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An Israeli And A Palestinian Dig Deeper Into Controversy At SDSU

A crowd of protesters and members of the media surround a police car where San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman was in, April 27, 2016.
Quinn Owen
A crowd of protesters and members of the media surround a police car where San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman was in, April 27, 2016.

Emotions ran high these past two weeks in advance of activist David Horowitz’s talk at San Diego State University on Thursday night.

The debate over the fliers his organization, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, posted around the campus last month has raised questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing up inflammatory rhetoric about terrorism and anti-Semitism.

KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma spoke separately this week to Palestinian-American civil-rights activist Nasser Barghouti and UC San Diego economics professor Eli Berman, an Israeli who has studied terrorism.

See their Q & A's below:

Palestinian-American civil-rights activist Nasser Barghouti

Nasser Barghouti, Palestinian-American civil-rights activist, is shown in this photo, May 6, 2016.
Amita Sharma
Nasser Barghouti, Palestinian-American civil-rights activist, is shown in this photo, May 6, 2016.

Amita Sharma: What is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and what is its goal?

Nasser Barghouti: The BDS movement is a grass-roots movement that the Palestinian civil society launched in 2005, and it has three main goals: One is to have everybody who's a citizen of the state of Israel be completely equal. Second (is) to end the military occupation of the 1967 territories, the West Bank Gaza, Eastern, some of the Golan Heights. And the third is to observe the United Nations' right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Amita Sharma: Are there people within BDS who aim to go beyond the stated goal and actually don’t believe in Israel’s legitimacy and want Israel to cease to exist?

Nasser Barghouti: The BDS movement is very vigilant in fighting all kinds of anti-Semitism, racism within the movement. Any kind of bigotry is not really tolerated at all within the movement and to attest to that, a large part of the movement is Jewish. And that is something people don't realize in this country. One of the greatest partners of the BDS movement in the United States is Jewish Voice For Peace, a group of progressive Jewish individuals and organizations that fight for Palestinian rights. And so that is the stated goal of the BDS movement. I don't do mind control of people, I don't know what they're thinking, [like] any movement that has a problem within it.

Amita Sharma: There are many within the Jewish community who believe that BDS unfairly demonizes Israel, that it is holding Israel to a double standard to the exclusion of other Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Syria who don’t treat their citizens very well … and is ultimately just inciting anti-Semitism. What’s your response?

Nasser Barghouti: My response to that is the West is, especially the United States, has singled out Israel for praise and protection and enormous amounts of funds. The United States does not give Syria $3 billion a year. That's now being raised [to] $4 billion a year of our tax money. It does not give [to] Yemen, or Sudan. In fact, the United States has already taken the necessary steps to hold these countries accountable. Israel, on the other hand, is allowed to do all kinds of things that other Western democracies are not allowed to do. No other Western democracy is allowed to go occupy another country for 50 years and get away with it. That's what Israel is doing. So I don't think it's fair for anybody to think that we're singling out Israel. We're just making Israel equal to everybody else in terms of accountability and not special.

Amita Sharma: David Horowitz creates posters that name student supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to terrorist groups as he did at San Diego State. What do you think of this tactic?

Nasser Barghouti: First of all you have to look at who David Horowitz is. He essentially blamed African-Americans for slavery. So this is a guy who's not entirely objective or I would think sane. On this tactic, I think he is basically demonizing anybody who sides with BDS and trying to use the terrorism tactic to silence them. This is McCarthyism. Instead of communism as the bogeyman, now he's using terrorism.

Amita Sharma: San Diego State President Elliot Hirshman has been criticized for not adequately acknowledging how Horowitz’s actions might threaten student safety. If you had advised him, what would you have urged him to do?

Nasser Barghouti: I think he would have to abide by the same standard. If this was directed against Jewish students, or black students or gay students, he would've taken a stronger stand. It's his responsibility as the president to protect his students. Yes, of course we all believe in academic freedom, including the freedom of speech for people who are critical of the Israeli regime. He needs to be much stronger on this and protect his students. That's his obligation.

UC San Diego economics professor Eli Berman

Eli Berman is shown during an appearance on KPBS Evening Edition, Dec. 8, 2015.
KPBS Staff
Eli Berman is shown during an appearance on KPBS Evening Edition, Dec. 8, 2015.

Amita Sharma: What do you think of David Horowitz and his practice of creating posters that tie student supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to terrorist groups as he did at San Diego State?

Eli Berman: What Horowitz did was wrong. It was a provocation. It really had no place, not on a university campus or really not anywhere. And it puts the administrators at SDSU in a dilemma. On the one hand we’re educators and we’re researchers and we believe in free speech, and so all ideas should have a place on a campus. On the other hand, somebody comes from off-campus and does something, which is deliberately provocative.

Amita Sharma: The BDS movement encourages a boycott of Israel and divestment from Israel until "the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel" have been recognized. Where does the terrorism link come in?

Eli Berman: I think the terrorism link in this case is manufactured. BDS is making an argument. It’s an argument I disagree with — boycott, divest, sanction. I don’t think that’s the right way of dealing with disagreements about Israeli policy in the Middle East, but that doesn’t make them terrorists.

Amita Sharma: Students supporting BDS have been described as anti-Semitic. Is that a fair characterization?

Eli Berman: So there’s a debate about this and I don’t want to take a stand in this debate but let me just present both sides of it. On the one side, people say "Well, you’re judging Israel in a way that you wouldn’t judge Italy or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Syria," which are clearly committing human rights violations, which are absolutely objectionable. I think we would all agree that killing your own citizens is not something that humans should be doing. So treating Israel according to some other standards, people say well, that already starts to smell like anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, other people say, "Well, why should we treat Israel differently than we would treat, say, oil companies? Maybe we should boycott and divest and sanction them because we’re unhappy with the environmental applications of their policies." It’s a debate. It’s the kind of debate that one should have on a university campus.

Amita Sharma: What has unfolded at San Diego State in recent days is reflective of a larger issue at universities across the country. Can there be a two-sided debate about Israel policies without critics being labeled anti-Semitic? Where are the lines here? When is it honest debate and when is it anti-Jewish bigotry?

Eli Berman: So this is what’s special about universities: We’re big, diverse communities full of thoughtful people that gather facts together and have open discussions about them. That’s what makes us special. So all of these attempts, the provocations really to push the buttons to bring in these key words "Oh, this is anti-Semitic, oh that’s Zionist, so it must be racist.’ That dumbing down of a serious debate just isn’t worthy of us. It’s not what we do on a campus.

Amita Sharma: There has been a lot of criticism of San Diego State President Elliot Hirshman’s handling of Horowitz’s posters….that he was not strong enough in his denunciation and did not acknowledge the threat to student safety....How do you balance student safety with free speech rights on a college campus?

Eli Berman: I don’t want to rush to judgment, I wasn’t there, I didn’t see, I haven’t seen all the facts. My guess is that calling for the resignation of President Hirshman at SDSU is also a provocation. It generates headlines and it gets people excited and upset about things. But it’s not the way to talk about Israel’s policies, it’s not the way to talk about the things that are going on today in the Middle East. And if I may, today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day, that’s how Jews see today all over the world. We use today to remember six million people that were killed in the most awful genocide of the 20th century. And so today is the day that we should be raising money for Syrian refugees, it’s not the day to be talking about the President of SDSU.