The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

Hannah Weisfeld on Stephen Hawking

I found Hannah Weisfeld’s recent post, ‘Hawking’s Israel boycott in its UK context’ curiously elusive.  The first paragraph mostly consists of a series of factual statements – with no clue as to whether the author approves of his decision to pull out of the Presidential Conference or not.  The exception is the very opening sentence in which Weisfeld introduces Hawking in admiring, warm – perhaps even gushing – terms, while still withholding judgment on his boycott stance.

Stephen Hawking, one of the UK’s most brilliant minds, and a man revered by much of the British population for his indefatigable ability to navigate the challenges that life has thrown at him, announced yesterday that he would not be attending the 5th Presidential Conference in Israel this coming June.

In the second paragraph Weisfeld appears to condemn the notion of an academic boycott pretty unequivocally.   However she also starts to map out a kind of sliding scale, making it clear that some boycotts are worse than others.  I don’t actually disagree with her suggestion that academic boycotts are more objectionable than commercial ones, or that the Moti Cristal case was particularly appalling, even by the usual standards of academic boycott. But I feel the Israeli wine is sacrificed a bit too readily, and that the Cristal case is almost being used to make less extreme examples of academic boycott more acceptable, more palatable.

Weisfeld goes on to insist that Hawking is not one of the really bad boycotters, because he does not deny Israel’s right to exist, and then goes into gush mode again, in order to assert that he can certainly distinguish between political extremism and political protest:

It would be something of an insult to his amazing mind to suggest he lacks those critical faculties.

I don’t see why it would be an insult.  He is a brilliant scientist, not a brilliant scholar of history or politics – and even if he were, that wouldn’t mean we all had to agree with his moral or political views.

Next Weisfeld moves to the UCU case, describing the damning way in which that case was dismissed.  I perhaps couldn’t blame Weisfeld for assuming the case was a very bad one (although obviously I’d disagree with her) based on a final ruling whose tone certainly shocked me, but I am in fact not completely sure what she thought of the verdict.  I think her point is more to argue that opponents of the boycott need to change their tactics on purely pragmatic grounds.

It seems we need some new ground rules if we are to win the case for Israel in the public arena.

First, it is clear that we need to challenge the assumption that anyone who calls for, or supports, any form of boycott is beyond the pale. We can debate, disagree with tactics, call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there, but we have to accept that people have a right to employ a set of tools we do not agree with. It is that simple.

Although this isn’t simply a straw man argument – I’m sure there are people who lump all boycotters together – there’s something frustrating to me about her rhetoric.  For example, she agrees that it is reasonable to ‘call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there’.  But one might think a campaign had antisemitic effects or causes without necessarily thinking all who supported it were, personally, antisemitic.  And the UCU tribunal, in part, was very much about calling out antisemitism when it was clearly there – as in the case of Bongani Masuku.  Moving the goal posts in order to focus on the most glaring cases of antisemitism and admit defeat on softer examples seems to be Weisfeld’s strategy – but I’m not sure that works.

Weisfeld goes on remind the reader that the Palestinian cause is ‘the cause célèbre of our time.’

It might well be the case that there is something sinister about those who have been involved in turning it into the zeitgeist of our times. But no amount of hasbarah, campaigning, showing the “positive contribution of Israel in the world” is going to change that.

I think perhaps I agree that arguments invoking Israel’s contribution to, say, technology aren’t the best answer to boycotters, rather as I don’t think appeals to Hawking’s status as a scientist can be used to lend him moral authority.  However if the boycott campaign has sinister elements, then they should be exposed – that’s not hasbara.

Here’s her conclusion.

John Humphrys, who is probably Britain’s most well known radio voice and who presents the inimitable Today Programme on Radio 4, asked this morning: “Isn’t it the case that the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian people?” If he is right, and the world is watching, they should also see serious efforts on the part of Israel and those who count themselves as Israel’s supporters worldwide, doing all that is in their power to change the situation. Surely that would be the best reaction of supporters of Israel in the UK to the latest boycott drama?

Even if the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of the Palestinian people that doesn’t make it right in itself as a strategy, and (although there’s no excuse for some of the more vicious comments Hawking has attracted) opponents of the boycott should continue to try to make their voices heard.  Weisfeld seems to shift her position from one in which the boycott is seen as a painful issue – ‘the stakes are incredibly high’ as she puts it towards the beginning of her piece – to a lost cause, to be swiftly abandoned if anything is to be salvaged for Israel and its supporters.  Going back to John Humphreys’ point – in my case the biggest impact of the boycott was in fact not to draw my attention to the plight of the Palestinian people (though I’ve learnt more about that too) but to make me more alert to the ways antisemitism manifests itself.

Zionism is a lightning rod for antisemitism – Jonathan Lowenstein

Jonathan Lowenstein, an Anglo-Israel historian and political scientist, considers historical boycotts against Jews, asks a lot of good questions, and worries:

“Am I an Israeli academic?  I have dual nationality and dual degrees. Do boycotts apply to Israeli Arabs or just to Jews?  Where do you draw the lines? At present it seems like these boycotts are more expressions of emotion then policies but they cause us to assume that we face discrimination.  Unoffical apartheid.”

Read it all.

An Irish union’s boycott fallacy – Raphael Cohen-Almagor

The Jewish Chronicle has a trenchant piece by Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Director of the Middle East Study Group, University of Hull, responding to the unhinged and futile decision of the Teachers Union of Ireland to boycott Israeli academics:

Dr Ilan Saban is a lecturer at the University of Haifa who devotes much of his time defending and promoting the rights of Palestinians. But if he were to post one of his articles on the subject to a journal in Ireland, his envelope might not be opened, simply because it had come from Israel. This is the result of the Teachers Union of Ireland’s recent unjust, unfair, and counterproductive decision to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel.

The decision is unjust because any sweeping decision, by its nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual. It is quite another thing simply to boycott everyone.

Read it all.

HT Yishay

Irish academic trade union votes to exclude Israelis from campuses in Ireland

The Teachers Union of Ireland has voted to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel, including research programmes and exchange of scientists.

A motion, calling for all members of the union to end work with Israeli counterparts, was passed unanimously at the TUI annual conference in Galway on Thursday.

The union called on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to increase its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against “the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank”.

The passed motion requests TUI members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as all cooperation in research programmes”.

The motion doesn’t bother to maintain the fiction of the “institutional boycott”.  This is a boycott of scholars and students on the basis of their nationality.  This is a boycott of a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish academics and students for reasons which are nothing to do with anything that those academics have said or done.  Nobody but Israelis are to be boycotted.

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The claim that BDS is a boycott campaign which is not directed at Israeli individuals is doing the rounds again. The article below is from February 2006 and questions this claim with regard to the academic boycott.

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott - Jon PikeAdvocates of the academic boycott of Israel frequently complain that we get them wrong. They do not advocate, they say, an individual boycott. What they propose is an institutional boycott. The institutional boycott is much softer, they suggest, than the individual boycott – it’s the boycott where no-one gets hurt.

They make this move in part because of the fall out from the Mona Baker and the Andrew Wilkie case. That was, the boycotters say, a different kind of boycott – that was a boycott against individuals, and not against institutions. (They don’t generally, condemn Baker and Wilkie though. We normally get a shrugging of the shoulders – different strokes, for different folks).

Now, to cash out this distinction, the boycotters need to say what is meant by an act against an institution and what is meant by an act against an individual. They do not do this in any clear way so we have to reconstruct what they must mean from what they do say. Here are two actions the boycotters call for, within the remit of an institutional academic boycott. BRICUP advocates:

• ‘Refusing research collaborations with Israeli institutions or to referee papers or grant applications issuing from such institutions.’ (BRICUP website)

The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign says that it wants academics to

• ‘Refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted from Israeli institutions.’ (SPSC website)

Because it’s the way things work in my field – I submit papers and book proposals, and I also referee papers and book proposal, I want to say something about this particular action. It’s clear that the institutional boycott is supposed to be institutional because it involves the boycotting of papers from Israeli institutions. But here is my question.

Who wrote these papers?

There are a couple of possibilities. The first is: no-one. On this line, ‘Israeli institutions’ somehow belch out papers, these institutions are some sort of Heath Robinson machine, firing papers into the ether, and the good hearted boycotters don’t want have any contact with those machines, so they don’t referee them. But this is OK, because the refusal to referee, touches only the machines, the institutions, and there’s no worrying flesh and blood individual academic behind them.

The second is, that the papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions’ (BRICUP) or are ‘submitted from Israeli institutions’ (SPSC) are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by, individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer.

(But if it’s the Heath Robinson machine, that machine must be really clever. Perhaps we should read its papers).

Look at the two sentences above I’ve quoted from BRICUP and the SPSC: they are really very odd. And it changes none of the sense or the things in the real world to which the sentences refer if we change them to read:

• Refuse to referee papers or grant applications issuing from individuals at Israeli institutions (BRICUP)

• refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted by individuals at Israeli institutions (SPSC)

This gets past the comprehension problem in the SPSC case, because the idea of an institution submitting a paper for publication was always opaque. Submitting a paper is an act and an act needs an agent. It’s obvious who submits a paper: the person who puts their name on it, or their name and that of their joint researchers.

The BRICUP sentence, though, is still troubling, because of this rather odd phrase ‘issuing from.’ It rings oddly with anyone actually involved in the grind of writing papers, submitting them, getting them accepted or rejected, making amendments and so on. Papers don’t ‘issue from’ anywhere at all. But the odd use of words is, again, instructive. To say that something ‘issues from’ something else is to be deliberately murky about the mechanism of issuing. It’s to suggest a mysterious agentless process. And, of course, that’s precisely what the boycotters want to suggest, because they want to divert attention from the fact that what they are advocating is discrimination in the selection processes of academic journals against Israeli thinkers.
There are, further, two ways in which this process of refusing to referee papers written by Israelis might be taken. One is terrible, the other is worse.

First, it might be that the boycotters advocate this as a position of ‘individual refusal.’ That is, like the antiwar protestors who said ‘Not in my name’ they may be arguing for an individual rejection of papers written by Israelis – with the let out that someone else on the editorial board can always referee the offending item. On this reading, the boycotters might have some defence against the criticism that their stance thwarts the academic lives and careers of Israelis, and holds back knowledge. They have the defence that they can say – ‘Well, I don’t mind the paper being published, I just don’t want to handle it myself.’ They can help themselves to that defence but only at the price of letting in the unmistakeable connotation of moral corruption, of infection, and disease arising from contact with the academic work of Israelis.

Second, they can, more consistently, more sensibly, say, ‘yes, of course the policy is general. Of course, we want everyone to adopt this policy of refusing to referee papers written by Israeli academics.’ This response has the merit of consistency and universalisability. As a result, it commits the boycotters to a political aspiration – a general refusal to referee papers by individuals at Israeli universities – that would exclude those individuals from this part of academic life.

Finally, remember that all this is now being proposed covertly. The boycotters were defeated in the AUT and failed in their attempt to gain a foothold in the AAUP. They can’t gain legitimacy for a public boycott, so they opt for a covert one. This covert boycott (a ‘quiet stand’ according to BRICUP) is, of course, denuded of a political message. But also, there is no mechanism of accountability for their actions. They claim that there is a difference between an institutional boycott and an individual boycott, and I think that there’s no difference. But we won’t be able to know whether or not there is an operable distinction, because the operation is now conducted in secret. We won’t be able to know whether people engage in Wilkie type actions (without the incriminating email). And I guess, the boycotters who think it’s OK to adopt an ‘institutional’ rather than an ‘individual’ boycott simply think we should trust them on that one.

So, next time a boycotter says they favour an institutional rather than an individual boycott, ask them what they make of the BRICUP and the SPSC statements. And ask them just which particular squalid little discriminatory acts they support.

Jon Pike
Senior Lecturer, Open University,
Chair, Engage

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