Engage serves as “‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda” – Ran Greenstein

On the academic boycott (again)


Ran Greenstein


by Ran Greenstein, University of Witswatersrand, South Africa

As calls for boycotts and sanctions campaigns against Israeli institutions and practices become common, so do counter-voices seeking to shield Israel from criticism. Official Israeli efforts are usually organized through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its affiliates (such as the South African Zionist Federation) and are easily identified and refuted as sheer apologetics for oppressive practices.

Less official attempts in the same vein are sometimes disguised as liberal progressive efforts to enhance the struggle against the occupation by ridding it of particularly ‘offensive’ associations. An example of this strategy is the concerted attempt to deny the similarity between Israeli practices vis-a-vis Palestinians and the South Africa practices of apartheid before 1994 (I dealt with one practitioner of this approach, Benjamin Pogrund, here

Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.

One site of this campaign is the UK group of academics operating under the label of Engage, self-styled as “The anti-racist campaign against anti-Semitism”. They present themselves as concerned with anti-Semitism in the UK academic world, operating from a universal cosmopolitan perspective, but in fact have become a tool in the hands of those who reject all criticism of Israeli policies and practices as tainted with anti-Semitism. Two recent items from their site serve to illustrate the role they have undertaken, and the fallacies that inform their approach.

In a response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed support for a campaign to discontinue institutional relationship between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Robert Fine argues: “the question of why he singles out Israel and Israeli academic institutions is not explained. Why not a host of other countries that repress their own inhabitants or occupy foreign lands, or a host of other universities that are equally implicated in policies of state? My own country, Britain, has after all been engaged in two bloody wars with casualties that far outnumber anything that has involved Israel. Why not boycott British academics? The academic boycott campaign he supports looks to the exclusion of Israeli Jews – and only Israeli Jews – from the scholarly life of humanity. This seems to me discriminatory.” And further: “This campaign opens the door to the deployment of ever wilder claims to justify the special treatment of Israeli Jewish academics – for example, that Israel is inherently ethnic cleansing, genocidal or akin to Nazism. To justify discrimination against certain academics by virtue of their nationality, there is a tangible risk of slippage from political criticism to the vilification of a whole people.”

Why indeed single Israel out? First, we must recognize that Israeli state institutions are in fact not singled out at all. Can Fine really be unaware that his country and its allies have been boycotting the Hamas government in Gaza (and for decades had boycotted the PLO), have collaborated with sanctions campaigns at various times against Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and various other ‘hostile’ countries, have invoked international human rights legislation to prosecute political leaders and have used military force on a massive scale against some of these countries? None of these steps have been used against Israel. With the exception of few feeble legal enquiries, almost always opposed by the UK and the USA, Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. If Israel has been ‘singled out’ in this respect, it has been for a privileged treatment.

But wait, Fine is a political theorist and would tell us – correctly – that state is different from civil society, and his concern is with the latter, not with the action of states. Let’s examine the issue. It is true indeed that the academic boycott (though not other kinds of boycott) as an issue has been raised by human rights and solidarity organizations in relation to Israel but not to other oppressive countries. Why is that the case?

To understand this, we have to go back to the anti-apartheid movement. It argued that one cannot lead a normal life in an abnormal society. The movement set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South Africans, in order to force them to understand that change was necessary. One tactic chosen in this regard was boycotts and sanctions. Other campaigns against oppressive regimes have used similar tactics, selecting targets in order to maximize strategic
advantage. The closer the target was to the core identity of oppressive groups, the more likely it was to be effective. Thus, it made sense to boycott South African cricket and rugby teams to disrupt the sense of normality of sports-mad white South Africans. This tactic would not work in, say, Burma or Sudan, whose oppressive elites have limited interest in sports. Using the same logic, it made sense to boycott Chilean wine and football in Argentina (respectively sources of great national pride), when both countries were under military rule, but not the other way around.

When we consider the campaign against the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, a careful choice of targets must guide action. While Israeli Jews are not the only ones who violate human rights, as the stronger side they are the chief culprits today. Their greatest source of vulnerability is the obsessive need to feel an integral part of the West and the global community. This feeling is particularly strong among the elites, including academics. It is central to their professional identity and it contributes to a sense of political complacency. With their eyes firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians living under conditions of military occupation and suffering from massive violation of human rights. This is the challenge, then: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances?

The academic boycott may become a successful strategy of political mobilization against Israeli oppressive practices to the extent that it manages to highlight what is wrong with the current situation and put pressure on elite sectors in Israeli society to oppose their government’s policies. In this vein, the petition that Desmond Tutu signed did not call for a total boycott but specifically for suspending relations with BGU until it took a stand against the occupation, in the same way that South African universities were expected to – and many did – issue statements against apartheid. Whether such a strategy could or should be used against the UK, USA or any other country is entirely irrelevant. No one ever demanded of the anti-apartheid movement to act against all other oppressive regimes before it could justify its specific claims to action; no one except for PW Botha and his supporters, that is.

While some of Fine’s points are not without merit, he distorts the essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity.” To begin with, Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not affected at all. In addition, Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities and non-Jewish academics are treated in the same way – the campaign does not target Jews in particular. Further, Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not affected as individuals. No one in South Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity whatsoever. The campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. Fine’s argument is pure fantasy as far as South Africa is concerned. There were indeed a couple of instances a few years ago in which Israeli academics were excluded in the UK as individuals, but these were isolated incidents and most supporters of the academic boycott campaign do not approve of such practices.

That criticism of Israeli practices may be turned by some into ‘a vilification of a whole people’, as Fine cautions us, is theoretically possible, but is that an argument for stopping such criticism? Criticism of apartheid frequently turned into vilification of all Afrikaners, criticism of US policies under George W Bush became vilification of all North Americans, criticism of Iran has become vilification of all Muslims, and so on. The problem of generalization is real, and should be dealt with, but why is it that only in the case of Israel this becomes an argument against criticism itself? Is that not a case of singling Israel out?  This is not to deny that anti-Semitism may be a problem on the margins in some places. However, to use that to undermine a campaign against the much more clear and present danger of the Israeli state’s racist and oppressive practices, which are backed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, betrays an agenda that has nothing to do with concern with human rights and justice.

Having said that, there is an important point implied in Fine’s article. To make the most of the potential educational value of the academic boycott campaign it must not become a punitive and externally imposed measure. Rather, it should be a step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics. Ideally it would help create a counterweight to the increasing pressure from right-wing forces that seek to silence critical voices at Israeli universities, including BGU.

This may be the most important contribution of the campaign: to side with those fighting for change from within. Local activists in Israel/Palestine are subject to enormous pressure internally, and the only way they could sustain a campaign for change is by maintaining a constant exchange of information, solidarity, and a flow of moral and material assistance from the outside.  It is only through such a dialogue that the campaign can move forward.

Fine is misguided, though perhaps well-intentioned, and is respectful towards Tutu. His colleague David Hirsh, in contrast, is out to do a demolition job on one of the prominent activists and academics working against the occupation, Neve Gordon.

Taking Gordon to task for changing his mind about the academic boycott without providing reasons, Hirsh repeats the standard apologetic arguments against the boycott campaign: that it opens the door to anti-Semitism, that it singles out Israel alone for boycott, that it harms the left in Israel, that it uses rhetoric like ‘fascism’ and ‘apartheid’ to portray Israel in a particularly bad light, and so on.

Setting aside the inconvenient fact that Gordon never called specifically for an academic boycott, Hirsh has nothing to add to Fine’s points beyond personal vilification. Ironically, but not coincidentally, his attack on Gordon comes precisely at the moment when Israeli progressives rally against what they themselves regard as growing racist and fascist tendencies in Israel, expressed in legislation the Government has just approved (expelling foreign children, conditioning citizenship on loyalty tests, attacks on Palestinian activists and organizations inside Israel, and so on). That even some government ministers regard such trends as a threat of creeping fascism is unlikely to deter Hirsh in his campaign against
Israeli dissidents…

What has changed to make Gordon support sanctions and boycotts now, when he opposed them in the past? Without presuming to speak for him, here are some possible answers: the legal and extra-legal campaign against critical Israeli voices and dissident activists – Jews and Arabs alike – has intensified dramatically in the last couple of years, irrespective of their support for the BDS campaign. The freedom of the press and of political expression in the media and public life (including parliament) has shrunk. The space for peaceful protest and hope for change from within has become more restricted. The violence of the Israeli state has increased and the only effective – even if limited – barrier to its further expansion is pressure from the outside. Other strategies of persuasion from within have yielded meagre results. The hysterical reaction of the Israeli establishment whenever a boycott campaign achieves any measure of success indicates its vulnerability to such tactics. Faced with all this, the concern with the possible bias and double standards of the BDS movement (even if it were genuine) pales into insignificance. Whatever pro-Israeli UK academics may feel about the movement, their concerns have very limited relevance to Israeli activists standing in the line of fire. That many Israeli academics become radicalized as a result is hardly surprising. What can they be expected to do instead? Fight the occupation by obsessing over academic union officials’ e-mails, as Engage is prone to do?

Ultimately, the bankruptcy of the approach offered by Engage and their ilk is that they offer nothing by way of a strategy to fight the occupation and oppression. At best, they are irrelevant to the struggle. At worst, they actively side with the Israeli state and its propaganda apparatus. Either way they have nothing positive to contribute and must feel little satisfaction with their efforts: who really needs useful idiots when you can go to the source and serve the state directly?

by Ran Greenstein, University of Witswatersrand, South Africa

See more by Benjamin Pogrund here.

See Robert Fine’s engagement with Desmond Tutu here and his analysis of the debate in Europe about antisemitism here.

Robert Fine is author of Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa

See David Hirsh’s response to Neve Gordon here and his analysis of the two opposite positions taken by Neve Gordon here.  See Also his paper on the struggle over the boundaries of legitimate discourse here.

Click here for David Hirsh’s piece in the Mail and Guardian on the Israel-apartheid trope.

Click here for UCU’s defence of the South African spokesperson for the boycott campaign who was hosted by UCU in the UK.

See also Mira Vogel on Ran Greenstein here.

13 Responses to “Engage serves as “‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda” – Ran Greenstein”

  1. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    I note that you have posted Ran Greenstein’s article even though it is highly critical of “Engage”. Just for the record, do the pro-boycott sites ever give you a slot for your views?

  2. Saul Says:

    “That criticism of Israeli practices may be turned by some into ‘a vilification of a whole people’, as Fine cautions us, is theoretically possible, but is that an argument for stopping such criticism?”

    See Jacobson on the previous paper below on the difference between “criticism” and “exclusion”, a distinction that appears lost on Greenstein.

    “Characteristically, the political intelligence, if it is to operate at all as a kind of civic force rather than as a mere set of manouvres to advance this or that special interest, must have its own way of handling the facts of life and of forming strategies. It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.”

    “The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this. It is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena of conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly scorns compromises (who can compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference……..Whereas the distinctively political intelligence begins with the political world. and attempts to make an assessment of how far a given set of goals can in fact be realised in the face of a certain balance of opposing forces, the secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realised. It cannot think, for example, of [Israel and Palestine] as a question of mundane politics – that is to say, as a conflict between two [parties] that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive – but only with a clash of faiths. It is not concerned wirth the realities of power…….but with the spiritual battle……whose reality does not consist in what [Zionsts/Israelis/Engage] does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. He has not one whit less reality because the fundamentalists have never met him in the flesh”.
    Richard Hofstadter; “Anti-Intellectualism in Aremican Life”, 1964″

  3. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    Ran Greenstein:
    BA, MA (Haifa University, Israel), PhD (UW-Madison), Associate Professor. The title of his PhD dissertation was Settlement, Resistance and Conflict: Class, Nation, State and Political Discourse in South Africa and Palestine/Israel to 1948.
    He is editor of Political Violence in South Africa, 1985-1998: Comparative Perspectives on South Africa and Genealogies of Conflict: Class, Identity and State in Palestine/Israel and South Africa.

  4. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    Greenstein writes:

    “Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.”

    Who is preventing “critical discussion”? Is it Engage which actually publishes Greenstein’s views and encourages a debate about them?

    Is Greenstein really stating that there is no place for “Engage” because it does not agree with his views?

    Moreover, Greenstein is able to post comments on this site. His contributions, on the various subjects that are blogged, can always be discussed.

  5. Toby Esterhase Says:

    “To begin with, Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not affected at all.”

    OK, so in order to remain part of the global academic community, Israeli academics must go and live elsewhere. The logic of this is that all Israelis should go and live elsewhere.

    “The campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. ”

    This is the boycott which doesn’t boycott anybody.

    Jon Pike: The myth of the institutional boycott http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=231

    “Fine’s argument is pure fantasy as far as South Africa is concerned.”

    Ha ha ha. So the South African boycott campaign is not part of the global campaign to boycott Israel? Is this man serious?

    The boycott which doesn’t boycott anybody.

  6. Peter Says:

    Would have been better to leave out the personal attacks Ran.

  7. Sarah AB Says:

    “That even some government ministers regard such trends as a threat of creeping fascism is unlikely to deter Hirsh in his campaign against Israeli dissidents…” Has David Hirsh ever spoken out against the kinds of ‘dissident’ views described immediately before this assertion – eg opposition to the new loyalty test? I suppose there are shades of ‘dissidence’ but I would have thought the views of writers associated with Engage were compatible with moderate dissidence at least.

  8. Anna Rothenburg Says:

    What an immensely self-centred and arrogant position!

    Ran Greenstein notices that the left is split.

    Could it be that the left is split by those who insist that a necessary part of being a supporter of Palestine is trying to boycott Israel?

    Those who insist that if you don’t support a boycot of Israel then you are either stupid or acting in bad faith when you say you are a friend of Palestine?

    It is a more obvious explanation for the split than to say that those who want to side with progressives within both Israel and Palestine are the splitters.

    Anybody who is in a trade union where the boycott “debate” takes place knows that it is the boycotters who split the left, not those who oppose their one-sided and counterproductive position.

  9. MTT Says:

    “…and their ilk…”

    Who writes “and their ilk”?

    What does it mean?

    Who is Engage’s “ilk”?

  10. Absolute Observer Says:


    “Who is Engage’s “ilk”?”

    Could he have meant “elk”?

    “they have adapted well to countries where they have been introduced, including New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. Their great adaptability may threaten endemic species and ecosystems into which they have been introduced.”

    I’ve heard this said about Jews in the past, especially those who refuse the demand that they keep quiet in the name of a “greater good” or until the “greater struggle” is complete.

  11. Mira Vogel Says:

    “…but in fact have become a tool in the hands of those who reject all criticism of Israeli policies and practices as tainted with anti-Semitism.”

    We could equally say that Ran Greenstein was a useful idiot for Hamas – but we wouldn’t without providing evidence.

    Perhaps the reason he doesn’t provide evidence that Engage is a useful idiot is because it’s not the case, and in fact Engage is difficult to instrumentalise in that way. For example:



  12. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    It seems to me that Ran Greenstein is doing some or all of the following:
    1. failing to read these columns, especially the comments threads, either at all (entirely possible: he wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last to arrive at an opinion based on no evidence at all), or with any degree of care. If he did, he would know that there is a debate going on here and that there is by no means a consensus as to what should be done with regard to I/P. He would also know (should he care to exercise his undoubted intellect, which he appears to have failed to do) that many here consider themselves left-wing, even if we are not _his_ kind of left-winger. He would also be aware that relatively few of the regular contributors are supporters in any way shape or form of the current Israeli government, but many (most?) consider themselves Zionists, at least to the extent of believing in the right of Israel to exist in peace and security alongside an independent Palestine state, equally entitled to exist in peace and security.

    2. He has confused (possibly wilfully, because it makes for good copy) the site with its founding editor and the other moderators, plus, presumably, Prof Robert Fine. This means ignoring the debate in these columns, as per 1 above.

    3. He has never read the item, on the top left hand corner of every page, entitled “About us”. This would have told him exactly what the founding ethos and self-imposed mission statement for this site is: left-wing; Zionist; anti-racist; enlisted in the fight against antisemitism, from wherever it comes (including those who present themselves “as-a-Jew” in order to attack the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Jews, whether in the diaspora or in Israel); for a two-state solution; against the settlements on the West Bank; and more…

    4. Refuses to notice that this site and its supporters are severely against a boycott of Israeli and only Israeli universities, because, inter alia, this targets, essentially, Jews and only Jews, and ignores all the other bad regimes in the world that also (assuming for the sake of Greenstein’s argument) that Israel is actually a severe, serious and serial breacher of other’s (and her own citizens) human rights.

    5. And perhaps most importantly, that this site is absolutely and without reservation for academic freedom.

    I would be fascinated to read a reply by Greenstein to these charges, but I doubt I will, for that would demand that he descent from what he sees as the lofty moral heights he believes he occupies, when actually what he occupies is an ivory tower while wearing blinkers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s