Zionism is nationalism – why pick it out?
1) Ran Greenstein argues for a united front directing BDS against the occupation – leaving other issues to specific campaigns; 2) Jonathan Rosenhead methodically goes through the pros and cons of BDS and his opponent, Robert Fine, argues that it is discriminatory to identify Zionism as a pernicious form of nationalism.
A French demonstration with the unnuanced demand for boycotting Israel.
Few of the people accused of boycotting Israel actually advocate or adhere to the central demands of the Palestinian boycott call. Ironically, those same people may be in the best position to help end the occupation.
By Ran Greenstein, +972
March 24, 2014
Opposition to the BDS movement has become a crucial test of loyalty to the pro-Israel cause in the U.S. Jewish community in recent months. It has not replaced the Iranian nuclear program as the most prominent cause for alarm raised by the Israel lobby and its allies, but it is moving in that direction.
Naturally enough, this heightened publicity is being celebrated by BDS activists as proof that their campaign is working effectively, and that they do indeed constitute a major problem for the Israeli government and its supporters. What better demonstration of your success than the fear of your opponents?
On the face of it this seems a bit curious. There is a big discrepancy between the achievements of the movement so far and the attention it has been getting. Without wishing to underestimate the impact of the campaign, it has been endorsed by student societies on a dozen university campuses in the U.S. and Europe, and by a couple of academic associations. Most of these expressions of support have focused only on the first of the three goals of the movement: to oppose the 1967 occupation, support the right of return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and advocate full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rarely has any high-profile group or body come out in support of all three goals combined.
Cartoon by Latuff, an active propagandist for cultural boycott, accompanying The Sensitive Case of Boycott in Historic Palestine by Najwan Darwish arguing for cultural boycott.
If this is the case indeed, how can we explain the hysteria that has engulfed sections of the hasbara apparatus, in Israel and overseas, as expressed in speeches, legislation and expressions of outrage? To understand the issue we have to make a distinction between two types of BDS, which have been conflated in public discourse.
The first type is the BDS movement as embodied in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). It is centered on the three goals outlined above and it regards them as a package deal necessary to dismantle the Israeli system of colonial control. Obviously, the BDS movement has never denied the importance of fighting the 1967 occupation as a central goal in its own right. But, it has emphasized the need to go beyond it in order to challenge the structure of the Israeli state and all its policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, and not merely those related to the occupation. From that perspective, a focus on opposing the 1967 occupation is not wrong in itself, but can be problematic if it comes at the expense of the two other goals.
The second type is a less organized and co-ordinated campaign, which includes many disparate initiatives ranging from boycotts of settlement products to severing commercial relations with Israeli companies that provide services to settlements and their residents, or are involved in maintaining the occupation, or simply operate in and from the occupied territories. Generally this campaign is meant to apply pressure from the outside on the Israeli state and its agencies in order to force them to change their policies vis-à-vis the 1967 territories and their residents.
The argument presented here is that while the first type of BDS represents a minor nuisance for the Israeli state, the second type is a major threat to its policies. Conflating the two and hyping the danger of the first type is in the interest of both the current Israeli government and the BDS movement. How is that possible?
Let us discuss the Israeli reaction first. When we look at the forces in Israel which highlight the danger of the BDS movement, the hard-right and settlers lead the way. They do that because they wish to disguise the major cause for the current wave of criticism of Israel, the 1967 occupation and in particular the settlements. Their goal is to show that calls for boycotts and sanctions stem not from specific Israeli policies but from opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel (or its existence as a ‘Jewish state’), which itself stems from anti-Semitism or simply from hatred of Israel, regardless of its policies.
By focusing on the BDS movement and its three combined goals, and thus erasing the specific nature of the campaign against the occupation, Netanyahu wishes to bolster his position that a withdrawal from the occupied territories will not solve the conflict, and that criticizing the settlement project as an obstacle to peace is misguided. Paradoxically, the BDS movement shares a similar approach, albeit from an opposite moral perspective: it agrees that putting an end to the occupation is not enough and that other steps must be taken, which amount to the abolition of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel (though not abolition of the State itself). It claims credit for all external pressure on Israel, regardless of its specific focus.
In contrast, centrist forces in Israel – including much of the professional diplomatic apparatus – are aware that recent efforts in Europe to apply pressure on Israel stem primarily from opposition to the occupation, not opposition to the state itself. These efforts can cause enormous economic damage to Israel through withdrawal of investment, cancellation of scientific projects, termination of joint economic ventures, conditioning funding on change of policies, and other such steps. To be condemned by a student or academic association is one thing; to face boycott by major global economic actors is quite another.
American Methodists specify the settlements as the target for BDS.
These centrist forces wish to make a clear distinction between the supposedly benevolent core of the Israeli state – in its pre-1967 boundaries – and the malevolent policies of occupation and settlement. While opposed to the BDS movement, they use the threat of boycotts and sanctions that target the occupation to reinforce their own calls for a more moderate and conciliatory foreign policy. Such a policy would retain the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, but would show readiness to withdraw from the majority of the occupied territories and dismantle many of the settlements, in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
Some of these centrist forces have come up with their own calls for boycotts and sanctions that target settlements and their products, referred to – at times in a supportive and at times a derogatory manner – as Zionist BDS. The problem with this approach, however, is that the settlements do not fund, arm and legislate themselves into existence. They are being actively supported by the Israeli state and society as a whole. To target the settlements on their own, without dealing with the vast political, military and financial infrastructure that makes them possible, is to fail to correctly identify the problem and address it. At the same time, the BDS movement with its three goals makes a broad front – united by opposition to the occupation – difficult. Many potential supporters of the anti-occupation campaign are reluctant to join an initiative that requires support for all three goals of the movement, and particularly the right of return of refugees.
How can we square the circle then? A focus on boycott and sanctions campaign that targets the 1967 occupation and all the institutions that sustain it (whether based in the occupied territories or within Israel ‘proper’) could unify the disparate efforts around a core slogan: putting an end to the occupation. It would not require support for other demands (and thus scare away those opposed to them), and would not limit itself to the settlements (and thus shield institutions based in Israel itself, which play a crucial role in entrenching the occupation and the settlements). It would build on the broad global consensus in opposition to the occupation, which unites most of the international community and the Arab world with the Palestinian people, and sections of the Israeli-Jewish population and Jews elsewhere.
Crucially, such a united front should not prevent refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel from continuing to campaign on their issues, but without having to use the same vehicle to convey their concerns and wage their struggles. The BDS movement clearly gets something right: the 1967 occupation is not the first or only problem facing Palestinians. Rather, it is the entire machinery of colonial control that is the problem. But a single, overall problem does not necessarily get solved by a single, overall campaign. Forming specific alliances to address specific components of the situation may be a better way forward.
This House believes that UK academics should join the movement for academic boycott by refusing to engage with any Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the Occupation and abides by international law
Debate on March 9th, 2014: University of Leeds Business School
Speech proposing the motion by Jonathan Rosenhead [not a transcript]
I have to start by some unpacking. Evidently I need to argue why academic boycott is relevant and important, and to do this I need to explain the significance of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a whole. That leads us to the question of “Why Israel?”, or in its fuller version “Why pick on Israel?”. That last question in turn carries with it the suggestion that if we look for antisemitism as the cause of this selectivity we won’t go far wrong. So – a whole interconnected nest of questions and issues.
There is not time to develop fully, or in some cases at all, a range of other arguments relevant to the motion. I will barely mention the array of inhumane Israeli policies that recruit so many people to boycott; the possible effects of BDS on internal Israeli politics; the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian academic life; and more. [In the debate several of these were addressed by the seconder of the motion Dr Sue Blackwell.]
What is boycott?
Boycott is a non-violent tactic available collectively to those who are otherwise weak. It was first made explicit, and gained its name, from the struggle of Irish tenant farmers in the later 19th century against the brutal agent for an absentee English landlord. They withheld from him not only their labour but also all other services, and in short order Captain Boycott was sent packing back to England.
The idea was further developed in the 20th century to include consumer boycotts. In the 1950s both in Montgomery Alabama and in Alexandra in South Africa, refusal by the local black population to use the bus system brought victory – respectively desegregation, and the rolling back of a punitive fare increase. Soon afterwards in another mutation, consumer boycott was employed not by those who were under the cosh, but by others who could support them by selectively withholding their purchasing power. The California grape boycott, and the actions especially by students against Barclays Bank, were both variants on this approach.
The direct mechanism of all of these burgeoning forms of collective withholding were financial – the boycott targets would suffer financially and so have an incentive to cut a deal good enough to call off the boycotters. What then are we to make of those apparently more esoteric forms which developed from the 1960s – academic, cultural and sports boycotts? Though there were costs to some of their boycott targets they were relatively negligible, certainly not such as to divert a nation state (as opposed, say, to a mere university) from its chosen course. Yet it was precisely in such a struggle that they were first employed, that against apartheid South Africa. And the academic, cultural and sporting boycotts of South Africa are generally credited with playing a significant role in undermining that noxious regime.
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions as a political strategy
None of academic, cultural and sporting boycott, nor the three of them combined, can bring down a system of government with a thriving economy, effective armed forces, and the willingness to use them as brutally as necessary. How then can these boycotts nevertheless play a role in just such a positive transformation?
Evidently an active international boycott movement can provide heartening evidence to an oppressed people that they are not forgotten by the external world. Boycott can also provide the committed with day-to-day personal reminders of the unresolved issue, and generate practical activities that bring people together and cement the solidarity movement. So far so good.
It gets better. Each boycott activity is an opportunity for political education in society as a whole. Campaigns in the streets, in the press, in the theatre or in the university provide a forum where the violation of human rights and international law can be explained, and dramatised.
We are talking about Israel here, so let me be specific. Our governments (of whatever party, and indeed whatever Western country) have been supporting Israel wrong or wrong, even as Israel’s actions have become more outrageous. The mobilisation of civil society through these boycott campaigns that bring the issue into the high streets and work places has the aim of building such a pressure that even our governments will need to pay some heed.
Those practicing boycott should not do so because it makes them feel more virtuous, or not only for that reason. BDS would be a self-indulgence if it were only a moral, even quixotic gesture. It will be able to effect history, and even prevail, only if it is, or is embedded in, a coherent strategy of change
The South African analogy
How might that work in practice? Here we have the South African example as a possible model. Over time the incessant and growing campaigns over its iniquitous political system changed the common understanding of that country. From being an upstanding, English speaking, cricket playing stalwart of the British Commonwealth, its position was gradually degraded to that of international pariah.
This change did not just affect Guardian readers. Businesses, here and around the world took notice of this general shift in perception, and although their leaders may not always have done so for principled reasons they started to have doubts about investing in South Africa, and even began disposing of the assets that they already had in that country. In other words, at first hesitantly and then in a growing stream, divestment from South Africa took hold. It came to seem like an unsafe place to do business. So B(oycott) was followed by D(ivestment), which did have a direct and increasing impact on the South African economy. Boycott had generated what sociologists call an “emergent norm” which transformed the field of ideas about how South Africa should be viewed and treated.
With the general public in so many places expressing their views on the country, and with the business community significantly voting with its feet, the bulwarks against governmental action began to crumble. National and even international S(anctions) were put in place. And the intransigent Boers came to realise that they only had limited time, and did the best deal they could with the African National Congress.
Boycott is not a quick fix. It took 30 years from the start of the boycott until South Africa was free. The achievements of the Israeli boycott are already substantial, but stamina will be required if it is to fulfil its potential.
History doesn’t play out the same way twice, or at any rate it cannot be relied upon to do so. And of course Israel is not South Africa – they differ in natural resources, population, social structure, resources, geo-political location…. Israel doesn’t have Table Mountain, game parks, Black Mambazo, gold mines and so on. So if people draw parallels between Israel and South Africa it can only be on a restricted number of features.
The first parallel is the existence of a dominant group defined along racial lines that monopolises effective power, and maintains it through a network of administrative controls backed up by racially-oriented legislation and muscular, even brutal enforcement. To put it simply, apartheid.
Secondly the Israeli economy and culture, like those of South Africa, are open to those of the Western developed nations, and are indeed thoroughly enmeshed with them. This is a strength of Israel’s position, but also a point of strategic vulnerability to boycott. Boycott practiced by us as citizens can impact on them in ways that more isolated societies (think North Korea) would be immune from.
What makes Israel a Boycott target?
I take it that those interested in participating in this debate will already know about this sad track record. But I should at least mention
• the illegal Occupation
• the historical and continuing ethnic cleansing
• the refusal of the internationally mandated right of return of refugees
• systematic discrimination against Palestinians inside pre-’67 Israel
• regular, routine and sometimes extreme violence
Throughout this 60+ year saga Israel has had the unwavering support of our governments. It is this impunity which places the responsibility for action on civil society. Just as in South Africa, the request for boycott has come from the representatives of civil society there. There is one difference however – the type of academic and cultural boycott requested from Palestine (in 2004) is far milder than that which was asked for and embraced in the case of South Africa.
Institutional academic boycott
The South African boycott was individual – for example South African academics were turned away from registering at some academic conferences. By contrast the Israeli boycott is institutional, targeting universities through their formal activities. We are enjoined not to publish papers in their journals, attend conferences held there, participate in their recruitment and promotion procedures etc. There is no impediment to the exchange of ideas, only to business as usual.
The aim of academic boycott is not the reform of Israel’s universities. Certainly were one or more of those universities to end their discrimination against Palestinian students and in favour of those who have served in the IDF; to offer some restitution for the requisitioned Palestinian land on which they are partly built; to campaign against the restrictions which obstruct Palestinian higher education; and to offer a principled critique of Israel’s expansionist policies and violations of international law – then they would be welcomed to the side of the righteous. They might even, logically, support academic boycott, as the courageous members of Boycott from Within do. But as of now the reality is that no university, no staff association or any other body associated with an Israeli university has adopted a single one of these positions.
In fact although it might seem conceptually possible for Israel’s universities to become liberal islands within an otherwise unchanged Israel, this is in effect a pipe dream. The Occupation has lasted for nearly 50 years, and the West Bank and Israel are now in effect one system. All Israel’s institutions are not so much complicit with as deeply embedded in Israel’s expansionist project. The universities serve the state in many ways – providing policy advice, performing R&D for the military, offering courses for the Shin Beth etc. So to achieve a whole new university system needs a whole new Israel.
The aim of boycott then is not modification of the posture of Israeli universities. Academic boycott is a component of the BDS strategy as a whole, and it will continue while it is needed and requested by Palestinian civil society. The demands of Palestine’s Boycott National Committee and of PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) are for the ending of the Occupation, the right of return for refugees, and the ending of discrimination within pre-1967 Israel. It is the extent of progress on these issues that will determine the continuation or termination of the academic boycott
Why pick on Israel?
This is the most frequent query, in the form of an accusation, that the boycott movement faces. Boycott opponents say “Many other countries are worse. Why don’t you go after them?” It would seem that only perversity or prejudice could target the lesser offender while ignoring the more serious.
In this formulation there is however an embedded assumption: that there is an ordered list of ignominy that we all consensually share. This is a far-fetched assumption. Different people for all sorts of reasons – family ties, political or religious beliefs, even eccentricities of thought – are moved to action by different causes. These can easily be sufficient to motivate some people to organise in support of an international cause that is well down other peoples’ lists.
Yet there is another fatal flaw in the ‘why pick on Israel?’ argument. Most people (now, but not so overwhelmingly then) see the South African boycott as legitimate, even admirable. Yet right in the centre of that campaign, from 1975 to 1979, was the period of the Cambodian killing fields in which perhaps 2 million perished. Doubtless there should have been more international action, and protest, than there was. But surely no one would say that the Cambodian atrocities made the boycott campaign against apartheid invalid or illegitimate. One certainly cannot say, could not have said, ‘go boycott Cambodia first’. Boycott was not an appropriate tactic/strategy for Cambodia. Boycott what, exactly?
The openness of a society to our own systems is one of the pre-requisites for a successful boycott campaign. And there is another factor. Israel is, as apartheid South Africa was, ‘one of ours’. All those other atrocity-laden states that anti-boycotters like to cite as targets of preference are, like Cambodia was, already subject to criticism, condemnation or sanctions from out governments. In Israel, however, impunity rules. That puts a special responsibility on civil to society to take the necessary steps to activate the conscience that our governments seem to have mislaid.
Boycott opponents often say, in effect “OK, I agree that Israel isn’t perfect. But you are only doing what you are doing because you are antisemitic”.
“Oops” I say “but I am Jewish.”
“Ahah” they say “you are obviously one of those loathsome self-hating Jews that tries to curry favour with our race enemies by attacking your own”. Or words very much to that effect.
The argument is of course entirely circular. No criticisms of Israel, whoever makes them, can be legitimate. Such utterances, it seems, clearly demonstrate one or other of these mental deformities, which means they can be dismissed as the fulminations of a diseased mind.
Antisemitism certainly exists. (I am not so sure about self-hating Jewhood.) The Palestine solidarity movement, in all its diverse forms, recognises the need for vigilance. There could be nothing so destructive of the campaign’s momentum as an authenticated charge of antisemitism. But there is more than self-preservation in this concern. The membership of the movement is solidly progressive, with an anti-colonialist and anti-racist backbone. Antisemitism is abhorred by the movement’s members as a particular form of racism with a long and dishonourable history.
The calculated, for it surely is, routine use of the antisemitism gambit is a dangerous as well as a malicious slander. Why do they do it? The crude and sometimes effective reasoning, is that it can divert discussion away from the critique of Israel’s policies, and instead towards the motivation of the critics. Its aim is to put those who dare to criticise Israel on the defensive. It is as intellectually dishonest as it is unscrupulous.
That is not quite all that there is to say on this subject. The antisemitic trope is rolled out time after time after time by Israel’s supporters. As in the case of the little boy who cried “Wolf!”, the result can only be a long-term reduction in alertness to the real danger. Antisemitism exists, still. Those who miscall it so frequently are, in effect, antisemitism’s best friend.
In Summer 2013 the scientist Stephen Hawking withdrew from Israel’s Presidential Conference convened by President Shimon Peres. Here’s what he said in his message of withdrawal:
I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinions on the prospects for a Peace Settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.
March 21, 2014
Speech opposing the motion by Robert Fine [not a transcript]
This is not the first time I have been embroiled in a boycott debate. In the 1980s I was involved in solidarity work with the fledgling independent trade unions in South Africa. They were a living expression of non-racial democracy across so-called national lines. Solidarity included establishing direct links between South African and British unions at official and rank and file levels. As a result of our solidarity activities we were pilloried by leading figures in anti-apartheid, the ANC and the South African Communist Party for breaking the boycott! When we invited a South African academic, a leading advocate of the new unions and anti-apartheid scholar, to speak at our Comparative Labour Studies programme at Warwick University, a demonstration was organised by a couple of SACP stalwarts to prevent him from speaking. When we wrote a trade union solidarity pamphlet, we were told that unions could only be legal in South Africa if they collaborated with the regime and that we were in effect collaborationists.
Beneath the argument about boycott what was also going on was a political battle between a progressive socialist politics and a quite reactionary nationalist politics. It is a battle that has not stopped and is rising to the surface in contemporary South Africa. I grant there is no direct analogy between the boycott of apartheid South Africa and that of Israeli academic institutions, but I contend that a similar political battle is taking place. It is a battle over the future of our own political life.
The normal practice of international solidarity is to make contact with and support individuals and associations that are critical of an oppressive power. Depending on the circumstances, I am thinking of trade unions, women’s movements, community organisations, peasant associations, some religious institutions, human rights activists, individual writers and academics – all who find themselves oppressed by and / or in struggle against oppressive powers. As far as Israeli and Palestinian academics are concerned, we should find ways of speaking to one another more, not less. We can do this in the normal way: by establishing links between our professional and union organisations, supporting campaigns for decent conditions, defending academic freedom and freedom of movement, by facilitating academic links across the national divide, and so forth. A boycott directed at Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academic institutions alone shifts our focus away from international solidarity and toward a refusal to have anything to do with one nationally defined section of our fellow academics.
The academic boycott fails to make a distinction crucial to all radical political thought: that between civil society and the state. The academic boycott punishes a segment of civil society, in this case Israeli universities and their members, for the deeds and misdeeds of the state. The occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation are to my mind simply wrong, but there is something very troubling in holding Israeli universities and academics responsible for this wrong. Israeli academics doubtless hold many different political views, just as we academics do in the UK, but the principle of collective responsibility applied to Israeli academe as a whole sends us down a slippery path. The motion calls for Israel – and I would hope all other parties to conflict in the Middle East – to abide by international law, but the essential point of international law is to get away from categories of collective guilt and affix personal and political responsibility where it is merited. It is wrong to hold academic institutions and academics responsible for the actions of the Israeli state – even if many of the universities in question are, like most British academic institutions, rather lacking in political bottle.
It is as discriminatory to boycott any academic institutions or any academics on the basis of nationality, as it would be to boycott on the basis of race, religion or gender. This would be true not only of Israel but of any other country. It is wrong to penalise academics because of the nation to which they or their universities belong. It is also discriminatory to impose a political test that academics of one particular nation must pass in order to be allowed to speak and work with us – as if we are arbiters of all that is allowed to pass muster. Worst of all, I am sure we would agree, would be to base a decision to boycott or not to boycott Israeli academics on whether they are deemed Jewish, Arab or Muslim, but the cases I know of actual boycott have been directed against Jewish Israeli academics.
A selective academic boycott aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at universities and research institutes belonging to other countries with equally bad or far worse records of human rights abuse, is also discriminatory. I admit that the wrongs done by ‘my own people’, in this case fellow Jews, grieve me more than the wrongs done by other peoples, but this is a confession, not a principle of political action. An academic boycott directed exclusively at Israeli academic institutions generates a quite realistic sense that Israel is being picked on – not because it is different from other countries but because it is the same. Given the slaughter currently occurring in Syria, including that of Palestinian refugees, given the repression currently imposed by the military government in Egypt, given the slave-like conditions currently endured by migrant workers in Qatar, it is increasingly eccentric to select Israel alone for boycott. This is not to say that the Israeli occupation should be normalised, certainly not, but it is all too easy to hold some other category of people, the larger and the further away the better, as the embodiment of absolute culpability.
The absence of good reasons to boycott Israeli academic institutions has led to ever more wild and hyperbolic depictions of Israel itself. Pascal once said: if first you kneel, then you will pray. Marx translated this aphorism into the notion that being determines consciousness. In this case, those who call for an academic boycott of Israel end up offering increasingly Manichaean images of Israel’s evil essence in order to justify their practice. We are told that Israel is just like the apartheid state in South Africa, that Israel treats Palestinians just like Nazis treated Jews, that Gaza is just like the Warsaw ghetto, that the Israel lobby controls American foreign policy just like antisemites used to say that the Jewish lobby controlled the nations of Europe, that Zionism is responsible for all that is wrong in Palestine or the Middle East or the world. The existence of these projections of course preceded the boycott, but the boycott encourages us to search everywhere for evidence of Israel’s criminality that will then justify the boycott itself.
Let us turn to the controversial antisemitism question. We should be able to agree that antisemitism is like any other racism something that progressive movements must be against. In my union, UCU, proponents of an academic boycott of Israel always couple their calls with more or less categorical declarations that criticism of Israel is not or not ‘as such’ antisemitic. Supporters of BDS in the States declare categorically that the charge of ‘antisemitism’, when levelled against them or other critics of Israel, is not only mistaken but also raised for dishonest reasons. I have often heard it said – look for example at Alain Badiou’s recent polemics on antisemitism – that while antisemitism was a real problem in the past, it is no longer a problem of the present and has now been converted into a mere ideology of Zionism. What I see is a disturbing reluctance on the part of proponents of boycott to take seriously the problem of antisemitism. To reduce concern over antisemitism to a way of censoring critical thought about Israel is insulting to those of us who are concerned about antisemitism and have no wish to censor critical thought. We should surely understand by now that it is racism and antisemitism, not opposition to racism and antisemitism, which constitute the restriction of free speech.
Criticism of any country can be racist – whether it is criticism of Zimbabwe on the grounds that Africans cannot rule themselves, or criticism of India on the grounds that Asian values are essentially authoritarian, or criticism of the Arab Spring on the grounds that democracy and human rights are foreign to the Arab mindset, or criticism of Ireland on the grounds that the Irish are not intelligent, or even criticism of apartheid South Africa on the grounds that whites are genetically primed to infantilise Blacks. Criticism of Israel is no exception. It can be antisemitic and it is a moral obligation we ought to honour post-MacPherson to take very seriously the fear that the academic boycott encourages antisemitism because its effect is to exclude Jews and only Jews from the global community of academe.
I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past.
The argument is put forward that Palestinian civil society has called for a blanket boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There is an empirical question concerning how true this is – to the chagrin of BDS this call is not supported by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority – but the more fundamental problem is present in the idea that Palestinian civil society is one homogenous bloc with one opinion. To work on this assumption is to diminish the subjectivity of Palestinians, to deny plurality within the Palestinian people, to attribute to Palestinians a single voice that is in fact an echo of your own voice. Palestinians are certainly victims of Israel but they are not only victims and they are not only victims of Israel. Racism is a versatile beast and I would contend that most Palestinians have no more interest in antisemitism than do Jews. Usually it is fellow Palestinians, not Jews, who are the first and main victims of antisemitic political forces within Palestinian society. The academic boycott offers little tangible support for Palestinian academics.
Israel has a definite political responsibility that goes with its current power, and like many other Jews in Israel and the diaspora I feel a frustrated yearning for Israel to fulfil its responsibilities. However, Israel’s power is relative, not absolute. It looks like Goliath when compared with the Palestinian David, but it looks more like David when compared with other state powers. There is something very disturbing in the totalising images of Zionist power associated with the boycott movement and in the innocent vision of peace and harmony that will prevail once this power is broken. Closer to home this self-same image of Zionist power manifests itself in the repeated refrain of resisting ‘intimidation’ we hear from advocates of the boycott.
Solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian academics should have as its aim the building of trust, the surrender of the occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside the Jewish and other Arab states, and above all the humanisation of all parties. In this spirit I would offer our solidarity to the 165 Israeli academics who support a boycott of Ariel University in the occupied territories and the 11 academic institutions that have publicly condemned giving Ariel university status. The problem with ‘the academic boycott’, however, is that it blocks our ears to points of view we don’t want to hear, or don’t want to admit might exist, or indeed to anything that questions our own self-certainty. It grants us licence to invent what we assume others think, in this case Israeli academics, rather than hear what they actually say. The principle of academic freedom is not absolute but it is something. It contains norms of openness, understanding, inquiry, criticism, self-criticism and dialogue, which we abandon at our peril. In any event, we in Europe must face up to our particular responsibility not to project onto one side or the other all the sins of racism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide of which Europe itself has been so very guilty. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions is by contrast the tip of a reactive and regressive political turn.
Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University