Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in the department of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley, provided the introduction at a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) event at Berkeley on October 26, 2010, called “What Can American Academia Do to Realize Justice for Palestinians?” Bazian is an endorser of the Israel Divestment Campaign and a signatory to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He is a committed anti-Israel propagandist and activist.
In his introduction, Bazian was unabashed about promoting a politically active role for academia:
In academia are two narratives: academia produces embedded intellectuals in bed with power, and there’s an academia that challenges power, who say [sic] that the role of the intellectual is to speak truth to power.
Accordingly, his remarks were peppered with exultant references to Berkeley’s glory days:
This is a place that gave major contributions: the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the labor movement, ethnic studies. This is a place where ideas were possible; this is a place where people wrote history.
Bazian urged “the same students who stopped the war in Vietnam, who stopped the levers of the machine” to “stop the normalization of Israel and the silence of the U.S.” by pressuring American academia to cut off all ties with Israeli institutions. He was proud of the accomplishments of the BDS movement, boasting that
I am comforted at a national level with the conferences I have just been to. We activists from North America and activists from Europe met recently in Montreal and Chicago to discuss boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. People are committed to planning and organizing from college campuses.
He went on to outline his expansive view of the BDS movement, one in which common cause can be made with various other struggles, no matter how disconnected:
Specifically for here on campus, it requires us to be highly organized. The apartheid movement was very strategic with alliances [and] a large coalition—but across the board so that the bombs on Palestinians in refugee camps connect to the inner cities of the U.S.A. . . . We have to think of it as a continuum. We need an agenda that seeks change across the board.
Bazian’s reference to apartheid in South Africa is a staple of the BDS movement. But it is an inaccurate comparison, as is the “inner cities” of the U.S. to Palestinian “refugee camps.” Such decontexualized verbal borrowings cannot be the work of an unbiased intellectual, as they confuse and blur meaning in order to incite passions.
Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Birzeit University near Ramallah on the West Bank and co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, was the main speaker. Like Bazian, she relied heavily upon inflammatory language, labeling Israel a “colonial, settler, Zionist enterprise” that maintains power through “colonial rule, apartheid, and military occupation.” She also invoked Berkeley’s anti-war movement, likening it to the Arab-Israeli conflict:
I used to mingle with the anti-war crowd when I was a student at Mills College [in Oakland, California]. I tasted the tear gas on Telegraph Avenue, yes, and later tasted the same tear gas by the same manufacturer in Palestine.
She then outlined her vision for the BDS movement:
What Palestinians are beginning to realize now with the failure of the political process and dialog, is a new logic of BDS; not a logic of persuasion but of pressure. . . . There is a great deal the academic community can do to express solidarity and effectively work for change. . . . In the U.S., no one would have dreamed there would be a campaign like this; now they have 500 endorsements from American academics. . . . It’s not a boycott of individual Israelis, but of institutions, and the major cultural institutions are complicit in the domination of oppression. . . . The problem is the Israeli state and what upholds its power . . . virtually all Israeli institutions are complicit.
Although both speakers claimed they were not boycotting individuals, it is impossible to boycott institutions in the abstract. Real people are harmed. The academic boycott would in effect discriminate against students and faculty on the basis of national origin and religious and/or ethnic identity. Activists, for example, were urged to pressure universities to end study abroad programs in Israel, student exchanges between American and Israeli universities, and foundation grants to Israelis or Israeli institutions. The campaign calls for a thorough shunning of every element of Israeli society. Thirty-eight Nobel scholars have already condemned this move as “antithetical to principles of academic and scientific freedom, and antithetical to principles of freedom of expression and inquiry.”
The UC Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was the primary sponsor for the BDS event, while the Muslim Identities and Cultures—a working group of the university’s Townsend Center for the Humanities—was a co-sponsor. As noted in a letter of protest sent by California academics Leila Beckwith, Roberta Seid, and Tammi Rossman-Benjamin to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, this “establishes an official association of the University of California at Berkeley with the promotion of a boycott against Israel.” In response, the Townsend Center claimed that it “would not fund any group that does not act in the spirit of intellectual openness,” nor was it “endorsing any position that could be construed as hateful of any religious or ethnic group.” But under its aegis, Bazian and Taraki promoted a mean-spirited discourse replete with phrases extracted from other contexts in order to legitimize a campaign of discrimination.
Is this really a campaign with which UC Berkeley wishes to be officially associated?
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].