The academic boycott of Israel revisited

October 16, 2010
Richard Kuper


The Academic Boycott Revisited

On 20 August 2009, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Neve Gordon, a lecturer in politics at Ben Gurion University. It was entitled “Boycott Israel An Israeli comes to the painful conclusion that it’s the only way to save his country“. The article provoked a flurry of criticisms,and we posted a response by Uri Avnery: Tutu’s Prayer on why he opposes the ‘boycott Israel’ call. This in turn came in for stiff criticism from e.g. Kim Petersen in  Boycotts as a Legitimate Means of Resistance: As Determined by the Oppressed People or Tony Greenstein in  Uri Avnery – The Muddle Headed Zionist Opposes Boycott. Avnery replied to his critics in The Boycott Revisited.

The debate has recently been revived following the University of Johannesburg’s ruling body meeting on 29 September to discuss a proposal from the boycott campaign that it should sever its research links with Ben Gurion University.  It set an ultimatum for BGU and it postponed the decision for six months. Archbishop Tutu endorsed this call. David Newman, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, responded in the Jerusalem Post as did David Hirsh on the Engage website and Robert Fine in the South African Mail and Guardian.

Ran Greenstein, an Israeli academic now working at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg produced a critique of the Robert Fine article (including harsh criticism of the role of Engage), and Fine has in turn now replied to this. These last two contributions to the debate are clear and level-headed, and respectful of each other’s arguments. They are reproduced below.

Postscript, 30 October

There have been many further exchanges between Greenstein and Fine, which you can find here.

An updated comprehensive set of links to all the relevant contributions to the debate can be found here.


Engage serves as “‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda”

Ran Greenstein, 14 October 2010

Followed by Proposals to boycott Israeli Universities: a response by Robert Fine

As calls for boycotts and sanctions campaigns against Israeli institutions and practices become common, so do counter-voices seeking to shield Israel from criticism. Official Israeli efforts are usually organized through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its affiliates (such as the South African Zionist Federation) and are easily identified and refuted as sheer apologetics for oppressive practices.

Less official attempts in the same vein are sometimes disguised as liberal progressive efforts to enhance the struggle against the occupation by ridding it of particularly ‘offensive’ associations. An example of this strategy is the concerted attempt to deny the similarity between Israeli practices vis-a-vis Palestinians and the South Africa practices of apartheid before 1994 (I dealt with one practitioner of this approach, Benjamin Pogrund, here.

Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.

One site of this campaign is the UK group of academics operating under the label of Engage, self-styled as “The anti-racist campaign against anti-Semitism”. They present themselves as concerned with anti-Semitism in the UK academic world, operating from a universal cosmopolitan perspective, but in fact have become a tool in the hands of those who reject all criticism of Israeli policies and practices as tainted with anti-Semitism. Two recent items from their site serve to illustrate the role they have undertaken, and the fallacies that inform their approach.

In a response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed support for a campaign to discontinue institutional relationship between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Robert Fine argues: “the question of why he singles out Israel and Israeli academic institutions is not explained. Why not a host of other countries that repress their own inhabitants or occupy foreign lands, or a host of other universities that are equally implicated in policies of state? My own country, Britain, has after all been engaged in two bloody wars with casualties that far outnumber anything that has involved Israel. Why not boycott British academics? The academic boycott campaign he supports looks to the exclusion of Israeli Jews – and only Israeli Jews – from the scholarly life of humanity. This seems to me discriminatory.” And further: “This campaign opens the door to the deployment of ever wilder claims to justify the special treatment of Israeli Jewish academics – for example, that Israel is inherently ethnic cleansing, genocidal or akin to Nazism. To justify discrimination against certain academics by virtue of their nationality, there is a tangible risk of slippage from political criticism to the vilification of a whole people.”

Why indeed single Israel out? First, we must recognize that Israeli state institutions are in fact not singled out at all. Can Fine really be unaware that his country and its allies have been boycotting the Hamas government in Gaza (and for decades had boycotted the PLO), have collaborated with sanctions campaigns at various times against Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and various other ‘hostile’ countries, have invoked international human rights legislation to prosecute political leaders and have used military force on a massive scale against some of these countries? None of these steps have been used against Israel. With the exception of few feeble legal enquiries, almost always opposed by the UK and the USA, Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. If Israel has been ‘singled out’ in this respect, it has been for a privileged treatment.

But wait, Fine is a political theorist and would tell us – correctly – that state is different from civil society, and his concern is with the latter, not with the action of states. Let’s examine the issue. It is true indeed that the academic boycott (though not other kinds of boycott) as an issue has been raised by human rights and solidarity organizations in relation to Israel but not to other oppressive countries. Why is that the case?

To understand this, we have to go back to the anti-apartheid movement. It argued that one cannot lead a normal life in an abnormal society. The movement set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South Africans, in order to force them to understand that change was necessary. One tactic chosen in this regard was boycotts and sanctions. Other campaigns against oppressive regimes have used similar tactics, selecting targets in order to maximize strategic
advantage. The closer the target was to the core identity of oppressive groups, the more likely it was to be effective. Thus, it made sense to boycott South African cricket and rugby teams to disrupt the sense of normality of sports-mad white South Africans. This tactic would not work in, say, Burma or Sudan, whose oppressive elites have limited interest in sports. Using the same logic, it made sense to boycott Chilean wine and football in Argentina (respectively sources of great national pride), when both countries were under military rule, but not the other way around.

When we consider the campaign against the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, a careful choice of targets must guide action. While Israeli Jews are not the only ones who violate human rights, as the stronger side they are the chief culprits today. Their greatest source of vulnerability is the obsessive need to feel an integral part of the West and the global community. This feeling is particularly strong among the elites, including academics. It is central to their professional identity and it contributes to a sense of political complacency. With their eyes firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians living under conditions of military occupation and suffering from massive violation of human rights. This is the challenge, then: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances?

The academic boycott may become a successful strategy of political mobilization against Israeli oppressive practices to the extent that it manages to highlight what is wrong with the current situation and put pressure on elite sectors in Israeli society to oppose their government’s policies. In this vein, the petition that Desmond Tutu signed did not call for a total boycott but specifically for suspending relations with BGU until it took a stand against the occupation, in the same way that South African universities were expected to – and many did – issue statements against apartheid. Whether such a strategy could or should be used against the UK, USA or any other country is entirely irrelevant. No one ever demanded of the anti-apartheid movement to act against all other oppressive regimes before it could justify its specific claims to action; no one except for PW Botha and his supporters, that is.

While some of Fine’s points are not without merit, he distorts the essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity.” To begin with, Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not affected at all. In addition, Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities and non-Jewish academics are treated in the same way – the campaign does not target Jews in particular. Further, Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not affected as individuals. No one in South Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity whatsoever. The campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. Fine’s argument is pure fantasy as far as South Africa is concerned. There were indeed a couple of instances a few years ago in which Israeli academics were excluded in the UK as individuals, but these were isolated incidents and most supporters of the academic boycott campaign do not approve of such practices.

That criticism of Israeli practices may be turned by some into ‘a vilification of a whole people’, as Fine cautions us, is theoretically possible, but is that an argument for stopping such criticism? Criticism of apartheid frequently turned into vilification of all Afrikaners, criticism of US policies under George W Bush became vilification of all North Americans, criticism of Iran has become vilification of all Muslims, and so on. The problem of generalization is real, and should be dealt with, but why is it that only in the case of Israel this becomes an argument against criticism itself? Is that not a case of singling Israel out?  This is not to deny that anti-Semitism may be a problem on the margins in some places. However, to use that to undermine a campaign against the much more clear and present danger of the Israeli state’s racist and oppressive practices, which are backed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, betrays an agenda that has nothing to do with concern with human rights and justice.

Having said that, there is an important point implied in Fine’s article. To make the most of the potential educational value of the academic boycott campaign it must not become a punitive and externally imposed measure. Rather, it should be a step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics. Ideally it would help create a counterweight to the increasing pressure from right-wing forces that seek to silence critical voices at Israeli universities, including BGU.

This may be the most important contribution of the campaign: to side with those fighting for change from within. Local activists in Israel/Palestine are subject to enormous pressure internally, and the only way they could sustain a campaign for change is by maintaining a constant exchange of information, solidarity, and a flow of moral and material assistance from the outside.  It is only through such a dialogue that the campaign can move forward.

Fine is misguided, though perhaps well-intentioned, and is respectful towards Tutu. His colleague David Hirsh, in contrast, is out to do a demolition job on one of the prominent activists and academics working against the occupation, Neve Gordon.

Taking Gordon to task for changing his mind about the academic boycott without providing reasons, Hirsh repeats the standard apologetic arguments against the boycott campaign: that it opens the door to anti-Semitism, that it singles out Israel alone for boycott, that it harms the left in Israel, that it uses rhetoric like ‘fascism’ and ‘apartheid’ to portray Israel in a particularly bad light, and so on.

Setting aside the inconvenient fact that Gordon never called specifically for an academic boycott, Hirsh has nothing to add to Fine’s points beyond personal vilification. Ironically, but not coincidentally, his attack on Gordon comes precisely at the moment when Israeli progressives rally against what they themselves regard as growing racist and fascist tendencies in Israel, expressed in legislation the Government has just approved (expelling foreign children, conditioning citizenship on loyalty tests, attacks on Palestinian activists and organizations inside Israel, and so on). That even some government ministers regard such trends as a threat of creeping fascism is unlikely to deter Hirsh in his campaign against Israeli dissidents…

What has changed to make Gordon support sanctions and boycotts now, when he opposed them in the past? Without presuming to speak for him, here are some possible answers: the legal and extra-legal campaign against critical Israeli voices and dissident activists – Jews and Arabs alike – has intensified dramatically in the last couple of years, irrespective of their support for the BDS campaign. The freedom of the press and of political expression in the media and public life (including parliament) has shrunk. The space for peaceful protest and hope for change from within has become more restricted. The violence of the Israeli state has increased and the only effective – even if limited – barrier to its further expansion is pressure from the outside. Other strategies of persuasion from within have yielded meagre results. The hysterical reaction of the Israeli establishment whenever a boycott campaign achieves any measure of success indicates its vulnerability to such tactics. Faced with all this, the concern with the possible bias and double standards of the BDS movement (even if it were genuine) pales into insignificance. Whatever pro-Israeli UK academics may feel about the movement, their concerns have very limited relevance to Israeli activists standing in the line of fire. That many Israeli academics become radicalized as a result is hardly surprising. What can they be expected to do instead? Fight the occupation by obsessing over academic union officials’ e-mails, as Engage is prone to do?

Ultimately, the bankruptcy of the approach offered by Engage and their ilk is that they offer nothing by way of a strategy to fight the occupation and oppression. At best, they are irrelevant to the struggle. At worst, they actively side with the Israeli state and its propaganda apparatus. Either way they have nothing positive to contribute and must feel little satisfaction with their efforts: who really needs useful idiots when you can go to the source and serve the state directly?

by Ran Greenstein, University of Witswatersrand, South Africa


Proposals to boycott Israeli Universities: a response by Robert Fine

Dear Ran,

I have read your paper on the academic boycott that was published on the Engage website, which contains inter alia criticisms of my own response to Bishop Tutu’s support for the boycott. You raise important issues to which I should like to respond.

Your first point is also my own. It is about how we ‘hear’ and interpret viewpoints that conflict with our own. It seems to me important to consider the substance of the arguments advanced, not to avoid looking at the arguments by de-legitimising those who make them. So when people criticise the academic boycott movement, it is possible to dismiss such criticism by saying either that the critics are ‘easily identified’ apologists for Israel and the Israeli government policies, or that they are ‘useful idiots’ unwittingly servicing the Israeli state propaganda machine. I’m not sure in which of these categories you would place my own contribution! Either way, there remains the risk of dismissing the argument by demeaning the source.

Critics of the boycott movement come from many different political standpoints, but speaking for myself (and this is, I think, mainstream in Engage) I am critical of the policies currently pursued by the Israeli government. More broadly I am critical of the occupation and the human rights abuses that flow from occupation. And more broadly still I am critical of the failure of successive Israeli governments to recognise the real responsibilities that come with power.

I do not, however, hold Israel exclusively responsible for the suffering and unfreedom of Palestinians. I try to understand Israeli actions interactively, that is, in relation to others regional actors some of whom are deadly enemies. And I refuse to demonise ‘Zionism’, whatever that is, as the source of all that is wrong.  I do not endorse any nationalism myself – whether Zionist or Arab or Islamist or indeed English – but I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own Palestinian-democratic state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity. The far bigger problem arises when there is no democracy.

My fellow contributors to the Engage website are not of one political persuasion but none of us, as far as I know, rejects all criticism of Israeli policies and practices and all of us seek to reconnect antiracism and anti-antisemitism. I happen to be co-convenor a European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism and a number of individuals who contribute to Engage are also members of this network. Our point of departure is that antisemitism is not a mere ideology wielded by ‘Zionists’, any more than racism is a mere ideology wielded by Black Nationalists.

It seems to me that as long as you treat ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word, you can never get to grips with the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East or the complexities of Jewish identification with Israel in our respective countries.  I believe that the analogy between Israel and apartheid is one you have investigated in some depth. There may indeed be some similar practices in relation to settlements in the occupied territories and there is an ultra-nationalist right wing in Israel adopting a disturbingly hostile stance toward Palestinian Israelis. But the analogy ends there. In my opinion it serves well to de-legitimate Israel (and in this context justify a boycott) but it does not throw light on Israel or on the conflicts in which it is embroiled.

I am in favour of assessing the justice and injustice of a situation comparatively – for example, by comparing respect for human rights in Israel and the occupied territories with the equivalent in Arab states in the Middle East and in European states in the EU as well as in South Africa – but analogy seems to me to bring comparative analysis to a premature halt.

Why single Israel out? You say that Western governments do not single Israel out, at least not negatively, and that Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. You are on the whole right, though in the European Union there are signs of an increasingly ‘tough’ official attitude toward Israel. As I see it, the first question is whether Israel is a major human rights abuser in relation to the inhabitants either of its own territory or of surrounding territories. The comparisons you raise are indeed pertinent:  Iran, Iraq <under Saddam>, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

The second question is whether the state in Israel has succeeded in making universities complicit with its own oppressive policies and practices (compared, say, to universities in the same list). It seems to me vital to get some perspective on what the state of Israel has done, of which we may strongly disapprove, compared with situations in which ethnic groups are slaughtered, oppositions forces murderously suppressed, students beaten up and removed, trade union leaders defenestrated, women stoned to death, and gay people persecuted. I think you can lose perspective when you refer simply to ‘massive’ human rights abuses.

The issue here, moreover, is not what our governments do but what we do. You say that an academic boycott hits Israelis where they most hurt: the ‘obsessive need’ of their elites, and especially academics, to feel an integral part of the global community. It seems to me that feeling part of the global community is no bad thing – indeed a feeling that we all ought to cultivate. Then you say: ‘With their eyes firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians…’ This may be true of some but as far as I know the Israeli universities are home to some of the more progressive Israeli citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, who are anything but blind to what is happening to Palestinians.

Surely, our role is to offer our support to our academic colleagues in Israel and Palestine, not to set them against one another and not to cut them off from ‘the global community’. It is to support the existence and indeed expansion of university spaces that doubtless contain all manner of complicities but also make possible a culture of radical dissent, critical thinking and respect for human rights. In my view, no talk of ‘strategic advantage’ can possibly compensate for the ill will of some and thoughtlessness of others that lies behind the campaign to have nothing to do with these vital institutional spaces.

You say that ‘the petition that Desmond Tutu signed did not call for a total boycott but specifically for suspending relations with BGU until it took a stand against the occupation’. I don’t think this is so but in any event it seems to me doubly problematic if the emphasis is only on UJ-BGU links. First, one would have to pay some heed to the nature of these links – which are mainly, I understand, to do with the development of arid agriculture techniques. Second, one would have to consider the overall nature of BGU, for example, the diversity of its own student and staff or its links with Palestinian universities. Third, one would have to explore whether there is space at BGU for dissent, how that space has been used by dissenting voices, and what actions if any the university has taken against such dissent. Having not too long ago attended an antiracist conference at BGU, my own impression is that the university as an institution comes out rather well on these three counts. There are individuals within it who adopt a militant, right wing rhetoric but, as Neve Gordon honourably points out, their draconian calls for conformity have been resisted both by the President of the University and the Dean of Social Sciences.

This brings me to my last point. You say that I ‘distort the essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity”’.  You are quite right to say that Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not directly affected. You are also right to say that the boycott campaign does not formally discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities. I disagree, however, when you say that Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not affected as individuals and that no one in South Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity.

You say that the campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. It seems to me mistaken to think that an institutional boycott does not affect individuals. Of course it does. Institutions do not engage in research, write up papers, disseminate their findings and apply them to practical projects. Individuals do. If an institutional boycott is introduced, individuals will be prevented from doing so outside Israel unless they leave Israeli universities. This seems to me a recipe for discriminating against individual academics on the basis of their country of work.

By the way, I think this is the substantive core of the argument between Neve Gordon and David Hirsh: the former now seeing a watertight wall between institutional boycott and individual discrimination; the latter arguing, as I do, that the wall is necessarily leaky. It has nothing to do with lying but with a difference of political interpretation. If successfully implemented, I wonder what the outcome of a boycott would be. My fear is that it would encourage those academics who stay in Israeli universities to batten down the hatches in opposition to an ‘antisemitic world’ and those seeking to leave Israeli universities (whether for conscientious or pragmatic reasons) to look for tenure in America, the UK or South Africa. I can’t see how this would help foster a climate of diversity, dissent and co-operation with Palestinians inside Israel itself.

You say I am against criticism of Israeli practices for fear that it may be turned by some into ‘vilification of a whole people’. I am not against ‘criticism’ but I am against vilification and I am against a boycott of fellow academics based on their country of work. The point I am seeking to make is that the arbitrariness of singling out Israeli academe is connected with the search for ever more outlandish justifications. We all know the difference between, say, criticism of a literary text and vilification of its author because she or he is of a particular social origin or particular political persuasion or particular sexual orientation. We also know the difference between criticism and banning a book because it is seen as ‘Jewish’ or what-not. Boycott is not criticism. It is exclusion. We doubtless disagree how marginal the problem of antisemitism is, but that it is a problem is something we have to confront.

In my view your heart is in the right place but you could not be more mistaken than to think that the boycott could and should be a ‘step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics’. If we want to do this, then let’s do it. Not preface it with a boycott which the vast majority of Israeli academics of various political persuasions are opposed to and in relation to which the attitude of Palestinian academics is not to my knowledge uniform or clear. If we want to oppose right wing voices in Israeli universities, then support those who stand up to them – including official representatives of the universities themselves.

Let me end with a word about your comments on Engage. First, the approach offered by Engage is one that tries to go beyond a politics of victims and victimisers: a politics that allows one voice to the victims and imposes absolute culpability on the victimisers. Engage provides a space in which the complexities of a difficult situation can be aired and debated.

Second, to campaign against antisemitism on the Left and from the Left is hardly a mark of bankruptcy; it inherits an honourable tradition that goes back to Karl Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s radical rejection of Jewish emancipation and Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of German Social Democracy’s equivocations over political antisemitism. The fact that Engage alerts us to the dangers of overlap between antisemitism and hatred of Israel is surely something we should all welcome under the register of antiracism.

Finally, we cannot and should not accept the view that, willy-nilly, criticism of the boycott plays into the hands of right wing Zionists. It’s a bit like people saying in the old days that criticism of the USSR played into the hands of imperialism. Sometimes this was true but as often as not it was a way of refusing to hear the call of common humanity.

Best Wishes,

Robert Fine

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