Palestinian American professor criticized over Israeli diplomat’s appearance at Brown


Palestinian rights campaigners have criticized Professor Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies at Brown University, over his center’s co-sponsorship of a lecture last week by Yehuda Yaakov, the Israeli consul general in Boston.

The dispute between a prominent Palestinian American professor and advocates of the academic boycott of Israel highlights the dilemmas faced by those embedded in American institutions that openly adopt pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian stances.

Brown University President Christina Paxson, it should be recalled, is one of dozens of US university leaders who have condemned the boycott campaign intended to hold Israeli institutions accountable for their complicity in human rights crimes against Palestinians.

“Brand Israel propaganda”

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said on its Twitter feed on Friday that by co-sponsoring Yaakov’s appearance, Brown Middle East Studies was “engaged in Brand Israel propaganda, not rational academic discussion or debate.”

The event, titled “Israel’s Strategic Challenges in a Changing International Context,” was widely advertised with the logos of four co-sponsors: the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown Middle East Studies, Brown Students for Israel and Brown Hillel.

In the days leading up to the event, the announcement for it was shared online among supporters of the boycott, with some expressing dismay at Brown Middle East Studies’ endorsement.

“Inviting any Israeli state or institutional representative by an international university, like Brown, is in violation of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) academic boycott guidelines, and helps whitewash Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid, particularly in light of Israel’s recent massacre in Gaza,” Hind Awwad, a member of the PACBI steering committee, told The Electronic Intifada.

“Inviting an Israeli diplomat, and one who is a chief propagandist, no less, is exceptionally egregious, as it is his profession to cover up Israel’s crimes. This Israeli diplomat, in particular, has been hired to promote anti-BDS hasbara,” Awwad added, using the Hebrew term for Israel’s state propaganda.

Awwad said that Brown Middle East Studies’ sponsorship of the Yaakov event “is made worse because the Middle East Studies center’s director [Doumani] has signed a petition in support of the academic boycott and has chosen in this instance to clearly violate the boycott.” 

She argued that the Brown “center, like any center, has limited resources and can choose what events to co-sponsor. They could have refused this one, as they had done with other events in the past, especially since the guest is an apologist for a bloody regime that just committed war crimes in Gaza, as confirmed by Amnesty International, and who has precious little to offer to further a rational and open discussion or debate on any campus.”

Delegitimize the delegitimization efforts

Earlier this year, Yaakov, a native New Yorker, told The Jerusalem Post that fighting BDS would be his priority:

“We are going to have to deal with the challenges,” said Yaakov, adding that this means having “antennas up and ears to the ground” to be able to discern what boycott and divestment moves are afoot.

The BDS movement in the US is not, at the moment, at the level it is in Europe, he said, and to make sure it does not develop there is a need to “delegitimize the delegitimization efforts.”

“It was not acceptable for most US universities to receive representatives of the apartheid South African regime in the late 1980s,” Awwad said. “Why should representatives of Israel’s occupation and apartheid be treated differently?”

Richard Locke, director of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which hosted the lecture, defended the event.

“The Watson Institute is committed to bring a wide range of speakers to campus to discuss the important issues of our day,” Locke told The Electronic Intifada.

Locke cited a September teach-in on Gaza and an October appearance by a Palestine Liberation Organization representative as examples of the diverse events the institute sponsors. “This is just part of what we do,” he said.

Doumani responds

In light of the criticism among anti-Israeli-apartheid campaigners, Doumani is now distancing himself from the Yaakov event.

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Doumani acknowledged that he gave permission to the event organizers to use his center’s logo in promoting the Israeli diplomat’s visit, but he said that “Brown Middle East Studies did not host, invite or sponsor this talk.”

Doumani said that it was “an institutional thing that did not involve us agreeing to anything other than using the logo.”

He said he did not attend Yaakov’s speech.

Doumani said that he agreed to the request as a sort of balance, because he had previously agreed to allow his center’s logo to be used to advertise the October visit by Maen Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization “ambassador” to the United States.

Areikat’s visit was organized by the Zionist group J Street and co-sponsored by Hillel. No groups supporting Palestinian rights endorsed it.

“With hindsight, I wish that I did not agree to them using the logo for the Palestinian ambassador or the Israeli consul,” Doumani told The Electronic Intifada. “These were not events that we in any way initiated, organized or attended.”

Doumani criticized Yaakov’s public positions in opposition to Palestinian rights and the academic boycott: “As a person who supports BDS and who has signed on to BDS statements, I believe [Yaakov’s position on BDS] constitutes a justification for not only actions against academic freedom and discussion on campus, but I believe it also constitutes a justification for violations of international law.”

Missing teach-in video

In September, Brown Middle East Studies also co-sponsored a “teach-in” at the Watson Institute which also appears to have been carefully balanced to appease the sensitivities of both supporters and opponents of Israel’s bombardment and mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza.

The speakers at the teach-in, titled “Why Gaza Matters: The War and its Consequences,” included Doumani, history professor Omer Bartov, international relations program director Nina Tannenwald and Sa’ed Atshan, a postdoctoral fellow in international studies.

The event had already generated some controversy.

Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad criticized Doumani in an October article for The Electronic Intifada for disavowing Steven Salaita. Salaita had been fired just weeks earlier by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for tweets excoriating Israel’s massacre in Gaza.

Doumani said that Salaita’s tweets are “of the kind that I personally would never tweet.”

A video of the teach-in posted on the YouTube channel of the Watson Institute was widely disseminated via social media in the days after the event. But recently the video disappeared.

The Electronic Intifada independently confirmed that the video was removed by Watson Institute staff at the request of Atshan.

In his presentation at the teach-in, Atshan sought to humanize the situation in Gaza by showing pictures of Palestinian civilian victims of Israel’s massacre as well as of the Israeli soldiers who had participated in killing them. Atshan also called Gaza “hell on Earth” and Israel’s strategy a “scorched Earth policy,” according to one account of his remarks.

Atshan’s request to remove the video was made directly to the staff who handle the Watson Institute’s web content. Watson Institute director Richard Locke told The Electronic Intifada “I had no idea that the video of the event was posted, let alone removed. I do know that nobody has asked us to remove the video and I have not received any complaints.”

Doumani also expressed surprise that the video had been removed and promised to look into the matter.

Atshan declined to comment for this article.

Update: Response from Atshan

Following publication of this article, Sa’ed Atshan decided to go on record. He sent this message to The Electronic Intifada via email. Although there is no error to “correct,” and nothing has been changed in the article above, Atshan’s message is reproduced in full for the benefit of readers:

Thanks Ali. Thanks for sharing the link.

In your article, you write: “In his presentation at the teach-in, Atshan sought to humanize the situation in Gaza by showing pictures of Palestinian civilian victims of Israel’s massacre as well as of the Israeli soldiers who had participated in killing them.”

Just to clarify: I showed the image of one Israeli soldier. I did not mention his name or show an image of his face. The purpose was to show an example of an Israeli military funeral.

I would appreciate it if you could correct the article so that it could be accurate in this respect.

Thank you.

PS: The one Israeli dead soldier was in a casket with soldiers around the casket at the military funeral. I don’t even know whose funeral it was– it was a random funeral image I chose for the powerpoint slide of images.

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Twice I have heard Israeli consul generals in Boston speak in Portland, Maine, both sponsored by the World Affairs Council. Unlike other WAC speakers I had heard, clearly qualified and committed to sharing their sense of the truth of things (as I remember, that number included a French consul I challenged on France's meddling in Haiti, who did not hesitate to mix it up with me in a brief interchange), these speakers were propagandists from soup to nuts, who never acknowledged any aspect of reality that did not fit their Zionist bias.
I felt obliged to inform WAC members I knew that sponsoring such dishonest talk shamed the WAC--delegitimized it. No group at Brown should have given its name to such a propaganda exercise save, perhaps, in a debate. But, of course, pro-Israel organizations, including J Street, are seriously compromised if they acknowledge any aspect of the immorality,lawlessness, and brutality of the Zionist enterprise which a debate would have required.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.