After the first AUT boycott resolutions in 2005, I joined a small number of members in a lawsuit to challenge the legality of boycott action. We did it reluctantly, and withdrew the suit after the vote of May 2006 defeated the resolutions.
Large numbers of union members, including many opposed to a boycott, criticised the decision to litigate. They insisted that legal action violated the democratic traditions of trade unionism. They argued that recourse to law recalled the worst days of Thatcherism, when government used court orders to force the hand of labour. The AUT, we were told, had ample means of providing a full and fair hearing to all points of view without such outside intervention.
I disagreed. Courts can indeed be abused. But not every lawsuit is an abuse. A fundamental principle of liberal democracy, and of any democratically constituted body, is that sheer majoritarianism provides no guarantee of fair outcomes. A liberal tradition revived in our own day in Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously (1977) recalls that judicial intervention is nowhere more justified than when a body, like the AUT (and UCU)—organisations comprised, moreover, entirely of government employees—embraces positions raising such serious questions about discrimination. That does not mean that courts should step in to resolve every bitter controversy, but only that, on highly exceptional matters of fundamental principle, some checks on raw majoritarianism do more to promote democratic legitimacy than to undermine it.
I was willing to sue my trade union, but not to withdraw my membership. On the whole, I accepted the union’s declared commitment to democratic processes. I continued to believe that the misguided views of fellow members did not warrant my outright abandonment of my trade union. Like a family, a civic organisation demands commitment in times of discord, and not merely in times of harmony.
By April 2008, however, it became clear that my initial distrust of the union’s democratic pretensions was correct. The UCU leadership widely advertised what they called a ‘Speaking tour by Palestinian university union representatives.’ I would not have objected to a balanced presentation, granting equal time to both pro- and anti-boycott views. The wholly one-sided, UCU-sponsored presentation, however, revealed a core of union membership committed to democracy as long as they were winning their battle, yet just as committed to foiling it once they feared they might lose.
We can imagine a quasi-Gramscian defence of the Speaking Tour: ‘The Palestinians are a people oppressed by dominant interests. There is no such thing as a “level playing field” for them. A one-sided presentation of their views injects balance into an equation that systemically (“hegemonically”) deprives Palestinians of anything like a “level playing field”. A non-mixed panel of speakers is therefore justified.’
Little extrapolation is required—toss a concept like ‘hegemony’ into the stew, and little extrapolation is ever required—for those ‘dominant interests’ to be understood as US-backed militarism, neo-colonial racism, free-market corporate capitalism, and media conglomerates which ‘serve’ those interests. Even after a century of the grossest abuses of ‘anti-hegemonic’ polemics, that pretension to Ideologiekritik, to unmasking the ‘real’ imbalance that would underpin any insistence upon a seemingly ‘balanced’ presentation of pro- and anti-boycott views, continues to work like a charm upon ‘leftists’ desperate to prove that there’s some life in the old Marx yet—until some inconvenient facts rear their heads. I’ll limit myself to two kinds of facts: facts about mass media coverage, and facts about global power politics.
Mass Media coverage Notwithstanding that image of Palestinians as excluded from even-handed global attention, barely a week goes by without exhaustive attention to Palestinian suffering. Whatever may be the defects of journalistic coverage of the Middle East, indifference to the plight of Palestinians hardly counts among them. No global human rights issues, including those claiming far more victims, have received more column inches over such a sustained period of time.
The mainstream British and global media may do many things wrong in covering the Middle East, but they have hardly deprived the Palestinian cause of a level playing field. It is by no means unusual for one child killed in Gaza to prompt extensive Guardian, Independent or BBC coverage, replete with poignant sketches and photographs of grieving parents, siblings and communities.
Rightly so. Such journalism lends a fuller humanity to innocent victims in a way that cold facts and figures can never do. By comparison, however, how many such deeply individualised, deeply humanised stories, have appeared for victims in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose conflict in the past decade has claimed three million lives, along with countless rapes, mutilations, displacements, destructions of families, noted in the Western press in only the most perfunctory terms—and in numbers exponentially exceeding casualties in the Israeli Occupied Territories? And Congo is hardly the only such example one might cite.
My aim in drawing comparisons is not to ‘weigh up’ sufferings in an unseemly volley of ‘More victim than thou’. Human rights is not a zero-sum game. We should not begin to care ‘less’ about Palestinians so that we might begin to care ‘more’ about victims elsewhere. It cannot be argued, however, that the Palestinian side needed from the UCU a level playing field that it lacks in the public arena.
Global Power Politics So-called attempts to level the Palestinians’ playing field might be made not only with respect to the media, but also with respect to full-blown global politics. Nary a word is uttered against Israel without simultaneous reference to her ‘backer’ or ‘broker’, the United States. The lone Palestinian David, we are told, can scarcely confront the American-Israeli Goliath.
If only the Middle East were so simple. Again, consider an analogy. Why haven’t, for example, Australian aborigines ever mounted the kind of strident, militarised resistance displayed by the Palestinians? Why hasn’t Australia been declared an ‘illegitimate’ state, despite a brutalisation of its indigenous people that stretched from the 19th century well into the present generation?
One can imagine a romantic reply: ‘The Palestinians’ resistance demonstrates their heroic fighting spirit, their refusal to capitulate, their belief in the justice of their cause.’ The reality is rather more banal. Had Australian aborigines formed part of a global population, an actual or even wholly nominal ummah, numbering 1½ billion members, controlling one-quarter of the world’s governments, along with much of its oil reserves, with demonstrators from one continent to the next taking to the streets en masse to proclaim their cause, it is unlikely that they would have confronted their fate so helplessly.
Throughout the formation of incipient Israeli statehood, wholly encrusted within the Cold War period, Palestinian interests were relentlessly defended by enormous power blocks—Arab, Soviet, and more broadly post-colonial. The 1978 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism (repealed only after the end of the Cold War) was passed by a Goliath, not a David. How could it have passed at all through a UN supposedly ‘dominated’ by American ‘hegemony’? If a level playing field is our concern, why was no similar resolution passed to censure regimes in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other declared enemies of Israel whose brutality claimed more Muslim victims than Israel’s?
Israelis and Palestinians alike invoke a David-and-Goliath story. The Middle East is a mess not because Goliaths are fighting Davids, but because they are fighting each other, and, indeed, in view of intricate networks of political and financial support for both the Israeli and Arab states, often fighting themselves. Injustice on both sides? No doubt. Lack of a level playing field for one side? Nothing could be further from the truth..
Since the inception of the AUT, NAFTHE and UCU controversies about Israel, the most strident proponents of boycotts have remained stone silent about the world’s most egregious violators of human rights, several of which states, like China, have an overwhelmingly greater presence in British universities than Israel. The fact that such states are un-democratic, instead of being seen as an aggravating factor, has, bafflingly, been cited by pro-boycotters as an exculpatory factor. Throughout the boycott debates, and among frighteningly wide swathes of the media and public opinion, we have regularly heard that ‘China doesn’t claim to be a democracy, so needn’t be judged in the same way.’ The fact that China does, however, claim to be a ‘people’s republic’ (or that any number of Israel’s foes justify their regimes with reference to principles of Islamic justice) is conveniently avoided by proponents of that view.
All states proclaim formulaic, self-justifying ideals which they inevitably fail to fulfil. There is something sinister about the fact that Israel is so doggedly held to the most minute letter of her own proclaimed ideals. If the pro-boycotters were sincerely committed to human rights (a long history shows how little—how selectively—they have been), they would expend far more effort looking at the abuses that governments actually commit. They might not find Israel exemplary, but would hardly find her alone. In a recent article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal entitled ‘Even-handedness and the Politics of Human Rights’, in which I by no means exempt Israel from all criticism, I nevertheless argue that such one-sided campaigns, purportedly waged in the name of human rights, serve in fact to assault the most basic principles of human rights.
I can support an organisation without assenting to all of its adopted resolutions. I cannot support an organisation that manipulates the concept of fundamental human rights with such partisanship. Nor can I support an organisation that manipulates its proclaimed democratic values, structuring its public discourse so as to preclude a balanced presentation of views on an issue so desperately crying out for balance.
Prof. Eric Heinze
Faculty of Laws
Queen Mary, University of London