Omar Barghouti: J Street’s Ben Ami has Jews-only policy on BDS debates

Last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” For those who don’t know, Barghouti is one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters, basing his advocacy on a platform of human rights and international law while explicitly rejecting arcane ideology. His book offers the most in-depth and accessible analysis to date of the movement, its history, and why it is gaining so much momentum. Read an excerpt here.

During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: “We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”

Barghouti joked, “Why would BDS have anything to do with Palestinians?” He went on to describe Ben-Ami’s policy as racist.

Last December, I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society. If I had known at the time that J Street had an alleged policy of refusing to debate with non-Jews, especially Palestinians, I would not have participated at all.

Another person told me about J Street’s “don’t debate Palestinians” policy, but did not authorize me to report it at the time. The source explained that the policy resulted in the Jews-only debate at J Street’s annual policy conference in February, where Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS against opponents Bernard Avishai and Ken Bob of Ameinu.

It is worth noting that after the debate, Bernard Avishai took to his blog to tell a certain member of JVP (he left the person unnamed) that “you remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party.” Avishai was apparently upset that the JVP member had asked him how he could argue against divesting from multinational companies and Israeli institutions that profit from the occupation while supporting a boycott of the settlements. It is unusual for someone of Avishai’s intellectual caliber to stoop so low to rebut a simple question about tactics. His response makes me wonder if the opponents of BDS, especially those who define themselves as politically liberal, are simply overwhelmed by events in Israel and Palestine.

To J Street’s credit, it is the only major pro-Israel group I know of that will debate BDS at all. None of the other established pro-Israel groups have participated in debates and none seem likely to do so in the near future. Last week, the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to a demand by the campus Hillel house for a “dialogue session” by requesting a debate instead. SJP’s leadership told Hillel’s director that he could choose the topic, time and place of the debate. Hillel refused the proposal. Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?

6 thoughts on “Omar Barghouti: J Street’s Ben Ami has Jews-only policy on BDS debates

  1. hophmi

    “Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?”

    Giving a platform to a political movement that regularly engages in antisemitism?

  2. Zachary Foster

    No doubt it is a racist policy to deny someplace a place in a debate because of his ethnic or national background.

    But I think the racist policy is actually a good thing, and here’s why: One of J Street’s main goals these days is to brand itself as mainstream, both in the Jewish world and on capital hill. Now, if the mainstream Jewish groups look over to J Street and see a bunch of Jews debating BDS, this is precisely the way J Street is going to normalize the BDS conversation within the organized Jewish communities in the US, which I think is the key to bringing more and more people to support BDS.

    If, on the other hand, J Street debate Palestinians, which the mainstream Jewish community will almost knee-jerkingly see as radical supporters of terrorism, then they will automatically be turned away and, for the near future, BDS will have difficulty gaining a foothold with the Jewish world.

    J Street is working hard to leverage the tremendously difficult position of bringing what are today marginal and fringe (albiet just and righteous ) ideas to the mainstream, and perhaps along the way they have to be a little racist to do it.

  3. rakiba

    A few questions about Barghouti that are critical but asked genuinely and I hope I can get a non-snarky and informed response.

    1) Is it true he studies at Tel Aviv U and is this a problem for him and supporters of BDS?
    2) He calls himself Palestinian. Isn’t he from Qatar and raised in Egypt. Can an Arab become Palestinian but an Ethiopian or Russian Jew not become, legitimately, Israeli? What is the difference without the inference that the Middle East is naturally Arab and Muslims and Jews are interlopers. (The Helen Thomas School of History). Leading to question 3) Is it true that Barghouti believes that Palestinian rights are natural while Israeli rights are “derived.”
    Thanks in advance if there are responses to these questions.

  4. AdamAW

    I think Zachary may have a point. Perhaps J Street are occupying a sensible position from a tactical point of view. Personally I am none too hopeful about the prospects of BDS anyhow.

    I think that ‘anti-semitism’ is an inappropriate word to describe angry frustration with supporters of oppression who happen to be identified as being Jewish. Those who indulge in such behaviour make a massive tactical error by playing into the hands of people who want to present the Palestinian/ Arab demand for justice as racist.

  5. AdamAW

    I would also refer hophmi to a comment which Max previously made that antisemitism as it originally existed has now largely been replaced by Islamaphobia. No doubt there is some genuine antisemitism out there – prejudice against Jewish people simply for being Jewish.

    Still, the only way to really settle this question would be to firstly provide conditions whereby the injustice against the Palestinians was brought to an end. Once that has been achieved and the Israeli-Arab conflict has become a distance memory then we can all agree that any further anger against Jewish people can be rightly described as antisemitism.

    Any takers?

  6. AdamAW

    Hi Rakiba, I will be happy to try to oblige to those parts of your questions that I can answer.

    1) I don’t know.

    2) If he describes himself as Palestinian I would imagine that this is because his parents were Palestinian. I have met a Jordanian Palestinian who were born in Jordan. Israel will not allow him to visit the West Bank, but his sense of identification as a Palestinian is very strong. I do not see how an Arab can describe themselves as a Palestinian if they are not of Palestinian parentage and I doubt that they would.

    There is not doubt that Russian or Ethiopian Jews can become legitimately Israeli as the law currently stands. The pertinent question is whether it is right that these new arrivals should have a right to live in this area that exceeds that of people who families have lived in that area for generations, and who additionally have no where else to go.

    3) I believe that what Barghouti is saying when he says that Palestinian rights are natural while Israeli rights are “derived” is that Palestinians have rights to live there as the indigenous population of that area, whereas Israelis have the right to live there as people who have lived there for a period of time. As I U.K citizen who was born in London, England you could say that I have a natural right to live in England, whereas a migrant worker from Pakistan who has worked in this country for five years and been granted indefinite leave to remain has acquired or derived this right.

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