Engage has opposed the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel since 2005 when the proposal was discussed and rejected in the old union.
What we were afraid would come with the boycott campaign is now happening.
The UCU branch at SOAS, University of London, is campaigning to have Israeli lecturers silenced. The students union is also campaigning for such an exclusion. Both are mounting pickets to prevent the Israelis from giving lectures.
The UCU branch is behaving like an unrepresentative body at SOAS and it is not representing UCU members, or academics more widely, faithfully or wisely. The administration at SOAS and many academics are standing bravely against the threat to academic freedom.
What have things come to when the management at SOAS is having to protect academics and students against the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic and antisemitic actions of the union?
The boycott campaign often tried to hide its real intentions. It angrily denied that it was in favour of the exclusion of Israeli scholars from UK campuses. It said that it was for a boycott only of Israeli institutions but not of Israeli human beings. The campaign claimed that this would be a victimless exclusion.
Engage always predicted that the campaign to boycott Israeli “academic institutions” would lead to pickets being mounted to silence Israeli scholars. And that is now happening.
Colin Shindler, professor of Israel Studies, has organized the lecture series to mark the hundredth anniversary celebrations of the city of Tel Aviv. Colin is now being bombarded, constantly, with highly aggressive, vituperative emails from many people but most worryingly from his academic and union colleagues. Colin is not Israeli. Colin is Jewish. He has a long and distinguished record of political activity as an activist for peace between Israel and Palestine.
Engage always predicted that the campaign to boycott Israelis would be lead to campaigns against British Jewish academics. And that is now happening.
Engage argued that a campaign to exclude Israelis – and only Israelis – was always likely to yield to the temptation to indulge in antisemitic rhetoric and antisemitic demonization. We predicted it and we described and opposed it when it happened. Now the UCU branch at SOAS is describing the current Israeli attacks on Hamas as being like the Holocaust.
Of course people have different opinions about the morality and the wisdom of the Israeli attacks. We should argue with each other about what we in Britain can do to help move towards a just peace in the Middle East.
But to represent the current conflict as being like the Holocaust is in my view outside of the boundaries of what could be understood as debate or argument.
It saddens me and it embarrasses me that I am now in a position where I have to explain to some academic and union colleagues what happened during the Holocaust. I thought they knew.
The Nazi regime segregated Jews from non-Jews in order to kill them. It concentrated them by force into tiny city neighbourhoods called ghettos as part of the process of murdering them. The regime also organized special police battalions to follow the front line as it invaded Russia and other countries in order to separate out and to kill Jews. Many other Jews were shipped to death camps, which were industrialized factories for killing people, where they were killed. The Nazis wanted to kill all the Jews in the world because they believed the existence of Jews to be incompatible with a safe and just world. Between five and six million Jews were murdered in this way in Europe between 1941 and 1945.
I don’t think any legitimate description of the current conflict is anything like this. This is a military conflict between two sides, “asymmetric” for sure, but this is not a “massacre” or a genocide. There is no Israeli intent or project to kill Palestinian non combatants or to wipe the world free of Palestinians. There is nothing like that. There is a horrible war in a heavily populated area. Almost any analogy is a better fit than the analogy with the Holocaust.
So why do the people who are trying to picket out the Israeli Jews from speaking at SOAS insist on making this analogy?
They do it to upset Jews and they do it to mobilize anger and resentment against Israel.
It is a rhetorical device whose primary function is Jew-baiting.
It upsets Jews to be called Nazis. Why? Because Jews are not Nazis. And because Nazis murdered our grandparents and their brothers and sisters and parents and daughters and uncles and sons.
Israelis are mostly descended from refugees from European, Middle Eastern and Russian antisemitism. Israelis are there because Europeans allowed them to be pushed out of Europe by Nazis.
If you are against the war then protest against the war. But don’t miminize the Holocaust by saying that a nasty local war between Israelis and Palestinians is similar. Or don’t hugely exaggerate the horror of what is going on in Gaza.
What is going on in Gaza is horrible. It requires no outlandish exaggeration.
Engage always predicted that the boycott campaign would lead to demonization rather than criticism of Israel; and to antisemitic rhetoric rather than political opposition. To say that Israel is Nazi is wrong, demonizing, apolitical and antisemitic.
Graham Dyer, who is leading the UCU campaign to exclude Israelis from SOAS has sent the following email around the UCU-Left list at SOAS accusing Engage of labelling him as antisemitic because he criticized Israel. Please re-read this piece which discusses the “Livingstone Formulation” way of responding to a concern about antisemitism.
Subject: SOAS UCU branded as “anti-semitic”
Oh… and I’d be delighted to explain my use of the term “holocaust” as it relates to Gaza – this was the term used by Israel’s deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai in his threats against Gaza back in February 2008: “The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves”. See the full article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/29/israelandthepalestinians1
Dyer relies on Matan Vilnai’s idiotic and demagogic threats from last February as a justification for the Jews=Nazis analogy. People might remember that at the time I wrote a critique of Vilnai here; Norman Geras also wrote one here.
We should not be guided by the vulgar and foolish Mitan Vilnai when we respond politically to events in the world.
The campaign to boycott Israeli academics and nobody else on the planet leads to attempts to picket out Jewish Israelis from speaking on UK campuses.
The campaign leads to harassment of Jews in Britain who are not Israelis.
The campaign leads to antisemitic rhetoric.
The campaign will, if it succeeds, whether it knows it or not, whether it wants to or not, mobilize an antisemitic movement against Jews in Britain.
The campaign needs to be defeated by debate in the union.
It also needs to be opposed when it starts to organize pickets of Israeli Jews from universities.
Goldsmiths, University of London