Proposals to boycott Israeli Universities: a response by Robert Fine, following Desmond Tutu, Neve Gordon, Uri Avnery, David Hirsh and Ran Greenstein

On September 29 the University of Johannesburg’s ruling body met to discuss a proposal from the boycott campaign that it should sever its

Robert Fine

research links with Ben Gurion University.  It set an ultimatum for BGU and it postponed the decision for six months.  To read Desmond Tutu’s support for this move, click here.

Click here for the response of David Newman, who is Dean of Social Science at BGU. This proposal in South Africa sparked renewed debate on the Engage website.
Neve Gordon wrote an article about academic freedom in Israel here.
David Hirsh wrote a critique of a piece by Neve Gordon on academic freedom in Israel.  Read it here. David Hirsh wrote a second piece tracing Neve Gordon’s journey from sharp critic of the boycott campaign to important supporter.  Read it here.
Robert Fine, meanwhile had an engagement with Desmond Tutu published in the South African Mail & Guardian, here.
Last year Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, published a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy and a critique of the boycott campaign, which related explicitly to the positions of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon.  Read it here.
Ran Greenstein, a supporter of the boycott campaign in South Africa responded to Engage here, in a trenchant critique of the Fine and Hirsh articles.
Now Robert Fine  has written this response to Ran Greenstein.

Dear Ran,

I have read your paper on the academic boycott that was published on the Engage website, which contains inter alia criticisms of my own response to Bishop Tutu’s support for the boycott. You raise important issues to which I should like to respond.

Your first point is also my own. It is about how we ‘hear’ and interpret viewpoints that conflict with our own. It seems to me important to consider the substance of the arguments advanced, not to avoid looking at the arguments by de-legitimising those who make them. So when people criticise the academic boycott movement, it is possible to dismiss such criticism by saying either that the critics are ‘easily identified’ apologists for Israel and the Israeli government policies, or that they are ‘useful idiots’ unwittingly servicing the Israeli state propaganda machine. I’m not sure in which of these categories you would place my own contribution! Either way, there remains the risk of dismissing the argument by demeaning the source.

Critics of the boycott movement come from many different political standpoints, but speaking for myself (and this is, I think, mainstream in Engage) I am critical of the policies currently pursued by the Israeli government. More broadly I am critical of the occupation and the human rights abuses that flow from occupation. And more broadly still I am critical of the failure of successive Israeli governments to recognise the real responsibilities that come with power.

I do not, however, hold Israel exclusively responsible for the suffering and unfreedom of Palestinians. I try to understand Israeli actions interactively, that is, in relation to others regional actors some of whom are deadly enemies. And I refuse to demonise ‘Zionism’, whatever that is, as the source of all that is wrong.  I do not endorse any nationalism myself – whether Zionist or Arab or Islamist or indeed English – but I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own Palestinian-democratic state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity. The far bigger problem arises when there is no democracy.

My fellow contributors to the Engage website are not of one political persuasion but none of us, as far as I know, rejects all criticism of Israeli policies and practices and all of us seek to reconnect antiracism and anti-antisemitism. I happen to be co-convenor a European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism and a number of individuals who contribute to Engage are also members of this network. Our point of departure is that antisemitism is not a mere ideology wielded by ‘Zionists’, any more than racism is a mere ideology wielded by Black Nationalists.

It seems to me that as long as you treat ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word, you can never get to grips with the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East or the complexities of Jewish identification with Israel in our respective countries.  I believe that the analogy between Israel and apartheid is one you have investigated in some depth. There may indeed be some similar practices in relation to settlements in the occupied territories and there is an ultra-nationalist right wing in Israel adopting a disturbingly hostile stance toward Palestinian Israelis. But the analogy ends there. In my opinion it serves well to de-legitimate Israel (and in this context justify a boycott) but it does not throw light on Israel or on the conflicts in which it is embroiled.

I am in favour of assessing the justice and injustice of a situation comparatively – for example, by comparing respect for human rights in Israel and the occupied territories with the equivalent in Arab states in the Middle East and in European states in the EU as well as in South Africa – but analogy seems to me to bring comparative analysis to a premature halt.

Why single Israel out? You say that Western governments do not single Israel out, at least not negatively, and that Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. You are on the whole right, though in the European Union there are signs of an increasingly ‘tough’ official attitude toward Israel. As I see it, the first question is whether Israel is a major human rights abuser in relation to the inhabitants either of its own territory or of surrounding territories. The comparisons you raise are indeed pertinent:  Iran, Iraq <under Saddam>, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

The second question is whether the state in Israel has succeeded in making universities complicit with its own oppressive policies and practices (compared, say, to universities in the same list). It seems to me vital to get some perspective on what the state of Israel has done, of which we may strongly disapprove, compared with situations in which ethnic groups are slaughtered, oppositions forces murderously suppressed, students beaten up and removed, trade union leaders defenestrated, women stoned to death, and gay people persecuted. I think you can lose perspective when you refer simply to ‘massive’ human rights abuses.

The issue here, moreover, is not what our governments do but what we do. You say that an academic boycott hits Israelis where they most hurt: the ‘obsessive need’ of their elites, and especially academics, to feel an integral part of the global community. It seems to me that feeling part of the global community is no bad thing – indeed a feeling that we all ought to cultivate. Then you say: ‘With their eyes firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians…’ This may be true of some but as far as I know the Israeli universities are home to some of the more progressive Israeli citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, who are anything but blind to what is happening to Palestinians.

Surely, our role is to offer our support to our academic colleagues in Israel and Palestine, not to set them against one another and not to cut them off from ‘the global community’. It is to support the existence and indeed expansion of university spaces that doubtless contain all manner of complicities but also make possible a culture of radical dissent, critical thinking and respect for human rights. In my view, no talk of ‘strategic advantage’ can possibly compensate for the ill will of some and thoughtlessness of others that lies behind the campaign to have nothing to do with these vital institutional spaces.

You say that ‘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’. I don’t think this is so but in any event it seems to me doubly problematic if the emphasis is only on UJ-BGU links. First, one would have to pay some heed to the nature of these links – which are mainly, I understand, to do with the development of arid agriculture techniques. Second, one would have to consider the overall nature of BGU, for example, the diversity of its own student and staff or its links with Palestinian universities. Third, one would have to explore whether there is space at BGU for dissent, how that space has been used by dissenting voices, and what actions if any the university has taken against such dissent. Having not too long ago attended an antiracist conference at BGU, my own impression is that the university as an institution comes out rather well on these three counts. There are individuals within it who adopt a militant, right wing rhetoric but, as Neve Gordon honourably points out, their draconian calls for conformity have been resisted both by the President of the University and the Dean of Social Sciences.

This brings me to my last point. You say that I ‘distort the essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity”’.  You are quite right to say that Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not directly affected. You are also right to say that the boycott campaign does not formally discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities. I disagree, however, when you say that Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not affected as individuals and that no one in South Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity.

You say that the campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. It seems to me mistaken to think that an institutional boycott does not affect individuals. Of course it does. Institutions do not engage in research, write up papers, disseminate their findings and apply them to practical projects. Individuals do. If an institutional boycott is introduced, individuals will be prevented from doing so outside Israel unless they leave Israeli universities. This seems to me a recipe for discriminating against individual academics on the basis of their country of work.

By the way, I think this is the substantive core of the argument between Neve Gordon and David Hirsh: the former now seeing a watertight wall between institutional boycott and individual discrimination; the latter arguing, as I do, that the wall is necessarily leaky. It has nothing to do with lying but with a difference of political interpretation. If successfully implemented, I wonder what the outcome of a boycott would be. My fear is that it would encourage those academics who stay in Israeli universities to batten down the hatches in opposition to an ‘antisemitic world’ and those seeking to leave Israeli universities (whether for conscientious or pragmatic reasons) to look for tenure in America, the UK or South Africa. I can’t see how this would help foster a climate of diversity, dissent and co-operation with Palestinians inside Israel itself.

You say I am against criticism of Israeli practices for fear that it may be turned by some into ‘vilification of a whole people’. I am not against ‘criticism’ but I am against vilification and I am against a boycott of fellow academics based on their country of work. The point I am seeking to make is that the arbitrariness of singling out Israeli academe is connected with the search for ever more outlandish justifications. We all know the difference between, say, criticism of a literary text and vilification of its author because she or he is of a particular social origin or particular political persuasion or particular sexual orientation. We also know the difference between criticism and banning a book because it is seen as ‘Jewish’ or what-not. Boycott is not criticism. It is exclusion. We doubtless disagree how marginal the problem of antisemitism is, but that it is a problem is something we have to confront.

In my view your heart is in the right place but you could not be more mistaken than to think that the boycott could and should be a ‘step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics’. If we want to do this, then let’s do it. Not preface it with a boycott which the vast majority of Israeli academics of various political persuasions are opposed to and in relation to which the attitude of Palestinian academics is not to my knowledge uniform or clear. If we want to oppose right wing voices in Israeli universities, then support those who stand up to them – including official representatives of the universities themselves.

Let me end with a word about your comments on Engage. First, the approach offered by Engage is one that tries to go beyond a politics of victims and victimisers: a politics that allows one voice to the victims and imposes absolute culpability on the victimisers. Engage provides a space in which the complexities of a difficult situation can be aired and debated.

Second, to campaign against antisemitism on the Left and from the Left is hardly a mark of bankruptcy; it inherits an honourable tradition that goes back to Karl Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s radical rejection of Jewish emancipation and Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of German Social Democracy’s equivocations over political antisemitism. The fact that Engage alerts us to the dangers of overlap between antisemitism and hatred of Israel is surely something we should all welcome under the register of antiracism.

Finally, we cannot and should not accept the view that, willy-nilly, criticism of the boycott plays into the hands of right wing Zionists. It’s a bit like people saying in the old days that criticism of the USSR played into the hands of imperialism. Sometimes this was true but as often as not it was a way of refusing to hear the call of common humanity.

Best Wishes,

Robert Fine

Robert Fine is author of Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa, a professor of Sociology at Warwick University, and a leading social theorist. His most recent book is on Cosmopolitanism.