The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The claim that BDS is a boycott campaign which is not directed at Israeli individuals is doing the rounds again. The article below is from February 2006 and questions this claim with regard to the academic boycott.

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott - Jon PikeAdvocates of the academic boycott of Israel frequently complain that we get them wrong. They do not advocate, they say, an individual boycott. What they propose is an institutional boycott. The institutional boycott is much softer, they suggest, than the individual boycott – it’s the boycott where no-one gets hurt.

They make this move in part because of the fall out from the Mona Baker and the Andrew Wilkie case. That was, the boycotters say, a different kind of boycott – that was a boycott against individuals, and not against institutions. (They don’t generally, condemn Baker and Wilkie though. We normally get a shrugging of the shoulders – different strokes, for different folks).

Now, to cash out this distinction, the boycotters need to say what is meant by an act against an institution and what is meant by an act against an individual. They do not do this in any clear way so we have to reconstruct what they must mean from what they do say. Here are two actions the boycotters call for, within the remit of an institutional academic boycott. BRICUP advocates:

• ‘Refusing research collaborations with Israeli institutions or to referee papers or grant applications issuing from such institutions.’ (BRICUP website)

The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign says that it wants academics to

• ‘Refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted from Israeli institutions.’ (SPSC website)

Because it’s the way things work in my field – I submit papers and book proposals, and I also referee papers and book proposal, I want to say something about this particular action. It’s clear that the institutional boycott is supposed to be institutional because it involves the boycotting of papers from Israeli institutions. But here is my question.

Who wrote these papers?

There are a couple of possibilities. The first is: no-one. On this line, ‘Israeli institutions’ somehow belch out papers, these institutions are some sort of Heath Robinson machine, firing papers into the ether, and the good hearted boycotters don’t want have any contact with those machines, so they don’t referee them. But this is OK, because the refusal to referee, touches only the machines, the institutions, and there’s no worrying flesh and blood individual academic behind them.

The second is, that the papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions’ (BRICUP) or are ‘submitted from Israeli institutions’ (SPSC) are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by, individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer.

(But if it’s the Heath Robinson machine, that machine must be really clever. Perhaps we should read its papers).

Look at the two sentences above I’ve quoted from BRICUP and the SPSC: they are really very odd. And it changes none of the sense or the things in the real world to which the sentences refer if we change them to read:

• Refuse to referee papers or grant applications issuing from individuals at Israeli institutions (BRICUP)

• refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted by individuals at Israeli institutions (SPSC)

This gets past the comprehension problem in the SPSC case, because the idea of an institution submitting a paper for publication was always opaque. Submitting a paper is an act and an act needs an agent. It’s obvious who submits a paper: the person who puts their name on it, or their name and that of their joint researchers.

The BRICUP sentence, though, is still troubling, because of this rather odd phrase ‘issuing from.’ It rings oddly with anyone actually involved in the grind of writing papers, submitting them, getting them accepted or rejected, making amendments and so on. Papers don’t ‘issue from’ anywhere at all. But the odd use of words is, again, instructive. To say that something ‘issues from’ something else is to be deliberately murky about the mechanism of issuing. It’s to suggest a mysterious agentless process. And, of course, that’s precisely what the boycotters want to suggest, because they want to divert attention from the fact that what they are advocating is discrimination in the selection processes of academic journals against Israeli thinkers.
There are, further, two ways in which this process of refusing to referee papers written by Israelis might be taken. One is terrible, the other is worse.

First, it might be that the boycotters advocate this as a position of ‘individual refusal.’ That is, like the antiwar protestors who said ‘Not in my name’ they may be arguing for an individual rejection of papers written by Israelis – with the let out that someone else on the editorial board can always referee the offending item. On this reading, the boycotters might have some defence against the criticism that their stance thwarts the academic lives and careers of Israelis, and holds back knowledge. They have the defence that they can say – ‘Well, I don’t mind the paper being published, I just don’t want to handle it myself.’ They can help themselves to that defence but only at the price of letting in the unmistakeable connotation of moral corruption, of infection, and disease arising from contact with the academic work of Israelis.

Second, they can, more consistently, more sensibly, say, ‘yes, of course the policy is general. Of course, we want everyone to adopt this policy of refusing to referee papers written by Israeli academics.’ This response has the merit of consistency and universalisability. As a result, it commits the boycotters to a political aspiration – a general refusal to referee papers by individuals at Israeli universities – that would exclude those individuals from this part of academic life.

Finally, remember that all this is now being proposed covertly. The boycotters were defeated in the AUT and failed in their attempt to gain a foothold in the AAUP. They can’t gain legitimacy for a public boycott, so they opt for a covert one. This covert boycott (a ‘quiet stand’ according to BRICUP) is, of course, denuded of a political message. But also, there is no mechanism of accountability for their actions. They claim that there is a difference between an institutional boycott and an individual boycott, and I think that there’s no difference. But we won’t be able to know whether or not there is an operable distinction, because the operation is now conducted in secret. We won’t be able to know whether people engage in Wilkie type actions (without the incriminating email). And I guess, the boycotters who think it’s OK to adopt an ‘institutional’ rather than an ‘individual’ boycott simply think we should trust them on that one.

So, next time a boycotter says they favour an institutional rather than an individual boycott, ask them what they make of the BRICUP and the SPSC statements. And ask them just which particular squalid little discriminatory acts they support.

Jon Pike
Senior Lecturer, Open University,
Chair, Engage

Oxford rejects BDS motion

As expected, Oxford University Student Union has firmly rejected the call to boycott Israeli goods, institutions and produce.  Earlier today the motion was rejected 69-10 with 15 abstentions.  Henry Watson, a student at Magdalen College, offered a succinct and robust response to the proposed boycott:

The boycott goes against everything the university stands for. The idea that we are not going to read your books or articles or hear your arguments on the basis of your nationality is ridiculous.”

Judith Flacks, the Union of Jewish Students Campaigns Director, welcomed the news from Oxford:

“’It’s encouraging to see that this vote reflects a student body who are willing to discuss the complexities that exist within Israel and do not see boycotting it as a viable option or avenue to discuss the conflict.” 

George Galloway’s recent decision to walk out on a debate once he realized the student opposing him was an Israeli can’t have done the BDS cause much good.  His action was widely condemned – with even the BDS movement itself issuing a speedy disclaimer, distancing itself from the boycott of individuals.  Bizarrely, this has led to Press TV claiming that BDS adopted this stance to ‘please its Zionist masters.’

The looking-glass world of the modern ‘progressives’: anti-Zionist trends within the British left – Brian Goldfarb

To get to my starting point, I need the following preamble. I have always considered myself to be ideologically motivated, to possess a strong political philosophy through which I interpret the world. This happens to put me on what is conventionally called the left, a designation I’m happy to acknowledge, albeit one that someone who runs a blog in Israel (and is as conventionally right-wing as I am left-wing) called “part of the sane left”.  However, events over the last decade or so have made me consider myself the very model of moderation, rationality and, indeed, pragmatism, compared with those I’m going to be talking about and who are supposed to be on the same “side” as me.

Let me start with a quote from a hero of mine, Nick Cohen, because it indicates the topsyturvy world we live in. This is from one of his Observer columns (15 July 2012). He says “Is opposition to reaction reactionary? Or a loathing of religious bigotry, bigoted? To slam ‘Islam as oppressive of gay and women’s rights’, said a Guardian columnist last week, is to manifest the ‘progressives’ prejudice’. True liberals did not criticise illiberal religion. They denounced criticism of prejudice as prejudiced.”

Truly, we have gone through Alice’s “Looking Glass” into a parallel world, except that it is, as was hers, the mirror-image of the one we thought we lived in. It used to be, not very long ago, that illiberalism, wherever it came from, would be routinely condemned by the Left. This meant that even those in the Third World who breached human rights would be condemned for such activities. Now, at least some on the Left want us to understand that there are different, and acceptable, standards of human rights in the Third World. I coined a phrase (probably not original, however I can but hope) for one website comment, that an attack on academic freedom anywhere was an attack on it everywhere. Just substitute ‘human rights’ for academic freedom, and you will understand exactly what I mean and where I’m coming from.

Allow me to illustrate this further with another passage from Nick Cohen, this time from 27 May 2012 (also in The Observer). It dates to a time when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (2007) and still able to appear as a good liberal, in the widest sense of that word.  He was being interviewed by John Humphrys, and Blair refused to concede to Iran a different notion of democracy from the one we take for granted. Thus, the following brief exchange is instructive (I’ve edited it even more than Cohen did):

Blair: “There is a global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy…”
Humphrys: “Our idea of democracy?”
Blair: “I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy…”
Humphrys: “If I may say so, that’s naive…”
Blair ”…democracy [means] you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.”
Humphrys: “The Iranians elected their own government…”
Blair: ”Hold on, John, something like 60% of the candidates were excluded.”

I’m not trying to suggest that John Humphrys believed what he said about democracy: he was (and is) a journalist doing his job, but his words are indicative of what too many on the Left are, these days, prepared to say. And Blair put up a fair defence of representative democracy: note his comment that he “didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy”.

So there you have my starting point: the first quote from Nick Cohen, which sums up the thesis of his book “What’s Left?”, asserting that part of the Left, which used to be the proud defender of everyone’s human rights and a doughty fighter for freedom and equality, being prepared to suggest that, really, just about everything is relative. This is confirmed by John Humphrys, who is merely repeating an attitude increasingly common on this side of the political divide.

How has this happened, and where does it lead? Many argue that this change in the Left (to the extent that it is a change) began to happen after Israel had the temerity to successfully defend itself from what it saw as the threat of annihilation in 1967. Many who had, until then, been staunch defenders of Israel began to change their tune now that Israel appeared militarily secure. This is reflected in a Guardian article written by Michael Frayn at the time which argued, tongue in cheek on his part, that if only Israel had lost, the world would have been so sympathetic… I would want to argue that it might not, actually, be that much of a change: we have this aphorism, attributed to August Bebel, 19th century German Social Democrat, that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools”.

In turn, this leads to the astonishing sight of some British trade unions attempting to promote boycotts (probably in contravention of British equality laws) of what, under Tony Blair’s approach, is a democratic state, a member in good standing of the United Nations, for alleged breaches of human rights, while being prepared to ignore, or even condone, far worse breaches by other states. And, of course, to fail to even realise that this is what they are doing.

This first came into sight for me when my then trade union (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) started to pass resolutions calling for a boycott of Israeli (and only Israeli) universities, back in about 2000. It didn’t really help when a colleague of mine, then on the National Executive, argued that I should have seen what the resolution looked like before amendment: I suggested that this was about as comfortable as African-Americans felt when confronted by so-called US liberals: they were the ones who would hang you from a low branch! It only got worse when my union amalgamated with the Association of University Teachers to form the Universities and Colleges Union.  The attitudes generated are typified for me by the following: on 27 July 2007, the online version of the British Medical Journal held a poll on whether to boycott Israeli universities or not. Tom Hickey, a long-serving member of the UCU Executive wrote the following, in support of the boycott: “In the case of Israel, we are speaking about a society whose dominant self image is one of a bastion of civilisation in a sea of medieval reaction. And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in high regard. That is why an academic boycott might have a desirable political effect in Israel, an effect that might not be expected elsewhere.”

Note the, hopefully unconscious, conflating of Jews and Israelis, which is an antisemitic trope in itself, as well as the potentially racist assumption that only Jews and Israelis really care about their children’s education. Despite his attention being frequently drawn to it, Hickey has never re-visited, explained or apologised for this.

We also have a respectable British political party, The Greens, deciding that the European Union Monitoring Commission on Racism working definition on antisemitism should be dropped from its statement of principles. This definition stated, inter alia, that it was for the person who was allegedly discriminated against to say whether this had happened or not, not for some third party to decide for them. As an aside, this is, of course, just the starting point for any further action. The Green Party decided, however, that its Executive knew better than any alleged victim whether this had happened or not. Substitute “racism” for antisemitism, and see whether this makes any sort of sense. Or, come to that, whether they would have dared to even think in these terms. UCU has now, also, dropped the EUMC working definition.

Further, we have that bastion of the “progressive left”, Ken Livingstone, literally embracing someone like al-Qaradawi, a noted homophobe and misogynist (to say nothing of being antisemitic) and claiming that he is supporting progressives in the Middle East. You have to understand that I am a recidivist Labour voter: I continually re-offend. However, I am far from ashamed that I have voted, twice, for Boris Johnson and that I didn’t vote for the Labour candidate in the last general election: she was (still is) the Assistant General Secretary of Unison, which had recently passed a boycott motion. There was no way I wanted her for my MP. Perhaps we might talk later of the so-called “Livingstone Formulation” (a term coined by David Hirsh, founding editor of the website Engage, formed to fight the academic boycott of Israeli universities).

The situation on the left is further muddied by the existence of groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) – a bit like being againstsin, something we’re all in favour of – and Independent Jewish Voices, a group of which the author and journalist Linda Grant said, having perused the list of signatories in The Guardian, The Times and The Jewish Chronicle, and noted their claim that they were denied a voice by the Jewish establishment (whatever that meant and whoever they were), that “many of [the signatories] are but a phone-call away from an op-ed in The Guardian or The Independent”. What these groups do, intentionally or otherwise, is to allow Left anti-zionists to argue that there are these voices on the Jewish left who say these things, so it’s alright for them to say the same.  This attitude ignores, of course, the fact that any and every survey taken of British Jewry shows overwhelming support for the right of the State of Israel to exist, most often in a two-state situation.

Why is it that it is only Jews who are to be denied a state of their own, when no-one questions the right of there to be something like 30 Moslem states, let alone however many there are that claim to be Christian? Or, as Maureen Lipman noted, in a brief discussion on Radio 4‘s Today programme with fellow actor Roger Lloyd-Pack concerning the Habimah Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice at The Globe, “It’s always the Jews, isn’t it”.

Brian Goldfarb

Antonio Muñoz on boycotting Israel

Elections for the UCU NEC – don’t forget to vote – Sarah AB

The UCU is going through turbulent times as its membership continues to fall.   There is a split between those, such as Sally Hunt, who want to retrench – for example through reducing the size of the executive committee – and those who resist such moves, calling instead for renewed efforts to increase membership.

On Engage, stories about the UCU have obviously focused on Israel boycotts and anxieties about other manifestations of antisemitism. But the reason people react so strongly to such concerns isn’t because they are anti-union but because they fully recognize the importance of unions, particularly in the current climate, and don’t want them to adopt policies or practices which are both wrong and divisive.

If you are a UCU member you will probably have received your ballot papers by now.  Candidates typically invoke the same issues – job security, pay, pensions and equality. Given the fact that all candidates are signed up to such core trade union values, it seems reasonable to identify those who seem least likely to further alienate members – and of course potential members. These are the candidates for whom I will be voting:

Vice President

Dominique Lauterburg who describes herself as ‘an independent voice [who] will always put the interests of our union’s members first.’

Honorary Treasurer

Angela Roger who points out that ‘we can’t afford to lose members because they see the union as wasting money on divisive and ineffective campaigns driven by political ideology.’

Representative of Disabled Members

Roger Walters who wants a union which ‘listens to and respects the views of members rather than thinking that the activists and leadership know best, and which avoids futile gesture politics’.

Representative of LGBT Members

Mary Jennings who says she ‘resist[s] attempts to waste union resources on peripheral political causes.

Representatives of Black Members

Gifty Burrows

NEC HE Sector

Joe Gluza who says the union shouldn’t ‘waste our limited resources … to pursue causes which have little support amongst Members and which detract from the Union’s main duty to look after Members’ interests’

Jimmy Donaghey  

Julia Charlton

Gordon Watson

Roger Brooks

I will most certainly not be voting for Sean ‘Lehman Brothers’ Wallis.

Sarah AB

%d bloggers like this: