, and of USC itself. It also underscored yet again how anti-Israel activists hijack academia and sacrifice all scholarly standards on the altar of their obsessive hatred for Israel.
Roberta Seid PhD is Education Director of StandWithUs which educates about Israel through student fellowships, speaker programs, conferences, written materials and internet resources. StandWithUs has twelve offices around the world, including Los Angeles, Israel and the UK.