Robert Fine debates the boycotters in Leeds

“This house believes that UK academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

by international law”

Robert Fine speaking in opposition to this motion.

Leeds University, March 2014

This is not the first time I have been embroiled in a boycott debate. In the 1980s I was involved in solidarity work with the fledgling independent trade unions in South Africa. They were a living expression of non-racial democracy across so-called national lines. Solidarity included establishing direct links between South African and British unions at official and rank and file levels. As a result of our solidarity activities we were pilloried by leading figures in anti-apartheid, the ANC and the South African Communist Party for breaking the boycott! When we invited a South African academic, a leading advocate of the new unions and anti-apartheid scholar, to speak at our Comparative Labour Studies programme at Warwick University, a demonstration was organised by a couple of SACP stalwarts to prevent him from speaking. When we wrote a trade union solidarity pamphlet, we were told that unions could only be legal in South Africa if they collaborated with the regime and that we were in effect collaborationists.

Beneath the argument about boycott what was also going on was a political battle between a progressive socialist politics and a quite reactionary nationalist politics. It is a battle that has not stopped and is rising to the surface in contemporary South Africa. I grant there is no direct analogy between the boycott of apartheid South Africa and that of Israeli academic institutions, but I contend that a similar political battle is taking place. It is a battle over the future of our own political life.

The normal practice of international solidarity is to make contact with and support individuals and associations that are critical of an oppressive power. Depending on the circumstances, I am thinking of trade unions, women’s movements, community organisations, peasant associations, some religious institutions, human rights activists, individual writers and academics – all who find themselves oppressed by and / or in struggle against oppressive powers. As far as Israeli and Palestinian academics are concerned, we should find ways of speaking to one another more, not less. We can do this in the normal way: by establishing links between our professional and union organisations, supporting campaigns for decent conditions, defending academic freedom and freedom of movement, by facilitating academic links across the national divide, and so forth. A boycott directed at Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academic institutions alone shifts our focus away from international solidarity and toward a refusal to have anything to do with one nationally defined section of our fellow academics.

The academic boycott fails to make a distinction crucial to all radical political thought: that between civil society and the state. The academic boycott punishes a segment of civil society, in this case Israeli universities and their members, for the deeds and misdeeds of the state. The occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation are to my mind simply wrong, but there is something very troubling in holding Israeli universities and academics responsible for this wrong. Israeli academics doubtless hold many different political views, just as we academics do in the UK, but the principle of collective responsibility applied to Israeli academe as a whole sends us down a slippery path. The motion calls for Israel – and I would hope all other parties to conflict in the Middle East – to abide by international law, but the essential point of international law is to get away from categories of collective guilt and affix personal and political responsibility where it is merited. It is wrong to hold academic institutions and academics responsible for the actions of the Israeli state – even if many of the universities in question are, like most British academic institutions, rather lacking in political bottle.

It is as discriminatory to boycott any academic institutions or any academics on the basis of nationality, as it would be to boycott on the basis of race, religion or gender. This would be true not only of Israel but of any other country. It is wrong to penalise academics because of the nation to which they or their universities belong. It is also discriminatory to impose a political test that academics of one particular nation must pass in order to be allowed to speak and work with us – as if we are arbiters of all that is allowed to pass muster. Worst of all, I am sure we would agree, would be to base a decision to boycott or not to boycott Israeli academics on whether they are deemed Jewish, Arab or Muslim, but the cases I know of actualboycott have been directed against Jewish Israeli academics.

 A selective academic boycott aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at universities and research institutes belonging to other countries with equally bad or far worse records of human rights abuse, is also discriminatory. I admit that the wrongs done by ‘my own people’, in this case fellow Jews, grieve me more than the wrongs done by other peoples, but this is a confession, not a principle of political action. An academic boycott directed exclusively at Israeli academic institutions generates a quite realistic sense that Israel is being picked on – not because it is different from other countries but because it is the same. Given the slaughter currently occurring in Syria, including that of Palestinian refugees, given the repression currently imposed by the military government in Egypt, given the slave-like conditions currently endured by migrant workers in Qatar, it is increasingly eccentric to select Israel alone for boycott. This is not to say that the Israeli occupation should be normalised, certainly not, but it is all too easy to hold some other category of people, the larger and the further away the better, as the embodiment of absolute culpability.

The absence of good reasons to boycott Israeli academic institutions has led to ever more wild and hyperbolic depictions of Israel itself. Pascal once said: if first you kneel, then you will pray. Marx translated this aphorism into the notion that being determines consciousness. In this case, those who call for an academic boycott of Israel end up offering increasingly Manichaean images of Israel’s evil essence in order to justify their practice. We are told that Israel is just like the apartheid state in South Africa, that Israel treats Palestinians just like Nazis treated Jews, that Gaza is just like the Warsaw ghetto, that the Israel lobby controls American foreign policy just like antisemites used to say that the Jewish lobby controlled the nations of Europe, that Zionism is responsible for all that is wrong in Palestine or the Middle East or the world. The existence of these projections of course preceded the boycott, but the boycott encourages us to search everywhere for evidence of Israel’s criminality that will then justify the boycott itself.

Let us turn to the controversial antisemitism question. We should be able to agree that antisemitism is like any other racism something that progressive movements must be against. In my union, UCU, proponents of an academic boycott of Israel always couple their calls with more or less categorical declarations that criticism of Israel is not or not ‘as such’ antisemitic. Supporters of BDS in the States declare categorically that the charge of ‘antisemitism’, when levelled against them or other critics of Israel, is not only mistaken but also raised for dishonest reasons. I have often heard it said – look for example at Alain Badiou’s recent polemics on antisemitism – that while antisemitism was a real problem in the past, it is no longer a problem of the present and has now been converted into a mere ideology of Zionism. What I see is a disturbing reluctance on the part of proponents of boycott to take seriously the problem of antisemitism. To reduce concern over antisemitism to a way of censoring critical thought about Israel is insulting to those of us who are concerned about antisemitism and have no wish to censor critical thought. We should surely understand by now that it is racism and antisemitism, not opposition to racism and antisemitism, which constitute the restriction of free speech.

Criticism of any country can be racist – whether it is criticism of Zimbabwe on the grounds that Africans cannot rule themselves, or criticism of India on the grounds that Asian values are essentially authoritarian, or criticism of the Arab Spring on the grounds that democracy and human rights are foreign to the Arab mindset, or criticism of Ireland on the grounds that the Irish are not intelligent, or even criticism of apartheid South Africa on the grounds that whites are genetically primed to infantilise Blacks. Criticism of Israel is no exception. It can be antisemitic and it is a moral obligation we ought to honour post-MacPherson to take very seriously the fear that the academic boycott encourages antisemitism because its effect is to exclude Jews and only Jews from the global community of academe.

I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past.

The argument is put forward that Palestinian civil society has called for a blanket boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There is an empirical question concerning how true this is – to the chagrin of BDS this call is not supported by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority – but the more fundamental problem is present in the idea that Palestinian civil society is one homogenous bloc with one opinion. To work on this assumption is to diminish the subjectivity of Palestinians, to deny plurality within the Palestinian people, to attribute to Palestinians a single voice that is in fact an echo of your own voice. Palestinians are certainly victims of Israel but they are not only victims and they are not only victims of Israel. Racism is a versatile beast and I would contend that most Palestinians have no more interest in antisemitism than do Jews. Usually it is fellow Palestinians, not Jews, who are the first and main victims of antisemitic political forces within Palestinian society. The academic boycott offers little tangible support for Palestinian academics.

 Israel has a definite political responsibility that goes with its current power, and like many other Jews in Israel and the diaspora I feel a frustrated yearning for Israel to fulfil its responsibilities. However, Israel’s power is relative, not absolute. It looks like Goliath when compared with the Palestinian David, but it looks more like David when compared with other state powers. There is something very disturbing in the totalising images of Zionist power associated with the boycott movement and in the innocent vision of peace and harmony that will prevail once this power is broken. Closer to home this self-same image of Zionist power manifests itself in the repeated refrain of resisting ‘intimidation’ we hear from advocates of the boycott.

Solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian academics should have as its aim the building of trust, the surrender of the occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside the Jewish and other Arab states, and above all the humanisation of all parties. In this spirit I would offer our solidarity to the 165 Israeli academics who support a boycott of Ariel University in the occupied territories and the 11 academic institutions that have publicly condemned giving Ariel university status. The problem with ‘the academic boycott’, however, is that it blocks our ears to points of view we don’t want to hear, or don’t want to admit might exist, or indeed to anything that questions our own self-certainty. It grants us licence to invent what we assume others think, in this case Israeli academics, rather than hear what they actually say. The principle of academic freedom is not absolute but it is something. It contains norms of openness, understanding, inquiry, criticism, self-criticism and dialogue, which we abandon at our peril. In any event, we in Europe must face up to our particular responsibility not to project onto one side or the other all the sins of racism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide of which Europe itself has been so very guilty. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions is by contrast the tip of a reactive and regressive political turn. 

Robert Fine

Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University

4 Responses to “Robert Fine debates the boycotters in Leeds”

  1. Alan S Says:

    You concede far too much to Israel’s enemies by your apparent call for the unilateral, unconditional “surrender” of the occupied territories. They were occupied in the first place in a war forced on Israel, in which her opponents’ declared aim was the complete destruction of the state, with the then chairman of the PLO stating that he expected no Israeli Jews would survive. If the Israeli public were once convinced that the Palestinian leaders and people had permanently renounced this ambition, as they were convinced in 1978 that Egypt had, they would not tolerate any government choosing to retain the territories instead of making peace. At present, and particularly after what happened in 2000 when Arafat rejected a two-state solution and unleashed the murder gangs, it is hardly surprising that they are not so convinced. And it is their lives, and the lives of their children, that are at stake.

  2. Alan S Says:

    After referring to the events of 2000 I should have added “and the Palestinian electon of 2005, won by Hamas with its genocidal charter”.

  3. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Alan S, I don’t think Robert Fine is by any means calling for the ” unilateral, unconditional “surrender” of the occupied territories. If read with care, he urges “Solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian academics should have as its aim the building of trust, the surrender of the occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside the Jewish and other Arab states”, with no necessary suggestion of any unilateral action by Israel. He does, after all, start with “the building of trust”, without which none of the rest can happen.

    In fact, this is the detail of the Euston Manifesto and also echoes the mission statement of Engage itself, as you will see if you go to About Engage, top left of this and every page, and click on “About us”, two below that.

  4. Noga Says:

    “If read with care” ?? BDSers’ message gets coarser and more simplistic by the hour as Israel’s supporters are concerned with delicate surgical analyses and those famous “nuances”. I stopped having any interest in this article as soon as I got to the line “The occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation are to my mind simply wrong “.

    BDSers and their constituencies will stop reading and hearing anything beyond this point, and justly so. It’s all they need to get from you, in order to go on full speed ahead.

    You can’t drive an artificial barrier between Israeli society and its government. Israel is a democracy and Israeli society is made up of rational people. It is wrong and it is dangerous to suggest there is a disconnect between Israelis and their government. It demeans Israelis and it is dangerous. If you want to know why, read this from Norm Geras:

    “Derek beats his wife. Not every day, just now and again. But whenever he does – maybe every few weeks – the beating he gives her is severe. She is always bruised, often bleeding, sometimes scarcely able to walk in the immediate aftermath.

    Derek has his reasons. When Elaine is unhappy, as she often is, her voice irritates him. When it irritates him too much he lets rip. Elaine can also be forgetful and so she mislays things. On the most recent occasion – July 7 – it was the car keys that went missing; Derek was late for work. But the most usual reason for his anger with Elaine is their children. They make a noise and get on his nerves in other ways. For this, as for most other things, he blames Elaine: when he beats her, it’s always her fault.

    Derek and Elaine’s neighbours, some of whom are also their friends, know about the beatings. They couldn’t fail to. They disapprove when he beats her. Or at least most of them do. But some, while professing to disapprove, seem not entirely unimpressed by Derek’s reasons. They tell each other that Elaine’s voice can indeed be irritating, and that it’s ‘understandable’ that Derek should have been upset at not being able to find the car keys. They agree among themselves that the couple’s children can be a genuine cause of exasperation.

    Though they say that Derek shouldn’t beat Elaine, they are keen on recognizing his grievances. And he knows this.”

    The question is; are you a friend of Derek or a friend of Elaine? If you can’t be a good friend to Elaine you had better butt out of their life altogether. Your presence only makes things worse for her. Because Derek is not a rational being with rational motivations who can be reasoned with. He is a pathological bully and a wife-beater.


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