Karl Pfeifer at the European Parliament

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Robert Fine debates the boycotters in Leeds

“This house believes that UK academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

by international law”

Robert Fine speaking in opposition to this motion.

Leeds University, March 2014

This is not the first time I have been embroiled in a boycott debate. In the 1980s I was involved in solidarity work with the fledgling independent trade unions in South Africa. They were a living expression of non-racial democracy across so-called national lines. Solidarity included establishing direct links between South African and British unions at official and rank and file levels. As a result of our solidarity activities we were pilloried by leading figures in anti-apartheid, the ANC and the South African Communist Party for breaking the boycott! When we invited a South African academic, a leading advocate of the new unions and anti-apartheid scholar, to speak at our Comparative Labour Studies programme at Warwick University, a demonstration was organised by a couple of SACP stalwarts to prevent him from speaking. When we wrote a trade union solidarity pamphlet, we were told that unions could only be legal in South Africa if they collaborated with the regime and that we were in effect collaborationists.

Beneath the argument about boycott what was also going on was a political battle between a progressive socialist politics and a quite reactionary nationalist politics. It is a battle that has not stopped and is rising to the surface in contemporary South Africa. I grant there is no direct analogy between the boycott of apartheid South Africa and that of Israeli academic institutions, but I contend that a similar political battle is taking place. It is a battle over the future of our own political life.

The normal practice of international solidarity is to make contact with and support individuals and associations that are critical of an oppressive power. Depending on the circumstances, I am thinking of trade unions, women’s movements, community organisations, peasant associations, some religious institutions, human rights activists, individual writers and academics – all who find themselves oppressed by and / or in struggle against oppressive powers. As far as Israeli and Palestinian academics are concerned, we should find ways of speaking to one another more, not less. We can do this in the normal way: by establishing links between our professional and union organisations, supporting campaigns for decent conditions, defending academic freedom and freedom of movement, by facilitating academic links across the national divide, and so forth. A boycott directed at Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academic institutions alone shifts our focus away from international solidarity and toward a refusal to have anything to do with one nationally defined section of our fellow academics.

The academic boycott fails to make a distinction crucial to all radical political thought: that between civil society and the state. The academic boycott punishes a segment of civil society, in this case Israeli universities and their members, for the deeds and misdeeds of the state. The occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation are to my mind simply wrong, but there is something very troubling in holding Israeli universities and academics responsible for this wrong. Israeli academics doubtless hold many different political views, just as we academics do in the UK, but the principle of collective responsibility applied to Israeli academe as a whole sends us down a slippery path. The motion calls for Israel – and I would hope all other parties to conflict in the Middle East – to abide by international law, but the essential point of international law is to get away from categories of collective guilt and affix personal and political responsibility where it is merited. It is wrong to hold academic institutions and academics responsible for the actions of the Israeli state – even if many of the universities in question are, like most British academic institutions, rather lacking in political bottle.

It is as discriminatory to boycott any academic institutions or any academics on the basis of nationality, as it would be to boycott on the basis of race, religion or gender. This would be true not only of Israel but of any other country. It is wrong to penalise academics because of the nation to which they or their universities belong. It is also discriminatory to impose a political test that academics of one particular nation must pass in order to be allowed to speak and work with us – as if we are arbiters of all that is allowed to pass muster. Worst of all, I am sure we would agree, would be to base a decision to boycott or not to boycott Israeli academics on whether they are deemed Jewish, Arab or Muslim, but the cases I know of actualboycott have been directed against Jewish Israeli academics.

 A selective academic boycott aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at universities and research institutes belonging to other countries with equally bad or far worse records of human rights abuse, is also discriminatory. I admit that the wrongs done by ‘my own people’, in this case fellow Jews, grieve me more than the wrongs done by other peoples, but this is a confession, not a principle of political action. An academic boycott directed exclusively at Israeli academic institutions generates a quite realistic sense that Israel is being picked on – not because it is different from other countries but because it is the same. Given the slaughter currently occurring in Syria, including that of Palestinian refugees, given the repression currently imposed by the military government in Egypt, given the slave-like conditions currently endured by migrant workers in Qatar, it is increasingly eccentric to select Israel alone for boycott. This is not to say that the Israeli occupation should be normalised, certainly not, but it is all too easy to hold some other category of people, the larger and the further away the better, as the embodiment of absolute culpability.

The absence of good reasons to boycott Israeli academic institutions has led to ever more wild and hyperbolic depictions of Israel itself. Pascal once said: if first you kneel, then you will pray. Marx translated this aphorism into the notion that being determines consciousness. In this case, those who call for an academic boycott of Israel end up offering increasingly Manichaean images of Israel’s evil essence in order to justify their practice. We are told that Israel is just like the apartheid state in South Africa, that Israel treats Palestinians just like Nazis treated Jews, that Gaza is just like the Warsaw ghetto, that the Israel lobby controls American foreign policy just like antisemites used to say that the Jewish lobby controlled the nations of Europe, that Zionism is responsible for all that is wrong in Palestine or the Middle East or the world. The existence of these projections of course preceded the boycott, but the boycott encourages us to search everywhere for evidence of Israel’s criminality that will then justify the boycott itself.

Let us turn to the controversial antisemitism question. We should be able to agree that antisemitism is like any other racism something that progressive movements must be against. In my union, UCU, proponents of an academic boycott of Israel always couple their calls with more or less categorical declarations that criticism of Israel is not or not ‘as such’ antisemitic. Supporters of BDS in the States declare categorically that the charge of ‘antisemitism’, when levelled against them or other critics of Israel, is not only mistaken but also raised for dishonest reasons. I have often heard it said – look for example at Alain Badiou’s recent polemics on antisemitism – that while antisemitism was a real problem in the past, it is no longer a problem of the present and has now been converted into a mere ideology of Zionism. What I see is a disturbing reluctance on the part of proponents of boycott to take seriously the problem of antisemitism. To reduce concern over antisemitism to a way of censoring critical thought about Israel is insulting to those of us who are concerned about antisemitism and have no wish to censor critical thought. We should surely understand by now that it is racism and antisemitism, not opposition to racism and antisemitism, which constitute the restriction of free speech.

Criticism of any country can be racist – whether it is criticism of Zimbabwe on the grounds that Africans cannot rule themselves, or criticism of India on the grounds that Asian values are essentially authoritarian, or criticism of the Arab Spring on the grounds that democracy and human rights are foreign to the Arab mindset, or criticism of Ireland on the grounds that the Irish are not intelligent, or even criticism of apartheid South Africa on the grounds that whites are genetically primed to infantilise Blacks. Criticism of Israel is no exception. It can be antisemitic and it is a moral obligation we ought to honour post-MacPherson to take very seriously the fear that the academic boycott encourages antisemitism because its effect is to exclude Jews and only Jews from the global community of academe.

I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past.

The argument is put forward that Palestinian civil society has called for a blanket boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There is an empirical question concerning how true this is – to the chagrin of BDS this call is not supported by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority – but the more fundamental problem is present in the idea that Palestinian civil society is one homogenous bloc with one opinion. To work on this assumption is to diminish the subjectivity of Palestinians, to deny plurality within the Palestinian people, to attribute to Palestinians a single voice that is in fact an echo of your own voice. Palestinians are certainly victims of Israel but they are not only victims and they are not only victims of Israel. Racism is a versatile beast and I would contend that most Palestinians have no more interest in antisemitism than do Jews. Usually it is fellow Palestinians, not Jews, who are the first and main victims of antisemitic political forces within Palestinian society. The academic boycott offers little tangible support for Palestinian academics.

 Israel has a definite political responsibility that goes with its current power, and like many other Jews in Israel and the diaspora I feel a frustrated yearning for Israel to fulfil its responsibilities. However, Israel’s power is relative, not absolute. It looks like Goliath when compared with the Palestinian David, but it looks more like David when compared with other state powers. There is something very disturbing in the totalising images of Zionist power associated with the boycott movement and in the innocent vision of peace and harmony that will prevail once this power is broken. Closer to home this self-same image of Zionist power manifests itself in the repeated refrain of resisting ‘intimidation’ we hear from advocates of the boycott.

Solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian academics should have as its aim the building of trust, the surrender of the occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside the Jewish and other Arab states, and above all the humanisation of all parties. In this spirit I would offer our solidarity to the 165 Israeli academics who support a boycott of Ariel University in the occupied territories and the 11 academic institutions that have publicly condemned giving Ariel university status. The problem with ‘the academic boycott’, however, is that it blocks our ears to points of view we don’t want to hear, or don’t want to admit might exist, or indeed to anything that questions our own self-certainty. It grants us licence to invent what we assume others think, in this case Israeli academics, rather than hear what they actually say. The principle of academic freedom is not absolute but it is something. It contains norms of openness, understanding, inquiry, criticism, self-criticism and dialogue, which we abandon at our peril. In any event, we in Europe must face up to our particular responsibility not to project onto one side or the other all the sins of racism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide of which Europe itself has been so very guilty. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions is by contrast the tip of a reactive and regressive political turn. 

Robert Fine

Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University

The Third Narrative Academic Advisory Council – new pro peace, anti academic boycott network based in the US

This new network is for peace between Israel and Palestine, is against racism and antisemitism and argues that the academic boycott and other bans against scholars are counterproductive.  Its founding statement is as follows:

Introduction

We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. We believe that empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples, and respect for their national narratives, is essential if there is to be a peaceful solution. Scholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To achieve this goal we insist on the importance of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, and so reject calls for academic boycotts and blacklists, as well as efforts to punish academics for their political speech, including even those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose.

Statement of Principles

We are committed to the following principles:

a)    We respect the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and believe that all political analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be grounded in empathy for both peoples.

b)    We believe in two states as the only way to avoid perpetual conflict, and recognize that since both peoples require national self-expression, the struggle will continue until this is achieved.

c)    We believe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank not only deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights, but is also corrosive to Israeli society and is incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.

d)    We accept the obligation to actively oppose violations of human rights, but cannot condone the use of violence targeting civilians as a tool to address grievances, or to promote strategies that would undermine the future viability of each nation.

e)    We strongly oppose the rhetoric used by both sides which demonizes and dehumanizes the other, or distorts the history and national aspirations of each people, to promote violence and hatred.

f)    We reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal supposed evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach.  As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.

g)    We reject all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, including those cases associated with the Israel-Palestine debate. Academic boycotts and blacklists are discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge. Likewise, we are against legislative and other efforts by domestic or foreign interests that seek to diminish the academic freedom of those scholars who might propose, endorse, or promote academic boycotts, even if we strongly disagree with these tactics.

Structure

The Council will function as an advisory body to The Third Narrative (TTN), facilitated by Ameinu.  The Council will seek to create a unique, middle ground, organizing space at TTN for progressive academics and will engage academics from across North America to undertake the following activities:

  • Oversee the preparation of written materials on issues related to academic freedom and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  • Coordinate the sharing of information on efforts to promote anti-Israel boycotts and blacklists among academic associations, and efforts to punish academics for their political speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the speech of those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose;
  • Promote the values of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, as well as the perspectives of the Council, through traditional and social media;
  • Organize advocacy campaigns on specific academic freedom issues;
  • Develop proactive outreach plans to promote the values of academic freedom, and more generally the free expression and exchange of ideas, particularly as they relate to the Middle East, in academic institutions and associations;
  • Provide speakers and other resources to individual campuses where academic freedom is threatened; and
  • Create opportunities for progressive faculty to collaborate with like-minded undergraduate and graduate students on individual campuses to work together for academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.

Endorsing the Statement of Principles:

Eric Alterman, CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College

Yael Aronoff, Associate Professor of International Relations and Associate Director of Jewish Studies, James Madison College and Jewish Studies, Michigan State University

Peter Beinart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science, City University of NY

Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities

David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History, University of California, Davis

Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Hasia Diner, Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History, New York University

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Distinguished Professor, Graduate Center, City University of NY

Sara Evans, Regents Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Minnesota

Claude S. Fischer, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities; Professor of English, and Director of American Studies, Stanford University

Sam Fleischacker, Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois-Chicago; Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford (2013-14)

Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology; Chair, Ph. D. Program in Communications, Columbia University

Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University

David Greenberg, Associate Professor of History and of Journalism and Media Studies, Rutgers University

Harold Hellenbrand, Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs, California State University, Northridge

Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College

Carole Joffe, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Davis

Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University

Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University

Ari Y. Kelman, Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies, Associate Professor of Education, Stanford University

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History, Columbia University

Rebecca Kobrin, Russell and Bettina Knapp Assistant Professor of American Jewish History, Columbia University

Nicholas Lemann, Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University School of Journalism

Steven Lubet, Williams Memorial Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law

Jeffry Mallow, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Loyola University, Chicago

Maud Mandel, Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and History, Brown University

Elaine Tyler May, Regents Professor, Departments of American Studies and History, University of Minnesota

Deborah Dash Moore, Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History, University of Michigan

Leslie Morris, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of German, University of Minnesota

José C. Moya, Professor of History and Director, Forum on Migration, Barnard College; Director, Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University

Samuel Moyn, James Bryce Professor of European Legal History, Columbia University

Sharon Ann Musher, Associate Professor of History and Director of M.A. in American Studies, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Derek J. Penslar, Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History, University of Toronto

Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies and Director of Center for Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Merle Curti Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Brent Sasley, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington

Gershon Shafir, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

Judith Shulevitz, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English, Barnard College

Catherine Bodard Silver, Professor Emerita (Sociology), Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Seymour Spilerman, Julian C. Levi Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa 

Ann Swidler, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor; Chair, Department of Media Studies, The University of Virginia

Kenneth Waltzer, Professor of History, James Madison College; Director of Jewish Studies, Michigan State University

Judith B. Walzer, Former Provost and Professor of Literature, New School, NY

Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Studies

Dov Waxman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Baruch College and Graduate Center, City University of New York; Co-Director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development, Northeastern University

Beth C. Weitzman, Vice Dean; Professor, Health and Public Policy, NYU Steinhardt

Beth S. Wenger, Professor of History; Chair, History Department, University of Pennsylvania

Jeff Weintraub, Social & Political Theorist and Political Sociologist, Most recently at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College

Kate Wittenstein, Professor in History and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies,  Adolfus College

Steven Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University

This new network is for peace between Israel and Palestine, is against racism and antisemitism and argues that the academic boycott and other bans against scholars are counterproductive.

Roger Waters in Salon

Recently Roger Waters wrote a letter protesting against being singled out for criticism by Gerald Ronson at a CST dinner.

“Because I am a critic of this Israeli government’s policies and in the absence of this Israeli government producing cogent arguments to defend themselves from my criticism, I am instead routinely subjected to the accusation that I am an anti-Semite.

“This is a pattern, a crude pattern, but nevertheless an identifiable and repeated pattern, a part of the general tactic of ‘Hasbara’, (‘Explaining’ or ‘Propaganda’ to those of you with no Hebrew). The escalation of this aggressive ‘Hasbara’ may well be a reaction to the fact that BDS is gaining ground, day by day and year by year, all over the world.”

This is an absurd and insulting response to those who have censured his appallingly ill-judged remarks.  These include many who are themselves critical of the policies of Israel’s current government.

In a more recent article, this time in Salon, Waters does at least acknowledge why people have accused him of antisemitism.

“When I remarked in a recent interview on historical parallels, stating that I would not have played Vichy France or Berlin in World War II, it was not my intention to compare the Israelis to Nazis or the Holocaust to the decades-long oppression of the Palestinians.  There is no comparison to the Holocaust.  Nor did I intend or ever wish to compare the suffering of Jews then with the suffering of Palestinians now.  Comparing suffering is a painful, grotesque and diminishing exercise that dishonors the specific memory of all our fallen loved ones.”

It may not have been his intention to compare Israel to the Nazis – but the comparison was pretty obvious to most readers.  Given that Waters does seem to concede that such a parallel would be grotesque, it is bizarre that he frames this article around the figure of his father, a man he never met, who died seventy years ago fighting Hitler.  His mother also, he explains, dedicated her life to ensuring ‘that her children, and everyone else’s children, had no Sword of Damocles in the form of the despised Nazi Creed or any other despicable creed hanging over their heads.’(italics mine)

A few lines later Waters explains that his pro-Palestinian activism is driven by memories of his anti-fascist parents.

“And, at this point in my journey, I like to think that I pay tribute to both my parents each time I speak out in support of any beleaguered people denied the freedom and justice that I believe all of us deserve.”

For someone to claim that he wishes to distance himself from offensive parallels between Nazism and Zionism, he has an odd way of trying to reassure readers who ‘cruelly and wrongly’ have found his words antisemitic.

Five match ban for Anelka

Nicolas Anelka was charged by the Fooball Association as follows:FOOTBALL : West Ham United vs West Bromwich Albion - Barclays Premier League - 28/12/2013

1. In or around the 40th minute of the match he made a gesture (known as the ‘quenelle’) which was abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper, contrary to FA Rule E3(1); and

2. That the misconduct was an “Aggravated Breach” as defined by FA Rule E3(2) in that it included a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief.

The Independent Regulatory Commission found charge 1 proved.

It found charge 2 proved also; but then it went on to say: “We did not find that Nicolas Anelka is an Anti-Semite or that he intended to express or promote Anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle.”

So on the question of antisemitism: it was found that his gesture was aggravated by a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief, but it did not find that Anelka was himself “an antisemite” or that he had an antisemitic intent.

It is the FA’s position that Anelka performed an antisemitic gesture but without intent to promote antisemitism or without being, himself, an antisemite.

Originally Anelka had said that the gesture was only performed in solidarity with his friend Dieudonné.

It seems to be the FA’s position that Anelka did not know that the gesture, or that Dieudonné who invented it, were antisemitic.  This is difficult to believe, particularly given that he described Dieudonné as his friend.

Dieudonné has been found guilty six times in France of antisemitism; he is a well known Holocaust denier; Anelka is French, and so, it is to be assumed, is more familiar with these issues than most people in the UK, at least before he decided to import them there.  The match was screened live in France.

They said what he did was antisemitic (aggravated by race etc) but they accepted his claim that he was stupid, and didn’t know what he was doing.  I’m not convinced he’s so stupid.

To understand the quenelle, its origins and how it works, see this piece by David Hirsh.

For the FA finding see here.

Click here for images of the quenelle being performed in explicitly antisemitic contexts.

Vote in the UCU elections or kiss your Ts&Cs goodbye. But not for UCU Left – from flesh is grass

This piece is from flesh is grass

I figure that if you are a UCU member who hasn’t posted their ballot papers yet, you may be somebody who is considering not voting at all. The deadline is February 28th – if you want to use your 2nd class freepost envelope you need to move fast.

Here is the case for voting at all, followed by a caution against voting for UCU Left. This is far from the best case that could be made, because it relies on my assertions as a long-time member, observer at first hand, but ultimately a common or garden member far from the inner circles of the union. As such I have a few very simple principles: this union is weak; it is weak because it is small; more and more active members will not mean a worse union; the most important thing UCU can do is grow an active membership; UCU Left is antithetical to this.

First, why vote?

Basically it’s about whether you think higher education should belong to its citizens or to a few wealthy owners of corporations. Are we going to collectively give it away and then as individuals buy it back, or is it ours to apportion according to principles other than whether or not you are rich and confident or hard-up and debt-averse?

I’d say that just a few recent issues of the Times Higher Education Supplement – a solidly establishment publication – contain all the indications necessary to convince you that a trade union is a necessity for a healthy sector. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has just appointed Peter Houillon from the for-profit provider Kaplan to the board. Nick Hillman, the new director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and special advisor to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills, explicitly acknowledges that the proportion of student loans will never be repaid is larger than the government estimated. HEPI always said that privatisation of undergraduate education was more likely to cost the state money than save it. The implication was that its largest change would be to reposition higher education from a public good to a private investment.

If you’re still feeling lucky, and therefore grateful to be working in higher education (and maybe slightly guilty about your good fortune?) then look a bit further into the future. It’s not about you, so much as it’s about the wellbeing of a workforce and a sector. It’s likely that there will be an attack on terms and conditions for all UK employees – we need to understand this erosion on our own behalves and campaign against it jointly. The privatisation of higher education doesn’t end at allowing commercial ventures like Kaplan to compete for students. Those like the outsourced cleaners of the 3cosas campaign will know that privatisation brings an intensified downward pressure on wages and conditions towards the statutory minimum. The statutory minimum itself is increasingly meagre, a victim of the social cuts agenda. Holidays, sick pay, flexible working, pensions, paid annual leave, hours worked – in fact all the things the labour movement won for all workers over the past 100 years or so – are likely to be strategically scaled back by university managers who, impossible to forget, awarded themselves up to 12% in pay rises this year.

Trade unionism shouldn’t be taken as an attempt to gain exemptions from austerity for one group of employees – it needs to be understood as a defence against austerity itself. What belonged to us all collectively has been, and continues to be, taken from us and given to private citizens with money already. Creeping privatisation looks just like this: funding university teaching through the highest fees of any public university system; outsourcing university services such as cleaning, back office functions, language teaching; performance related pay; the sale of student loans, startling inequality of pay within a workforce. And all this in the context of a massive, status-quo-sustaining bank bailout. I am very angry and if I could only understand this technocracy, I think I’d only be angrier.

Second, how to vote

Firstly stay alert. UCU Left candidates dominate the ballot papers. Who are UCU Left? The first thing to say is that the political right does not exist in any meaningful way in UCU. I cannot confirm this, but I’m fairly sure that Labour supporters are by far the majority in UCU. At any rate all the candidates are progressive. For this reason I think we should consider UCU Left as UCU far Left.

Think twice about UCU Left for the following reasons.

UCU Left passes union cash to Socialist Worker Party front organisations. UCU Left’s website doesn’t say who they are but we know they were initiated by the SWP, a small ferociously well-organised revolutionary group with a very poor reputation for democracy and minority rights, along with Respect, an alliance with SWP and Islamist origins fronted (if not actually led) by the End Violence Against Women’s Sexist of the Year, George Galloway MP. Look back through your branch minutes. If your branch resolved to donate your subs to Unite Against Fascism or the Stop the War Coaltion, then that’s where the money has gone. The SWP is murky about the overlap between its own membership and that of UCU Left, but it’s widely thought to be high. As I have tried to explain in an earlier post, Unite Against Fascism is not what it says on the tin. Stop the War Coalition is not anti-war but – invariablypartisan and its alliance with Islamist groups has made it tolerate homophobia, misogyny and antisemitism.  This organisation is a disgrace – but UCU Left tables and votes for motions to affiliate with it. How much have they stripped from our already meagre funds for this? I am not sure but I’ve witnessed motions for £250 or more. It may stretch to many thousands.

UCU Left is not transparent. I take for granted close political party involvement in trade unions. What I object to is that  Socialist Worker Party and Respect candidates don’t declare their interests – they aren’t open about their affiliations. It’s not that I want or expect unaffiliated officers or committee members – on the contrary, the expertise and encouragement that outside groups can give trade union reps is very sustaining. The trouble is that the SWP is so famously authoritarian that I assume (in the absence of the aforementioned transparency it has to be an assumption) that any of its candidates are firmly briefed and disciplined to represent the SWP, and if representing the SWP conflicts with the interests of UCU members I have no confidence that those UCU members’ interests would win out. This should be recognised as a conflict of interest – though I can’t see the SWP acknowledging any such thing.

UCU Left is scared of a strong active UCU membership. Why is turnout so low? Why are meetings so rarely quorate? And how come so many motions are passed anyway? Once they gain officer positions, they tend towards a highly didactic, polemic, rhetorical, top-table style of engagement with other members. You get the impression they are frightened of democracy. They seem to think the main job of members is to vote in a strong leadership and after that shut up and do what you’re told. Themselves comfortable in authoritarian settings, they more or less mirror management – if anything they are less enlightened. Non-officer members mutter that they feel talked down to, not consulted, uninvolved. Sometimes it seems as if the worst threat for UCU Left is that members might come together under their own steam, unsupervised. UCU Left goes to some lengths to disrupt these egalitarian gatherings. If they can’t disrupt them, they join in and gradually crowd out other members with their own contributions. This leaves a membership used to being fed propaganda, but unused to actual debates with other colleagues. Quite simply, UCU Left ideas are left untested in a distinctly unacademic way.

UCU Left repels potential and actual members. If you go to a meeting where UCU Left assume they are in a majority, it soon becomes apparent that they operate in a bubble. In their bubble non-left members don’t exist or are discouraged. So if you are not on the left, you’re probably at the bottom of the UCU Left priorities – solidarity will only be extended to you if UCU Left decides it is useful to do so. If you try to get involved to change their balance of power you will have to work all the harder. You are only welcome insofar as you pipe down, keep still, cough up, and let UCU Left objectify you into a member they can turn into a statistic, and count on to do what they say. They do not care about your kind – they want to occupy your union and enlist it, bodies and monies, into their political movement, and they aren’t keen to hear your opinion about it..

UCU Left gives us a “fighting union” in the wrong sense of the word. To the aforementioned authoritarianism, add aggression. The bizarre and singular campaign to boycott Israel – which affected me deeply – was national news and extremely divisive. This is very much a modus operandi for the SWP, which is notorious for splits and have legions of disaffected former members. Although it’s quiet on that front now, UCU Left members still create a nasty atmosphere. At a recent meeting an SWP member called fellow UCU NEC members whose views he opposes ‘bastards’. I didn’t like the aggressive language in several of the candidate statements. It is not taken seriously by the employers and it tips hatred of social stratification into hatred of individuals. My supposition that those were UCU Left candidates was correct.

To sum up

I don’t want to be in a sect and I don’t want to occupy an officer position in order to keep a UCU Left candidate out. I am grateful to individual UCU Left candidates for their hard work and dedication – particularly their casework. But this does not entitle them to rope their branches into campaigns which are not in UCU’s interests, or to suppose that they know better what is good for their members than the members themselves. I do want an inclusive, active trade union and that starts with representatives whose message to their members is “You can make a difference” rather than “Hear me and do as I say”.

So, in this Single Transferable Vote election who gets your votes? All the other candidates are progressive, so look at the descriptions and vote for people who say they are interested in recruiting, engaging, representing all members. Think twice or more about these candidates.

This piece is from flesh is grass

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism: a response to Mohammed Amin

Mohammed Amin tackles a thorny question in his latest blog post: ‘When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism’?  In attempting to offer an answer, he devises an anti-Zionist taxonomy and uses Venn diagrams to suggest what kind of overlap exists between antisemites and different types of anti-Zionist.   Even if one doesn’t agree with all Amin’s premises and conclusions, this still seemed like an interesting prompt for some further debate.  Apologies in advance for adding to the categories suggested in the original article, and thus making this post read a bit like the label on a multivitamin bottle.

In the original post the EUMC working definition and the stated goals of the first Zionist congress are used as starting points for definitions of antisemitism and Zionism respectively.

Amin suggests that there are three different types of anti-Zionism which he labels A, B and C. However I think the most important distinction is in fact the he one he draws between different types of Anti-ZionismB so I’ll turn to that category last.

Here is how anti-ZionismA is defined.

Belief that the Basle Program could not be accomplished without overriding the rights of the Palestinians who already lived in the land. (See my review of Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State’.) Acceptance that historical wrongs occurred, and were committed by both parties. Acceptance that the State of Israel exists today with a 75% Jewish majority and that this is a legal and historical fact that cannot be reversed without further injustice to many people. The borders of the State of Israel to be negotiated and agreed with the Palestinians, with the 1949 armistice line as the starting point of the negotiations.

My immediate response was that such a definition wasn’t a million miles away from what some might term ‘Liberal Zionism’.  Confusingly, it’s those who think Zionism is evil who are most likely to label ‘anti-ZionismA’ as unqualified Zionism.  By their criteria many who feel no ideological or emotional pull towards Israel, including many Palestinians, are Zionists.

Anti-ZionismC is at the opposite extreme:

Belief that the immigration of European Jews (and Jews from Arab countries) into Palestine was so wrong that it should be reversed, with the Jewish population expelled so that Palestine becomes an entirely non-Jewish state.

There’s no need to dwell on this as I don’t think many will argue with Amin’s conclusion:

I find it hard to believe that people who adhere to anti-ZionismC are not motivated by hatred of Jews.

Anti-ZionismB is the tricky one.

Belief that separation between Jews living in the West Bank and Palestinians is no longer possible, and that a single binational state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan is the only just solution, even if this results in an eventual Arab majority in the state due to demographic change.

Although I don’t share Mohammed Amin’s assumption that it is almost unfeasible for someone to be both Jewish and antisemitic, I do agree that people will adopt this view (support for a one state solution) for quite different motives.

Amin goes on to draw a distinction between:

those who simply genuinely believe a two state solution is no longer possible (and who would presumably be cautiously pleased if they were proved wrong).  Let’s call this Anti-ZionismB1.

and, on the other hand:

those who support a one state solution because they want the position of Jews to steadily worsen in the new state.  I’ll call this stance Anti-ZionismB2.

I agree with Amin that antisemitism is far more likely to be prevalent in the second group than the first. Indeed, in that respect, it seems little different from Anti-ZionismC.

Even though the post concludes by noting that some may think all this mere casuistry, I felt a further division or category was needed.  For me the taxonomy, although thought-provoking, seemed to exclude what I’d see as the classic or default anti-Zionist type, far more ideological than Anti-ZionismB1, but not racist in the Anti-ZionismB2 sense.  Here’s my own (cautiously phrased)* definition:

He or she supports a one state solution on ideological grounds and thinks Zionism is racist.  He or she deplores racism and so would not want to see any racial group disadvantaged in the new state.

I’ll call this anti-ZionismBχ.  I am sure there are starry-eyed idealists in this group who truly deplore antisemitism, and are convinced the one state solution is optimal even though most Israelis and some Palestinians don’t agree.  Whether or not such people are individually consciously or unconsciously antisemitic, they certainly seem to view the concerns of those living in the region with a chilly disregard (usually from afar) and also (to return to my opening point) distance themselves completely from followers of what Amin terms, in my view a little oddly, Anti-ZionismA.  Even Palestinians in the latter category are treated with contempt. Although anti-ZionismBχ types just love boycotts you’ll rarely see them express hope that boycott-anxiety will kickstart the peace process.

I’ll be interested to hear what other readers make of Mohammed Amin’s taxonomy.  After reading his post I can understand why he concludes:

I have never described myself as either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist.

The contested meaning of the words means that I am never likely to do so.

*Update.  I should perhaps gloss this further.  I am phrasing this cautiously in that I am framing this definition in terms those included in it would probably agree with.  However I am inclined to be sceptical about this group, and think, at their very least, their position is one with an antisemitic impact if not an antisemitic intent, and in some cases goes further than this.

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