For the record – Israel matters at UCU Congress 2015

There’s always a hostile special interest taken in Israel at UCU Congress and this year was no different. I wasn’t there but followed the #ucu15 Twitter hashtag – eyewitnesses, feel free to flesh out the details.

There was a motion from the University of Brighton to confirm the boycott of Israel and circulate the PACBI guidance.

43  UCU and BDS campaign

University of Brighton Grand Parade

Congress notes:

1.     the achievements of the global BDS campaign, particularly in North America;

2.     the overwhelming adoption by Congress (2009 and 2010), after four years’ careful reflection, of a general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions;

3.     Congress decision (2009) that all colleagues be urged, in the light of UCU policy, to consider whether cooperation with Israeli institutions is morally or politically defensible;

4.     that unions have no mechanisms to impose a boycott, and implementation is only encouragement of individuals to reflect, hence legal anti-implementation cautions are irrelevant;

5.     advice to some members from UCU, and some public information about UCU’s position, have been misleading or inconsistent with policy.

Congress reaffirms its pro-BDS policy.

Congress resolves:

a. all members will be contacted individually, in a dedicated e-mail, reminding them of policy on Israel, and with a link to the PACBI guidelines;

b. any misrepresentations of UCU’s policy will be corrected publicly.

One of the more self-referential things about this motion is the muddling of ‘achievements’ in getting institutions to boycott Israel with the actual or probably ‘achievements’ for Palestinians which amount to none that I know of – but boycotters don’t bother themselves about that because the boycott mostly exists for their own aggrandisement. For an organisation which finds it increasingly hard to stand up to its own bosses it often seems that nothing better restores its sense of potency than standing up to Israel and the UK Jewish establishment. That the motion contains no mention of Palestinian needs or wishes adds to the impression of gross narcissism.

The PACBI guidelines for boycotters used to be along the lines of rant followed by directives, but lacked support for its adherents who, it turned out, were potentially legally exposed. As a campaign against Israel, one party in a conflict which is not one-sided, it would be partisan and hostile for UCU to circulate the PACBI guidance without including other viewpoints. Note that since July 2014 the guidance now emphasises that boycotting Israel doesn’t mean ostracising individual Israelis. Because of the antisemitic and Israeli-hating prejudices the boycott attracts, many Israelis have been personally targets of obviously racist boycott activism, hence this new aspect to the guidance is badly needed and long overdue. I’d be surprised if UCU boycotters discussed these developments, or are even aware of them. As far as I know the issue wasn’t raised and nobody proposed an amendment protecting the rights of Israeli academics. This is in keeping with UCU’s double standards on rights for Israeli academics compared to other academics. Note that motion 10 on overseas campuses called on UCU’s National Executive Committee to connect with democratic trade unions in other countries – however, this conflicts with policy from 2010 when UCU decided to sever all relations with Israel’s equivalent of the TUC (motion 31).

Thanks to Sarah Annes Brown‘s willingness to oppose the motion (update: for details see her comment below), a moderate number of people felt able to vote against it. The motion passed but was immediately voided because of longstanding legal advice sought by UCU trustees which casts doubt on the legality of boycott campaigning. Like UKIP and the Conservative right, UCU boycotters find their style is cramped by anti-discrimination legislation.

Another Israel-related motion concerned the cancelled Southampton Conference.

HE31 Composite: Conference cancellation and academic freedom

Leeds Beckett University, University of Winchester, London South Bank University.

Conference notes:

1.     the University of Southampton’s cancellation of the International Law and the State of Israel conference following political pressure;

2.     the official ‘health and safety’ reason was belied by the assurances of peaceful protest from pro-Zionist groups, and police assurances on security;

3.     this academic conference had a normal CfP, invitations to Israelis, and scholars with divergent views;

4.     6,000 signatories in 24 hours signed a petition condemning the University decision.

Conference believes the management decision was related to nature of the conference, not health or safety concerns; constitutes a surrender to political pressure; and is an unprecedented assault on academic freedom.

Conference instructs the HEC, in the absence of an appropriate apology, and in response to any such request from the University of Southampton UCU, to commence ‘greylisting’ of the University of Southampton unless satisfactory assurances on academic freedom are forthcoming from University of Southampton management, including in appointments, course design and staff research.

The Southampton Conference was organised by Israel boycott campaigners. It included a very small number of presenters who could be said to have dissenting views, sufficient only for a foil. I should say here that those people do not consider themselves foils, and would have put their arguments trenchantly. I’m not sure that the conference’s open call for participation was in place from the start – in any case, the obvious thrust of the meeting would have deterred everyone but the toughest dissenter from the majority anti-Israel line. For all but a tiny number of Israelis holding exceptional views, this conference would have been ‘about us without us’. The absurdity of discussing one country’s legitimacy without including the full range of views is what marks this conference out as a campaign meeting.  One of the organisers holds hateful racialised opinions of Jews which should have sounded alarm bells for an anti-racist trade union. None of this relates to Southampton’s security reasons for cancelling the conference, but it is important to the debate.

Moreover the cancellation was upheld in the High Court and deserves to be taken seriously even if, like several Engage contributors (though not me), you protest Southampton’s decision to move the conference off-campus. Instead we have a rush to allege that sinister overwhelming power has been brought to bear (subtext: by Jews). What is particularly galling is that these fulsome campaigners for academic freedom are totally quiet about an important precedent. Less than a year ago and for what seem to be the same reasons inept Palestine campaigning led Southampton University to prevent an individual Israeli academic, Mark Auslender, from presenting there. And unlike the anti-Israel conference, Auslender didn’t get offered support to present elsewhere. So perhaps if the Southampton conference campaigners had taken risk assessment as seriously as those of the QUB conference on Charlie Hebdo, they might have managed to pull off their conference.

But facts seem to slide off UCU Congress when it comes to Israel and so they voted to greylist Southampton. The only UCU greylisting policy I can find (correct me if necessary) is from 2007 – it relates to international activity but I can’t imagine the principles would differ much. It says that greylisting is supposed to be carefully thought through with a view to understanding the purpose and outcomes, and be capable of having an effect or creating an acceptable result. Greylisting also isn’t supposed to happen unless Southampton members trigger it, but Southampton wasn’t involved in this motion and when the motion came up for debate, I understand it was remitted from the Higher Education meeting because Southamption members didn’t support the greylisting. However, it came up again in a different session and was carried.

There was another Israel-related motion in support of Steven Salaita, an academic whose contract was terminated for the nature of his response to Israel’s last major military action in Gaza. The following motion was carried and Salaita’s reward for tweeting aggressively about Jews, Zionists and Israel and making some students feel unsafe on campus was to escape any criticism and be given a symbolic donation of £100 to help with his legal campaign.

46  Support for Steven Salaita (academic freedom) – London Metropolitan University North

Congress notes the University of Illinois’ revocation (in 2014) of the decision to appoint the Muslim-American scholar Steven Salaita just three weeks before his scheduled classes were due to begin.

Prof. Salaita, whose parents are Palestinians, had been a vociferous critic of Israel’s assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. University officials justified his firing on the basis that his many tweets on the subject were considered ‘uncivil’. A freedom of information request revealed that the university had come under pressure from many, predominantly pro-Israel, alumni and donors.

Congress:

condemns the firing of Professor Salaita as a blatant violation of his academic freedom

calls on the general secretary to issue a statement in support of Professor Salaita on behalf of UCU

authorises a payment of $100 to be made to support Professor Salaita’s legal challenge against the University of Illinois.

As a force in higher education UCU isn’t very influential. Several other motions were to do with union democracy and are indicative of a democratic deficit. UCU has been characterised as domineering activists and a correspondingly inert membership, both easily dismissed by sector policy makers. An important thing to know is that, when given a chance to have their say on boycotting Israel, even though the activists are pushing it the members reject it. The motions, the back-turning, and the double standards on academic freedom are the sorts of postures weak unions strike. The solution can only be for members to get involved and active.

The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

Hannah Weisfeld on Stephen Hawking

I found Hannah Weisfeld’s recent post, ‘Hawking’s Israel boycott in its UK context’ curiously elusive.  The first paragraph mostly consists of a series of factual statements – with no clue as to whether the author approves of his decision to pull out of the Presidential Conference or not.  The exception is the very opening sentence in which Weisfeld introduces Hawking in admiring, warm – perhaps even gushing – terms, while still withholding judgment on his boycott stance.

Stephen Hawking, one of the UK’s most brilliant minds, and a man revered by much of the British population for his indefatigable ability to navigate the challenges that life has thrown at him, announced yesterday that he would not be attending the 5th Presidential Conference in Israel this coming June.

In the second paragraph Weisfeld appears to condemn the notion of an academic boycott pretty unequivocally.   However she also starts to map out a kind of sliding scale, making it clear that some boycotts are worse than others.  I don’t actually disagree with her suggestion that academic boycotts are more objectionable than commercial ones, or that the Moti Cristal case was particularly appalling, even by the usual standards of academic boycott. But I feel the Israeli wine is sacrificed a bit too readily, and that the Cristal case is almost being used to make less extreme examples of academic boycott more acceptable, more palatable.

Weisfeld goes on to insist that Hawking is not one of the really bad boycotters, because he does not deny Israel’s right to exist, and then goes into gush mode again, in order to assert that he can certainly distinguish between political extremism and political protest:

It would be something of an insult to his amazing mind to suggest he lacks those critical faculties.

I don’t see why it would be an insult.  He is a brilliant scientist, not a brilliant scholar of history or politics – and even if he were, that wouldn’t mean we all had to agree with his moral or political views.

Next Weisfeld moves to the UCU case, describing the damning way in which that case was dismissed.  I perhaps couldn’t blame Weisfeld for assuming the case was a very bad one (although obviously I’d disagree with her) based on a final ruling whose tone certainly shocked me, but I am in fact not completely sure what she thought of the verdict.  I think her point is more to argue that opponents of the boycott need to change their tactics on purely pragmatic grounds.

It seems we need some new ground rules if we are to win the case for Israel in the public arena.

First, it is clear that we need to challenge the assumption that anyone who calls for, or supports, any form of boycott is beyond the pale. We can debate, disagree with tactics, call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there, but we have to accept that people have a right to employ a set of tools we do not agree with. It is that simple.

Although this isn’t simply a straw man argument – I’m sure there are people who lump all boycotters together – there’s something frustrating to me about her rhetoric.  For example, she agrees that it is reasonable to ‘call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there’.  But one might think a campaign had antisemitic effects or causes without necessarily thinking all who supported it were, personally, antisemitic.  And the UCU tribunal, in part, was very much about calling out antisemitism when it was clearly there – as in the case of Bongani Masuku.  Moving the goal posts in order to focus on the most glaring cases of antisemitism and admit defeat on softer examples seems to be Weisfeld’s strategy – but I’m not sure that works.

Weisfeld goes on remind the reader that the Palestinian cause is ‘the cause célèbre of our time.’

It might well be the case that there is something sinister about those who have been involved in turning it into the zeitgeist of our times. But no amount of hasbarah, campaigning, showing the “positive contribution of Israel in the world” is going to change that.

I think perhaps I agree that arguments invoking Israel’s contribution to, say, technology aren’t the best answer to boycotters, rather as I don’t think appeals to Hawking’s status as a scientist can be used to lend him moral authority.  However if the boycott campaign has sinister elements, then they should be exposed – that’s not hasbara.

Here’s her conclusion.

John Humphrys, who is probably Britain’s most well known radio voice and who presents the inimitable Today Programme on Radio 4, asked this morning: “Isn’t it the case that the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian people?” If he is right, and the world is watching, they should also see serious efforts on the part of Israel and those who count themselves as Israel’s supporters worldwide, doing all that is in their power to change the situation. Surely that would be the best reaction of supporters of Israel in the UK to the latest boycott drama?

Even if the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of the Palestinian people that doesn’t make it right in itself as a strategy, and (although there’s no excuse for some of the more vicious comments Hawking has attracted) opponents of the boycott should continue to try to make their voices heard.  Weisfeld seems to shift her position from one in which the boycott is seen as a painful issue – ‘the stakes are incredibly high’ as she puts it towards the beginning of her piece – to a lost cause, to be swiftly abandoned if anything is to be salvaged for Israel and its supporters.  Going back to John Humphreys’ point – in my case the biggest impact of the boycott was in fact not to draw my attention to the plight of the Palestinian people (though I’ve learnt more about that too) but to make me more alert to the ways antisemitism manifests itself.

Zionism is a lightning rod for antisemitism – Jonathan Lowenstein

Jonathan Lowenstein, an Anglo-Israel historian and political scientist, considers historical boycotts against Jews, asks a lot of good questions, and worries:

“Am I an Israeli academic?  I have dual nationality and dual degrees. Do boycotts apply to Israeli Arabs or just to Jews?  Where do you draw the lines? At present it seems like these boycotts are more expressions of emotion then policies but they cause us to assume that we face discrimination.  Unoffical apartheid.”

Read it all.

An Irish union’s boycott fallacy – Raphael Cohen-Almagor

The Jewish Chronicle has a trenchant piece by Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Director of the Middle East Study Group, University of Hull, responding to the unhinged and futile decision of the Teachers Union of Ireland to boycott Israeli academics:

Dr Ilan Saban is a lecturer at the University of Haifa who devotes much of his time defending and promoting the rights of Palestinians. But if he were to post one of his articles on the subject to a journal in Ireland, his envelope might not be opened, simply because it had come from Israel. This is the result of the Teachers Union of Ireland’s recent unjust, unfair, and counterproductive decision to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel.

The decision is unjust because any sweeping decision, by its nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual. It is quite another thing simply to boycott everyone.

Read it all.

HT Yishay

Irish academic trade union votes to exclude Israelis from campuses in Ireland

The Teachers Union of Ireland has voted to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel, including research programmes and exchange of scientists.

A motion, calling for all members of the union to end work with Israeli counterparts, was passed unanimously at the TUI annual conference in Galway on Thursday.

The union called on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to increase its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against “the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank”.

The passed motion requests TUI members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as all cooperation in research programmes”.

The motion doesn’t bother to maintain the fiction of the “institutional boycott”.  This is a boycott of scholars and students on the basis of their nationality.  This is a boycott of a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish academics and students for reasons which are nothing to do with anything that those academics have said or done.  Nobody but Israelis are to be boycotted.

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