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Todd Gitlin on Beinart Interview of Barghouti


Todd Gitlin and Ralph Seliger share their reflections on Peter Beinart’s July 9th Zoom interview with Omar Barghouti, founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel.  First, here’s an expanded version of how Seliger initiated the discussion:

Barghouti is more rigid in his extreme pronouncements than I thought he’d be, and Beinart barely pushed back, even though Barghouti completely opposes Beinart’s binational vision for one state.  

Claiming that Arabs, unlike Europeans, have never committed pogroms against Jews, O.B. didn’t count the 1941 Farhud in Baghdad because (as he explained after being challenged by P.B.) it occurred “after Zionism”; and P.B. let him off without a further response.  O.B. is so extreme that, according to him, even Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle-Families Forum are illegitimate; for example, he opposes their joint Palestinian-Israeli Memorial Day observances as “normalization” activities.  

Barghouti only sees a future for Israeli Jews who “indigenize” themselves, who can live there as “Palestinian Jews.”  He spoke positively of a community of “Jews” living in Nablus as Palestinians, yet he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  There’s a small Samaritan community that lives there, but these are not Jews as either we or they would define them.  

Jews don’t exist as a nation or people internationally, according to him, but diaspora Palestinians would have to be included in any Palestinian referendum on peace.  (So much for consistency.)

These, cleared for publication, are Prof. Gitlin’s observations:

I attended Peter Beinart’s Zoom interview with the BDS leader Omar Barghouti. Many of Barghouti’s comments do not pass the laugh test. Here are some particulars:

1. I asked this question during the interview, which PB relayed to OB:  “In the case of apartheid South Africa, boycotts & sanctions came to the aid of a well-organized organization, the ANC, which plausibly made a case that it was not only entitled to rule but capable of doing so. Is there a Palestinian equivalent today? If neither the PA nor Hamas is fit to reap the harvest of BDS, what is BDS’s scenario for achieving its declared goals?”

He did not give a straight answer, but danced around. He cited South Africa as a precedent when he liked and rejected it when he liked. He did not even approach answering the question of who would govern his desired Palestinian state. In general, I find BDS a display of gestures, not a serious contribution to a solution to the imbroglio of two nations who wish to inhabit more or less the same territory. This is not politics; it is theatrics.

2. Further, on the subject of apartheid South Africa, I must add that I was a chief organizer of the first American civil disobedience action targeting corporate support of the apartheid regime. (It was 1965. We sat in at the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters in New York.) In the mid-1980s, I was deeply involved in the movements at both Harvard (as alumnus, and president of Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni/ae against Apartheid) and Berkeley (as faculty, in Faculty for Full Divestment) to get the respective governing bodies to divest from investments in South Africa. Never in either period did I support an academic boycott.  

3. About boycotts and sanctions, it all depends on the particulars. In 2016, with David Abraham and Kai Bird, I helped write and circulate a statement “call[ing] for a targeted boycott of all goods and services from all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and any investments that promote the Occupation.” I recognize that it can be a difficult matter to single out those investments that qualify for boycott. Discussion is called for. But to my mind the distinction between the Israel within the Green Line and the Occupied Territories remains fundamental. A targeted boycott is by no means the same thing as calling for the end of the state of Israel. Which is what Omar Barghouti wants, yet without propounding the slightest idea of who would govern the successor regime, and how.

4. Omar Barghouti believes the Jews are a religion, not a nation. He objects to a religiously-defined state. I wonder what is his view of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and so on? Instead of addressing that question, he lays out the red herring of—the Vatican.

8 Responses to “Todd Gitlin on Beinart Interview of Barghouti”

  1. Sheldon Ranz
    July 10, 2021 at 12:21 pm #

    “I recognize that it can be a difficult matter to single out those investments that qualify for boycott. Discussion is called for. But to my mind the distinction between the Israel within the Green Line and the Occupied Territories remains fundamental. A targeted boycott is by no means the same thing as calling for the end of the state of Israel.” :

    1) As three human rights organizations have made clear – Adalah, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, there is no distinction. Israel is an apartheid state and has been since its founding. Boycotting just the settlements has never been effective – it’s like boycotting the South African bantustans only. The settlements are organized and supported from behind the Green Line, so that has to be the main target.

    2) BDS targetting Israel as a whole is not the same thing as calling for the end of Israel. BDS Demand #3 recognizes Israel as the state of its citizens. Replacing Israel’s apartheid system means instituting and enforcing the equality clauses in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence. The only thing that is ended as a result is Israel as a “Jewish State;, i.e. a Jewish supremacist entity that privileges its Jewish citizens over its Gentile citizens. That is why, as Democratic Zionists, Social Democrats USA supports BDS.

    And one more thing – in New Jewish Agenda, we took part in the anti-South African BDS movement, and fully supported ALL the boycotts, academic included. If you chose to avoid the academic boycotts then, that;s your problem. Don;t use that as a standard by which the judge the legitimacy of the current BDS movement..

  2. David Abraham
    July 10, 2021 at 5:21 pm #

    I think the central issue for Barghouti, and one that precludes binationalism, is that the Jews are a religion while the Palestinians (wherever they live) are a people. Thus, Jews may live in Palestine as a religious minority (as, he said, they had for “hundreds” of years). This will be most successful if they “indigenize” themselves, which is to say become Jewish Palestinians.

    He was, sadly, entirely correct that most Jewish Israelis (including the High Court) refuse to recognize an Israeli nationality, which together with things like the Nation State law, bode ill for the alternative to both binationalism and Jewish supremacism, namely Israel as a state of all of its citizens located next to and in some kind of confederal relationship with a Palestinian state next door that was also a state of all of its citizens.

    One might add that the Jews who did “indigenize” themselves at the end of the colonial era in the middle east often wound up as communists or secular nationalists and were in both cases swept aside by ethnic nationalists and religious forces.

    • Bernard Bohbot
      July 14, 2021 at 1:04 am #

      I’m not sure recognizing an Israeli nationality would be a good thing. Once you merge nationality with citizenship, you can’t recognize national minorities (only recognize cultural or linguistic minorities). This is why the French constitutional court annulled the recognition of Corsicans as a distinct people and the Spanish one blocked the recognition of Catalonia as a nation. Quebec too is still not recognized as a nation in the Canadian constitution (although the federal Parliament voted a symbolic motion recognizing the national character of the Quebecois in 2006).

      Arab Israelis identify as Palestinians not merely as Arabic-speaking Israelis. Chaim Gans proposed something more interesting: turning Israel into a binational state (within the green line) with Jews remaining the majority. This is pretty much what Jabotinsky had in mind (with a Jewish Prime minister and an Arab deputy PM – and vice-versa).

      However, Israel has no obligation under international law to be a binational state. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission both argue that states have no obligation to be culturally neutral or neutral in their immigration policy. They merely have to extend equal individual rights to all their citizens and allow minority homeland groups to protect their culture. Amnon Rubinstein who is behind the Basic Law recognizing Israel as “Jewish and democratic” said that this term actually means a state that belongs both to the Jewish people and all its citizens.

      Unfortunately, Israel has never fully implemented the Declaration of Independence, but no country at war has ever treated better a minority that identifies with the enemy. In Greece, the Turkish minority cannot choose its communal leaders and does not even have the right to identify as Turkish. They are only allowed to identify as “Muslim Greeks”. In Estonia and Latvia, the Russian-speaking minority does not even have automatic access to citizenship (they need to take a language proficiency test first).

      Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian Arab minority is shameful. However, the very idea that Israel cannot be both a Jewish nation-state and a state of all its citizens is largely baseless. I have yet to read a critique of Alex Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein’s book: “Israel and the Family of Nations” that invalidates their claims.

  3. July 11, 2021 at 12:53 am #

    I ran into the question of Jews in Palestine when we prepared an issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal on “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” ( Prof. Mustapha Abu-Sway wrote an article in which he referred to the fact that Palestinian society consists of Moslems, Christians and Jews, who live together in harmony. I asked him who are the Jews? He said the Samaritans. They also have one seat reserved in the Palestinian Authority’s Palestinian Legislative Council.

    Unfortunately, Moslem Arabs find it very difficult to grasp the separation between religion and nationality, due to their own experience of the inherent role of religion in their national identities, and I assume the failure of Arab secular socialism and pan-Arabism. This is a constant underlying issue in philosophical dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

    As for BDS itself, it has absolutely no impact on Israeli society, and will not bring about a much needed end to the occupation. Boycott of settlements yes – of the State of Israel no.

  4. Sheldon Ranz
    July 11, 2021 at 8:41 am #

    Hillel, why would a boycott of Israeli settlements have an impact on Israeli society if BDS as a whole does not? When has this targetted settlement boycott (outside of BDS) ever had such an impact?

    • Bernard Bohbot
      July 14, 2021 at 1:09 am #

      Let us assume the whole world boycotts Israel. Will that convince the PA to accept the Clinton parameters (unless you believe that Clinton’s peace plan does not go far enough)? There are ways to end the occupation. BDS is not one of them.

  5. Sheldon Ranz
    July 15, 2021 at 2:15 pm #

    You’re mixing apples and oranges. Like you, the PA rejects BDS, so it would not feel obliged to alter its position on the Clinton Parameters due to any boycott.

  6. Sean Breathnach
    July 22, 2021 at 1:52 pm #

    Something should wake the Israelis up to see the horrors that their governments and their army and their intelligence authorities are inflicting on millions of people, and to understand that this has a price tag. Therefore, the situation demands nothing less than a real boycott of Israel, of all Israelis, everywhere – a painful, costly, destructive one.

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