There is a campaign to exclude Israelis from the global community in protest against Israeli human rights abuses. There is no analogous campaign in our world – by which I mean in academia, on the left, in the trade union movement – against the institutions or citizens of any other state.
The campaign is to exclude Israelis from the sporting, economic, artistic, academic, political, trade union, scientific and scholarly communities.
Why is the idea of boycott against Israel so attractive in our world?
We live at a time when the positive creative movements for a better world are largely defeated and have been replaced, for the moment, by movements for resistance and opposition.
Supporting the boycott of Israel offers the opportunity to appear radical without having to do anything.
Part of the radical cachet originates from demonstrating the “courage” to stand up against Jewish (or Zionist) power – real, imagined or constructed.
The boycott doesn’t help change the situation in Palestine or in Israel but it does address the personal needs of boycotters to avoid feelings of complicity. For some Europeans and Americans, Israel is ‘us’ but not quite ‘us’. People think of it as “white” or “western”, they point to the support it receives from the US and Europe; yet it can be disavowed, our own “western” failings can be put onto its shoulders.
If the boycott was really about “western” influence and abuses, why would we not call upon our own institutions in America and in Europe to be boycotted?
The boycotters are good at framing the boycott issue as defining who is good and who is bad. Supporters of the boycott are constructed as “pro Palestine” and opponents of the boycott as “pro Israel” – then to many people it is obvious which side one must be on, to stand with the oppressed nation not the oppressor nation, against (US) imperialism not for (US) imperialism.
There are lots of reasons to oppose this campaign: it doesn’t help the Palestinians; it violates democratic and academic norms; it encourages nationalist ways of thinking; it harms the peace movements; it divides the Labour movement and other left wing movements; it fosters antisemitic ways of thinking; it mis-educates antiracist activists on the meaning of solidarity and on recognising antisemitism.
How can we oppose the boycott campaign?
The boycott campaign appears, superficially, to be radical, left wing, antiracist and effective. What we need to do is to build a movement which is actually pro-peace, antiracist and effective.
1. The conflict on our campuses seems to be between wavers of the Israeli flag and wavers of the Palestinian flag. We refuse to pick up one or the other flag and to hope for its victory; better to embrace a politics of reconciliation
We support the progressives and the antiracists, people fighting for a democratic politics, within both Israel and Palestine.
We support a politics of peace between Israel and Palestine, not a vain hope that one will defeat the other and bring peace through victory. There are narratives both of Palestinian and of Israeli nationhood which are compelling and progressive; and they are compatible one with the other. National conflict is not inevitable while national self-determination is the key to a peace agreement.
We are sensitive to, and we oppose antisemitism and also Islamophobia and also anti-Arab racism – we oppose racism in general.
2. We need to have a conversation about what solidarity is.
It is an old and difficult question: what can we do to help them, who are suffering? The we is academics? trade unionists? intellectuals? antiracists? Americans?
Solidarity begins there not here. It doesn’t answer our needs first, it relates to others first. We are interested in peace in the Middle East, not in our own political cleanliness and not in using events far away rhetorically against our own enemies at home.
When we make solidarity we listen carefully and respectfully, but there is always a diversity of voices and positions to listen to; solidarity is always also a responsibility to engage and to think for ourselves. Solidarity changes ‘us’ as it changes ‘them’, it is never a slavish or a one way responsibility to ‘answer a call’ or obey those who claim to speak in the name of the oppressed.
Solidarity is a relationship with progressives who are closer to the violence and the oppression than we are – in this case in Palestine and in Israel. It is about fostering links, communication, confidence, critical engagement; between us and them but also between them and them.
Solidarity can also be simple and practical: sending books, teaching and speaking in Palestine and in Israel, working with Israelis and with Palestinians. Forging links between trade unions, academic bodies, universities, schools and civil society.
The Oslo Process was created partly by engagement between Israeli and Palestinian academics.
Solidarity is about campaigning against violence and oppression – including racism and antisemitism.
Solidarity is about opposing the occupation and doing what we can to help move toward a situation where a Palestinian state can be created through a peace agreement. Solidarity is about showing how the civilian occupation of the West Bank hinders this process.
Solidarity is about relating to the reality of diversity within Israel and Palestine, not treating each as a single monolith wrapped in a flag.
We, who are far away from the violence, we who are professionally involved in the work of thinking things through coherently and in context, have a special responsibility to get things right, to think about the consequences of our actions, to be a force for good and for peace.
If you were brought up in a refugee camp under the occupation of a Jewish army, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you internalized a hostility to Jews; If you were brought up under the threat of suicide bombs, and missiles with hostile Arab neighbours, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you were to internalize a hostility to Arabs. But we, in our comfortable academic lives do not have such reasons or excuses to embrace a politics of violence, exclusion or racism. And in truth, there is some space for democratic politics in Palestine and in Israel and many Palestinians and Israelis find their way to more enlightened worldviews than those of boycott or of racism or of violence or of national hatred.
3. Academic freedom and democratic norms
Refusing to collaborate with academics on the basis of their nationality is a violation of the norms of academic freedom and of the principle of the universality of science. See Michael Yudkin’s outline of the standard liberal case against academic boycotts here.
The boycott campaign’s distinction between a boycott of institutions and individuals fails to address the concern that the campaign actually leads to an exclusion of Israeli scholars from the global academic community. See my piece about the myth of the institutional boycott here.
There is a danger in a purely liberal defence of academic autonomy. The right has often attacked the academic left with arguments about how academia should be ‘neutral’ or ‘non-political’. We have resisted those arguments. Who gets tenure, who gets published, who gets a chair, who gets funding – political considerations have always had influence here. We don’t pretend otherwise, rather we strive to make political factors transparent. While the principle that universities are independent communities of scholars is important, we do not pretend that they are apart from and above the world.
Academic freedom is an issue in Palestinian universities: firstly because the conditions of the occupation materially infringe the business of running communities of scholars; secondly because Hamas and the PA, as well as other Palestinian political forces, not least the boycott campaign itself, infringe the norms of academic freedom in Palestine. Palestinian academics come under severe pressure and are likely to be denounced as ‘collaborators’ if they have links with Israelis or with foreign academics who opose the boycott.
The boycott campaign impacts first “here” in the boycotting institutions. It is a campaign to exclude Israelis from our institutions “here”. It is a prohibition on us from having links with colleagues in Israel. This is a particular restraint for those working in fields where links with Israeli colleagues are important, such as Jewish Studies or certain fields of history or archeology.
The focus on Israeli human rights abuses sits strangely alongside the lack of will seriously to address, for example the Syrian regime, just across Israel’s northern border, which is carrying out incomparably more serious crimes than Israel is, or has ever done. The Egyptian army, across Israel’s southern border, is carrying out incomparably greater repression against the Muslim Brotherhood than Israel is against its Palestinian counterpart Hamas. With the spread of ethnic conflict and human rights abuses in the Middle East, the focus on Israel becomes ever more eccentric.
Much of the energy for the boycott campaign comes from anti-Zionist Jews. They are no different from many Jews in so much as, for understandable reasons, they are especially concerned about Jewish issues and about Israel – its crimes or its victimhood, real or imagined.
Sometimes small groups of anti-Zionist Jews are successful in exporting their own particular concern about Israeli human rights abuses into non-Jewish civil society organizations like trade unions or academic associations. This then creates an anomalous situation with respect to consistency.
Civil society organizations have a duty to relate to human rights abuses consistently; to occupations consistently; to violations of academic freedom consistently; to institutional racism consistently.
An individual is free to be concerned about whatever concerns them; a progressive organization on the other hand, needs to find consistent criteria.
It is legitimate to ask
“Why do you focus on Israel for unique punishment?”
“Why do you hold Israeli citizens in particular responsible for the actions of their states?”
“What are the consequences of having huge campaigns of boycott and demonization against Israel which are not proportional to Israel’s human rights abuses or to its importance?
The belittling accusation of “whataboutery” does not deal with the question of consistency. Lack of consistency is at the heart of another problem with the boycott campaign which is the antisemitism which results from the relentless and particular focus only on Israel.
We are talking about a boycott movement against Israel. We know that there is racist hatred against Israelis and Jews in the Middle East; we know that there is a long and profound history of antisemitism in Europe and also in America; we know that radical movements are far from immune to antisemitism. Wouldn’t it be unexpected if anger with Israel was never articulated in a language which mirrored previous entrenched hostilities to Jews? Wouldn’t it be unexpected if a campaign to exclude Israelis did not impact upon Jews around the world who felt that they wanted to speak up for Israel’s right to exist? Wouldn’t it be strange if some of the ideas from antisemitic Arab nationalist or Islamist discourses, with whom the boycotters are in a political alliance, never seeped across into the democratic spaces of the BDS movement?
a. antisemitism, like other racisms, does not always appear as open and conscious hatred. Often it appears as ways of thinking; often it appears as unintended effects; often it appears in rhetoric which mirrors older antisemitims. Antisemitism is an objective social phenomenon, not simply a malicious motivation inside people’s heads. There can be antisemitism and racism which is not caused by hatred and which is not a result of an intention to discriminate.
b. the singling out of Israelis, and only Israelis, for boycott, is arguably antisemitic in itself.
c. the boycott campaign tends to bring with it, into civil society spaces where it gets a hearing, antisemitic ways of thinking. In particular, it creates a presumption that Jews are ‘Zionist’ or anti-boycott. It gives Jews a choice between agreeing to stand in the dock for Israel, keeping silent, or going along with the boycott. Of course formally these options are thrust upon everybody, not only Jews. But the boycott campaign creates an assumption about Jews, a suspicion, albeit one which Jews are able to nullify by disavowing Israel and by embracing the values of the boycott campaign.
d. Certain ways of denouncing Israel or Zionists as essentially racist, apartheid or Nazi can have antisemitic effects. The overwhelming majority of Jews, for good reasons, resist these characterizations. If those Jews and their communal organisations are then treated as apologists for racism, apartheid or Nazism, there is a clear antisemitic outcome. If Zionist students are treated as one would treat Nazi students, then there is an antisemitic culture on campus.
e. Discourses about Zionist power which mirror antisemitic conspiracy theory often accompany the boycott campaign. Anyone who opposes the boycott is likely to be regarded as an agent of a foreign power or as an agent of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Israel and its ‘lobby’ are talked about as though they have huge power, to determine tenure discussions, to control politicians, to silence dissent with a threat of a bad faith charge of antisemitism. In truth, pro Israel lobbying organisations have often shown themselves to be ineffective and disoriented in the face of the boycott campaign.
f. The raising of the issue of antisemitism is often understood as a disgraceful way of trying to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. It is considered right wing and pro Israel to talk about antisemitism; hence to behave in such a way that bothers complainers of antisemitism is considered as left wing and pro Palestine. The result is that Jews who are concerned about antisemitism are generally accused of speaking in bad faith – the accusation is that they are only pretending to be concerned about antisemitism while actually they want to silence criticism of Israel by fake and dishonest means. Antiracist activists are being coached to recognise the raising of antisemitism as a dishonest tactic of the Zionist (racist, pro-apartheid, Nazi, powerful, rich, white) activist.
6. Understanding, analyzing, making arguments, educating.
There is no short cut to defeating the boycott campaign. There is no silver bullet. There is no devastating single issue upon which to base a win. There is no single principle that will make everything transparent.
We need to build a network, a movement, a way of thinking, which can make arguments, which can explain the problems, which can demonstrate that a genuine left wing approach is possible and is different from the boycott campaign.
We support the norms of academic freedom and we explain the complexities.
We understand why people are attracted to easy and radical solutions but we explain the problems with the boycot approach.
We win people to a politics of peace and reconciliation from a politics of flag waving the good flag against the bad flag.
We are careful to understand and to avoid antisemitism and racism.
The Israeli and Jewish right tends increasingly to embody a politics and a way of thinking which has little in common with our own. What they say about the roots of the Israel/Palestine conflict, about how to get peace, about how to relate to the boycott, about how to relate to the Palestinian national movement, about how to relate to the Islamists is highly problematic. Their paradigm and their way of thinking is not likely to be influential amongst academics.
But the Israeli and Jewish right are sometimes quite good at sniffing out antisemitism. When they are angry and militant against antisemitism – that is when they’re right, it isn’t an indicator that they must have got it wrong.
Just as liberty, freedom, the rule of law, democracy, lesbian and gay rights, womens rights and human rights are values which should not be abandoned by the left, as though they were right wing issues, so the issue of antisemitism should not be abandoned to the right either.
The left cannot be influential amongst Jews if it teaches people to recognise concern for antisemitism and opposition to boycotts of Israel as right wing issues.
The problem with the approach of the right isn’t that their militancy against antisemitism is misplaced – the problem is that they’re not consistent, they’re not antiracist, they’re not for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine – indeed the problem with the right is similar, in these respects to the problem with the boycotters and the people who think that anti-imperialism is the only important left wing value.
We need a movement and a network to give people good arguments, to build a cosmopolitan anti-nationalist sensibility, to propose genuine solidarity in place of the hollow boycott-version.
We need to offer an alternative to the flag waving of the right and the flag waving of the boycotting-left.
Our method of fighting boycotts and fighting antisemitism is explaining, winning arguments, proposing better ways forward, engaging, communicating, teaching.
In the 1960s the civil rights movement won in the Supreme Court because it was based on a mass movement which fought the racists and which won arguments. Roe v Wade won in court, but it was the result of the women’s movement having won amongst public opinion. There is nothing illegitimate about fighting in the courts, on a legal terrain; the problem is when people think that a legal fight can substitute for a political and an ideological fight rather than be part of it.
Attempts to legislate or to persuade judges won’t work if we can’t win arguments and change the commonsense notions which are set up by the antizionists and the boycotters.
The debates regarding the Israel boycott movement in South Africa are online here:
David Hirsh and Chip Berlet discuss antisemitism and conspiracy theory here: