David Hirsh debate with Ilan Pappe – 16 November 2005 – Alexandra Simonon

A report on the Hirsh-Pappe debate - Alexandra SimononUPDATE:We have now added another report of the same debate, please scroll down to read.

When we arrived in Birmingham University’s Avon Room where the debate was taking place, a crowd of about 200 was already gathered. Ilan Pappe and David Hirsh agreed that David would speak first. This is how he addressed both the audience and Ilan Pappe:

1. David Hirsh’s speech:

Ilan Pappe gave an interview in Ha’aretz “Alone on the barricades”.
He has been ‘persecuted’ he says, by Haifa University – according to the statement given to the press to publicise this debate. Persecuted by being made a tenured professor. Persecuted by being paid to teach students – being allowed to be, as he said, “king in the classroom”.

You will say, Ilan, that you don’t want to be thought of as the symbolic victim here – but that is how your supporters are using you in the UK.

“I’m considered one of the main people putting forward the Palestinian cry” you said. As though Palestinians cannot speak for themselves.

As though Sari Nusseibeh, the philosopher and President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, who is in favour of closer links with the Hebrew University in West Jerusalem needs you to “cry” for him.

As though Samir El-youssef, the Swedish PEN Tucholsky award winning novelist needs you to ‘cry’ for him when he opposes the boycotting of his Israeli colleagues.

As if Dr Kassis, President of Birzeit University needs you to ‘cry’ for him when he refuses to call for a boycott of his Israeli colleagues.

These are Palestinians who call for solidarity with Palestine but disagree with the absurd claim, again made in the press release for this debate, that “supporting divestment, boycotts and sanctions is the only way of ending the occupation”.

What a bizarre way of drawing the line between friends and enemies of Palestine.

The real issues in Israel today are:

1. The strategy for withdrawal from the Occupied Territories

2. The recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the negotiating partner

And we’re here discussing a counter-productive irrelevance that has already been politically defeated – the academic boycott.

By drawing the line where you draw it, you find that all of your colleagues are lost to anti-racist politics.

Also the people who will lead the Palestinian state, people like Dr Kassis and Dr Nusseibeh.

The Israeli peace movement is dead, you say.

After the dismangtling of some of the settlements.

On the election of Amir Peretz.

Israelis need to fight for a decent vision, against racism, against the occupation, for peace.

Do not give up.

Just today, Condoleezza Rice has brokered an agreement that opens the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Important things are happening in the Middle East, and you are in Birmingham locked into a sterile and small-time debate about a boycotting.

And you look around the world for a magic forced that can do what your “racist” colleagues are unable to do. A new vanguard. And you find British academics. Israeli academics are lost to progressive politics. UK academics are the solution. As though my colleagues were any better or any worse than your colleagues.

Who is Ilan Pappe writing off by insisting that the line dividing friends and enemies of Palestine be drawn around the issue of boycott?

357 Israeli academics, signed the following letter:

We, faculty members from a number of Israeli universities, wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories. Such service too often involves carrying out orders that have no place in a democratic society founded on the sanctity of human life.

For thirty five years an entire people, some three and a half million in number, have been held without basic human rights. The occupation and oppression of another people have brought the State of Israel to where it is today.

Without an Israeli declaration of an end to the occupation, accompanied by appropriate action–unilateral, if necessary–the present war is not being fought for our home but for the settlements beyond the green line and for the continued oppression of another people.

We hereby express our readiness to do our best to help students who encounter academic, administrative or economic difficulties as a result of their refusal to serve in the territories. We call on the University community at large to support them.


76 Daniel Dor Communications Tel-Aviv University – opposes the boycott – written off by Ilan Pappe.

136 Uri Hadar Psychology Tel-Aviv University – opposes the boycott – written off by Ilan Pappe.

60 Yinon Cohen Labor Studies and Sociology Tel-Aviv University – opposes the boycott – written off by Ilan Pappe.

126 Neve Gordon Politics and Government Ben-Gurion University – opposes the boycott – written off by Ilan Pappe.

353 other Israeli academics who signed this letter. Mathematicians, Engineers, Social Scientists, Doctors: all written off.

These are the Israeli academics we want links with. We want them speaking on our campuses, we want their work in our journals, we want to teach their ideas to our students, we want their books in our libraries.
In fact you are not ‘alone on the barricades’ and neither are you the only one to cry for Palestine.

The leader of the Israeli Labour Party, Amir Peretz, says the following:

1. Evacuate the settlements

2. The “ethnic demon” is israel’s most serious enemy and “we embrace our brothers the new immigrants, we embrace our brothers the Arabs, we embrace our brothers the Druze”.

3. He also said that his proposed economic reforms, which include a rise in the minimum wage, would strengthen the relationship between israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority.

To move on, lets be clear about this:

We’re not saying that anti-Zionism has some equivalence to antisemitism.

We’re not saying that anyone here is motivated by a hatred of Jews.

We are saying that when you encourage the singling out and the blacklisting of Jews, you are playing with fire.

We are saying that you are negligently creating a comfortable space for antisemites.

My Trade Union, for a few weeks this year, had an effectively antisemitic policy.

It was antisemitic because it singled out Israel and Israeli academics for special treatment – special punishment – and it had no morally or politically relevant reason for doing this.

Israel is not the worst human rights abuser in the world.

Israel is not the most racist state in the world.

Israel is not responsible for the most serious campaign of ethnic cleansing in the world.

Those who agree that our union should hold Israeli academics accountable for the actions of their state, in a way that it does not hold any other academics accountable, fail to agree on why.

Some say that the Jews should know better – because of the Holocaust.

Some say that Israel claims to be a democracy and so should be held to a higher.

Some say that Israel plays a particular role at the vanguard of global imperialism.

Some say that Israel is particularly culpable because it occupies something called Muslim land.

Some say that Israel is uniquely worthy of boycott because it is, by definition a racist state – this is not a claim about what Israel does, but it is an existential claim about what Israel is – and always must be.

There is something uniquely idealist about the way that some ‘historical materialists’ approach the question of Israel.

Israel was, the story says, conceived by Zionists in the 19th Century like Hertzl and Jabotinsky. It was conceived of as a Jewish state. 1948 and the Nakba is understood as the march of the racist idea in the world.

The anti-Zionist story treats Zionism as though it only ever said one thing – was monolithic – contained no contradictory elements, threads, ideas or forces.

The anti-racist traditions within Zionism are airbrushed out of history – with a clever use of selective story-telling and definitional word-games.

The left-idealist version of the story is told As though Jews were never pushed out of Egypt and Syria and Yemen and Iraq and Tunisia and Libya in the 15 years following 1948.

As though the Holocaust never happened.

Because, of course, it was the Holocaust that transformed the material reality of European Jewry.

It was not a rather reactionary 19th century utopian nationalist ideology that created the material conditions that enabled Jewish nationalists to turn an idea into a state.

Neither was it a classical European project of colonisation.

So – they say Israel is the only racist state, now that Apartheid South Africa has gone?

What an eccentric claim in a world full of racist movements – some of which have state power!

We could look at Serbia, that ethnically cleansed a million Muslims in Bosnia to define its territory and its ethnic composition – and then moved on to Kosovo.

Or we could look at Croatia, that worked alongside Serbia in Bosnia and then ethnically cleansed the Krajina of hundreds of thousands of Serbs in order to define its borders and its ethnic & religious composition.

We could look at events that are happening in Sudan as we speak – where millions of black people have been burned out of their homes, raped, murdered, & left to die of starvation and disease – because they are black people.

We could look at the 200 000 people who have been made homeless in the last few months by Mugabe’s campaign of house demolitions in Zimbabwe.

We could look at states that are defined as ‘religious’ states

or states that do not recognise women as being right-bearing citizens

or states that define people from the wrong ethnic groups as being non-citizens.

Or we could look at states that do not allow Jews even to visit, let alone to live.

Serbia, Croatia, Sudan, Zimbabwe have done wrong – Israel simply is wrong.

We need sharp criticism of the reality of day-to-day Israeli practices and policy. We don’t need Israel to be given the definitional, etymological status of “illegitimate”.

I do not defend many of the policies or practices of Israel. But I say that when Israel is defined as an essentially racist state then I get worried.

When Israeli academics are held accountable for the actions of their state, but no other academics in the world are held similarly accountable, I get worried.

When human rights abuses in Israel are held to be much worse than more serious human rights abuses elsewhere, I get worried.

When Jews on campus, staff or students, in the UK are treated as though they were Nazis, because they think Israel has the right to exist, I get worried.

When people demand of Jews that they sign a pledge agreeing that Israel is “racist and colonialist” – with the threat that otherwise they will be ostracised from the global academic community, I get worried.

When chief boycotter Stephen Rose says that he is in favour of a secret, silent campaign of discrimination against Israeli academics who work for Israeli universities, I get very worried.

And why should some people not conduct a private campaign against all ‘Zionist’ academics?

And why should some people not conduct a private campaign against all Jewish academics?

From the Bricup website:

“We recognise that many individuals may wish to support our aims by private actions without wishing to be publicly identified.”

“All of us began as junior, untenured colleagues, and in the current climate in UK institutions we recognise that not everyone can put their heads above the parapet, but many may still be prepared to take a quiet stand.”

“If you want further information or advice, contact us by email.”

This is much worse even than Mona Baker, the academic from UMIST, who said that Miriam Schlesinger (former head of Amnesty International in Israel) and Gideon Toury – should be sacked from the editorial board of her journal – and did so publicly and openly.

Or Andrew Wilkie, the academic from Oxford who thinks that someone who has served in the Israeli army is not worthy to study with him there – and said so openly.

The boycott campaign now encourages discrimination in secret.

This is a trade union issue – if colleagues are being discriminated against then we call on AUT to defend them. AUT must not allow UK academics to secretly discriminate against Jewish academics and students.

Things in Palestine right now are as bad as they have ever been.

Given the terrible situation, 300 checkpoints, the wall, the land grab, the house demolitions, the strangulation of the Palestinian economy – and the concern that people in the UK feel – there ought to be a mass movement here in support of Palestinians who are suffering under occupation and in support of Israelis who are fighting against the occupation.

Why has it been impossible to build a mass campaign for a just peace in the Middle East?

It is because the politics that dominate the Palestine Solidarity movement in the UK are effectively antisemitic – and most people do not want to have anything to do with a movement that smells of antisemitism.

We need a new kind of language – reconciliation not demonization.

The historic tragedy of both the Jews and the Palestinians cannot be addressed by labelling one side as racist imperialist oppressors and the other side as innocent victims.

It is no part of the tradition of the authentic left to split the world into good and bad nations.

How do people who are involved in this kind of antisemitic politics respond?

They respond with outrage of course.

They say ‘How dare you?’

They say ‘I am not a racist – I am not an antisemite –– some of my best friends are Jewish’.

And a number of them say ‘I am Jewish’.

The reason these kinds of responses miss the point is that the current streams of anti-Zionist politics that are effectively antisemitic work in a way that is similar to institutional racism.

When McPherson said that the Metropolitan police had a problem with institutional racism, the Police Federation responded with outrage.

How dare they say police officers are racists!

The Police Federation failed to understand – refused to understand – the difference between racist motivation and racist practices.

Some people here – people who pose as sophisticated antiracists – who have been involved in the antiracist movement for 30 years – some who have been involved in the academic study of racism all their adult life – turn their palms up to the sky in bemused innocence like a Police Federation Rep.

I am not claiming that people who single out Israel as ‘the only illegitimate state’ are antisemites, that they are motivated, by a racist hostility to Jews; what I am claiming, very clearly, is that the act of singling out Israel as the only illegitimate state – in the absence of any coherent reason for doing this – is in itself antisemitic, irrespective of the motivation or opinions of those who make that claim.

It is the politics of many anti-Zionists that is antisemitic – not their subjective or psychological motivations.

But when people are building an effectively antisemitic movement – they should not be surprised when they end up with an actually –existing antisemitic movement.

And they should not be surprised when actual antisemites appear in their movement – like Gilad Atzmon – who says that
Jews are Christ killers

And that Jewishness is a radical identity based on chosenness and supremacism.

Or Paul Eisen. Or Israel Shamir.

People in this room who are negligently building an antisemtic movement with antisemitic politics should not be surprised when antisemites crawl out of the swamp that they are busy digging and they should not be surprised when others in the movement accept them as bona fide anti-racists.

This debate is not primarily about Israel or Palestine. When the rhetoric is so far from reality, when demonization moves to denunciation and to a campaign of discrimination, this is not a debate about how to get peace in the Middle East.

This is a debate about racism in the British Labour movement and on UK campuses.

When antisemites came for Jews on the basis that capitalism was a Jewish enterprise, we recognised that as an antisemitic attack – and we dealt with as one. We had our discussions about the rights and wrongs of capitalism later.

When people come for Jews on the basis that the Jewish state is a radical, unique, evil in the world and is situated at the very fulcrum of global imperialism, we treat it as an antisemitic attack. We discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict later, but we deal with the antisemitism now.

The boycott shifted Israeli Public opinion to the right.

It singled out Israel for special demonization – and this helped the right not the left.

It is great for the right to have Israel hysterically defamed – because they can use it to show how the “world is against them”.

Like at Jenin where people shouted “Holocaust” and “Genocide” – Sharon does not have to respond to antisemitic demonization.

This let him off the hook for the actual crimes that were committed – the bulldozing of the centre of Jenin and the negligence that resulted in the killing of about 20 civilians during the battle.

Daniel Dor (dept communications, TAU) confirms very clearly that the result of the boycott was to encourage and strengthen the right– and it did nothing to help the left – the Israeli anti-racists – or the peace movement.

The boycotters’ opposition is anti-semitic – so it helps Sharon, who is able to say “look – criticism of Israel is antisemitic”. He is happy if the only kind of criticism he has to deal with is hysterical rubbish.

It is much harder for him to deal with measured and accurate criticism.

This concluded David Hirsh’s intervention, which was enthusiastically received by a large majority of the audience.

2. Ilan Pappe’s speech:

Ilan Pappe started his speech by explaining why, in his view, it is acceptable, and even necessary, to single out Israel for special treatment, and to boycott Israel and not other countries who violate human rights. First of all, he said, there is the continuity of the ‘evil of the occupation’. To Hirsh’s claim that Israel is not the worst human rights abuser in the world, that Israel isnot the most racist state in the world, that Israel is not responsible for the most serious campaign of ethnic cleansing in the world, Pappe’s weak (and very bizarre) answer is that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the ‘longest occupation’ going on. He then proceeded to give a few examples of horrifying acts committed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories that he claimed to have witnessed, the most shocking of them being the story of a baby’s head being kicked around by soldiers as a football. Another reason to single out is the ‘apartheid wall’ and the fact that the Israelis who oppose it, according to Pappe, do it only on selfish or environmental reasons, because the wall disrupts the fauna and flora, not because they care about the human rights or the well being of the Palestinian population. To finish off his list of horrors perpetrated by Israel, he told us that he himself, in his own university, was being persecuted. How? By being given smaller rooms for his lectures. At this point the audience laughed, because the discrepancy between the term ‘persecuted’ and the reality of his treatment was so ridiculous. He forgot to mention that Haifa University ‘persecutes’ him by giving him tenure…But more about the giggling episode later. Another difference between Israel and other occupying nations, Pappe said, is that all Israelis benefit from the occupation, including academics of all disciplines: historians, lawyers, psychologists who ‘fix’ the soldiers so they can carry on the occupation…

Even the left, even people like Amir Peretz, Pappe told us, are only interested in ending the occupation because it would solve the problem of demographics: they are only motivated by the idea of a Jewish majority, and that, Pappe reckons, is the main idea behind the two-states solution called by most of the left.

The end of the occupation, of its horrors and its injustice is not in sight, and so we have to find a solution. A non-violent method is called for. A method that has worked in the past: sanctions, boycott and divestment. Israel is like apartheid South-Africa and has to be treated in the same way.

How could the boycott possibly be antisemitic, Pappe asked, when Palestinians themselves are Semites? Besides, ‘as a Jew’, as Pappe is fond of repeating, he feels that trying to stop the occupation is in fact very Jewish. He therefore asserts that the boycott is the ‘only solution’ for the end of the occupation. That what he does is ‘trying to end the occupation’, and everybody else (including the Israeli peace movement and the Palestinians who do not support the boycott) is just idly standing by. And of course the old trick of calling the Palestinians ‘Semites’ in order to demonstrate that the boycotters could not possibly be antisemitic just shows bad faith: antisemitism has a very clear meaning, it means anti-Jewish racism, Ilan Pappe. It is really shameful to try to conjure away the real issue of antisemitism in the ranks of the pro-boycott movement by playing on words. It is also irresponsible because the cause of the Palestinians is handicapped by antisemitism, and people who care about the Palestinians, such as Ilan Pappe, should address this issue rather than casually pooh-pooh it.

In fact, Pappe went on, it is the occupation itself that is the greatest danger for the Jews, and if the occupation stops, that danger will instantly cease to be. Academics should be the conscience and the watchdog of the society they live in, but in Israel academics are a shield for the occupation. There are not enough Israelis in Israel to bring the occupation to an end, and so people outside Israel have to help and send a clear message to Israel that the occupation must stop. Palestinian civil society and academia are calling for this boycott. If you, Pappe said while pointing at the audience, support the boycott, then you’ll be able to tell the future generations that you didn’t sit idly by.

Pappe finished his speech by saying that the AUT was right when it passed the boycott motion and that every fact of the initial statement was, and is, true. That he is still being ‘persecuted’, and that the boycott had the positive result to bring back the occupation to the front pages of the newspapers and to set a new agenda for peace.

3. Discussion

It was now time for interventions from the floor, which were limited to 4 minutes for each person who wished to speak.

One Israeli woman, a graduate from Haifa University, said that she experienced Haifa as being a terribly racist institution that constantly undermined every single project that involved collaboration with Palestinians. She also said that her old father, a Holocaust survivor, had be beaten up in Israel by Kahane Youth for opposing the occupation, and this, the thought, ‘proved’ that Israel is essentially racist and violent. This woman, who incidentally was wearing the ‘crush the occupation’ badge, said that Zionism and Nazism were similar because both said Jews could not live in Europe. No mention, of course, of why Zionists were keen for the Jews to leave Europe…

A man in the audience asks David Hirsh if he was in favour of twinning between British and Palestinian universities (answer: yes), and then bizarrely proceeded to scold the audience for laughing at the description of the horrors endured by Palestinians under the occupation. This was (at best) a mistake, as in fact the audience had been laughing at Pappe’s whining about his own terrible persecution (getting smaller teaching rooms), NOT at the description of a baby’s head being used as a football, or of children being shot in the eyes. In his summing up, however, Pappe jumped on this ‘mistake’ and insisted on how it was very sad that this audience did not care at all about the Palestinians and thought that the blinding of a child was very funny. This deliberate lie made many in the audience very indignant. Why did he do this? Opportunism? Certainly. Lying? Probably. Was he embarrassed at such self-aggrandisement? Let’s hope so. Self-sabotage is probably the most accurate reading.

Someone else in the audience said he was a Hindu and that he opposed Islamic fundamentalism and yet had never been called a racist, so he wondered why, being anti-Zionist, he was called an antisemite.

Him, and many other pro-boycotters from the floor seemed confused about the distinction between genuine criticism and demonization. One woman even confused the terms ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’. There was quite a lot of confusion too about Israel and apartheid South Africa. Someone said that people on the left should all support the boycott as they did for South Africa.

A man from the floor, who described himself as a ‘Palestinian’ accused David Hirsh of lying about his opposition to the occupation, to shout ‘antisemitism’ as soon as anyone raises the issue of Palestinian rights, but that in fact Engage didn’t give a damn about Palestine.

Jim Denham and Tom Rigby, both from the Alliance for Workers Liberty, rebutted Pappe’s insistence that Israel is like apartheid South Africa. For Tom Rigby, the idea that the boycott of South Africa was hugely significant in breaking apartheid was an insult to the work of the trade unions in South Africa. It was the growing power of the Unions which threatened to make South Africa ungovernable and the last thing the unions wanted was to boycotted! They were for direct links with the world’s labour movements – to enjoy its solidarity, to learn form its experience of operating in the open as the South Africans emerged from covert working., to debate how to change society.

Jim Denham explained how the analogy disguises more than it illuminates: apartheid South Africa was built upon cheap black labour and Israel is not built upon economic exploitation of Palestinians; South Africa denied legal rights and access to civil society – Israel doesn’t. Most importantly, Denham asked Pappe how a man who wants to be taken seriously could offer up a poor deal on teaching room allocation as evidence of persecution.

Someone else mentioned the programme set up by Human Rights Watch to help and protect persecuted academics in the world. There is a long list of academics who face imprisonment, and sometimes death, because of their academic work. These include men and women from Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and many more countries. The leading geographer in Ethiopia, for example, faced serious persecutions because his research showed that the famine in his country had political rather than natural causes. It is an insult to these people for Pappe to call himself persecuted, and it can only be ridiculed.

Sue Blackwell stood up and said she was proud of having put the original motion in favour of the boycott, and that everything in that motion was true, but that Haifa had hired very powerful lawyers who had intimidated the AUT. Haifa’s claim that the motion was libelous was false, according to Blackwell. She said she was in possession of numerous new facts and that she was going to post them on her website. She also told David Hirsh that people like Sari Nusseibeh are part of the management and that we should not take our cue from him in what is a trade union issue.

Jane Ashworth, from Engage, asked Pappe to look at the boycott question from the point of view of the development of the British labour movement. The movement is not clean of antisemitism – look at its historic attitude to Jewish immigration in the early and mid C20; look at today and people in leadership roles unable to condemn suicide bombings and embrassing antisemitic clerics. The boycott movement invites a hostile attitude to Jews and that taps into the antisemitism of everyday life and culture. It’s an irresponsible tactic. Jane also challenged Sue Blackwell to print the new material she says she has which proves the persecution of Pappe at Haifa. Sue Blackwell heckled and said she would and welcomed a court case where she would be proved right. Jane thought that could be arranged if Blackwell did as she promised.

This was the last significant contribution from the floor, and it was time again for the debaters to make their final points.

4. Summing up:

David Hirsh replied to most of the questions that had been addressed to him as follows:

1. I do oppose the occupation and I am in favour of a just negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine. I think that there was a terrible missed opportunity at Camp David and at Taba and I think that the final deal must look similar to the ones that were discussed at the end of that process. I think that the issue of the right of return for Palestinians should be part of the final negotiations and I think that the Israelis and Palestinians should do a deal to settle the issue, involving perhaps some Palestinians returning, some ‘returning’ to the new Palestinian state and involving reparations.
2. I’m in favour of twinning UK universities with Palestinian universities. I think that the best way of doing this is to go for three way twinning agreements with Israeli institutions. John Strawson’s work at Birzeit is a model for UK academics. As is the Olive Tree project at City University.
3. On the issue of academic freedom: I think that Judith Butler’s argument is important. Academic freedom as an abstract right is not enough, since in Palestine, for example, there is academic freedom in the abstract, but it is not possible in actuality due to the difficulties caused by the occupation, the restrictions on travel on our Palestinian colleagues and lack of resources. The boycotters say academic freedom in Israel doesn’t matter in relation to the more important abuses of rights in Palestine. I say that we don’t trade off one right against another but rather we campaign to make the abstract right of academic freedom concrete in both Israel and in Palestine.
4. To the speaker who said that there was no antisemitism in the Middle East “before”. I ask “before what?” You mean before Israel. And your response claims that anti-Jewish racism is a response to the actions of Israel and that therefore Jews can have no reason to complain about antisemitism because it is their own fault. It is only with antisemitism, and with no other racism that I know of, that ‘sophisticated’ antiracists claim that the racism is created by the actions of those against whom the racism is directed. I have never heard an antiracist claiming that anti-black racism is caused by the involvement of black kids in crime – and of course it isn’t. It is the neo Nazi Holocaust denier David Irving, who, when challenged about his antisemitism, responds by saying that the question the Jews ought to be asking, is what it is that they do that ensures they are hated wherever they go.
5. To the speaker from Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who argued that our differences were not great and so he regretted the polarised nature of the debate. I quite agree. The boycott campaign has polarised and split the debate for the last three years. The boycotters’ insistence that friends and enemies of Palestine are defined by their attitude to the boycott is just silly. The antisemitic politics that comes with the boycott campaign is hugely divisive.
6. In response to the person who called me a liar, who said that he didn’t believe that I opposed the occupation: you don’t know anything about me or about my personal or political history – actually I’ve been involved in campaigning against the occupation for 20 years and some of my academic work has been on the issue. You assume I’m a liar because I’m talking about antisemitism. You assume that talk about anti-Jewish racism is a dishonest cover that Jews employ to whitewash the crimes of Israel. These are racist assumptions and I think they are offensive.
7. It is kids stuff to quibble, when we talk about antisemitism, that etymologically speaking, the word ‘semite’ refers to Arabs as well as Jews. I am not talking about a word I am talking about a cancer in our labour movement. So don’t try to avoid the issue by talking about definitions of words. Lets talk about anti-Jewish racism if you prefer. But lets talk about it not avoid even the word that refers to it.
8. Ilan Pappe says that people should support a boycott so that they will then be able to tell their grandchildren that they did not sit idly by while the Palestinians were suffering. I say that the boycott is exactly a mechanism for sitting idly by while the Palestinians are suffering. We need to build the peace movement, we need to build solidarity for the peace camps in Israel and Palestine, we need to make links between our universities. Real political work needs to be done. Don’t sit idly by salving your own consciousness with an ignorant, divisive and counter-productive boycott.

Pappe’s last intervention could be summed up as follows:

1. I am still being persecuted.
2. Don’t waste your time on twinning universities, this won’t work. Only sanctions, boycott and disvestment will do. The rest is a waste of time, as is international diplomacy.
3. He insisted again that if you supported the boycott you’d be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn’t sit idly by. He was trying to imply a similarity between the current situation and the Holocaust; between Churchill’s words and his own: tomorrow the boycotters will be the ones remembered as the ‘brave’ ones…

And throughout his speech there was a constant, unpleasant innuendo about who the boycotters are (and should be) frightened of…

A report by brian Robbinson

15th November, Avon Room, Birmingham University.

Very respectably well attended – 150, 160 or so – mostly student types but also several academics. Unusually for me I didn’t take many notes, so what follows is a rather impressionistic account made on getting home. Some very
union-type people spoke, and not at all as I’d have expected. In fact I was quite surprised because I’d come expecting the audience would be overwhelmingly pro-Pappe (don’t waste time wondering why!) but a fair guess would be that it was split 50:50.

Several of the anti-boycott people were, I heard later, Jewish, although a number were not. One lecturer with a strong left-wing stance (I think he had a working men’s education background as a lecturer) spoke scathingly –
“Why had the British Left such an obsession with Israel?” and went on to support a previous union-type (what on earth do I mean?) speaker’s contention that the boycott against S Africa had had very little to do with bringing down apartheid — in fact (according to this speaker) it was an
insult to the black working class of S Africa to whom the credit for destroying apartheid should go. It had (he said) done little more than make white middle class people in the west feel good – as a boycott of Israel would do. (Again, later I heard that these two were from Alliance
for Workers’ Liberty.)

That point (the S African comparison) was dealt with by Pappe in summing up – he quoted Archbishop Tutu, who had very definitely acknowledged the vital contribution made by the S African boycott (and of course he supports the current call re Israel).

I was also surprised at the tone of some audience criticism of Pappe – allegedly for being “emotional” – I don’t know how it would be proper, maybe even possible, to describe the things Pappe spoke of _without_ emotion: these were very clearly the reason. why he wanted to call for the boycott in
the first place. I’m writing this without notes, so will just mention a few of the things — Palestinian women denied treatment for breast cancer, the IDF marksman who boasted that he’d found the best way to stop children throwing stones was to shoot them directly in the eye and he’d developed that skill, going on further to boast that it required a very special kind of qualification in a soldier for that. And still Pappe hadn’t seen it all by the time he personally witnessed two soldiers kicking the head of a
Palestinian baby like a football.

(There’s a point here that I shall leave for others to elaborate. There was some wholly inappropriate laughter from a small section of the audience, and some confusion, of which some made – and are still making – rather much, as
to the cause of this morally defective and ego-defensive mirth.)

Pappe was making the point that at each stage, as the occupation and conflict had developed over the years, he had thought “he had seen it all” – until something more horrendous developed. After 10 years of the occupation, there was no call for a boycott, after 20 years, there was no call for a boycott, after 30 years … the same, until now, after 38 years, “the evil of the occupation persists, it gets worse day by day, week by week, month by month” … nothing improves … and the occupation depends for its continuity on the professional people, the doctors, the academics

Doctors keep it going by treating the effects of torture in Palestinian prisoners to get them ready to be tortured again, soldiers are medically treated so they can be returned to humiliate, wound and kill Palestinians.
Academics are asked for, and give, professional advice. Gaza is a prison, and if things go on as they are, the same will be true of the West Bank. After 38 years _nothing_ has led to the ending of this occupation. He has
condemned – and tonight condemned again in clear terms – suicide bombing. A non-violent method is called for – one that includes sanctions, boycott and disinvestment.

He answered Hirsh’s argument that the boycott would only entrench the Israelis even more – the right wing would dig in deeper. Pappe said that the Israelis cannot be deeper entrenched than they already are. With reference to the “antisemitic” accusation, he said that it was the most
_Jewish_ thing to call for a return to ethical, moral behaviour. It was for academics to lead the call, to lead the way. In America, some Presbyterian ministers had done so – here, priests on the whole hadn’t, but academics, some of them, had.

He issued a warning. Currently, said Pappe, most Palestinians still want to share the land with Israelis. But that situation is not going to last. In a few decades (he may have said “a couple”) that will not be so, and that
will lead to a mutually assured destruction.

If anything, David Hirsh was the emotional speaker. As I’ve said elsewhere he’s a large man, with a large voice. It’s actually rather easy to find his physical presence a little intimidating, but I’d say it’s less a commanding presence than a demanding one. He must have addressed thousands of student, and union, meetings over the years – fluent, articulate, hectoring – “Accusations that I don’t really care about the Occupation or Palestinians? – I’m not having it, I’m not having it!”. (See more, below.)

It’s well known that Hirsh’s (and of course Engage’s) main point is this business of antisemitism, or the allegation of it. His opening remarks were to warn (as he sees it) the AUT that if they succeeded in getting the academic boycott, they would be “opening up a space for antisemites to
flourish”. But this seems to be no more than to say what we already know very well – that antisemites, like any other racists, will latch on to anything to further their cause. It’s not really an argument against a boycott at all.

I didn’t think he stressed enough what I often think is one of Engage’s best arguments (it’s Jon Pike’s) – the criticism/punishment distinction (you can criticise a state all you like without criticising the equally bad or worse
ones, but to single out one for punishment is invidious – a boycott being a punishment). I wasn’t sure myself how to answer that one until the other day it occurred to me that it wouldn’t go down too well if the police were to announce that they weren’t going to go after one particular criminal
because they couldn’t at the same time catch all the others.

An excellent suggestion from the floor related to the possible twinning of British with Palestinian universities, although Sue Blackwell pointed out that that is already AUT policy.

Hirsh angrily rebutted the claim that he and fellow anti-boycotters didn’t really care about the evils of the occupation. He highlighted again the work of John Strawson (Strawson, a law lecturer at a London university has
been working regularly for the last several years with I think BirZeit and maybe some others) — but inspiring as his work and ideals are, he sometimes seems the only one doing it (anyone know different?). There was some talk about a medical student exchange programme a while ago, but a few months ago I asked about this (on the Engage website, I have to confess) but as far as I’ve seen didn’t get a reply …

At the very end, after Pappe’s really quite brilliant – and emotionally highly appropriate, no dry ivory tower detached academic he – summing up (he spoke last) I’d felt he’d been given such an unfair time of it that I stood up from my seat in the 5th row and shouted out “Bravo Ilan”!) … I went
up to the platform afterwards – cos I’ve corresponded with both of them on and off for some time. I told David Hirsh that I thought these were appallingly difficult human problems, reminding both him and Ilan how difficult I’d found it to make up my mind on the concept of boycotting
academia, but having thought a lot more about it, I was now definitely on Pappe’s side … He laughed and said that I’d be back in his camp in 2 months. But I really don’t think he’s right. I don’t like being harrangued, I don’t like false accusations of antisemitism (they act as smokescreen apologetics, they’re exaggerated opportunistically, they’re
counterproductive) and I don’t like ad hominem slurs.

Perhaps I should have made more, in this report, of what in some ways may have been one of the most helpful contributions from the floor. A speaker identifying himself as a member (like myself) of Jews for Justice for
Palestinians, said he’d have wished for a more ‘Buberian’ and much less confrontational approach, one that clearly stresses those opinions that we hold in common, the facts on which we agree.

Hirsh had begun his opening speech casting aspersions on the integrity of his colleague. It is true that Pappe’s relations with his own university are fraught in a very tangled way, and it’s not easy for an outsider like myself to know precisely what happened, especially with the threat of writs flying around, and the – apparently still – threat of disciplinary action against Pappe (seemingly suspended).

But Pappe’s own position within Haifa University has really nothing to do with the theoretical and practical justifications for a boycott. If I were to stick my neck out, on the inadequate basis of this one evening of
debate at one place with this one self-selected audience, I’d say any call, if it were made now, to boycott Israeli universities would be lost. Perhaps it would depend on the content of the motion and the phrasing, but right now
I’d say that there’s all to play for.

Brian Robinson (NHS psychiatrist, retired) Milton Keynes

2 Responses to “David Hirsh debate with Ilan Pappe – 16 November 2005 – Alexandra Simonon”

  1. Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh | Engage Says:

    […] Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa Univers….  (Nov 05) […]

  2. Boycotts of Israel in US Academe: David Hirsh and Claire Potter | Engage Says:

    […] Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa Univers….  (Nov 05) […]

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