Esprit d’escalier: reminiscences of a silent observer of the UCU conference – Robert Fine 30 May 2008

Esprit d’escalier: reminiscences of a silent observer of the UCU conference - Robert Fine“The tones are mellow but they give me a shiver and make me feel my Jewishness in a new way.”

The opening refrain of the proposers of the `this is not a boycott’ motion was: `We shall not be intimidated`. There was little chance of that. Opponents of the motion barely got a word in. Between demagoguery and good will there wasn’t a lot of room for argument.

Demagoguery was represented by three professional Israel-haters. One I remember from the 1980s calling for the ‘no platforming` of Zionist organisations on campus, including Jewish societies active in the Anti-Nazi League. They have been hawking their wares for many years. The Palestinians are suffering, so let’s boycott Israeli academics. Mmm? It follows like breakfast follows day. But it did give us the opportunity to study the punitive mind at work. It knows only one register – guilt, and only one response – punishment. All other modalities and distinctions are lost.

The language of guilt, as Roland Barthes observed, allows those who declare it to describe and condemn at one stroke. It knows only how to endow its victims with epithets. It is ignorant of everything about their actions save the guilty category into which they are forced to fit. All else must be excluded. Especially compassion. Nothing is allowed into this Manichean world other than the criminal guilt of Israel and the appropriateness of Israel as a target for basic punitive instincts.

Good will was represented by the executive of the union. The President reported she was shocked by her visit to Gaza. I have no doubt I would have been too. Shocked at finding the lives of ordinary men and women made intensely difficult by the cruelties of war, sanctions and security. Shocked at the problems students faced in graduating, shocked they had to keep their mobile phones on so that they could be alerted to troubles outside the classroom. Good will declared that something must be done and that a boycott of Israeli academics is what is to be done. Not so for other international motions. They were different. There was no call to boycott Sudanese academics for their complicity in the genocide in Darfur, or Ethiopian academics for complicity in the blood bath in Somalia, or Chinese academics for complicity in the extinction of Tibetan culture. Everywhere else well established norms of trade union solidarity applied, as they used in the 1980s when most unions here supported direct links with (not a boycott of) the fledgling independent unions in South Africa. But in Israel we were asked to consider cutting links with our fellow academics and trade unionists. And the majority of the union exec supported it out of good will and philanthropy and with the skill of moving onto next business.

Demagoguery and good will are a potent couple. One offspring was simplicity. Villain nations and victim nations; those we embrace and those we learn to hate; those whose voices we want to hear and those whose voices we wish to exclude lest they disturb the world we have constructed.

The other offspring was duplicity. Weasel words such as ‘criticism of Israel is not as such antisemitic’. Of course, criticism of Israel is not as such antisemitic. But some criticism of Israel is antisemitic. It was in the Doctors Trials in Russia in 1953. It was in the expulsion of Zionists from Poland in 1968. It is in the daubing of synagogue walls in East London with antizionist graffiti in 2008. It is in the inclusion of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the use of black-shirted straight arm salutes among armed groups dedicated to fighting ‘Zionism’. Weasel words noted ‘the apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy’. They did not inform us what our Israeli colleagues are meant to be complicit with. But the good news is that any sense of our own complicity – e.g. for working for a state that is now fighting a war in Iraq of which many of us strongly disapprove – is projected onto the Israeli other. We punish, therefore we are absolved. Self-righteousness is so much easier than self-criticism.

I found myself imagining there were a campaign to boycott British academic institutions to punish us for our complicity in the Iraq war. How would the union respond to holding British academic institutions and the corporate academic body responsible for what our government has done, or to targeting those individual academics in the UK who supported the war or did not oppose it? If not us, why them?

This brought me back to those words: `we shall not be intimidated`. They seemed to resonate with history. Intimidated by whom? The UCU annual conference is a bastion of support for equalities, academic freedom and anti-discrimination. Both in word and deed. If there is one thing we all deplore it is racism. Could it be, however, that the forbidden word, the word whose utterance is identical to intimidation, is antisemitism? One speaker who used it was, albeit mildly, jeered. The jeer had its own voice. It is no longer antisemitism that is a problem, it is talk of antisemitism. Talk of antisemitism serves only to silence rightful criticism. Antisemitism was real in the past; today it is just a ruse. It is not part of our battle against racism, it is a diversion from it. This way of thinking has crept into both academic literature and our academic union.

The proposal our union overwhelmingly voted for noted `legal attempts to prevent UCU debating boycott of Israeli academic institutions‘. Doubtless, this was a crucial exemplar of intimidation. It failed to note that legal opinions have warned the union that it would be going down a discriminatory road if it endorsed a boycott of academics based merely on their national membership. It failed to note that these legal opinions have appealed not to anti-trade union laws but to anti-discrimination laws – our laws, the laws the union uses in its daily activities. They have appealed to the Race Relations Act, not to the ghosts of Thatcher. Instead of being worried about discriminating against Israeli academics and determining not to do so in the future, instead of listening to the warning, the union has been encouraged to discredit those who raise the issue.

No alternatives were placed on the agenda. We could create links with independent trade unionists, both Palestinian and Israeli. We could support trade unionists on both sides even in the face of obstruction or repression from their own respective governments and political leaders. We could embrace an anti-racism in which what matters is not whether someone is a Palestinian trade unionist or an Israeli trade unionist but a fellow trade unionist in need of solidarity. We could stand against the irresponsibility of those whose charge of complicity is merely verbal here but may have lethal consequences in the Middle East. We could have an international strategy based not on the instant self-certainty of those who know from afar which nation is guilty and which nation is innocent but on supporting anti-racism and trade union democracy wherever they make their stand. We could imagine a way forward that does something positive for peace and make us proud of our union. Instead we had a boycott motion, pretending not to be a boycott motion. Its potential to cause damage to our union and to the values of academic freedom, trade union solidarity and anti-racism most members of our union share, is the shame of it.

The Middle East has more than its fair share of violence and fundamentalist thinking. It is quite possible that the struggles for power now going on will get worse. Few of us are experts enough to know. However, to hold Israel uniquely culpable or uniquely responsible for the suffering of Palestinians, and then to make no distinction between the Israeli state and civil society, and then to focus punitive action against what is arguably the most progressive sector of Israeli society, and finally to justify this selective treatment on the grounds that Israel is a democracy – this is to swallow whole the politics and prejudices of some of the most nationalistic forces in the area.
I was born and brought up as an English Jew. The younger son of first and second generation immigrants. In my youth I thought of myself as Jewish rather than English and this self-consciousness has never gone away. For many years I have been involved in socialist organisations, academic research and teaching, and a personal life in which Jewishness has only played a bit part. I used to visit Israel, where I have relatives and friends, but I haven’t been back for some years now – in part because I disapprove of the occupation and the militarism that has accompanied it. I think it has damaged Israeli society from within as well as adding to the suffering many Palestinian men and women have had to endure throughout the Middle East. Over the last few years, however, we have had to listen to the grotesque vilification of Israel and exaggeration of its crimes. We have had to resist relentless calls to exclude Israeli academics from our campuses, editorial boards and research networks. With an increasing sense of adversity we have honed our arguments. Now for the third time our own union has chosen to go down the road of considering ‘the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions’. The tones are mellow but they give me a shiver and make me feel my Jewishness in a new way.

Let’s only hope that in our own union good will gets wise and demagoguery gets shafted. I also hope that next time I won’t be the silent observer indulging in this esprit d’escalier.

Robert Fine
Warwick University’s delegate to UCU Congress
Professor of Sociology

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