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.