Diary of a BDS Activist

The United Nations General Assembly was on the eve of its historic vote to recognize the State of Palestine. But, for this Palestinian American, it was no cause for rejoicing. “The facts on the ground,” she told a packed lecture hall at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in November, “have killed the possibility of two states.”

Such is the unsentimental wallop of Noura Erakat, 32, a lawyer who has emerged as a leading voice in the United States for Palestinian rights. She has debated conservative Fox television host Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor,” appeared on the liberal “Up with Chris Hayes” program on MSNBC, and spoken in countless university halls and protest gatherings across the country.

The boycott Israel movement is what first put Erakat in the limelight. In 2001, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, she helped launch a divestment in Israel campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine. That led to an active part in building Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, the global movement launched in 2005 that aims to isolate Israel by cutting economic, cultural and academic ties.

In an interview following her talk at AUC, Erakat recounted how growing up in a household where her immigrant parents granted her fewer privileges than her three brothers first fired her understanding of injustice. “It was that same lens that lent itself very well for me to analyze what was happening in Palestine and Israel,” she says. She happened to be doing a semester abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2000 during the Second Intifada. “I became much more vocal and confrontational,” she recalls. Her Israeli classmates, as Erakat saw it, “lived in a bubble.”

That launched her involvement in trying to build a mass movement that would aid Palestinians by applying international pressure on Israel. Besides her work with the BDS movement, she worked on the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. A stint working on Capitol Hill reinforced Erakat’s instinct that change will ultimately come from people, not governments. A main focus now is to help balance the narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The goal is to crack open a space in the American discourse to discuss an otherwise un-discussed topic,” says Erakat, who teaches law at Georgetown University and Temple University. “We can’t be polite about this. Israel’s not polite in its violence in order to forcibly displace Palestinians on a daily basis.”