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  September 26, 2016

Anti-BDS Campaign Aims to Undermine Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Palestine

Investigations into claims of anti-Semitism among Palestine solidarity groups often find the claims to be unfounded, says Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal
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Dima Khalidi is the founder and Director of Palestinian Legal (formerly Palestine Solidarity Legal Support), and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Her work includes providing legal advice to activists, engaging in advocacy to protect their rights to speak out for Palestinian rights, and educating activists and the public about their rights.

Dima has a JD from DePaul University College of Law, an MA in Comparative Legal Studies from the University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies and a BA in History and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan.


SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The attacks on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, here in the US and Canada, are intensifying. Since 2005 the BDS movement has been pressuring organizations especially universities and colleges to boycott and divest from companies that violate human rights of Palestinians. The movement’s goal is to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. This is a similar movement to the one led by the international community when it came to the South African apartheid. At least eleven states in the US have already passed legislation against the BDS movement. In June, New York State Governor Cuomo issued an executive order calling for the boycott of BDS. This is what he had to say:


GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: Today I’m gonna sign an executive order that says, very clearly, we are against the BDS movement and its very simple. If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you. If you divert revenues from Israel New York will divert revenues form you. If you sanction Israel, New York will sanction you. Period.


PERIES: Joining us now to discuss the BDS campaign and the opposition it faces is Dima Khalidi. She’s the founder and director of Palestine Legal and she’s a cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Dima, very good to have you with us.

DIMA KHALIDI: Nice to be with you, Sharmini, thank you.

PERIES: Dima, so last year, the pro-Israel billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, held a business summit in Las Vegas and raised an estimated twenty million dollars for the anti-BDS campaign. Forward Magazine reported it could be as high as fifty million. And their source is people who were at the conference. This, combined with the efforts of the state of Israel, I must remind people that last year, Netanyahu, specially appointed a minister to oversee these types of campaigns against Israel. Combined, all this is a lot of resources being thrown at the anti-BDS campaign. How is this affecting you at Palestine Legal?

KHALIDI: Well, our intakes are going up every year. We are getting more and more calls from activists around the country for help dealing with the backlash they face for speaking out about Palestine. This is especially the case on campuses and that’s where Adelson’s money was targeted. So, we’re expecting this money to trickle down. Not just Adelson’s money but the money Israel is investing and the money that dozens of other Israel advocacy groups are investing in shutting down this growing movement for Palestinian human rights.

PERIES: So, now this BDS campaign, which is about ten years old, has a lot of young activists. Palestine and other Arab communities have come together to support this movement on campuses. But the activists on campuses, in particular, harass, they say that college anti-BDS campaigns use smear tactics and accuse BDS activists of being anti-Semitic and Jew haters. Courses are getting cancelled that addresses Palestine. Give us a sense of a round up of the kinds of activities that the anti-BDS campaign is executing on campuses.

KHALIDI: Yes, there are several tactics that we documented in our report last year called The Palestine Exception to Free Speech. They range from attempting to condemn, sensor, and punish speech activities happening on campuses like lectures, and film screenings, and protests, mock checkpoints, things like that. To getting professors fired for tweeting about Gaza. Its happened to Steven Salaita. To getting courses canceled. We just saw the University of California, Berkeley, when a student-led course was attacked by an dozens of Israel advocacy groups for being so-called one-sided or politically-motivated. These are direct attacks on freedom of speech and academic freedom in the campus context.

We’re seeing Israel advocacy groups regularly accusing student groups of not only, being motivated by anti-Semitism in their activism, but also, of endangering pro-Israel students and claiming that they threatened them or that there is some kind of danger to Jewish students. So, we see this resulting in accusations and investigations by the Universities themselves and the pattern that we have drawn from this is that Universities are responding to these accusations. They are investing huge amounts of resources in investigating these accusations and invariably they find them to be unsubstantiated.

We saw this at University of California, Irvine, recently. We saw it at CUNY in the CUNY system. Where the Zionist Organization of America made a number of claims against SJP and called for SJP to be banned. A six-month long investigation found, ultimately, that SJP could not be blamed for anti-Semitism on campus and that this effort to blame SJP was a mistake and the result is really a chilling of speech and an undermining of the rights of students to engage on these issues politically.


KHALIDI: Is the Students for Justice in Palestine. There are chapters of this student group on dozens or hundreds of campuses.

PERIES: Now, further, eleven states have, as I mentioned, passed resolutions of bills condemning BDS. New York City Council just passed a resolution condemning it, last week. How will all of this affect life on campus and the struggle for Palestine; BDS campaign and activities on campuses, which is your focus.

KHALIDI: Well these bills, the laws that have passed, there are now twelve, with the executive order, and California’s governor is now considering another one. These laws are attempting to punish BDS activity and they do so in different ways. But its very clear that the agenda is to send a message that the government does not approve of this particular kind of speech activity. It is saying that if an individual or a company engages or takes an ethical stance to boycott Israel because of its human rights abuses, that the government will punish it. So, many of these laws say that the state has to divest its resources or it cannot contract with companies that it says “Boycott Israel.” In the case of New York, the executive order, it actually makes a black list. It requires the State to come up with a list of companies and institutions that it reports to boycott Israel.

They’re very problematic and they directly attack first amendment activities. Their purpose is to chill these activities, to stop people from engaging on this issue. They, directly affect our first amendment rights and we’re looking into legal challenges to these laws on those grounds.

PERIES: Now, when I search the web for the kind of support that the pro-BDS campaign is getting in terms of resources and financial support. I found one citation of one point four million dollars allocated to the Jewish Voice for Peace. I know that organizations like CCR and yours are also supported by some foundations but especially not to the tune of fifty million dollars. I’m wondering at this point, because this campaign is taking such root, not only here in the US but also in Canada. There’s a huge struggle going on in the Green Party of Canada that recently took a position to support the BDS campaign. And its facing a huge backlash. A lot of these kinds of donations have been given to the anti-BDS campaign are really tax deductible. That’s one of the struggles going on in Canada. Do you think that’s fair, as a lawyer, working on these issues?

KHALIDI: Well, there have been challenges to the tax-exempt status of many organizations that are engaging or sending money to settlements, to organizations that promote settlement activity, which is contrary to international law. So, there are a lot of questions about money that is being invested over there to solidify the occupation of Palestinian land and to reinforce the illegal settlements. This is a big issue here in the US and to think that tax-exempt dollars are supporting this. Not to mention our own tax money that the US government sends to Israel. No, about thirty-eight billion over ten years. I think this says a lot about the need for people to speak out on this issue in the United States. Where our own government is really complicit in what’s happening there.

PERIES: Dima, I thank you so much for joining us today and looking forward to having you back.

KHALIDI: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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