[Ed. note: FrontPage Magazine title is "Dreaming of 'Palestine's South Africa Moment.'"]
Has the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement succeeded in bringing Israel to the point of South Africa when it ended apartheid and reformulated itself into a non-racist state? Despite the egregious falsity of the historical comparison, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University recently held an informal debate on this question titled, "Palestine's South Africa Moment? The Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement." The audience of approximately 140 people—a mix of students, self-described Palestinians, activists, and fellow travelers—filled the Columbia Law School lecture hall.
Rashid Khalidi, Columbia's Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, restated a point often made by political interlocutors, in an intonation that fully communicated his contempt:
If you're Palestinian and you live in certain places, say New York City, like myself . . . you are lectured that the Palestinians should be non-violent. . . . What usually follows that is . . . "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?"
To the supportive audience, Khalidi provided the confrontational answer from which, he claimed, he would normally "manfully refrain":
Well, the Palestinian Gandhi may well have been shot down in cold blood by an Israeli sniper during a demonstration like the two children per week who are killed. . . . Maybe the Palestinian Gandhi is in prison. Maybe the Palestinian Gandhi had something else happen to her or to him.
In other words, who knows whether this paragon ever existed, but surely Israel's to blame for his non-appearance.
Khalidi cited BDS as the "most successful Palestinian tactic in recent years," lauding it as a "a non-violent means of struggling against injustice . . . and oppression." Yet, he went on to praise the 1960s anti-war movement, pointing out that, "these were struggles in which all kinds of tactics were used, mainly violent tactics." The implication here and in his opening statement was that he favors violent means as part of the struggle for "Palestine." Given that Khalidi was a spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, this implication is consistent with his background.
Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, launched into a diatribe against the nation-state bill, a proposal to enshrine Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, whose contentious vote in the Israeli cabinet recently brought down the government. This bill, Barghouti contended, is the final unmasking of the "Zionist pretense at democracy" that will unravel the entire endeavor. Later, he added:
Forget democracy. This is a Jewish supremacist state. So, no pretense of democracy. And that's a very important development because it is revealing Israel's true nature. The last mask of Israel's so-called democracy has been dropped.
The fact that the Qatari-born Barghouti has an M.A.in philosophy from Tel Aviv University contradicts his claims of Israel's "Jewish supremacism." That the University won't discharge him, though he is cofounder of the BDS movement, because they adhere to academic freedom demonstrates the difference between a "so-called democracy" and a movement based on lies, moral inversions and intimidation tactics.
Barghouti then made the preposterous assertion that BDS—a movement based on demonizing and excluding the world's sole Jewish state—is an anti-racist movement:
Its backbone is anti-racist. It opposes all kinds of racism including anti-Semitism. This aspect has always been consistently clear.
Soon after, he engaged in bald-faced inversion of the truth when he alleged it is the Zionist state that is anti-Semitic, because it claims to speak for all Jews.
After describing the inroads BDS has made on multiple fronts, including "converting" Jewish groups to the cause, Barghouti concluded that, "increasingly, it's looking like the South Africa moment has been arrived at finally," to which the audience responded with loud and lengthy applause.
The final speaker, Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs and professor of anthropology, political science and African studies at Columbia University, disputed Barghouti's assertion that the "South Africa moment" is close. He articulated the crucial difference between the South African anti-apartheid movement, which stood for academic freedom, and the situation today, where academic freedom is instead the "rallying cry" of Israel's supporters, calling them "complete opposites."
Lest one conclude the pro-Israel side should thus be applauded, Mamdani immediately suggested another way to target Israel on this point. Claiming "UN reports" demonstrate that "Palestinian academics in Israel do not have academic freedom," he then stated:
I believe we should issue a declaration asking academics, starting with Columbia University itself, around the U.S., in Israel, in Palestine, around the world, an open call for academic freedom in Israel. Not just academic freedom for a few, not academic freedom for a select minority, but academic freedom for everybody. A democratic rather than a privileged notion of academic freedom.
Academic freedom already exists in Israel, and not just for a select minority; once again, it's a matter of holding Israel to a singular standard.
Mamdani then spoke about the evolution in leadership that made the transition to a peaceful post-apartheid South Africa possible, noting that, "The anti-apartheid struggle educated white South Africa. . . . Security required whites give up their monopoly of power." He implied that this process must occur in Palestinian leadership, with Jewish participation in the BDS movement as a lynchpin, before advocating for the destruction of Israel in stentorian tones:
The Palestinian challenge is to persuade the Jewish population of Israel and the world that, just as in South Africa, the long term security of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine requires the dismantling of the Jewish state. . . . Jews can have a homeland in historic Palestine, but not a state.
In Mamdani's radical vision, Israel has merely to cede all of its power to a mature Palestinian leadership that has successfully reformulated itself and, henceforth, there will be peace in the land. It is a dream of enlightened Arab rule with the Jews as a protected minority; the caliphate rebirthed by a progressive midwife. Thus, the translation has become complete: not only is Israel the racist old South Africa, but Palestinian leadership will emerge as the wise Nelson Mandela on the world stage.
How far the realm of academic narratives exists from the truth. The same week this debate took place, strong evidence emerged that ISIS has reared its head in Gaza. And Gaza itself may be imploding and turning into a failed state. There's nothing utopian in the reality on the ground.
Alas, that no Palestinian Gandhi or Mandela is in sight. Done in by Israel, no doubt.
Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in comparative religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. She wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.