On the academic boycott (again)
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
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.
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.