David Hirsh to speak at University of Johannesburg Seminar on Academic Boycotts

The Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg cordially invites you to a morning symposium on the following topic:

‘Are Academic Boycotts Justifiable?’

The symposium will seek to address from a variety of perspectives the question whether academic boycotts are justifiable or not. Naturally, the symposium takes place in a context where this has been debated in relation to the relationship
between UJ and Ben-Gurion University. The seminar will seek to explore the broader principled questions relating to academic boycotts in general as well as those that are more specific to the Israel/Palestine and UJ/BGU relationship.

Speakers will include:

Ran Greenstein (University of the Witwatersrand)
David Hirsh (Goldsmiths College, University of London)
Na’eem Jeenah (Afro-Middle East Centre)
Joel Fishman (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East)

The seminar will take place in the form of discussion between the speakers, those in favour and those against academic boycotts. Ample time will be allowed for discussion from the floor. Anyone interested in the issue is welcome. Please RSVP for catering purposes to Aubrey Louw (aubreyl@uj.ac.za).
DATE: 13 May 2011
TIME: 09h00 – 11h30
VENUE: UJ Auckland Park Campus A Ring 617
(A Ring floor 6).

flyer pdf here

The University of Johannesburg Boycott

Here are links to the debate from last october relating to the decision of the University of Johannesburg to cut its scientific links with Ben Gurion University in Israel.  Included here are pieces from Desmond Tutu, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh and Farrid Essack.

Here is David Hirsh’s short critique of the apartheid analogy.

Here is David Hirsh’s more recent piece on the UJ boycott.

Here is Peter Alexander’s reply to David Hirsh.

This is David Hirsh’s reply to Peter Alexander:

There are reasons to be sceptical of the campaign to exclude Israel, and only Israel, from the global academic community.

One is that it holds scholars responsible for the actions of their state.  Peter Alexander says that there is no threat to scholars and that it is only academic institutions which should be held responsible for Israeli human rights abuses.  He says that scholarly collaboration should continue, alongside an official policy of cutting links.  But he hangs too much on this distinction between individuals and their institutions.  It is clear that a campaign against Israeli institutions would be given life in universities around the world by an exclusion of actual Israeli people.  The Israeli water scientists would be sent home with their institution.

Another reason for scepticism is the exclusive focus on Israel.  This is not a consistent campaign against human rights abuses in general, it is a campaign against Israeli human rights abuses.  Peter makes the case for this in two ways.  First he makes a distinction between a ‘moral’ boycott and a ‘political’ boycott.  A moral one, he implies would have to be consistent but a political one wouldn’t.  That is because everything hinges, for him, on his second point, ‘the call’ by ‘the oppressed’ to boycott ‘the oppressors’.  He says there is no call from Afghans or Iraqis to boycott British or American universities and there is no call from Chinese or Tibetan people to boycott Chinese universities.  There is only a ‘call’ from ‘the Palestinians’, as though they spoke with one voice.  In fact, some people in Palestine push for an anti-normalization policy and some people in Palestine fight politically and practically for further engagement with Israelis.  One important trade union delegation to Palestine came back recently, reporting that their Palestinian colleagues absolutely opposed boycotting Israeli trade unions.  Firstly, ‘the call’ from Palestine is complex and a mixed picture, second, we also need to make our own political judgments as to what we do.

Peter hangs a lot on a simplistic view of Israel and Palestine as oppressors and oppressed.  But Palestine and Israel are two nations which emerged out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire, European Nazism and British and French imperialism; they were forged in the disfiguring heat of Arab nationalism, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, anti-Arab racism, Israeli nationalism, Middle Eastern antisemitism, and the Cold War.

We should embrace a politics of peace between Israel and Palestine, not a petty politics of humiliating Jewish professors.  We should oppose the de-humanisers in both nations, not choose one national flag to wave against the other.

Arabs fighting for democracy are being gunned down by tyrants from Egypt to Libya, from Syria to Bahrain; and that is before we even look at the oppression of democrats, trade unionists and women in Iran and Saudi Arabia.   The emotionally charged focus on Israel as the villain of the Middle East looks ever more strange and ever more forced.

Peter says the key similarity between apartheid South Africa and Israel is the campaign for an academic boycott.  While the campaign mobilizes the alleged similarities so people will support a boycott, Peter mobilizes the boycott to demonstrate the alleged similiarities.

I raised the issue of antisemitism in my argument against the boycott.  I think Israel is singled out, for no politically or morally relevant reason, for punishment.  I think that the history of antisemitism in Europe and now in the Middle East is such that singling out Jews arbitrarily for punishment is a dangerous thing to do.  To go easy on our criticism of the antisemitism of some of Israel’s deadly enemies is also dangerous.  There is an increasing body of evidence that the boycott movement brings with it a disproportional hostility to those who oppose it, many of whom are Jews.  Jews are challenged to criticize Zionism in the terms set out by their accusers on pain of being denounced as racist and as pro-apartheid.   The issue of antisemitism has been raised by the OSCE, by the US state department, by the South African Human Rights Council and by a UK Parliamentary committee.

Peter Alexander simply says that the issue is raised in bad faith, in a dishonest last-ditch attempt to win a losing argument.  He refuses to take the issue seriously.  He refuses to respond.  A fellow sociologist raises the issue with Peter and he looks stonily on and says: you are only pretending to be concerned, and really you do it for selfish and secret reasons.  Instead of examining the antizionist social movements in which antisemitism is alleged to appear, he looks within himself, and finds himself not guilty.  But as a sociologist he should understand that racism is an external and objective phenomenon, not a subjective feeling inside his own soul.

Peter makes much of ‘the call’ by ‘the oppressed’.  But when Jews raise the issue of antisemitism he listens with a glass ear.

For some Engage classics on contemporary antisemitism and boycotts against Israel, click here.

Hirsh’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

What’s wrong with PACBI’s “call” for a boycott?  click here.

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

For the Engage archive on the Israel / Apartheid analogy click here.