Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack

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

Robert Fine responded to Greenstein’s response.

Farid Essack also responded to Robert Fine in the South African press.

Ran Greenstein came back to Robert Fine here.

David Hirsh challenges Ran Greenstein’s “as a Jew” and “not in my name” stance here.

Robert Fine responds to Ran Greenstein’s argument about “Jewish and Democratic” here.

More from Ran Greenstein and David Hirsh on antisemitism here.

Robert Fine responds again here.

More from Ran Greenstein and Robert Fine

Jewish and Democratic? Civic or ethnic? Robert Fine

Robert Fine responds to Ran Greenstein:

Dear Ran

Thank you for your considered response to my letter. I want to address one particular and important argument you raise. You pick out this passage from my letter:

‘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 state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity’

You reply:

‘What is unique in Israel is that national identity is defined solely in ethnic-religious terms and civic nationalism which encompasses all citizens equally does not exist… It is the declared policy of the current Israeli government and its predecessors, backed by courts, to ensure that such national identification never emerges… a Jewish democratic state is a contradiction in terms.’

We agree there is a contradiction. I say the contradiction between democracy and Jewish national identity is ‘normal’. You say it is ‘unique’ because national identity in Israel is framed in ethnic rather than civic terms and because the exclusion of Palestinians has been the foundation of the Jewish state since its inception. We also agree that the distinction between ethnic and civic national identity is an important one. It marks the difference between an idea of a nation based on allegedly common origin, blood, religion, history, culture, etc. and an idea of a nation of equal citizens regardless of origin, ‘blood’, ‘race’, religion or ‘culture’.

And now for our disagreements. I cannot see what by this criterion is unique about Israel. There are plenty of states whose national identity has an ethnic dimension. It seems to me that most states emerging from colonial domination or imperial rule have based themselves on the right of their particular nation to self-determination. In all such cases there are urgent questions concerning the treatment of people inside the territories of these newly emerging states, who are not deemed to belong to the ruling nation in question.  In the Middle East, as I understand it, many states that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and then European colonial rule have characteristically described themselves as ‘Arab’ or ‘Arab-Muslim’ and have faced the problem of how to treat non-Arab minorities in their territories, such as Jews. The Jewish state in this sense is no exception – it is the rule.

Second, it seems to me important not to overstate the distinction between civic and ethnic national identity. In practice, ‘civic’ nations (including my own) may have their own ‘established’ religions, their own more or less official ways of discriminating against ‘alien’ people, their own differential allocation of rights according to some system of civic stratification (e.g. legitimate and bogus asylum seekers), their own controls over the boundaries, physical and symbolic, between nationals and foreigners, and so forth. We may not like it, but Germanness, Britishness, Frenchness and I imagine South Africanness have not been extinguished by the magic potion of civic national identity.

Equally, those nations labeled ‘ethnic’ may indeed at one extreme exclude, expel or murder those deemed not to belong to the ruling nation, but they may also establish civic guarantees to minorities or grant equal civic, political and social rights for all and not just for their own. Just as the civic nation is not necessarily as civic as it appears, so too the ethnic nation is not necessarily as ethnic as it appears. We are in the terrain of social being as well as ideology.

Third, it seems to me important not to slip from a valid and useful distinction between ethnic and civic national identity into the recreation of a moral division of the world between us and them: ‘we’ who are civic and civilised; ‘they’ who believe in the purity of the nation and act with corresponding barbarity. This is an old opposition but Israel seems now to play a peculiar role in this reconstructed binary. My belief is that the distinction between civic and ethnic forms of national identity is being employed to represent ‘Israel’ as the Other of civilized society, that is, as the incarnation of all the negative properties that civic nations now claim to have overcome. ‘Israel’ serves here not as a real country embroiled in real conflicts, but as a vessel into which civic nations can project all that is bad in their own past and present and thus preserve the good for themselves. In this scenario ‘Israel’ performs a symbolic function as the ethnic-religious state par excellence – one that denies civic, political, social and human rights to those who do not belong (the Palestinians) and has an inbuilt inclination toward exclusion, expulsion or genocide. Not only does this image of ‘Israel’ bear little relation to the real thing, it also justifies any kind of violence by the image-makers. Even the most valid of distinctions can be put to invalid use.

Today it seems to me that your position paradoxically dulls the nerve of outrage. In Israel it declares that Lieberman and Yishai merely say openly what has been practiced since 1948. So according to your account nothing has changed. It’s the same old story.  There can be no drift toward ethnic-religious fundamentalism in Israel because Israel is by definition an ethnic-religious state. There can be no worsening of the treatment of Arab Israelis since they have always been second-class citizens. There can be no danger to the integrity of Israel since it always has been and always will be ethnic-religious. And what is more, it is unique.  Would it be an unfair extrapolation to say that for you Palestine is equally timeless: a just cause whose essentially civic aims are not in the least tarnished by the Hamas Charter or the Hezbollah Manifesto?

You acknowledge I am ‘critical of some Israeli policies and practices’ but you say my criticisms are not enough.  What would be enough for you, it seems, is the dissolution of Israel into a greater Palestinian entity (including all Jews and Palestinians with a right of return for all Palestinian refugees). To my mind, your approach contains the potential violence of imposing an ‘ought’ onto reality.  We have to start from where we are – not from some ideal of where we ought to be.

In the Middle East the ‘Jewish’ state exists. It exists for historical reasons. So too do various ‘Arab’ states. In no case has there been an unblemished history of dealing with people deemed not to belong to the defining nation. In every case there have been political arguments within states between those inclined to ethnic exclusivism and those inclined to civic inclusion. This is a political battle within states, not a distinction between bad nations and good. It is a battle that has often been lost.

It is clear to me that Palestinians have been to varying degrees more or less excluded from the possession of civil, political and social rights by many states in the Middle East. Their political leaders claim the right to ‘their own’ state and Israel by virtue of the occupation finds itself in a position to grant this right.  It has not done so for a variety of reasons, including or especially fear. This failure has become a terrible weight on Israel’s back and my belief is that the liberation of the Palestinian people will prove to be of great advantage to Israel. The obstacles to this desirable outcome come from many parts. To have any hope of achieving this outcome, our political need is not to heap on “Israel” absolute culpability, as the boycott call tends to do, but to support those in Israel, Palestine and surrounding Arab nations who share this hope and oppose a politics of despair.

If this is not enough for you, then what exactly is enough? In my opinion, it is no answer to the ethnic-religious claim that Jews have a God-given, absolute and exclusive right to their own nation in Israel to say that Jews have no right at all to their own nation or that the Jewish state is uniquely illegitimate. The one is the negation of the other and like all negations can merely end up destructive.

You make a number of other points I should like to return to – especially on the apartheid analogy and on the universality of human rights – but perhaps we can pursue these on another occasion.

Best wishes,

Robert Fine