Only an idiot never changes his mind.
Neve Gordon has changed his mind on the campaign to boycott Israel. In 2003 he wrote a compelling piece under the headline: “Against the israeli Academic Boycott” in the The Nation in which he puts forward some of the central reasons why a boycott of Israeli academia would be both unjust and also counterproductive.
In 2003 Neve Gordon argued that in Israel ‘academic freedom still exists, much more so than in many other countries’ but he said that unwittingly, ‘American and European supporters of the academic boycott against Israeli universities are aiding’ the right wing attack on academic freedom. Gordon goes on:
“Among the many reasons why one should reject the academic boycott, critics have highlighted the boycotter’s double standard. It is not only that some of the boycotters come from countries that are also responsible for much oppression and suffering, but, perhaps more important, Israel could not carry out its policies without the ongoing support of the United States, which has, for example, recently promised Sharon $12 billion in direct aid and loan guarantees.”
“While this line of argument exposes some of the biases informing the academic boycott movement, there are two other important reasons why a boycott of Israeli universities is misdirected.”
“The first argument is the one already alluded to: Israeli universities continue to be an island of freedom surrounded by a stifling and threatening environment. In the past two years the Israeli media, which was once known for its critical edge, has been suppressing critical voices, and in a number of electronic media outlets specific regulations have been issued, such as restrictions on live interviews with Palestinians. This dangerous trend is likely to become even more pronounced now that the right wing has garnered a considerable majority in the Israeli Knesset.”
“The second argument, the one most often ignored by outsiders, has to do with the fact that in the past year and a half Israeli universities have been under an unprecedented assault by the Sharon government. The Minister of Education, Limor Livnat, is trying to radically change the structure of higher education, including the way universities are governed and managed. She would like to strip power from the faculty senates and transfer it to boards of trustees in which professors are barred from membership. An academic boycott will only strengthen Livnat, and in this way assist the destruction of academic freedom in Israel.”
Neve Gordon goes on to explain precisely why the boycotters’ claim to be targetting only institutions and not individuals makes no sense:
When I explained these points to pro-boycott colleagues in Britain, they replied, “It isn’t you, but rather your institute that will be punished for not taking an institutional stand on the illegality of the occupation.” Yet it is precisely the institute that enables Israeli professors – regardless of their political affiliation – to voice their views, suggesting that an assault on the university is in fact an assault on its faculty.
Neve Gordon finishes with an important point:
To fight the anti-intellectual atmosphere within Israel, local academics need as much support as they can get from their colleagues abroad. A boycott will only weaken the elements within Israeli society that are struggling against the assault on the universities, and in this way will inadvertently help those who want to gain control over one of the last havens of free speech in the country.
Some of us, who later founded Engage, were so impressed by Neve Gordon’s position that we quoted him in a letter that was published in the Times Higher in April 2005 and which was signed by, amongst others, David Hirsh and Robert Fine.
In August 2009 Neve Gordon raised perhaps the most fundamental reason why a boycott of Israel would be counterproductive: “A global boycott can’t help but contain echoes of anti-Semitism.” This, as UCU activists have discovered for themselves over the last five years, is certainly true. In the same piece Neve Gordon also argues that:
“It also brings up questions of a double standard (why not boycott China for its egregious violations of human rights?) and the seemingly contradictory position of approving a boycott of one’s own nation.”
Yet it is this same editorial in the LA Times where Neve Gordon says that he now supports the campaign for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. This followed on from a piece he had published in the Guardian also offering support to the BDS campaign.
Only an idiot never changes his mind. There is no disgrace in changing your mind. But if you do so then you ought to say why. This is the reasoning that he offers in the LA Times:
But today, as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.
I say this because Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures. I say this as a Jew who has chosen to raise his children in Israel, who has been a member of the Israeli peace camp for almost 30 years and who is deeply anxious about the country’s future.
The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state. For more than 42 years, Israel has controlled the land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. Within this region about 6 million Jews and close to 5 million Palestinians reside. Out of this population, 3.5 million Palestinians and almost half a million Jews live in the areas Israel occupied in 1967, and yet while these two groups live in the same area, they are subjected to totally different legal systems. The Palestinians are stateless and lack many of the most basic human rights. By sharp contrast, all Jews — whether they live in the occupied territories or in Israel — are citizens of the state of Israel.
The question that keeps me up at night, both as a parent and as a citizen, is how to ensure that my two children as well as the children of my Palestinian neighbors do not grow up in an apartheid regime.
The reason seems to be that things are now so bad in Israel that ‘something must be done’. But what Neve Gordon is unable to do is to show what is wrong with his previous arguments about doing this particular ‘something’. He offers nothing.
No reason why the boycott campaign no longer contains echoes of antisemitism.
No reason why he singles out Israel, and only Israel, for boycott.
No reason why he is willing to overlook the ‘biases’ of the boycott movement.
No reason why BDS would no longer bolster the right and harm the left in Israel.
Neve Gordon evidently understands the reasons why BDS is both wrong and also counterproductive. He is therefore very well placed to explain to us why these reasons are no longer important. He should do so.
Engage offered Neve Gordon a right of reply to this piece which I wrote in response to another article of his. Neve wrote back and denied that, as it said in that article, he is ‘a supporter of the campaign to exclude Israeli scholars from the international academic community’. He wrote that ‘the BDS campaign itself does not support such exclusion. Indeed, the academic boycott is aimed at institutions and not individual scholars’.
As to what the BDS campaign supports, that was clear long ago. It supported Mona Baker and Andrew Wilkie in their ‘individual boycotts’ of Israelis. At some times it has supported a political test for individuals from Israel, and offered an amnesty to individuals like Neve Gordon who show willingness to jump through their hoops. And at other times the BDS campaign has tried to hide behind the fiction of the ‘institutional boycott’.
This old piece by Jon Pike deals with this sophistry: http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=231
This old piece of mine responded to Sue Blackwell’s protestations and threats on the issue: http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=1197
But for the best critique of the ‘institutional boycott’ I would refer you to Neve Gordon himself (above): “it is precisely the institute that enables Israeli professors – regardless of their political affiliation – to voice their views, suggesting that an assault on the university is in fact an assault on its faculty.”
Neve Gordon has written op eds in the Guardian and in the LA Times in which he offers unambiguous support for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Nowhere does he mention any nuances of position regarding an academic boycott.
There is a transcript of an interview that he gave on Public Radio International in which the interviewer suggests that Gordon is not for an academic boycott. Neve Gordon replies as follows:
“ There is no doubt tension, if not a contradiction, to support a boycott of one’s self in a sense. What I’m trying to say is that we all live in contradictions and we have to choose the contradictions we live in. The contradiction I am living with is a contradiction that I hope will bring change here for my children. And I don’t want them, or the children of our Palestinian neighbors, to live in an apartheid regime.”
Neve Gordon does not take this opportunity to say that he is for BDS except for academics. He does not say he is against an academic boycott either of individuals or of institutions. Given that he publicly and internatioanlly supports “BDS” and given that he has not argued for an exception for academics, I think it is fair to say that he supports the boycott campaign.
The boycott campaign is fronted by “PACBI” – the Palestinian campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It is a campaign for an academic boycott of Israel. Neve Gordon supports it. But he does not say why he has rejected all the good reasons for opposing it.
Goldsmiths, University of London
Engage invites Neve Gordon to respond