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.

13 Responses to “The University of Johannesburg Boycott”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Calling ken: you could also try this link on the South Africa/Israel analogy:
    That’s also by Benjamin Pogrund and is one of the articles linked to above in “For the Engage Israel/Apartheid analogy click here”.

    Perhaps you’ll let us know your views on that and the other articles there, ken, we’d be very interested.

  2. James Mendelsohn Says:

    “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.”

    Great, great quote.

  3. Hava Beller Says:

    Thanks David, for your excellent clear-eyed response to the boycott . Your discerning, well informed, uncorrupted and totally credible view of this confluence of self-righteous generalizations and biases clocked with a veneer of moral justice, is refreshing, An oasis of sanity and clear thinking.
    I would have attended your lecture had it been scheduled in New York.
    and thanks,
    Hava Beller

  4. Sarah AB Says:

    The link with antisemitism is only one reason to oppose a boycott – and it *should* be one boycotters could deal with, by disassociating themselves from a/s forcibly. But although some do, many seem to blank out the problem, or trivialise it. The boycott position is obviously going to attract antisemites – it should be incredibly obvious to those who support a boycott that they need to distance themselves from such strands and speak out against them vigorously. (I compare my experience of blogging about homophobic posters in the East End and feeling very aware of needing to avoid legitimising Islamophobia.)

    • Paul M Says:

      It’s the same old problem of ‘antisemitic by intention’ vs. ‘antisemitic in effect’ Sarah. How do you purge the antisemitism from an act that solely (or merely disproportionately) punishes Jews and turns a blind eye to similar or worse activity by Israel’s enemies and most of the rest of the world?

      If you’re bound and determined to boycott Israel, even if you are absolutely convinced that your own motives are pure, your only choice is to refuse to see the antisemitic effect of what you are doing — that bias against Jews is woven into the fabric of your boycott — and that this is bound to draw honest-to-god antisemites. Willingly or not, you end up with antisemitic bedfellows — and the more unwilling you are, the more you must insist that they’re not there. The only thing you can say with certainty about people who take that position is that anti-racism is not their top priority.

    • skidmarx Says:

      Sarah – what do you say to this call for a specific boycott?

      By the way, at the same time I came across this defence of academic freedom, which as it has appended the signatures of bogeymen Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, would find many readers here inclining towards the other side. Any thoughts?

  5. Sarah AB Says:

    Skidmarx -we’re having the same conversation on HP but I’ll cut and paste

    “I think if Israelis want to boycott that college, that’s their business. I believe it has many Palestinian/Arab Israeli students. In so far as they have a good case for a boycott (not sure I’m able to comment) I can’t imagine it’s helped much by people from the UK etc muscling in.

    I haven’t followed that other case closely, but instinctively, and based on a rather superficial knowledge of the details, I sympathised with Thornton.”

    I should perhaps add that I have signed a few anti-boycott petitions but didn’t take up one which concerned Ariel College because I felt unsure of the issues.

  6. Absolute Observer Says:

    “By the way, at the same time I came across this defence of academic freedom, which as it has appended the signatures of bogeymen Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, would find many readers here inclining towards the other side. Any thoughts?”

    Yes, that’s right Skidmarx, we are no more sophisticated than looking at the names and making a decision whether to support the substance of what is said on that basis!!

    I think you are confusing Engage with boycotters who look to see whether a person is Israeli or not or, in some cases, whether they have a Jewish sounding name before “making their mind up”.

  7. toby esterhase Says:

    Much is made of the “call” for boycott from “the Palestinians”.

    If “the call” from “the Palestinians” was for a boycott of Ariel, because it is in occupied territory, then it would be worth considering.

    But “the Palestinians” can never issue such a “call” becasue the boycott campaign does not see any political distinction between Ariel College in the Occupied Territories and the Israeli Universities in Israel.

    The boycott campaign does not recognise the occupation – it thinks that there is no distinction between the West Bank and Israel. Which is what the settlers think too.

    If a “call” was made to boycott Ariel College then it would be an admission that Tel Aviv University was legitimate.

    Does backing the Israeli campaign to boycott Ariel change things? Perhaps.

    There would still be problems however. Chiefly:

    1) Do we boyoctt only institutions in the Israeli-occupied territories or do we boycott institutions in all occupied territories around the world? What is the effect of singling out Israel?

    2) Agitating for a boycott of settler goods acts, in reality, as a wedge, an opening for the boycott Israel campaign in general. It shouldn’t, but it does.

    In any case, I wouldn’t speak there. But there are quite a lot of academic institutions I wouldn’t speak at. And that doesn’t mean I’m for academic boycotts. I wouldn’t, for example, accept an invitation to speak at the University of Tehran. But of course I would have no objection to accepting an article in a journal from a colleague at the university of Tehran, for example, or inviting her to speak – depending, of course, on whether their work was any good.

  8. Sarah AB Says:

    @toby – I agree with your points, and the distinctions you draw. I would not boycott goods/universities/etc in the occupied territories because I don’t boycott anything else, so I don’t see why I should focus on that one region/conflict. I also agree that there are universities/countries I would not wish to be actively associated with – but I would not treat academics or students from such countries any differently from anyone else.

  9. Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh | Engage Says:

    […] The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011) […]

  10. Boycotts of Israel in US Academe: David Hirsh and Claire Potter | Engage Says:

    […] The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011) […]

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