No such thing as victimless boycott – David Hirsh

This piece by David Hirsh is published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.

The campaign to boycott Israel has won a victory by persuading the University of Johannesburg to end its scientific collaboration with Ben Gurion University (BGU). In Britain, the campaign has made headway among some trade union activists but no university anywhere has considered actually refusing to work with people based at Israeli institutions. Such a policy would break anti-racist law in Britain and violate the norm that the work of scholars is what counts, not their national origin.

South African support is priceless for the boycotters because they make their case worldwide by saying that a boycott of Israel would be similar to the ANC’s boycott of apartheid. Heroes of the anti-apartheid movement back the campaign and anti-Zionist Jews try to indemnify it against the whiff of anti-Semitism that lingers around it. People assume that if South Africans say Israel is apartheid and if some Jews say that the boycott is legitimate, then they are probably right.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, says that UJ’s decision “is a commendable step in the direction of ending relations with Israeli institutions” and it adds, breathlessly. “This decision is guaranteed to resound around the globe!” So it is surprising that Ihron Rensburg, the principal of UJ, says that UJ does not “subscribe to an academic boycott of Israel”. David Newman, a dean at BGU, sees it differently: “ostensibly, UJ objects to the policies practiced by BGU … but in reality, it’s the first institutional boycott of an Israeli university.”

Rensburg’s attempt to spin the decision is disappointing. It relies on a spurious distinction between “institutional links” and “individual engagements”. But universities are self-managed collectives of academics who research and teach. Scholars are supported, and their academic freedom is underwritten, by their institutions. You cannot have a victimless boycott against universities without boycotting individuals. BGU, in the desert, is renowned for its work on water systems in arid conditions. Some of its scientists were helping to develop, with UJ colleagues, ways of bringing fresh, clean water to more South Africans. UJ has decided, for political reasons, to end this collaboration.

UJ scholars should be able to recognise an apartheid institution. The Rand Afrikaans University, from which it is descended, was set up as an apartheid project. Even its buildings were symbolically laid out in the shape that the wagons formed when under attack during the Great Trek.

Israeli universities are not part of a racist project; they are autonomous academic institutions like others across the democratic world. BGU does not support the occupation of the Palestinian territories. It has stood up against those on the Israeli right who seek to interfere with its academic norms and antiracist practices. It defends its own critical scholars, even those who go round the world calling on people to boycott their colleagues. Twenty percent of BGU students are Arabs and scholars at the university are involved in many joint projects with Palestinian colleagues.

Israel is not an apartheid state. Jews were forced out of European and Middle Eastern countries by racist boycotts and violence, including exclusions from universities. They went to Israel as refugees not imperialists. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was never inevitable and neither nation is free from responsibility for the oppression and the bloodshed. If the conflict is to be ended, it will be through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel and Palestine are not, like South Africa, a single but divided nation. Compare the ANC charter, which guaranteed in advance rights for minorities in a democratic state, to the Hamas charter, which calls for the killing of Israelis and the creation of an Islamist state.

Umberto Eco, the Italian intellectual, considers it “fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government”. No wonder then, that UJ pretends this is not what it is doing.

The boycott campaign is not motivated by anti-Semitism, but wherever it goes, anti-Semitism follows. One of its leaders, Bongani Masuku, a Cosatu official, has been found guilty by the South African Human Rights Commission of hate speech. Jews around the world are routinely treated as supporters of apartheid if they dare to oppose the boycott campaign.

When you educate people to boycott only Israel, when you tell them that all Israelis are responsible for human-rights abuses, when you mobilise a global campaign to say that Israel is uniquely racist, and when this campaign becomes central to progressive politics globally, you are, whether you know it or not, incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking. When ears are closed to concern about anti-Semitism on the basis that such concern is a marker of secret support for Israeli human rights abuses, then you know there is a problem.

UJ has chosen to boost the international campaign to exclude Israelis, and nobody else, from the global academic community. It is legitimising an anti-Semitic boycott, it is distorting the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle and it is depriving South Africans of clean-water technology.

Dr David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Hirsh is also the founding editor of http://www.engageonline.org.uk


17 Responses to “No such thing as victimless boycott – David Hirsh”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    One hopes that, at whatever cost, UJ will be refusing to implement in any way the “water systems in arid conditions which [s]ome of [Ben Gurion's] scientists were trying to develop, with UJ colleagues, [in order to develop] ways of bringing fresh, clean water to more South Africans. UJ has decided, for political reasons, to end this collaboration.”

    However, I suspect that, should BGU’s research, along with its Palestinian and Jordanian collaborators, be successful, UJ scientists will have no hesitation in implementing in South Africa.

    I just hope that the royalty payments demanded by BGU and its collaborators will be on the stiff side.

  2. Lynne T Says:

    Great post, David.

  3. conchovor Says:

    ‘Israel and Palestine are not, like South Africa, a single but divided nation. Compare the ANC charter, which guaranteed in advance rights for minorities in a democratic state, to the Hamas charter, which calls for the killing of Israelis and the creation of an Islamist state.’

    And the original PLO charter which admitted only Jews ‘normally’ resident in Palestine before 1917 as Palestinian citizens.

    The UK pushers of ‘Israel = Apartheid’, like Ben White, also admit of no Jewish national rights in the land of Israel or Palestine. Pretending to equality and justice, they privilege the Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian nationalist narrative and exclude the Jewish altogether i.e. commit apartheid against it and those it represents.

  4. conchovor Says:

    ‘The boycott campaign is not motivated by anti-Semitism’

    I disagree. I think the willful exclusion of a Jewish nationalist narrative, and the excision of its most fundamental premises from theirs e.g. Tutu’s rewriting of Christian tradition to suit his pro-Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian but anti-Jewish nationalist narrative constitutes de facto antisemitism, and the only kind that is most dangerous to the most number of Jews today.

    It is neo-antisemitism, but, unsurprisingly, way ahead of the mainstream STUDY of antisemitism.

    • James Mendelsohn Says:

      “. Tutu’s rewriting of Christian tradition to suit his pro-Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian but anti-Jewish nationalist narrative constitutes de facto antisemitism”

      Sounds interesting – do you have any links?

  5. allan Says:

    Dear DH,
    maybe instead of blaming BDS for “when this campaign becomes central to progressive politics globally, you are, whether you know it or not, incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking” you should be more circumspect. One can quite as easily say, with perhaps greater evidence, that Israel’s policies of occupation and tacit support of racism are incubating anti-semitic ways of thinking. This seems equally logical to your formulation and these policies in fact preceded the BDS movement.

    • modernityblog Says:

      allan,

      So what’s your view on the Move Over AIPAC organisation?

      Was it a smart move to invite, the racist, Helen Thomas?

      Or just bad timing? Maybe some “anti-Zionists” couldn’t spot her racism? What do you think?

  6. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Israel’s policies of occupation and tacit support of racism are incubating anti-semitic ways of thinking.”

    An interesting thought from allan (siegel, I presume), which would have more traction if we didn’t have the evidence of the adoption of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as though it were a statement of truth by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj al-Husseini, followed by their adoption by the Muslim Brotherhood, fostered by al-Husseini, and numerous other politico-religious groups throughout the region. Note that for many this was before the creation of the State of Israel, and certainly before 1967 and even longer before the start of the settlement movement.

    Even allowing for that, the so-called progressive left started to weaken their support for Israel when it had the temerity to survive and even prosper in 1967, long before settlements started to appear. Antisemitism, anti-Zionism and the stirrings of BDS long predate allan’s timetable.

    But then we shouldn’t be surprised that someone who made the following comment on Howard Jacobson’s work:
    “Unfortunately some writers create whose characters have only a superficial relationship to the real world…” and went on to say, in the same thread when tasked on this that ” I am not a literary critic and I am not interested in commenting on Howard Jacobson’s book for it is not the book itself that motivated to post my thoughts…”, should be so weak on history.

  7. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Something else the BDS crew need to look out for and make sure they boycott:
    http://www.israel21c.org/201104178965/health/coming-soon-a-vaccine-against-cancer

    Me? I hope to be towards the front of the queue, given the history of cancer in my family.

  8. Saul Says:

    Allan Seigel is back and repeats the mantra common to all those who oppose any and all anti-racist praxis – blame the victims. He treats antisemitism and racism as rational social phenomena and reduces it to nothing more than a natural law of cause and effect.

    Such a misguided view has a long history, both in relation to Jews and other groups.

    If only Jewish capitalists behaved more ethically; there’s be no antisemitism.
    If only Muslims treated their women with more respect – there’d be no Islamophobia
    If only Muslims/Jews “spoke against” Zionists and radical Islam – there’d be noantisemitism/Islamophobia
    If only Indians and Pakistanis would assimilate more – there’d be no racism.
    If only African-Carribean men would not have s many illegitimate children – there’d be no more racism.
    If only Palestinians would declare loyalty to the State of Israel – there’d be no more anti-Arab racism in Israel.
    If only Israeli Jews were more humane (or, even better, cease to exist as Israelis) – there’ be no antisemitism.

    What Seigel does, of course, is to treat antisemitism as if it were a natural phenomenon, as if the natural response to a conflict that involves Jews as Jews, is and can only be antisemitism.

    Apart from the fact of blaming the victims for the racism that they face (including, of course, the racism faced by non-Israeli Jews the responsibility that Seigel wishes to put on Israeli Jews; thereby replicating the very tenents of anti-Jewish racism that one group of Jews be held responsible for what another groups of Jews does), such a view indicates a rather low opinion of non-Jews, both in terms of their understanding of a complex political situation as well as their ability not to fall for the scam that is at the heart of all forms of racism, including antisemitism.

    He seems to think that the only response non-Jews can have to conflicts involving Jews is antisemitism.

    This is a typicalyl parochial response that, funnily enough, echoes those in Israel who think that, since the whole world is naturally antisemitic, only Israel is a safe place.

    Fortunately, many of us at Engage do not share the same jaded view of the world and those who inhabit it.

  9. Absolute Observer Says:

    “that Israel’s policies of occupation and tacit support of racism are incubating anti-semitic ways of thinking. This seems equally logical to your formulation and these policies in fact preceded the BDS movement.”

    Good to know that, in seeing antisemitism as a response to Israeli acts, Allan, at the very least, recognises that the BDS is not immune from the antisemitism that attaches to it.

    At last, something we can all agree on!!

  10. Lynne T Says:

    Brian:

    What isn’t well known, especially by those who share Allen’s sentiments is that earliest purchase of land I am aware of that was made for Jewish settlement in what is now Israel was made by Moses Montefiore in the mid-1830s for the sake of Syrian Jews who were being persecuted over the Damascus blood libel and possibly also with some awareness of the expulsion of thousands of indigenous Jews from Safed. Montefiore at that time had no interest in promoting the settlement of Ashkenazim in Eretz.

    Of course facts like these don’t matter to the pro-BDSers who are fully aware that Israel is not remotely like South Africa under apartheid, Desmond Tutu included. But BDS proponents are allowed to get away with these claims because they do not have to substantiate them with fact, because, after all, the Palestinians are the “righteous oppressed” which automatically renders Israeli Jews can only be the “unrighteous oppressors”.

    As for the shift on the left, that probably had more to do with the USSR’s shape-shifting that happened somewhat earlier than the ’67 war, which according to some authorities had more to do with Soviet concerns over Israel’s nuclear developments than a desire among some of Israel’s neighbours to launch a war that from the outset looked like a losing battle.

  11. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Lynne, I’m less certain than you as to the dating/cause of this shift. We still have a copy of the book by the (Israeli) cartoonist & his comment writer collaborator Kishon & Dosh, titled “So Sorry We Won”. This takes, in essence, the same line as a column by Michael Frayn (then a comment journalist on the then genuinely liberal Guardian, but now a playwright and novelist). He said that liberal Brits marvelled at and congratulated the Israelis for their stunning victory in 1967. However, if they wished to continue being supported by this group, they would have done better to have lost. “We” (he didn’t really mean himself) would have sympathised with their terrible plight as “we” rescued the survivors from the beaches of Tel Aviv.

    To return to allan siegel (and I’m sorry, but I must). In the comment I quoted from above, he also said, and to Karl Pfeifer of all people – emigre from the Nazis, twice; fighter with the Palmach; consistent anti-fascist over decades – that “perhaps you should visit the museums of the resistance in Amsterdam or Lyon to get a fuller picture.” The mind boggles at the insult to the ghetto fighters, concentration camp resisters, forest partisans and those who, somehow, survived in other ways. Not, of course, that he ever had the grace to apologise, let alone explain. He also appeared to think that this was fine, because it was in the context of promoting (with neither evidence, nor argument nor checkable sources) the Bund as more effective in recognising the threat of and organising resistance to the Nazis than were the Zionists.

  12. Rebecca Says:

    Lynne – the Damascus blood libel was in 1840, so the purchases of land in Ottoman Palestine must have been after then.

  13. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Yet another breakthrough for the BDS mob to shudder and turn aside from. If this goes on, Israel will be saving us all from ourselves, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

    http://israel21c.org/201105029010/health/israelis-find-key-to-containing-cancer

    Mind, when they reach the second section, and read about “engineered mice”, they might want to curl up and die anyway. (irony alert)

  14. Lolas Says:

    1922-2012 90 Years to first Arab racist anti-Jewish boycott

    The current {1}bigoted anti-Israel boycotts, are NOT related to any “policies.” It began many years before Israel was re-established, in 1922. It was pushed mainly by the infamous Mufti Haj amin al-Husseini, who allied himself with Hitler{2} later on.

    From Terence Prittie, Walter Henry Nelson, Terence Prittie, The economic war against the Jews (Secker & Warburg, 1978, 269 pp.) p. 9:
    ‘A call went out in 1922 from the Fifth Arab Congress, meeting in Nablus, for all Arabs to boycott Jewish businesses; seven years later, the First Palestine Arab Women’s Congress asked “every Arab to buy nothing from the Jews but land, and to sell them everything but land.”

    Other, similar calls went out in 1931 and 1933, and in 1936 a boycott of all Jewish products was proclaimed by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti and spiritual leader of all Moslems. This was the forerunner of today’s Arab Trade Boycott.’{3}

    In {4} March and April 1933, The Mufti, praised Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish treatment, especially the boycotts.{5}

    Current organizers of anti-Israel boycotts (like “BDS, Anti-Semitism’s New Face,” movement’s action to “isolate Israel as part of their program to destroy Israel.”{6} and as US official stated, ‘Yes, the boycott is anti-Semitic’{6b}) ‘market’ their racism with the false cover of “anti-racism,” and using the outrageous “apartheid slur,” which was invented{8} in 1961 by the Mufti’s henchman{9} Ahmad Ahukairy, who allied hismelf with Nazi groups{10} in 1962 and is known for coining the genocide phrase{11} ‘throw the Jews into the sea,’ in 1967, called Shukairy’s slogan.{12}

    {1}
    http://www.jfedsrq.org/blog_archive.aspx?id=244&year=2010&month=5

    {2}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=FDviDrXzkjsC&pg=PT58

    {3}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=PRNZAAAAYAAJ&q=%22but+land%22

    {4}
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2501/is_n2_v19/ai_20046831/pg_2/

    {5}
    http://www.paulbogdanor.com/holocaust/mideast.pdf

    {6}
    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/9913

    {6b}
    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2011/04/07/boycott-of-israel-is-antisemitic

    {7}
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/opinion/israel-and-the-apartheid-slander.html?_r=2&hp

    {8}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=vzZ71Eh5QvMC&pg=PA188

    {9}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=8HEuAAAAIAAJ&dq=henchman

    {10}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=vLZHUlI6GmoC&pg=PA158

    {11}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=VK0llzUqQ2YC&pg=PA157

    {12}
    http://books.google.com/books?id=DSe7AAAAIAAJ&dq=%22Shukairy%27s+slogan%22


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