Anti-Zion­ists de­serve free speech so ideas can be de­bated

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY MICHELLE GOLD­BERG

Pales­tinian ac­tivist Omar Bargh­outi, one of the founders of the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions move­ment, was sup­posed to be on a speak­ing tour of the United States this week, with stops at NYU’s Wash­ing­ton cam­pus and at Har­vard. He was go­ing to at­tend his daugh­ter’s wedding in Texas. I had plans to in­ter­view him for “The Ar­gu­ment,” the de­bate podcast that I co-host, about BDS, the con­tro­ver­sial cam­paign to make Is­rael pay an eco­nomic and cul­tural price for its treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans.

Yet when Bargh­outi, a per­ma­nent res­i­dent of Is­rael, showed up for his flight from Is­rael’s Ben Gu­rion In­ter­na­tional Air­port last week, he was in­formed that the United States was deny­ing him en­try. When I spoke to him Sun­day, he still didn’t know ex­actly why the coun­try where he went to col­lege and lived for many years wasn’t let­ting him in, but he as­sumed it was be­cause of his po­lit­i­cal views. He has pro­ceeded with his pub­lic events, but he’s been ap­pear­ing at them via Skype.

In re­cent years, the Amer­i­can right has pre­sented it­self as a cham­pion of free ex­pres­sion. Con­ser­va­tives are con­stantly be­moan­ing a cen­so­ri­ous cam­pus cli­mate that stig­ma­tizes their ideas; last month, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der on cam­pus free speech, de­cry­ing those who would keep Amer­i­cans from “chal­leng­ing rigid far-left ide­ol­ogy.” The pres­i­dent said, “Peo­ple who are con­fi­dent in their be­liefs do not cen­sor oth­ers.”

If that last line is true – and, un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally for Trump, I think it is – it says some­thing about the in­se­cu­rity of Is­rael’s de­fend­ers. There have in­deed been il­lib­eral at­tempts to si­lence con­ser­va­tive voices on col­lege cam­puses, but they pale be­side the as­sault on pro-Pales­tinian speech, par­tic­u­larly speech call­ing for an eco­nomic boy­cott of Is­rael. Around two dozen states have laws and reg­u­la­tions de­nounc­ing, and in many cases pe­nal­iz­ing, BDS ac­tiv­i­ties, and the Se­nate re­cently passed a bill sup­port­ing such mea­sures.

What are pro-Is­rael forces afraid of? The BDS move­ment doesn’t en­gage in or pro­mote vi­o­lence. Its lead­ers make an ef­fort to sep­a­rate anti-Zion­ism from anti-Semitism; the Pales­tinian BDS Na­tional Com­mit­tee re­cently de­manded that a Mo­roc­can group stop us­ing the term “BDS” in its name be­cause it fea­tured an­tiSemitic car­toons on its Face­book page.

Bargh­outi couches his op­po­si­tion to Zion­ism in the lan­guage of hu­man­ist uni­ver­sal­ism. The of­fi­cial po­si­tion of the BDS move­ment, he says, is that “any su­prem­a­cist, ex­clu­sion­ary state in his­toric Pales­tine – be it a ‘Jewish state,’ an ‘Is­lamic state,’ or a ‘Chris­tian state’ – would by def­i­ni­tion con­flict with in­ter­na­tional law and ba­sic hu­man rights prin­ci­ples.”

The move­ment is ag­nos­tic on a fi­nal dis­pen­sa­tion of the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict. But it calls for the right of Pales­tinian refugees – both those dis­placed by the creation of Is­rael and their de­scen­dants – to re­turn to their fa­mil­ial homes, which would likely end Is­rael’s Jewish ma­jor­ity.

I’d planned to ar­gue with him about this view, which is largely dis­mis­sive of Jewish claims on Is­rael, and would likely lead to oppression or worse for Is­raeli Jews. My guess is that many if not most Jews find such a po­si­tion of­fen­sive, even fright­en­ing.

But for years now, the right has been lec­tur­ing us all about the need to lis­ten to and de­bate ideas we might con­sider dan­ger­ous. Bargh­outi wants this sort of di­a­logue. “We’ve been dy­ing to de­bate any­one on the other side,” he told me. “We would de­bate any­one ex­cept Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and pro­fes­sional lob­by­ists.” A gov­ern­ment that tries to pre­vent Amer­i­cans from en­gag­ing with his views can­not claim a com­mit­ment to free speech.

You could ar­gue, I sup­pose, that Is­rael’s le­git­i­macy as a Jewish state should not be up for dis­cus­sion. If you do, re­al­ize it’s the ex­act same sort of ar­gu­ment that cer­tain cam­pus leftists make when they refuse to de­bate peo­ple they see as racist, sex­ist or oth­er­wise big­oted. Some­times this re­fusal is jus­ti­fied, be­cause cer­tain ideas shouldn’t be dig­ni­fied with dis­cus­sion. But some­times it just makes the peo­ple un­will­ing to test their ideas in pub­lic look scared.

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