Palestinian civil rights activist Omar Barghouti visited UC Riverside last Tuesday afternoon to give a 30-minute lecture about pressing issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The lecture was met with criticism from a few attendees, however, as some questioned both Barghouti’s talking points and the merit of CHASS F1RST for presenting the lecture and offering credit to students who attended and wrote a reflection on the lecture.
During the presentation, Barghouti offered anecdotes that accused Israel of oppressive treatment of Palestinians. He told a story of a Palestinian woman who gave birth at an Israeli checkpoint only to see her child die due to alleged negligence from Israeli soldiers. Later in the speech, Barghouti also read an account that accused Israeli soldiers of hunting Palestinian children for sport.
He called for an end to the alleged oppressive treatment of Palestinians, whom he believed were treated as “less than humans” by Israelis, and advocated for the boycott of, divestment from and sanctioning of institutions in Israel. “Calling for a boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions is still quite controversial in the United States,” he said, but added, “but it is no longer taboo.”
After the presentation, a Q-and-A session followed, where Barghouti answered inquiries and comments from audience members. And despite a handful of audience members who agreed with Barghouti’s presentation, a large fraction of the session was spent debating with community members and students who shared opposing viewpoints.
“The BDS movement calls for peace … (but) when a divestment bill is presented to senate, it creates a hostile environment within the senate and within the students,” ASUCR Senator Sean Fahmian challenged Barghouti, referring to last year’s ASUCR resolution that called for UCR to divest in companies that allegedly violated Palestinians’ human rights in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Barghouti spent the remainder of the event reiterating some of his points and refuting arguments presented by the opposing side.
Following the presentation, some students criticized the fact that attendance to the event fulfilled part of the course requirements for students enrolled in the CHASS Connect, CHASS TRAC, and HASS 001 programs. Students in the program are required to attend one “CHASS Annual Theme” event each quarter and write a 250- to 500-word reflection on the event. This year, the annual theme is justice.
“I think it’s a good thing to have people come speak,” expressed Highlanders for Israel (HIFI) President Ben Morag, “(but) I think it’s unfair that this is presented as an opportunity for credit in a course — in a CHASS class. I think it’s ridiculous that it’s under the — you know, they billed it as justice — under the theme of justice for CHASS, yet it’s clearly one side of the argument.”
In response to the criticism, Dr. Geoff Cohen, director of first-year programs in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS), stated that while he highly recommended students from his HASS 001 class attend the lecture, he made it clear that attendance was only optional; it was not mandatory.
“It’s important to recognize that a university is where controversy and fighting voices — conflicting voices have a place,” said Cohen. “It’s not about consensus or about equal weight — it’s about the conversation that occurs afterwards. Reflection is crucial.”
In an interview with the Highlander, Barghouti also responded to the criticism, stating, “Some people came in with talking points of the Israeli lobby and we always get that, but there were some students and some faculty who asked decent questions … I welcome their point of views as long as their questions are asked in a respectful manner … I think debate is better than no debate. (It’s) better than silence.”
Barghouti concluded his visit to Riverside with a panel in the Interdisciplinary Building as part of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” a four-day-long event presented by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCR.
Barghouti holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Columbia University and a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University. He is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.