by James J. Zogby
I awakened early Wednesday to listen to a voicemail message from Omar Barghouti, a leading member of the Palestinian movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) Israel. In the message, Omar told me that he was at Ben Gurion Airport and despite holding a valid US visa and a boarding pass for his flight to Washington, D.C., the airline would not let him board the plane. He was informed that American immigration officials had notified the airline that he was being barred from entry into the United States.
We had invited Omar Barghouti to Washington to speak at a number of educational programs and to have him meet with Members of Congress or their staffs. Apparently, it was exactly this sort of dialogue and education that the Trump administration did not want to occur.
Although polling shows that a plurality of Americans support the Palestinians’ right to call for a boycott in protest against Israel’s settlement expansion and persistent violation of Palestinian human rights, in Congress and in state capitols around the US there is an anti-BDS hysteria. This near-feverish campaign to penalize individuals and entities that support BDS has succeeded in more than two dozen states and is the subject of a number bills and resolutions before this session of Congress.
Since the language in the congressional resolutions, we believe, mischaracterizes the BDS movement and misquotes Omar, we felt that it would be important to bring him to Washington to directly address the concerns of legislators and policy-makers.
We planned three events: a discussion moderated by Peter Beinart, a leading American Jewish intellectual who writes for The Atlantic Magazine and the Jewish Forward Newspaper; a conversation with young Jewish and Arab Americans (co-hosted with Jewish Voice for Peace); and a briefing for congressional staff. We also wrote to the original co-sponsors of the Congressional legislation asking them to privately meet with Omar. There were, additionally, programs set at Harvard University, New York University, and at a major synagogue in Chicago.
When confronted by Omar’s denial of entry we decided, nevertheless, to go forward with the program, conducting two of the scheduled Washington sessions via Skype. It was not the way we had hoped to have this dialogue – but we were determined that it was important to have this conversation and not allow our effort to be completely derailed by the administration’s decision to prevent us from hearing Omar directly. As the programs unfolded, listening to Omar’s responses to the questions from Beinart and the audience, it became clear why pro-Israel groups and supporters in “official Washington” are so afraid of letting Omar be heard. His answers were so informed and smart and his explanation of the BDS movement were quite compelling. However, seeing Omar via a large screen on wheels on the stage meant that we were all undoubtedly missing his presence, imposing a distance between us that extended the sense of Palestinians as the other and hindered our ability to have a back and forth with him as a real person.
As I expected, when it became clear that we did not cancel the events, opponents of BDS reacted negatively. One congressional critic, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) issued a release that applauded the barring of Omar, denouncing him in especially harsh language. Zeldin’s statement said:
We have witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hate throughout the world, in our nation, on college campuses and within the halls of Congress, and whether this bigotry is brazen or shamefully masked as ‘legitimate’ we must reject it…Barghouti’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate must not be tolerated, empowered or embraced and I applaud the Administration’s denial of his entry to the United States.
We had hoped that if Zeldin had a chance to meet with Omar in person, he would have developed a better understanding of the movement and the man.
Zeldin’s remarks echoed the views of President Trump’s new special envoy on anti-Semitism who, when asked for the reason why Omar was barred from coming to the US, first said he could not comment on the case but then went on to denounce both Omar and the BDS movement as anti-Semitic.
We have been gratified that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and PEN America have been forthright in joining with us to protest the barring of Omar’s entry into the United States. The ACLU statement read:
This looks like an ideological exclusion, which is a long-discredited form of government censorship that prevents Americans from meeting with and hearing from a speaker whose views the government dislikes…it’s a disgrace and a violation of Americans’ First Amendment right.
The administration’s exclusion of Omar has intensified attacks on BDS and I am under no illusion that logic or appeals to justice, alone, will easily win out.
We live in disturbing times. There is a poisonous political climate in Washington and the anti-BDS hysteria has become a part of it. When some key Democratic senators and members of Congress opposed an early effort to pass an anti-BDS bill because it violated the free speech rights of Americans, Republicans pounced and attacked Democrats as being insufficiently supportive of Israel and even accused them of enabling anti-Semitism. If this current is left unchecked I can imagine the day, in the not too distant future, when a congressional hearing will open with a member grilling a witness with a McCarthy-era question: “Are you now, or have you ever been a supporter of the BDS movement?”
It is precisely because so much is at stake, that we are determined to push back. It has become imperative for us to fight against the effort to deny the Palestinian people’s right to peacefully resist the occupation and the intensified violation of their basic rights. It is an unacceptable outrage for anyone to term as anti-Semitic the Palestinian call to support their efforts for justice, equality, and human rights. And given the hysteria that has accompanied the anti-BDS push, it has now also become imperative for us to protect our First Amendment rights right here in the United States to talk face-to-face with those leaders who advance Palestinian rights in the face of regressive, discriminatory policies or arbitrary decisions. Now is not the time to silence debate or the free and open exchange of views on issues of critical national importance.