Marginalizing the Momentum of the BDS Movement

Originally published at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Reposted by In These Times.

Despite increasingly frequent victories for the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement confronting the state of Israel, and the heightened panic expressed by its critics, the New York Times virtually ignores the movement’s momentum. When attention is paid to BDS, coverage doesn’t focus on the role of the movement in the struggle for Palestinian rights, but instead amplifies critics of BDS and focuses on charges that the movement is a form of antisemitism.

The BDS movement, initiated in 2005 by Palestinian intellectuals and activists, is a nonviolent resistance movement that calls for economic pressure on the state of Israel to recognize the rights of Palestinians.

In a New York Times article (7/2/15) about two failed divestment efforts that, according to the story’s lead, “dealt a blow” to “a pro-Palestinian economic campaign against Israel,” reporter Rick Gladstone acknowledged that BDS “has been gaining traction in the United States.” That throwaway line is the end of the story for readers, since the Times rarely covers successful BDS efforts, either in the US or abroad.

Although the Times did cover both the United Church of Christ’s vote (6/30/15) and the Presbyterian Church’s vote (6/20/14) to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, here are seven recent BDS victories that were ignored by the Times:

  • September 2015: The Icelandic capital Reykjavík’s vote to boycott Israeli goods and the backlash from pro-Israel groups that led the city to severely limit the boycott.
  • August 2015: The Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine that “wholeheartedly endorse[d]” BDS, signed by over 1,100 black scholars, activists, artists, students and organizations, including Cornel West (mentioned by the Times 34 times in the last two years), Angela Davis (14 times), Mumia Abu-Jamal (nine times) and Talib Kweli (19 times).
  • June 2015: The United Nations’ annual World Investment Report, which found that foreign direct investment in Israel plummeted by half after Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza in 2014.
  • April 2015: French multinational Veolia’s decision to sell most of its business assets in Israel after seven years of pressure from BDS activists.
  • February 2015: Stanford University student government’s vote to support divestment (though see below).
  • January 2015: University of California/Davis student government’s vote to support divestment, making it the seventh of ten UC schools to do so.
  • October 2014: Anthropologists’ statement to boycott Israeli institutions, signed by over 1,000 scholars.

When the Times does cover campus activism on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it opts to focus on the debate about antisemitism instead of focusing on the role of divestment and boycott resolutions in the campaign for Palestinian rights.

A May 2015 front-page article by Jennifer Medina and Tamar Lewin, “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities” (5/9/15), centered on the idea that Jewish students are threatened and marginalized by BDS activism. Ali Abunimah later reported in the Electronic Intifada (5/12/15) that Medina only asked Safwan Ibrahim, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCLA, questions about claims of antisemitism—ignoring the BDS movement’s tactics or motivations.

David McCleary, a Jewish member of SJP at UC Berkeley, said he felt like he was being given a Jewish “litmus test” by contributing reporter Ronnie Cohen, who apparently questioned McCleary’s Judaism in light of his involvement with SJP. “For them to find out that SJP at UC Berkeley is disproportionately Jewish interferes with that narrative that they are trying to invent,” McCleary told the Electronic Intifada.

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An earlier story by Medina, “Student Coalition at Stanford Confronts Allegations of Antisemitism” (4/15/15), also focused on the “debate over what constitutes antisemitism” in light of the Stanford student government’s vote to support divestment—an event that the Times did not cover in its own right, but only as an opportunity to run a piece about a Jewish student’s experience of being asked about divestment.

Times reporter Adam Nagourney ended an article (3/5/15) with a quote from Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of the Jewish student organization Hillel:

People say that being anti-Israel is not the same as being antisemitic. The problem is the anti-Israel culture in which we are singling out only the Jewish state creates an environment where it’s OK to single out Jewish students.

Despite the reference to “the Jewish state,” the territory controlled by the government of Israel contains more Arabs than Jew –– though most of the Arabs are excluded from political participation. Why does only activism in support of Israel’s disenfranchised majority, and not the defenders of Israel’s system of ethnic apartheid, prompt questions of campus bias in the New York Times?

Iran’s ‘Nuclear Ambitions’ Go Unquestioned in Coverage of Iran Deal Momentum

Originally published at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Reposted at Common Dreams.

As Democratic senators declared their support for the deal struck between Iran and six world powers–an agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–corporate media coverage of this momentum is leaving out at least one crucial detail: the lack of evidence that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

A New York Times  article (9/2/15) cited two main reasons for why many Democrats were persuaded to support the Iran deal: 1) the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has technology that “could catch even the most minute trace amounts of radioactive material, and help expose any cheating on the deal by Iran,” and 2) the senators “heard from experts who said that a 15-year limit on fissile material, the makings of a nuclear weapon, would do more to slow Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon than a military attack.”

Reporters Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn could have pointed out, as James Risen and Mark Mazzetti did on the Times‘ front page three years ago (2/24/12; FAIR.org, 2/9/15),  that “American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.” Or quoted, as Seymour Hersh did (New Yorker, 6/6/11), longtime IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei’s statement that he had not seen “a shred of evidence” that Iran was trying to weaponize its uranium. Or at least included, as basic balance, the fact that Iran had consistently maintained that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon (FAIR.org, 9/30/13).

None of this stopped USA Today‘s Erin Kelly (9/2/15) from describing the deal as an effort to “curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions”–a phrasing that assumes such ambitions exist.  Or to summarize the deal by saying it “calls for the United States to lift economic sanctions against Iran in return for Iran’s agreement not to develop nuclear weapons”; if that were all Iran had to do, the agreement could have been reached years ago, as Iran has long insisted they don’t want an atomic bomb. (The deal actually severely restricts Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to levels that are useful for nuclear power and medical applications.)

The Washington Post (9/2/15) also had an uncritical reference to “Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” It said opponents objected to the deal because it “doesn’t do enough to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and, at best, only delays its pathway to becoming an armed nuclear state.” Again, there was no mention of the widespread doubts or Iran’s vociferous denials that that nation is seeking a nuclear weapon.

When the Post turned to give proponents’ view of the deal, reporters Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello wrote: “But Obama and his proxies have argued that the deal is the best agreement they could have secured, that there is no alternative to it but war with Iran.” In other words, if the deal with Iran fails, then the US must go to war with Iran, because war is the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. So the entire spectrum of debate allowed by the Post accepts an Iranian quest for an atomic bomb as an article of faith–and the “left” edge of the debate endorses the legitimacy of preemptive war  (FAIR.org, 8/20/15).

CIA’s Human Rights Violations Honored By Fordham University

Students and faculty at Fordham University gather in orange jumpsuits to petition President McShane to revoke CIA Director John Brennan’s honorary degree. (Photo: Louie Dean Valencia-García)

Originally published at Huffington Post.

In May just before students and faculty left school for the summer – we are back now – Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J., announced his much anticipated response to the school’s human rights advocates: the Board of Trustees had voted not to revoke CIA Director John Brennan’s honorary degree. According to Bob Howe, McShane’s press secretary, the vote was unanimous.

After the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture in December 2014, seven Fordham professors formed Fordham Against Torture (FAT), an ad-hoc committee that petitioned McShane with over 730 signatures to revoke Brennan’s honorary degree. It was awarded to Brennan in 2012 when he delivered Fordham’s commencement address, despite protests and a petition by faculty and students.

In his email to FAT, McShane wrote, “While the Board and I condemn torture and extrajudicial imprisonment in the strongest possible terms, as a public servant, Mr. Brennan does not set the policies that have led us to this place, but rather is responsible to the elected officials, including the President, who have. The President, his predecessor, and Congress are legally responsible for the creation of the policies you—indeed all of us—find so shocking.”

McShane’s response embodied classic institutional cover-up for wrongdoing (one often employed by the Obama administration): condemn the bad thing (We oppose torture) and offer a lukewarm excuse for not correcting it (Mr. Brennan isn’t responsible). It’s an easy way out, feeding the establishment media sound bites to make the administration seem morally righteous and free itself from responsibility.

Claiming that Brennan isn’t responsible for the reprehensible counterterrorism policies of the Bush and Obama administrations is like claiming that the FBI didn’t spy on civil rights activists. Brennan is widely known for developing “kill lists” of people targeted for assassination by the U.S. government and the controversial practice of “signature strikes,” drone strikes on unidentified people targeted for their behavioral patterns or for carrying a cell phone SIM card associated with an alleged “terrorist.” In a letter to the Ram, one of Fordham’s undergraduate newspapers, ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern – like Brennan, a Fordham graduate – wrote, “Brennan is now the administration’s strongest advocate of extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens by drones.” That apparently doesn’t give McShane pause about honoring Brennan.

But even if McShane’s basis for not revoking Brennan’s honorary degree – that Brennan is not responsible for the creation of “shocking” policies – were true, his degree should still be revoked on the grounds that he didn’t, in protest of war crimes, refuse to carry out his superior’s orders. David Myers, history professor at Fordham, offered another reason for revocation on the basis that Brennan simply followed orders: “If you simply look at the last 40 years of this country’s history, subordinates or officers in the presidential administration have been held criminally responsible even though the president was directing them, even though they were just following orders.”

After citing the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits in El Salvador in which the CIA was complicit, McShane wrote, “Do not for a minute believe that honoring John Brennan is the same as honoring the institution for which he works, nor its checkered history.” The phrase “the institution for which he works” makes Brennan sound like some low-level CIA officer, furthering the narrative that Mr. Brennan isn’t responsible. The obvious truth is that John Brennan, arguably the architect of the modern-day CIA, runs the CIA and has directly contributed to its “checkered history.” So while honoring him in 2012 doesn’t honor a massacre in 1989 in which he probably played no role, it certainly does honor the human rights violations committed by the CIA since he began to hold high-level positions (in 1999, when Brennan was appointed chief of staff for then-head of CIA George Tenet). It is thus telling that McShane didn’t condemn any recent specific examples of human rights violations by the CIA, such as the more than 400 civilians killed by its drone program in Pakistan, because then he would have to admit to honoring a war criminal.

My initial reaction to McShane’s response was one of frustration and embarrassment for attending a university that honors a war criminal. Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that I have no reason to be embarrassed. What the Board of Trustees decides does not define Fordham. We, the students and faculty, define Fordham. And I couldn’t be any more proud to work with a community so dedicated to human rights and social justice.

Also, while you’re at it, get rid of Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, too.