Monday, June 11, 2007

"Heigh-ho, it's boycott time again"

A wonderful article in the Independent--long but worth reading, with a history of anti-Israel boycotts at the end. The article will sadly have no effect on the boycott people today, but I hope the boycotts will have no effect either. --Wendy in Washington

Howard Jacobson: It's time to end the vilification of Israel

Heigh-ho, it's boycott time again. Just as surely as young men's fancies turn seasonably to love, and folk long to go on pilgrimages, so do the Zionophobic zealots of our universities start on hearing the boiling of their blood and decide to have another go at ostracising their fellow academics in Israel. This year it's the turn of the newly merged Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) to pass a resolution to proceed to a boycott of Israeli scholars. Not yet a done deal but as good as. A boycott in waiting. The three think-alike monkeys of academe cover their faces in excited anticipation: see no dissent, hear no dissent, speak no dissent.

By its nature a boycott is not a precise instrument, so no distinction is drawn between Israeli academics who actively support their government, those who speak vociferously against it, or those who just go quietly about their biomedical researches. "Passivity or neutrality is unacceptable," the resolution says. All are guilty by association with the heinous ideology of their country, that is to say, guilty by simple virtue of being Israelis.

I do not say "by simple virtue of being Jews". The last thing today's boycotters want, having learnt from their last failed attempt, is to pass for anti-Semites, and the last thing I want, when they tell me they are not anti-Semitic, is to contradict them. There is almost an obligation on Jews to be reassuring. No, no, of course it is not anti-Semitic to be a critic of Israel. Please be as critical as you like. But it is a false syllogism which goes Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic; I am a critic of Israel; therefore I am not an anti-Semite. Zealotry acquaints us with strange bedfellows, and in their loathing of Israel some without a grain of anti-Semitism in their bodies lie down with others who are composed of almost nothing else.

It is, anyway, a red herring. I am tired, myself, of deciding who is and who isn't. Anti-Semitism, when all is said and done, is not the only crime on the block. You don't have to be an anti-Semite to be a blackguard. And you certainly don't have to be an anti-Semite to be a fool. Boycotters assure us of their innocence of anti-Semitism as though that settles once and for all the question of their intellectual and moral rectitude. Some have even stopped dressing like Palestinians (seen as marginally compromising of their impartiality the last time round) and started paying reverential visits to Auschwitz. Since we are demonstrably not Jew haters, these new recruits to Jewish anguish ask us to accept, since we are neither Nazi sympathisers nor Holocaust deniers, our credentials are in good order. But it isn't quite as simple as that.

Whether it's in the best of taste to like Jews better when they're in concentration camps than when they're in their own country I leave to less interested parties to decide. But this, I think, is obvious: you cannot proudly present one clean hand and not expect people to wonder what you're hiding in the other. A person cleared of anti-Semitism might still be guilty of something else. If anti-Semitism is repugnant to humanity, then it is no less repugnant to humanity to single out one country for your hatred, to hate it beyond reason and against evidence, to pluck it from the complex contextuality of history as though it authored its own misfortunes and misdeeds as the devil authored evil, to deny it any understanding (which is not the same as sympathy or succour), and - most odious of all - to seek to silence its voices.

For make no mistake, this is what an intellectual boycott means. We silence you. We will not let you speak. To rub it in - and this would be childish were it not villainous - the UCU resolution includes proposals to "organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academics/educational trade unionists". In other words, we will hear them, we will not hear you. Anyone familiar with the emotional politics of the campus will be able to imagine the rapturous applause awaiting these Palestinian educational trade unionists - given free rein to vent their grievances while the other side of the argument is gagged. Like the millions cheering Stalin while the gulags quietly filled. I am normally wary of such comparisons, but someone from one of our participating universities needs to explain how what is proposed differs in spirit from the practices of those all-censoring autocracies that made the last century an inferno.

The 40th anniversary of the Six Day War was always going to be a good time for pressing ahead with this boycott. The passing of those 40 years, which have, without doubt, been another hell on earth for many whom the war dispossessed, measures the exhaustion of our patience. If not now, when? No civilised person can bear to imagine another 40 years as bad as or maybe even worse than the last. But it is not the prerogative of boycotters to regret such a past or to dread such a future. You can be a friend of Israel and wish better for its neighbours as indeed you wish better for Israel itself. How to implement that better is a question determined by how you understand the situation as it is, and how you understand that situation is determined by how you read the Six Day War.


It is probably futile to imagine what would have happened had victory gone the other way. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that had the Arab countries won decisively Israel would not exist. Annihilation has, after all, been (as it continues to be) the declared aim of most of the states and organisations that surround it. Failing total destruction, what? A joint state of the sort optimists propose today - Jews and Arabs sharing power and getting on famously? There is little in the social history of the two peoples to support such optimism. It is true that Jews living in Arab countries once enjoyed better times than many living in eastern Europe, Arabs caring little whether Jews had or hadn't killed Christ. But they were not equal in the way we demand people to be equals now. I will not say they were subject to Apartheid - as the more hysterical Zionophobes, in their irresponsible carelessness with words, claim to be the case with Palestinians - but they were distinctly second-class citizens, tolerated only because they were thought too ineffective to be a threat. (An idea of Jews which partly explains why the existence of a militarily successful Israel remains so galling to Arabs whose daily lives are otherwise not incommoded by it.)

Whether the enlightened Universities of Birmingham and Brighton would have enforced an academic boycott of these conquering Arab countries, we can only guess. But since there are many Arab countries, in actual as opposed to imaginary existence, whose practices one might think deserving of a boycott but who have so far escaped one, I think we have to guess not.

My point, anyway, is simply this: few nations make a good job of winning even when the victory is, as one might say, clean. But when the war never finishes, when those with whom you thought you had made peace transmute into your enemies in another guise, and when they are more ruthless in their ideology and methods than any state dare ever be, it should surprise no one if terrible injustices ensue. We saw what happened in London when bombs went off in the underground; we saw our police force lose its nerve and an entirely innocent man shot dead. Now multiply that by a hundred and conceive it happening every day. And nobody is threatening to drive us into the sea.

Imagining how the Six Day War might have turned out had the Arabs not so quickly lost it might be futile now but it wasn't futile at the time. One cannot overestimate the sense of foreboding felt by Jews around the world, and indeed by Gentiles not yet poisoned by prejudice and propaganda, in the weeks before the war was fought. Relief is a word one hears again and again in documentaries about the war, relief felt by even the most battle-hardened soldiers that a war which might so easily and catastrophically have gone against them was won. If this relief was extreme and gave rise, in some instances, to extreme policies, that was because the fear had been extreme. No one offering to have an opinion about Israel dare discount this fear. You do not, if you are Jewish, have a short memory. And if you are Jewish and Israeli catastrophe exists in a continuum that encompasses both past and future. Yesterday's victory is only yesterday's victory. Tomorrow can easily bring defeat. Never mind the size of your armoury. Someone else will always get a bigger one. That this logic will not make you an easy or relaxed adversary hardly needs saying. Continuous war and fear of war must make wary and suspicious even the kindest of hearts. Considering this unceasing agitation and dread, it strikes me as miraculous how many of the civic arts of civilisation and culture have managed to flourish in modern Israel.

What, like the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank? Well, we are strange about walls. As walls go this one certainly isn't the prettiest. If it is still there in a thousand years time, as I sincerely hope it isn't, our offspring will not visit it on aesthetic grounds as we visit what is left of Hadrian's Wall or the Great Wall of China, but it serves an identically practical purpose, which is to keep out enemies. Never mind that Palestinians are not barbarous tribes from somewhere else, bent on invasion. As long as they come into Israel primed as human bombs, that is how they will be viewed.

They are, of course, in their own eyes, justified in blowing up any bus they can climb aboard. Violence does not come out of a clear blue sky; and, however complex the causes of their suffering, the Palestinians have as much reason to be bitter as any people on the planet. But to understand the motives of a suicide bomber and not the motives of those who seek to keep him out is to understand nothing. In the present climate, however, it is almost impossible to make the case that some of Israel's most detested actions (I do not say all) are themselves responses to provocations. At a certain stage the pieces are pushed from the table. Israel can make no legitimate response to a provocation because Israel is not itself legitimate. This, too, is a change from the Left's earlier position. Israel was not considered illegitimate when it fought the Six Day War. Nor is it held to be illegitimate in those UN resolutions it is frequently called upon to honour. The illegitimacy of Israel is a rabbit pulled out of the hat. A defeated, diminished or depleted Israel would have posed no problem of legitimacy. We could have visited its remains in sorrow, as we visit Auschwitz. Israel only became illegal when it did not go away.

If a fair and peaceful settlement, as opposed to the deligitimisation and ultimate dismantling of Israel, is what our universities really want, they would seek more subtly to exploit that fault-line in Israeli society between those who would go on building settlements on Palestinian land and those who would give it back, those who fear co-existence and those who aspire to it. To alienate that very section of Israeli society which is most amenable to reason and approach - teachers at universities which Arabs are already free to attend, academics who at this very moment are working to lift travel bans and extend those freedoms - is not only to close down future avenues of peace, it is to confirm Israel in the belief that it can count on the outside world for nothing, and drive it into an isolationism from which the Palestinians too will have little to gain.

But the gesture is clearly more important than the peace. With a terrible acuity, Primo Levi discerned one of the most diabolic of all Nazi ambitions - to reduce Jews in the camps to animals so that they should see the emptiness of their claims to be an ethical people. I accuse, as I have promised, no one of anti-Semitism, but in their assault upon Israel's teachers and scholars - by condemning, in the words of the UCU resolution, their "complicity in the occupation" - the boycotters mean to show the emptiness of the Jewish state's claim to be a learned and humane society. "Scientific research and its achievements," David Ben Gurion said in 1962, "are no longer merely an abstract intellectual pursuit... but a central factor in the life of every civilised people." If we dishonour your scientists, if we mire your historians and philosophers in the guilt of genocide or ethnic cleansing or Apartheid or Nazism or whatever crime we can concoct next, where is your civilisation?

The charge of being "complicit in the occupation" begs more questions than can be addressed here, but its chief assumption - the assumption on which the entire boycott is based - is breathtaking. An Israeli scholar dare not be in even the most partial agreement with his government. For an Israeli academic not to think exactly as they think on the campuses of Birmingham and Brighton is to be guilty of a crime for which the punishment is expulsion from the international community of thought.

Will someone, in the light of that, explain to me what universities are for? Is not scholarship meant to constitute a sacred bond, an implicit assurance that here at least, in the free academy of the mind, the conversation will always go on no matter how bitter the disagreement, no matter how unorthodox or incorrect or even offensive the views expressed? Can that person be fit to teach, I ask, who closes his intelligence to such an exchange, who seeks to silence opinions he does not share, and who believes the only truth is his?

Class action: academics against Israel

On 30 May, delegates at the annual conference of the University and College Union (UCU), the largest body representing academic staff in further education in the UK, voted in favour of a motion to discuss an academic boycott of Israel. Members were urged to consider the "moral implications" of links with Israeli universities, and to condemn Israel for its "denial of educational rights" to Palestinians. It is unclear what effect such a boycott would have, but Brighton University lecturer Tom Hickey, who proposed the motion, said it may result in the UCU urging its members not to attend conferences at Israeli universities or to submit articles to their journals. It is not thought that Israeli academics would be prevented from visiting UK campuses. The UCU's national executive is meeting today to draw up union policy; Sally Hunt, the UCU's new general secretary, has called on members to reject the motion.

Full text at:

The long history of boycotts


Long before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Arabs boycott Jewish-owned businesses operating in the British Mandate of Palestine, which now comprises modern-day Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.


The newly formed Arab League Council declares a formal boycott designed to economically isolate the Jewish community. Arabs are called upon "to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods". Each state opens a bureau under the direction of the Central Boycott Office in Damascus.


New legislation in the US forbids American participation in foreign boycotts that are not sanctioned by the White House, including the Arab League boycott of Israel. But, anxious to protect business with the Arab world, many companies choose to break the law rather than the boycott.


Under international pressure, Egypt becomes the first Arab nation to abandon the boycott in 1980. Jordan and the Palestine Authority follow suit in 1995. A year later, the Gulf States drop the boycott as well, and other states elect to relax it, leading many foreign companies to enter the Israeli market. It is thought that many states that still claim to support the boycott, including Syria and Lebanon, continue quietly to trade with Israel.


As students at more than 40 US campuses demand a review of university investment in Israeli companies, Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls on the international community to treat Israel as it treated apartheid South Africa. He calls for a grassroots campaign to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.


Britain's Association of University Teachers votes to boycott two Israeli universities alleged to be complicit in a system of "apartheid" towards Palestinians. A month later, academics vote to overturn the boycott.


The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) votes in favour of a boycott of Israeli academics and universities that do not publicly disassociate themselves from Israel's "apartheid policies". The ban expires four days later when Natfhe merges into the University and College Union (UCU).

Norway's Finance Minister backs a consumer boycott of Israeli goods as part of a campaign of solidarity with Palestinians. The country's foreign ministry says the boycott is not government policy.

In the same month, Klaus Schwab (pictured below), the founder and director of the World Economic Forum, apologises after an article in an in-house magazine calls for a boycott of Israel.


At its annual meeting in April, the National Union of Journalists votes to boycott Israeli goods as part of a protest against Israel's 2006 Lebanon bombing campaign.

In May, the UCU votes for a motion to debate an academic boycott of Israel.


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