The campaign to boycott Israel is now fighting for a concrete exclusion of Israeli scholars – David Hirsh

Colin Shindler

Picture: Colin Shindler

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.

Please read two articles from Engage, both entitled “Israelis are not Nazis” which try to articulate the problem with the analogy. One is by Mira Vogel. The other is by David Hirsh.

Date: 2009/1/15
Subject: SOAS UCU branded as “anti-semitic”
Here’s a printable example below of what happens when you criticize Israel or zionism. This is just one of the dozens of inane “articles” amidst the flood of masturbatory death threats that you will get.
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

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.

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths, University of London

Editor Engage

15 Responses to “The campaign to boycott Israel is now fighting for a concrete exclusion of Israeli scholars – David Hirsh”

  1. MartinB Says:

    So what should we do? I understood that the Principal of SOAS is strongly supportive of the Public Lecture Series on TelAviv100 and of Colin.

    Has that changed?

  2. A Student Says:

    David – why don’t you point out that SOAS held a very successful event with Israeli academic Yousefa Livitsky last week? No one at this meeting, organised by the SOAS STW and the Palestine Solidarity group, protested her speaking. No one demanded that she not be given a platform and it was actually packed. I attended from a neighbouring university and thought it was a very useful discussion – and for me highlighted why I have been and continue to be opposed to an academic boycott – because I think the universities are precisely the place where some of the most radical thinking on these issues takes place.

    I think you have misrepresented what is actually happening on the campuses and further claim, falsely, that people protesting academics with pro-Israeli views are anti-semitic. I think there are protests when academics come out with pro-Israeli rubbish while that country is bombarding Gaza, and there should be. The way to convince people to oppose an academic boycott is to highlight meetings were varying viewpoints are heard from Israeli lecturers, not by defending lecturers who defend the actions of the Israeli state. The whole point of opposing a boycott is because people support dialogue and peace, not because people think there is an anti-semitic around every corner. Why don’t you come to SOAS and see for yourself what’s going on?

  3. Ariel H Says:

    Great post David. I fully agree with almost everything you say. But I also think you’ve left something out.

    ‘The campaign needs to be defeated by debate in the union’. Yes, but things are getting nasty now. Given how debates about the boycott have played out within the Union in the past I don’t think this will achieve much (if anything you’ll find the pro-boycott voices strengthened by events in Gaza).

    What is needed now is legal action against those guilty of incitement of racial and religious hatred.

  4. Mike Sager Says:

    The obvious response to the holocaust comment is that it is a mistranslation in the Grauniad article . The word used in Hebrew for the Holocaust is ‘hashoah’ (ha as a prefix means the). ‘shoah’ (the word used by the Israeli minister) means ‘a disaster’ when used without prefix.

    The less obvious comment is why the Guardian and other rmedia (and their Israel hating readers ) chose to accept and broadcast a mistranslation with horrific implications

  5. David Hirsh Says:

    No Martin.

    The SOAS authorities are standing up strongly against the bullying.

    As are a number of members of staff and students.

  6. Bill Says:

    I’m prone to agree with Ariel and others who’ve made the same point. As the article states the boycott has crossed every line in Engages bold-print bullet points set out in the article with this (except for the last one which has been going on for some time). Legal and professional lines have been crossed here against Shindler’s academic freedom and if it were against any issue outside of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, I’d bet that actions would likely have started.

    As for the student’s comment (even though s/he seems to opposed to academic boycotts), it would sound like he/she is coming close to saying that s/he doesn’t have much problem with cherry picking speakers to suit local manners and tastes. If what happened at the last speaker event was fine, what then from the perspective of scholarly academic neutrality, is wrong with this one? STS, PS, the local chapter of the student Tories, Labor or LibDems seals or even the faculty or student gov structures, seals of approval should not be shouldn’t be required to bring in informative, educational, and yes, provocative speakers to universities. At this trying time, that would especially include the “wrong kind of provocative,” i.e., those who grudgingly (or even not so grudgingly) support the actions of Israel — while apologists for Hamas seem to be given a green light. Universities are supposed to be dens of contention not stagnant like-minded echochambers, the latter of which sounds like the view of the people targeting Shindler.

  7. Bill Says:

    eek, too early in the morning for me to edit…. sorry bout that… but once again as Brian has said over and over: Academic Freedom is Indivisible. It must be permitted to protect all ideas, especially those that affect sensitive sensibilities or it has no meaning. Universities are an opportunity to examine, critique and explore the real world as it is, and as it might and should be, not create a protected bubble from its unpleasant and unconfortable realities.

  8. zkharya Says:

    Does this mean they are seeking to exclude the head of SOAS Mediterranean Studies, Efraim Karsh?

  9. zkharya Says:

    ‘sorry, Efraim Karsh is at Kings.

  10. Sarah Says:

    Sorry if this has been mentioned somewhere and I’ve missed it but what position (if any) is the UCU itself (as opposed to its SOAS branch) taking on this – given that the recent events seem to go far beyond the remit of Motion 25?

  11. Saul Says:

    “I think there are protests when academics come out with pro-Israeli rubbish while that country is bombarding Gaza, and there should be”

    Such as……….?

    “The way to convince people to oppose an academic boycott is to highlight meetings were varying viewpoints are heard from Israeli lecturers, not by defending lecturers who defend the actions of the Israeli state”

    Such as………?

    And, anyway, if a lecturer wants to defend the Israeli state, then why can’t he or she? They can defend all types of things, from Heidegger to Fascist architecture, free-market economics to to Intellectual Creationism. What is so beyond the pale about a defence of Israel? What is it about Israel that means that it is said to breach the bounds of permissible speech in a UK university?

    And if we are on the subject of academics spouting rubbish, then what about the rubbish spouted by academics that peace is not enough, that Gaza is Warsaw and Israelis are nazis.
    If rubbish were the criterion of protests, those critical of the current hysteria would be doing nothing but protesting.

    And, has the situation become so in the UK reached the stage where you greet things that are spoken you disagree with with protests?? Is that the level UK universities, academics and students have reached.

    You also separate and then associate “pro-Israel” and the current violence in Gaza. I know you may be too busy protesting at “stupid things” to maybe reflect a little, but one can quite easily be “pro-Israel” (what does that mean nowadays?) and against what is going on in Gaza.

    You also say that Engage did not report a highly successful meeting. SInce when is a university environment doing what is should do and what is normal be reported?

  12. Evan Says:

    A Student,

    I wouldn’t be surprised that Yosefa Loshitsky did not have much trouble speaking at SOAS when she writes articles such as this:

    “Israel’s blonde bombshells and real bombs in Gaza”


    “I am not sure that most people understand the meaning of the name “Operation Cast Lead” chosen by Israel for its murderous and criminal attack on Gaza. The name is borrowed from a Hebrew nursery rhyme which was (and may still be) very popular among Israeli children in the 1950s. In this song, a father promises to his child a special Hannukah gift: “a cast lead sevivon.” Sevivon, in Hebrew (A dreidel in Yiddish) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Somebody, in the Israeli army, who apparently feels nostalgic about his childhood, decided that if Israeli kids would enjoy a sevivon cast from lead there is no reason why Palestinian children would not appreciate it too. After all Operation Cast Lead is not the first (and unfortunately, will not be the last) of Israel’s cruel war games.

    The cynicism embedded in the name, selected for what Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most celebrated commentators, called “an intelligent, impressive operation,” is symptomatic to the cold, meticulous and calculated cruelty with which this attack was “designed,” “executed” and “marketed” to the world. As the perpetrators themselves proudly boast, Operation Cast Lead is not only a great military victory but also a success story of Israeli hasbara (meaning in Hebrew, explanation, but practically referring to misinformation, spin and lies).”

  13. Jimmy Says:

    I suggest SOAS is renamed The School of Organized Anti-Semitism. They would thereby remove the controversial ‘Oriental’ part of the name and replace it with something far more acceptable!

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