More on the University of Johannesburg boycott decision

June 8, 2011
Richard Kuper

sa_jewish-reportOn 1st April we carried a post University of Johannesburg to boycott Ben Gurion University. This included a news report on the decision and immediate reactions to it from the Chronicle of Higher Education, South African University Is First to Open Academic Boycott of Israeli Counterpart; John Strawson’s critical posting The University of Johannesburg’s boycott decision; and Ran Greenstein’s wider Reflections on Academic Boycotts in the Wake of the UJ-BGU Campaign.

On 13th May a debate was organised by the law faculty of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to address the issue of academic boycotts. David Hirsh and Ran Greenstein were among the participants.

A report of the debate by Alison Goldberg appeared in the SA Jewish Report the week after [SA Jewish Report, 20 May, p.4], and was linked to on the Engage website as part of its Report of the Debate at the University of Johannesburg. Ran Greenstein believed that Goldberg’s report contained many distortions which he sought to correct. The SA Jewish Report published his response together with a reply by Alison Godlberg on 27th May (see below) but the Engage website would not do so. Nonetheless, Hirsh sent a letter to the SA Jewish Report, critical of Greenstein, which published it the following week (see below). It was also reproduced on the Engage site. Engage has again refused to publish Ran Greenstein’s response to Hirsh or to allow him to post it as a comment on Hirsh’s posting.

Engage is obviously under no obligation to publish material it disagrees with; but it does appear odd that Hirsh should fly to South Africa to debate with Greenstein, then publish critical comments on him as part of an ongoing contribution to that debate but refuse a right of reply. Greenstein’s letter may yet appear in the SA Jewish Report [It did on 10 June] to which it was also submitted, but, in the meantime, he has asked us if we would publish the full sequence of articles and responses. We are happy to do so as they raise issues of interest to our readers, whatever their perspectives on the issues at stake. They follow below, with full texts, apart from the Alison Goldberg material in the SA Jewish Report, which is only downloadable in PDF.


1. Alison Goldberg’s report UJ-BGU severing of ties: Boycotts pros and cons debated,  in the SA Jewish Report, 20 May, p.4


2. Ran Greenstein’s letter in response, published by SA Jewish Report, 27 May 2011. Alison Goldberg’s reply is available in the same issue in PDF format only.

It is unfortunate that Alison Goldberg’s account of the debate at UJ is full of misrepresentations. Allow me to correct a few of these:

1. I did not call Israel “Greater Israel” or “Greater Palestine”. Rather, I argued that after 44 years of occupation, the only meaningful unit of political analysis is that of the Israeli regime exercising domination over both sides of the Green Line. Any claims about democracy and human rights in Israel must refer to that geographical reality (not only to pre-1967 Israel, which no longer exists as a distinct entity). I further argued that the Palestinian Diaspora (refugees excluded from rights in their homeland) is an essential part of the picture, without which no statement about Israel is meaningful.

2. I did not say that I favoured the 1948 borders or any others. I argued rather that the pre-1948 territory is the overall framework within which a solution must be found, based on principles of individual and collective equality. Whether that would be in the form of one state, a binational state, two binational states, and so on, is far less important.

3. I did not say that military ties are a reason in itself for academic boycotts, nor did I call universities an elite. Rather, I argued that when universities play an important role in entrenching oppressive relations in society, and when they are linked to military forces deeply implicated in human rights abuses and political oppression, academic institutions become complicit in such practices. I further said that the global links of universities in Israel serve to shield the state from justified international criticism, and therefore they become a legitimate target for sanctions.

4. Worst distortion of all: I never said that “anything we do” to undermine Israeli complacency is justified. I explicitly excluded armed attacks against civilians, and any actions that constitute war crimes or violations of international law. Omission of these qualifications borders on libel and calls for retraction from Ms Goldberg and the Jewish Report.

5. Goldberg’s claim that boycotts are not peaceful because Hamas fires rockets at Israeli targets is incomprehensible. What does UJ or boycott supporters have to do with rocket attacks from Gaza or, for that matter, Israeli artillery barrages on Gaza?

6. This kind of reporting not only distorts the debate but potentially constitutes incitement against participants in it and a cause for legal action.


Ran Greenstein University of the Witwatersrand



3. David Hirsh’s letter, published by SA Jewish Report, 3rd June 2011 (not currently accessible on that website, but republished on Engage as Letter by David Hirsh in the South African Jewish Report

Ran Greenstein wants to get us bogged down in the detail of wording and of who said what. But what is important is whether we choose to embrace the politics of peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine; or whether we choose the politics of siding with one set of ardent nationalists in their war against the other.

Greenstein does not support a peace between Israel and Palestine. He insists instead that Israel and Palestine should be thought of as one divided people who are ruled over by an apartheid regime.

He wants to dismantle Israel, like the apartheid regime in South Africa was dismantled, and he proposes instead a regime of individual rights within a new state.

But Israel is a nation, the nation descended from those who were driven out of Europe, out of Russia and out of the Middle East by 20th century anti-Semitism.

Israel is not an apartheid regime, it is a life-raft state, and it will not allow itself to be dismantled. Given this fact, Ran’s plan for treating Israelis in the way that the apartheid regime was treated, can only be a programme for conquest. The conquest of Israel is, hopefully, impossible and would in any case, never lead to a democratic outcome.

It is quite wrong to tell Palestinians that Israel must be finally defeated before they can be free, because it is like telling them that they can never be free.

But Palestinians can be free. Even the most terrible and entrenched conflicts between nations come to an end. They don’t come to an end with the final defeat of one or the other, but with a peace agreement between the two.

President Barack Obama was right when he outlined the deal: an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and both nations to recognise the sovereignty of the other.

Greenstein’’s “Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions” slogan tries to exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the cultural, academic, sporting and economic life of humanity.

It is war by other means, it is not peace and reconciliation. And such a politics of exclusion, aimed at the descendents of the Jews who have already been boycotted and pushed out, is a politics which is insufficiently sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism which not only hangs over Jews, but over us all.

Ran Greenstein, who has given up on Israelis, has despaired of building the Israeli peace movement, imagines that peace in his homeland can be built by demonising them here, and in the UK and around the world.

He thinks that anybody who disagrees with him should be denounced as supporters of apartheid.

Instead of the politics of anger and desperation, we should back those in both Israel and Palestine who want peace and who stand against the demonisation of the other.

David Hirsh Goldsmiths College, University of London


4. Ran Greenstein’s response to David Hirsh, sent to SA Jewish Report and Engage for publication.

Refused by the latter but published in SA Jewish Report, 10 June issue [together with a brief note saying We take note of Prof Greenstein’s correspondence with the Jewish Report and accept that he has excluded armed attacks against civilians in the campaign against Israel, and that he did not advocate that “everything” was legitimate. – Editor”

David Hirsh does not think that “wording” and “who said what” are important. This is curious for an academic who deals with little else. But words do matter: contrary to his claims, I support peace between Israel and Palestine, conceived as democratic, mutli-ethnic societies, which guarantee equal individual and collective rights to all their people. I said as much at the UJ seminar and in my letter to SA Jewish Report, to which he was responding.

If words (and reality) mattered to Hirsh, he would understand that ‘’dismantling’’ apartheid meant the creation of a democratic state in South Africa, not the destruction of white people. Not only do I not want to ‘’dismantle’’ Israeli Jews, but I wish for them to live long and prosper as equal citizens, together with their fellow residents of the land. Why does the spectre of equality and democracy haunt Hirsh?

The real challenge facing us is to find ways to reach that goal. Certainly not by using violence to attack civilians (a practice employed to a far greater extent, resulting in far greater destruction, by the state of Israel than by Palestinians). Rather, it is by waging non-violent campaigns, peaceful protests, legal challenges, educational initiatives and, yes, sanctions as well. These have been used in many cases and constitute one important peaceful tactic, among others.

Are Israelis singled out here? Hirsh seems unaware that his own country has imposed severe sanctions and used violent means of censure against numerous targets in the last two decades: PLO, Hamas, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Serbia and, most recently, Libya and Syria, have been subject to sanctions and military campaigns far more aggressive and violent than Israel is likely ever to face. Israel has been singled out indeed, for receiving vast sums of military and financial aid that allow it to entrench the occupation, and diplomatic immunity by the USA for its acts of violence against civilians.

Instead of pursuing his campaign of manufactured hysteria and distortions against those working for justice and democracy, Hirsh could support the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who protest peacefully in Bil’in, Ni’ilin, Sheikh Jarrah, and elsewhere in Israel/Palestine. These young activists do not support one national group against another, but campaign for members of both to unite in order to stop oppression and create a secure democratic future for all. This is my goal as well, and should be supported by all progressive people wherever they are.

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