The argument for the boycott – Pacbi – David Hirsh – 9 September 2006

The argument for the boycott - PacbiPacbi, the Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel has a nice new website here. It has an FAQ that explains its arguments for the boycott of Israel. David Hirsh looks at these arguments here.

What is the underlying principle of calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?

Pacbi’s reply: It is no longer denied that Israel has oppressed the Palestinian people for decades in multiple forms: occupying, colonizing, ethnically cleansing, racially discriminating, in short, denying Palestinians the fundamental rights for freedom, equality and self-determination. Despite abundant condemnation of Israel’s policies by the UN and all relevant international conventions, the international community of nations has failed to bring about Israel’s compliance with international law or its respect for basic human rights. Israel’s crimes have continued with utter impunity. The time has come for action, not just words. BDS are the most effective non-violent, morally consistent means for achieving justice and genuine peace in the region through concerted international pressure similar to that applied on South African apartheid.

DH Pacbi is wrong to portray the conflict between Israel and Palestine as a simple struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, anti-racists and an apartheid regime. The truth is much more complex. Nearly all Israeli families are descended from refugees from antisemitism in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. They did not go to Israel in order to fight with Arabs or to get rich by oppressing Arabs. It is true that Israel has, since 1967, functioned a colonial power in the West Bank. The occupation relies on a regime of violence and dispossession; the occupation is not legitimate and Pacbi is right to demand that Israel withdraws from Palestinian territory, allowing Palestinians to build a state of their own alongside Israel. But the violence and racism is not all on one side. Palestinian militias have long been engaged in campaigns to kill Israeli civilians. Hamas, a Jihadi Islamist organization, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the election in Palestine in January 2006. Hamas is a racist movement that has an explicit policy of destroying Israel and killing Jews. We should be in favour of peace between Israel and Palestine; we should support voices for peace and against racism in both Palestine and Israel. Pacbi is wrong to present this as a struggle between good Palestinians and evil Israelis. We should take sides for peace and against violence, not for Palestine and against Israel. Pacbi is wrong to argue that only Israel contravenes international law and human rights norms.

“BDS” – “boycott, divestment sanctions” – are not, as Pacbi claims, “effective non-violent, morally consistent means for achieving justice and genuine peace”. Pacbi’s argument for “BDS” relies on a false and simplistic premise – that Israel is like the racists in apartheid South Africa and Palestine is like the black people in South Africa. The logic of the Pacbi argument is that Israel is uniquely illegitimate in the world and is not a real nation state. The logic of BDS, conceived in this way, is to destroy Israel and is therefore far from non-violent. It is effective in encouraging those in Palestine that want to fight against Israel; it is not effective in encouraging those in Palestine that want to make peace with Israel and to build a state alongside Israel. It is effective in pushing the peace camp in Israel into the arms of the war camp because it relies on the demonization of Israel as a whole.

There is a more sophisticated argument for “BDS”. This is the one that says that Israel is not “illegitimate”, admits that it has the “right to exist” but holds that boycotts are necessary in order to force Israel to agree to the foundation of an independent state in Palestine. This more sophisticated argument is not compatible with the apartheid analogy, whose logic is clearly for the destruction of Israel and the creation of one single democratic state. (Everone serious admits that the destruction of Israel would be highly unlikely to lead to either a democratic or a secular state).

While some of the boycotters say that they are in favour of a peace agreement betwen Israel and Palestine, much of their rhetoric, and many of their activists, say otherwise.

What is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)?

Pacbi’s reply: PACBI was launched in Ramallah in April 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to join the growing international boycott movement. In July 2004, the Campaign issued a Call for Boycott addressed to the international community, urging it to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions until Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees’ rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid. This statement was met with widespread support, and has to date been endorsed by nearly sixty Palestinian academic, cultural and other civil society federations, unions, and organizations, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees and the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) in the West Bank.

DH: When the African National Congress called for a boycott of South Africa, it did so in the name of the vast majority of South Africans. The ANC’s call claimed a particular kind of authority – it was a call by the ANC, speaking in the name of the black majority, for solidarity from the outside world. Even in South Africa there were voices, for example in the non-racial trade union movement, that argued for different strategies and emphases. While many of us took this call seriously, it was still a matter for our own political judgment how we responded to such a call.

Pacbi persists in pretending that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is the same as the conflict against apartheid in South Africa. But their call is not the same as the ANC’s call. The ANC was an explicitly non-racist and inclusive movement that wanted to build a democratic new South Africa.

The PLO, the official voice of Palestinians, does not call for a boycott of Israel and so Pacbi was formed in order to manufacture a “call from the oppressed” along the model of the ANC’s call. Far from wanting to boycott Israel, the PLO has, since the 1980s, wanted to normalize relations with Israel, and has encouraged links between Palestinians and Israelis, within civil society, academia, in trade and on a governmental level.

The Palestinian Authority, elected by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, does not call for a boycott of Israel.

If the Palestinian Authority or the PLO did call for a boycott of Israel then it would still be necessary for us to use our own political judgment as to whether we supported that call. If the call was made by the Hamas regime (it isn’t) then it would be up to us to judge whether compliance with this call would work for peace or whether it would work in favour of the war against Israel and Jews that Hamas is fighting and believes it can eventually win.

In the absence of any kind of official Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel, supporters of the boycott inside and outside of Palestine have manufactured the Pacbi call, and have portrayed it as an official call, from “the oppressed” to the outside world.

What is the Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?

Pacbi’s reply: On July 9, 2005, one year after the historic Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which found Israel’s Wall built on occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal, a clear majority of Palestinian civil society called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era, until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law. BDS has been endorsed by over 170 Palestinian parties, organizations, trade unions and movements representing the Palestinian people in the 1967 and 1948 territories and in the diaspora. On July 13, 2005 the UN International Civil Society Conference adopted the Palestinian Call for BDS.

DH: Pacbi pretends that “the oppressed” call for “BDS” with one voice. This is not true. In Palestine, as anywhere else, there are different opinions and different arguments – there is politics, there is disagreement and there are different ideas about the way forward. The debate is in terms of “normalization” and “anti-normalization”. Those in favour of “normalization” aim to build academic, cultural and trade links between Palestine, Israel and the rest of the world. They understand this process as a move towards a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine – a move towards building a “normal” Middle East. Those who oppose normalization argue that occupation is not a “normal” situation and efforts to normalize it before a peace agreement are counter-productive.

Neither the PLO nor the PA support a boycott of Israel. The president of Birzeit University, Nabeel Kassis, was in Britain last October telling how hard conditions were for academics and students under the occupation. He asked for our support; he demanded an end to the Israeli occupation; he asked for UK pressure on the Israeli government; he did not call for a boycott of fellow academics. Some serious and brave UK academics teach for part of the year in Birzeit. That is positive support; that is solidarity. Some UK academics bring Israeli and Palestinian students to the UK, build bridges and educate young people; some people in Britain send books, material support and equipment to Palestinian universities. That, too, is solidarity; solidarity rather than denunciation; solidarity rather than weaving fantasies of a simple world where there are only goodies and baddies.

The president of Al Quds University, in east Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, speaks clearly and eloquently against the campaign to boycott his Jewish colleagues on the other side of his city. Nusseibeh asks for academics to come to Al Quds to teach, to help, to show solidarity. Nusseibeh asks for help for the Al Quds medical school, which is short of funds, expertise and, specifically, dialysis machines. Al Quds university needs books.

Many Palestinians support “BDS”. Many don’t. It is a misrepresentation to pretend that the manufactured “civil society” call represents Palestine as a whole. And it is still up us to make a political judgment as to how we respond to such calls.

Does Academic Boycott Infringe on Academic Freedom?

Pacbi’s reply: It may; but who’s Academic Freedom is being referred to within this context? That of Israeli academics. Are we to regard only the academic freedom of Israelis as worthy? Plus, the privileging of academic freedom as a super-value above all other freedoms is in principle antithetical to the very foundation of human rights. The fact that Palestinians are denied basic rights as well as academic freedom under Israel’s military occupation is ignored. The fact that, with the exception of a tiny yet crucial minority, Israeli academics are largely supportive of their state’s oppression or are acquiescently silent about it is ignored. The fact that Israeli academic institutions have been and continue to be entirely complicit in the continuing aggressions against Palestinian society is ignored. The fact that Israeli academic institutions are themselves directly engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights and international law is ignored.

DH: Yes, the boycott is obviously, and Pacbi admits this, an attack on academic freedom in Israel. Are we to regard the academic freedom of Israelis as worthy? Yes. We are. We should. Freedom is not something that is given to the “worthy”, it is something that we are in favour of for everybody. Israeli academics are as “worthy” and as “unworthy” as any of us.

True, academic freedom is not a “super-value” above all freedoms. But it is an important value.

The occupation does huge damage to Palestinian human rights and to Palestinian academic freedom. So we should be for an end to the occupation and for Palestinian human rights and academic freedom. We should not respond to a problem of academic freedom in Palestine by creating a new problem of academic freedom in Israel. We should be for academic freedom in both Israel and Palestine. This is the logic of the position that Judith Butler argues persuasively.

Pacbi’s claim that Israeli academic institutions are “directly engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights and international law” is a misrepresentation. Israeli universities are no more “complicit” in aggression against Palestinians than British or American universities are “complicit” in aggression against Iraq or Afghanistan. And they are significantly less “complicit” in human rights abuses than universities in states where there is political control over universities and where universities are not independent of an undemocratic state.

BDS is opposed by many Israelis who support the Palestinian struggle. By calling for BDS, aren’t we alienating these Israeli supporters?

Pacbi’s reply: Although the views of Israeli supporters regarding methods of struggle should be taken into consideration, Palestinians have the ultimate right to decide on the best method for attaining freedom from an illegal occupation and systematically oppressive regime. Supporters of the Palestinian struggle within the international community and within Israel itself have to stop attempting to dictate the terms of the struggle but support the Palestinian right to resist an illegal occupation, especially when the form of resistance is non-violent, as is the case with calls for BDS. BDS are morally sound and effective means of struggle that challenge the world to force Israeli compliance with international law; they therefore serve the cause of ending oppression and establishing a just and sustainable peace. That should be the most urgent consideration for morally consistent individuals supporting genuine peace.

DH: I strongly disagree with the idea that we ought to suspend our own political judgment about what we can do to help bring about peace between Israel and Palestine. Different Palestinians think different things. Hamas won the election in Palestine in January on an antisemitic, anti-peace programme. Those who support Hamas are strongly opposed by those in Palestine who fight for peace with Israel. We should listen to what people in Palestine say carefully, but we should not abandon our own political principles or our own judgement. And we should not essentialise Palestinians, and de-politicize them, by pretending that they all think the same thing. It is a western orientalist fiction that Palestinians do not have different politics and ideas about how to move towards peace.

It is certainly true that “BDS” damages the Israeli peace movement and the Israeli left. It bolsters the claim of the Israeli right that the whole world is against Israel whatever it does. It singles out Israeli cultural producers and academics for punishment not meted out to anyone else on the planet. It should be obvious that if Israeli academics or dancers or writers are “banned” throughout the world, while Zimbabwean or Sudanese or North Korean cultural producers are welcomed onto our campuses and into our theatres, that this will be experienced by Israelis as an antisemitic attack. We need a consistent policy with regards to human rights abuses around the world, not one that picks out Israeli Jews for unique sanction.

Won’t BDS also hurt those Israelis who support the Palestinian struggle?

Pacbi’s answer: Israelis who oppose the occupation should be doing so on moral grounds and must be willing to accept that there is a price to pay to end the colonial oppression being perpetrated in their names and perpetuated through the complicity of most of their society.

Rather than focusing on the possibility that some morally consistent, non-Zionist members of the Israeli left may be inadvertently affected by boycott, one must emphasize the impact boycott might have on the overall establishment in Israel. The price that some conscientious Israelis may pay as an unavoidable byproduct of the boycott is quite modest when compared to the price Palestinians have to pay for the lack of boycotts or any similarly effective pressures on Israel.

Challenging the fanatic, militaristic Israeli establishment may indeed strengthen its grip on power in the short run — extreme populism and the rise of fascist tendencies in Israel attest to that; but in the longer run it will weaken that establishment, just as in South Africa. Repression under apartheid did not die down in a smooth downwards spiral, after all. This will serve not only the Palestinians, but also, in the longer term, the true left in Israel.

DH: Look at the first paragraph of Pacbi’s answer again, but try reversing it like this:

Palestinians who oppose suicide bombing should be doing so on moral grounds and must be willing to accept that there is a price to pay to end the campaign of murder pepetrated in their names and perpetuated through the complicity of most of their society

This is not an internationalist or cosmopolitan way of thinking. Pacbi asks us not to think what we can do to help those fighting for peace, but rather it asks us uncritically to raise the flag of one side in the conflict. Its rhetoric, when reversed, resembles exactly the rhetoric of the Israeli right. We need something new, something better than mere reversal of one-sided bigotry.

Pacbi demonizes Israel – it treats it as a unique and essential evil in the world. It prefers demonization to legitimate and measured criticism. So it implies, here, that only “non-Zionist” Israelis could possibly “support the Palestinian struggle”. The term “Zionist” here does not refer to the actual historical political movement of Jews but is an essentialised category that functions, in the hands of the Israel boycott movement, only as an insult, as a totalising essence of evil. Many “Zionist” Israelis support the Palestinian struggle. Many “Zionists” are in favour of Israel making a peace agreement with Palestine. But in Pacbi’s universe, “Zionism” is not Israeli nationalism or patriotism. There is no tradition of socialist Zionism, for Pacbi, and no understanding that “Zionism” was a response to European antisemitism, a utopian movement, a social-democratic experiment; in the simple-minded analysis of Pacbi, Zionism is nothing other than a form of racism. If Israelis or Jews refuse to identify themselves as “non-Zionists” then they are to be treated in the same way as racists are treated. By using this kind of language, the boycott campaign sets itself up for a fight with Jews.

Aren’t BDS tactics unpopular in the international community?

Pacbi’s answer: Recent breakthroughs in the positions of the US Presbyterian church, the Anglican church and some mainstream, progressive Jewish-American organizations — not to mention the fast spreading boycott movement in Europe and calls for divestment in the United States — indicate that there is an encouragingly growing acceptance in the west of the need to effectively pressure Israel to end injustice.

Those who do oppose boycott of Israel were generally in favor of the comprehensive, blanket boycotts (in all fields, including academia) of the apartheid regime in South Africa. To oppose one and support the other entails that either they are hypocritical or else they have good reasons to believe that such pressure measures cannot be as effective in the Israeli case as in its South African predecessor. We have yet to read or hear one good argument supporting this unfounded belief. Treating Israel as a state outside of history, unaccountable to international law and morally untouchable is simply wrong. It reflects not only moral inconsistency but political blindness as well, as it serves to perpetuate Israel’s rarely matched oppression of the people of Palestine.

DH: It is clear in this passage that Pacbi’s case relies entirely on the spurious analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Analogies are always partial. Phenomena are similar in some ways but not in others. Analogies sometimes shed some light but they always have limits. The way the boycott campaign uses the analogy however, is as an article of faith, an absolute identity.

I have argued above that I do not think that this analogy does that work that Pacbi claims. For more on the Israel/South Africa analogy, see John Strawson’s excellent piece here in the Engage Journal. See also Benjamin Pogrund here, this by Susie Jacobs, this by Mark Gardner and this by Nancy Tenenbaum. Israel is not an apartheid state and a peace between Israel and Palestine will not come about in the same way as the end of apartheid. Pacbi’s boycott case fails if their insistence on the apartheid analogy fails.

Can BDS really be effective in ending the Israeli occupation and oppression?

Pacbi’s reply: History shows us that boycotts and sanctions can be effective. In December 1989, a recommendation by the European Parliament to freeze funds allocated to scientific cooperation with Israel until it reopened the Palestinian universities prompted the Israeli government to announce the gradual reopening of colleges and vocational training centers in the occupied territories in February 1990. In effect, on the rare occasions when Israel did at all contemplate changing its racist oppressive policies, it was mainly attributed to facing concerted pressures by the international community.

But of course, the most obvious example of the effectiveness of BDS campaigns is South Africa. After calling for boycott and sanctions against Israel in 2002, the South African Minister for Intelligence Services, Ronnie Kasrils, stated: “we in South Africa know about racial oppression. We fought it and defeated it because it was unjust… South Africa is an example of what is possible”.

DH: It is a huge misrepresentation to argue that Israel’s policies are unswervingly racist, except for on the occasions when external pressure is applied via sanctions. Israel is a plural society. Anti-Arab racism is a serious problem in Israel – there are racist individuals, parties and institutions. But there is a struggle in Israel over this. The Supreme Court, for example, has often struck down racist policies of the government and other institutions. There are many human rights, peace and anti-racist organizations. There are many parties and individuals that loathe racism. In Israel, as in other countries, there is a struggle against racism. Israeli universities are anti-racist institutions that create spaces where anti-racism is taught and practiced. The artistic and cultural spheres are also spaces where anti-racism is the norm. So the idea that it is only when there is external pressure that racism is opposed is just wrong.

There are universities and other colleges in Palestine that operate under conditions of occupation. Of course the fact of the occupation itself severely restricts the norms of academic freedom, but there is no Israeli campaign to close down Palestinian education.

South Africa was not liberated by sanctions; it was liberated primarily by the self-organisation of South African anti-racists – centrally the ANC and the trade union movement. The analogy with South Africa is a misrepresentation and the idea that “BDS” liberated South Africa is another misrepresentation. And the idea that the academic and cultural boycott of South Africa was decisive is a third misrepresentation.

2 Responses to “The argument for the boycott – Pacbi – David Hirsh – 9 September 2006”

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

    […] A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Isra… (Sep 06, David Hirsh) […]

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