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Cambridge University threatened to shut down an event about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, citing concerns about the Palestinian moderator’s neutrality. BDS founder Omar Barghouti says it’s a “slippery slope towards McCarthyism on campus”

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The University of Cambridge in the UK hosted an event on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and the global struggle for Palestinian rights. It was organized by the Cambridge University Palestine Society and the Cambridge University Middle East Society. Invited from Palestine was Omar Barghouti, a well-known Palestinian peace activist and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Shortly before the event, Cambridge University announced its objections to the moderator of the event, Professor Ruba Salih, from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The University of Cambridge had threatened to cancel the event unless they could be moderating it with the University’s Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea. The event was held with the imposed moderator. Now joining us to discuss what happened and why, we are joined by Omar Barghouti. He is a Palestinian activist for justice and equality, and one of the co-founders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and he’s also a part of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Omar, good to have you back on the Real News. OMAR BARGHOUTI: Thank you very much for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: Omar, let’s start with why Professor Ruba Salih was removed as moderator of the event and what was this about? OMAR BARGHOUTI: Well, the claim by Cambridge University a few hours before the panel on BDS had started is that Professor Ruba Salih is not neutral because she supports Palestinian rights and supposedly has signed on to statements supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in the struggle for Palestinian rights. Which is a very strange notion for an academic institution to insist that the chair of a panel on a specific subject has to be neutral on that subject. It’s ludicrous. Imagine a panel on anti-Semitism. Would you require the chair to have no position on anti-Semitism? To have never signed a petition condemning anti-Semitism as a form of racism. Just imagine. Or a panel on rape, where you require that the chair must be agnostic on whether rape is good or bad? This is ludicrous. I think this is a slippery slope towards McCarthyism on campus and it is not coincidence that Professor Salih is a younger scholar of color, a woman of color, and that the same happened at London School of Economics a day before Cambridge, where another younger scholar woman of color was removed as chair and replaced by another white male senior academic. That can be looked upon as kind of ethnic profiling. SHARMINI PERIES: Omar, are we aware of Cambridge University doing this sort of thing to any other academic panel held at the University, particularly in regard to Israel or Palestine? OMAR BARGHOUTI: Not that I’m aware of. I think earlier this year, there was a panel for the Israeli Ambassador to London and the chair was a Zionist, pro-Israel person. So, there was no requirement then to have a so-called “neutral” chair. It is really strange, because rather than insisting that chairing the event has to be neutral, professional academic as it should be, Cambridge in our case insisted that the chair herself had to be replaced because she was not neutral. SHARMINI PERIES: In spite of this attempt at intervening on academic freedom, and freedom of opinion and expression, you still participated in the event. What is your justification for doing so? OMAR BARGHOUTI: The student organizers insisted on carrying on the event because they saw the tactic by pro-Israel groups on campus that complaint about so-called neutrality of the event. They wanted Cambridge to cancel the event and they expected the organizers to say, “No, we will not replace the chair,” and then Cambridge would have canceled the event. They insisted on having this BDS panel on campus and to expose the students and academics at Cambridge to the discussion, a very rich discussion, I thought, on that panel, which also included Malia Bouattia, the former president of the National Union of Students, and Asad Ur Rehman, the head of War on Want, a very important charity in the UK. Indeed, the discussion was very good. So, they wanted to go ahead with that and I respected their wishes. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, as far as we know, the intervention by the management of the university was reported on by Al Jazeera. It was also in the Middle East Monitor, in the Varsity, in the Middle East Eye, and even the right-wing, pro-Zionist Jerusalem Post. Did the university realize that the attempted efforts here at censorship will actually raise awareness to the event and maybe even remind people that Palestinians are not free and not in Palestine, and not even in Europe to express their protest against Israeli colonialism. OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think Cambridge did not consider all the consequences. It was just a knee-jerk reaction to a very tiny, but powerful lobby group at Cambridge that wanted to sabotage the event. We have to see it within the context of the Israeli Government’s sabotage, or attempt to sabotage, BDS events around the world, especially in Western countries. After failing to win hearts and minds at the grassroots level, and seeing the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in asserting Palestinian rights and increasing pressure on Israel academically, culturally, even economically, to end its occupation, its apartheid regime and its denial of Palestinian refugee rights. After failing at the grassroots level, Israel since 2014 has resorted to very heavy-handed bullying, intimidation, a cyberwar, legal warfare and even using its intelligence services to try to track down BDS activists and try to sabotage BDS events. So, the Cambridge event has to be seen in this context, not in isolation. It’s just shameful that a reputable academic institution like Cambridge would fall for this intimidation by the Israel lobby. SHARMINI PERIES: As many people who are covering this issue like to point out, this increased sanctions on BDS activists, events like this, efforts all over the world including almost half the United States here where state governments have passed legislation to block the BDS campaign from taking place. Is all indication that BDS campaign is becoming rather successful, like that of the South African international boycott of the apartheid government of South Africa back in the 70s. Can you speak to that? OMAR BARGHOUTI: Indeed. Of course BDS is very much inspired by the anti-apartheid movement, anti-South African apartheid movement as well as the US Civil Rights Movement. It’s also rooted in a very long heritage of Palestinian popular non-violent resistance. We do agree with your analysis that Israel resorted to those extreme measures, draconian, McCarthyite measures to try to suppress freedom of expression related to Palestine solidarity and BDS after failing to suppress the movement at the grassroots level, even at the intellectual debate level. Most spokespeople for Israel would not debate a Palestine activist, or a Palestine solidarity activist because they don’t have a good argument to present in those debates. We’re presenting a movement that non-violently seeks Palestinian rights under international law, freedom, justice, and equality for Palestinians, and we want to end Israel’s regime of oppression, settler colonialism and apartheid. In the United States, as you mentioned, across the US, state legislatures have passed anti-DBS legislation. Glenn Greenwald said, “The legal attack on BDS and Palestinian activism is the biggest threat to free speech in the West today.” Indeed, he is right. We have not seen this attack on free speech since the days of McCarthyism, and it’s even worse because at the Congress level in the United States, they’re proposing legislation that would have penalties of up to one million dollars and twenty years in prison for those who would heed international calls for boycotting Israel or even for boycotting Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. What Israel has done with this, yes, it’s succeeding to pass this legislation with the immense influence of its lobby and its bullying and intimidation techniques. However, by succeeding in that way, of suppressing free speech and boycott is recognized in the US by even the Supreme Court as far back as 1982 as a matter of free speech. By succeeding to suppress boycott or trying to, Israel is alienating the liberal mainstream. So, we see now the American Civil Liberties Union suing the state of Kansas for firing a teacher who is a Mennonite who couldn’t sign a statement saying that she’s against the boycott of Israel to get a job with the state. So, they fired her. In the state of Texas, the city of Dickinson, conditioned hurricane relief, humanitarian relief, on individuals signing a statement that they reject the boycott of Israel and will not engage in boycotting Israel or settlements during the duration of receiving this hurricane relief. This has triggered a mass of protests across the US by the liberal mainstream, not just the Palestinian solidarity groups. SHARMINI PERIES: That’s an avalanche of activism and resistance as a result of the campaign that the Israelis State is carrying out throughout the world. I thank you so much Omar, for joining us. It was a while since we have had you on the Real News Network and we welcome you back anytime. OMAR BARGHOUTI: Thank you. If I just may add a sentence? SHARMINI PERIES: Absolutely. OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think it’s also part of the context is important that today Israel’s regime of oppression is seen as a very important part of the far right camp around the world. Israel has endorsed the Trump administration like no other country on earth and Trump indeed sees Israel’s regime as his model for ethnic profiling, for racist walls. For all kinds of bans, Trump uses Israel as a model. This is not helping Israel’s case at all. In fact, it is helping the BDS movement in revealing Israel’s true face as a regime of oppression, and it’s adding a lot of impetus to the growth and impact of BDS around the world. SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, Omar. I thank you so much for joining us today. OMAR BARGHOUTI: Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian researcher and human rights activist. He is a founding member of the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. His views have been presented on CNN, Bloomberg and BBC and opinion pieces published in the New York Times, New York Daily News, the Guardian, among others.