Man Booker Winner Howard Jacobson

Uri Avnery’s critique of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon

This piece, by Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, is from the Gush Shalom website

Tutu’s Prayer

HOW MUCH did the boycott of South Africa actually contribute to the fall of the racist regime? This week I talked with Desmond Tutu about this question, which has been on my mind for a long time.

No one is better qualified to answer this question than he. Tutu, the South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel prize laureate, was one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid and, later, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the crimes of the regime. This week he visited Israel with the “Elders”, an organization of elder statesmen from all over the world set up by Nelson Mandela.

The matter of the boycott came up again this week after an article by Dr. Neve Gordon appeared in the Los Angeles Times {1}, calling for a world-wide boycott of Israel. He cited the example of South Africa to show how a world-wide boycott could compel Israel to put an end to the occupation, which he compared to the apartheid regime.

I have known and respected Neve Gordon for many years. Before becoming a lecturer at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, he organized many demonstrations against the Separation Wall in the Jerusalem area, in which I, too, took part.

I am sorry that I cannot agree with him this time – neither about the similarity with South Africa nor about the efficacy of a boycott of Israel.

There are several opinions about the contribution of the boycott to the success of the anti-apartheid struggle. According to one view, it was decisive. Another view claims its impact was marginal. Some believe that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that was the decisive factor. After that, the US and its allies no longer had any reason for support the regime in South Africa, which until then had been viewed as a pillar of the world-wide struggle against Communism.

“THE BOYCOTT was immensely important,” Tutu told me. “Much more than the armed struggle.”

It should be remembered that, unlike Mandela, Tutu was an advocate of non-violent struggle. During the 28 years Mandela languished in prison, he could have walked free at any moment, if he had only agreed to sign a statement condemning “terrorism”. He refused.

“The importance of the boycott was not only economic,” the archbishop explained, “but also moral. South Africans are, for example, crazy about sports. The boycott, which prevented their teams from competing abroad, hit them very hard. But the main thing was that it gave us the feeling that we are not alone, that the whole world is with us. That gave us the strength to continue.”

To show the importance of the boycott he told me the following story: In 1989, the moderate white leader, Frederic Willem de Klerk, was elected President of South Africa. Upon assuming office he declared his intention to set up a multiracial regime. “I called to congratulate him, and the first thing he said was: Will you now call off the boycott?”

IT SEEMS to me that Tutu’s answer emphasizes the huge difference between the South African reality at the time and ours today.

The South African struggle was between a large majority and a small minority. Among a general population of almost 50 million, the Whites amounted to less than 10%. That means that more than 90% of the country’s inhabitants supported the boycott, in spite of the argument that it hurt them, too.

In Israel, the situation is the very opposite. The Jews amount to more than 80% of Israel’s citizens, and constitute a majority of some 60% throughout the country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 99.9% of the Jews oppose a boycott on Israel.

They will not feel the “the whole world is with us”, but rather that “the whole world is against us”.

In South Africa, the world-wide boycott helped in strengthening the majority and steeling it for the struggle. The impact of a boycott on Israel would be the exact opposite: it would push the large majority into the arms of the extreme right and create a fortress mentality against the “anti-Semitic world”. (The boycott would, of course, have a different impact on the Palestinians, but that is not the aim of those who advocate it.)

Peoples are not the same everywhere. It seems that the Blacks in South Africa are very different from the Israelis, and from the Palestinians, too. The collapse of the oppressive racist regime did not lead to a bloodbath, as could have been predicted, but on the contrary: to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. Those who appeared before the commission and admitted their misdeeds were pardoned. That was in tune with Christian belief, and that was also in tune with the Jewish Biblical promise: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

I told the bishop that I admire not only the leaders who chose this path but also the people who accepted it.

ONE OF the profound differences between the two conflicts concerns the Holocaust.

Centuries of pogroms have imprinted on the consciousness of the Jews the conviction that the whole world is out to get them. This belief was reinforced a hundredfold by the Holocaust. Every Jewish Israeli child learns in school that “the entire world was silent” when the six million were murdered. This belief is anchored in the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. Even when it is dormant, it is easy to arouse it.

(That is the conviction which made it possible for Avigdor Lieberman, last week, to accuse the entire Swedish nation of cooperating with the Nazis, because of one idiotic article in a Swedish tabloid.)

It may well be that the Jewish conviction that “the whole world is against us” is irrational. But in the life of nations, as indeed in the life of individuals, it is irrational to ignore the irrational.

The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel. The leaders of the racist regime in South Africa openly sympathized with the Nazis and were even interned for this in World War II. Apartheid was based on the same racist theories as inspired Adolf Hitler. It was easy to get the civilized world to boycott such a disgusting regime. The Israelis, on the other hand, are seen as the victims of Nazism. The call for a boycott will remind many people around the world of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” – don’t buy from Jews.

That does not apply to every kind of boycott. Some 11 years ago, the Gush Shalom movement, in which I am active, called for a boycott of the product of the settlements. Its intention was to separate the settlers from the Israeli public, and to show that there are two kinds of Israelis. The boycott was designed to strengthen those Israelis who oppose the occupation, without becoming anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. Since then, the European Union has been working hard to close the gates of the EU to the products of the settlers, and almost nobody has accused it of anti-Semitism.

ONE OF the main battlefields in our fight for peace is Israeli public opinion. Most Israelis believe nowadays that peace is desirable but impossible (because of the Arabs, of course.) We must convince them not that peace would be good for Israel, but that it is realistically achievable.

When the archbishop asked what we, the Israeli peace activists, are hoping for, I told him: We hope for Barack Obama to publish a comprehensive and detailed peace plan and to use the full persuasive power of the United States to convince the parties to accept it. We hope that the entire world will rally behind this endeavor. And we hope that this will help to set the Israeli peace movement back on its feet and convince our public that it is both possible and worthwhile to follow the path of peace with Palestine.

No one who entertains this hope can support the call for boycotting Israel. Those who call for a boycott act out of despair. And that is the root of the matter.

Neve Gordon and his partners in this effort have despaired of the Israelis. They have reached the conclusion that there is no chance of changing Israeli public opinion. According to them, no salvation will come from within. One must ignore the Israeli public and concentrate on mobilizing the world against the State of Israel. (Some of them believe anyhow that the State of Israel should be dismantled and replaced by a bi-national state.)

I do not share either view – neither the despair of the Israeli people, to which I belong, nor the hope that the world will stand up and compel Israel to change its ways against its will. For this to happen, the boycott must gather world-wide momentum, the US must join it, the Israeli economy must collapse and the morale of the Israeli public must break.

How long will this take? Twenty Years? Fifty years? Forever?

I AM afraid that this is an example of a faulty diagnosis leading to faulty treatment. To be precise: the mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.

True, the Israeli occupation and the South African apartheid system have certain similar characteristics. In the West Bank, there are roads “for Israelis only”. But the Israeli policy is not based on race theories, but on a national conflict. A small but significant example: in South Africa, a white man and a black woman (or the other way round) could not marry, and sexual relations between them were a crime. In Israel there is no such prohibition. On the other hand, an Arab Israeli citizen who marries an Arab woman from the occupied territories (or the other way round) cannot bring his or her spouse to Israel. The reason: safeguarding the Jewish majority in Israel. Both cases are reprehensible, but basically different.

In South Africa there was total agreement between the two sides about the unity of the country. The struggle was about the regime. Both Whites and Blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The Whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the Blacks.

In this country, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common – not a common national feeling, not a common religion, not a common culture and not a common language. The vast majority of the Israelis want a Jewish (or Hebrew) state. The vast majority of the Palestinians want a Palestinian (or Islamic) state. Israel is not dependent on Palestinian workers – on the contrary, it drives the Palestinians out of the working place. Because of this, there is now a world-wide consensus that the solution lies in the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel.

In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.

BACK TO the archbishop, an attractive person whom it is impossible not to like on sight. He told me that he prays frequently, and that his favorite prayer goes like this (I quote from memory):

“Dear God, when I am wrong, please make me willing to see my mistake. And when I am right – please make me tolerable to live with.”

{1} Neve Gordon: Boycott Israel – The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 20, 2009

This piece, by Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, is from the Gush Shalom website

 


Robert Fine’s engagement with Desmond Tutu in Greek

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

On the academic boycott (again)

 

Ran Greenstein

 

by Ran Greenstein, University of Witswatersrand, South Africa

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

See more by Benjamin Pogrund here.

See Robert Fine’s engagement with Desmond Tutu here and his analysis of the debate in Europe about antisemitism here.

Robert Fine is author of Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa

See David Hirsh’s response to Neve Gordon here and his analysis of the two opposite positions taken by Neve Gordon here.  See Also his paper on the struggle over the boundaries of legitimate discourse here.

Click here for David Hirsh’s piece in the Mail and Guardian on the Israel-apartheid trope.

Click here for UCU’s defence of the South African spokesperson for the boycott campaign who was hosted by UCU in the UK.

See also Mira Vogel on Ran Greenstein here.

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