Academic boycotters flunk on reasons
The final date of the speaking tour by Palestinian academics took place at SOAS on 29th April, with UCU President Linda Newman presiding. The speakers that night were Samia Al Botmeh and prominent anti-Zionist Lisa Taraki, introduced by Newman to half-stifled and fittingly surreal cries of "Chocolate!" and "More chocolate!" from one young participant.
About 55 of us attended and since there was no checking of UCU membership cards it may be that some weren't members. As with the Leeds event, it was a low-key affair with the SWP piggy-backing to distribute local election and campaign literature. Things unfolded at SOAS much as David Miller reported with no new insights. There were the same geo-political inaccuracies, the same maps of the land between 1946 and the present day. The presenters appropriated Israel's Arab citizens as part of the occupied Palestinian population, tacitly advancing the single state position while ignoring the manifest objections most Palestinian and Israeli citizens have to this, and overlooking that many or most of these people consider their and Palestinian interests to have diverged in 1948. We were shown some statistics on administrative detention by Al Botmeh but these were hard to make sense of because they were not expanded on. You got the impression that campaigning for the rights of these detained individuals was not a priority for the presenters their statistics were introduced as argument for boycott. This also went for the Gazan students who are mentioned so frequently but, since Khaled al Mudallal was permitted to leave as a result of international campaigning (it works!), nobody seems to know, or care to know, their names. The overall impression is of a pre-existing will to boycott bolstered by post-hoc justification.
Considering it's the boycott aspect of the proposed action which has caused so much trouble for us in UCU, the poverty of good reasons to boycott is significant. All we were offered at SOAS in this respect was an invalidation of Israel's existence as if this made the case. Both presenters made liberal and now-familiar use of inflammatory code words like 'land grab', 'colonial', 'genocide', 'so-called peace movement' and 'apartheid'. Lisa Taraki referred to the development of checkpoints and the 'separation barrier' as a betrayal of the ongoing peace process indicative of Israel's ill will. Significantly, neither speaker mentioned Hamas, Hesbollah, other negationists nor the Intifada. Without acknowledging these agents and events, not to mention earlier ones which built the settled belief in many Jews that there was need for a Jewish state, Israel's acts certainly do look demonic. This is a necessary part of convincing us to "isolate Israel in the world arena". Taraki offered us this exclusion and pressure as a "new logic". In fact it is an old logic levelled against Israel by its neighbours for its entire existence (although now eroded by the Free Trade Agreement) and one that is perceived by many if not most Jews as merely a continuation of age-old attempts to isolate Jews in the world arena.
The situation for Palestinians should and does touch us. Al Botmeh reported that one third of West Bank births are happening at checkpoints. We saw the way the village of Qalqilya is totally surrounded by the security barrier, contravening the premise of a contiguous territory for Palestinians and isolating its inhabitants socially and physically. We heard how the West Bank journey that used to take Al Botmeh 20 minutes can now take seven or eight hours, involving a huge detour and waits of unpredictable duration at checkpoints. We heard of the movements of residents of enclave villages are restricted by permits which are not extended to visitors. We heard about the devastating effects of these measures on Palestinian society, its ability to organise politically, and its morale. We learnt that impoverished, disrupted Palestinian institutions are obliged to diversify and that this combination of diversification and restrictions of movement means that if you can't live in Bethlehem and a pursue acourse in Engineering, which would involve enrolling at Birzeit. We heard about the threat Sharon perceived in Palestinian education, and the ensuing disruption and arrests of Student Union candidates. We heard about the crippled economy, the closure of Israel to Palestinian labour, and the forces which are shrinking and localising Palestinian life. The situation of Palestinians touches us and nobody should interfere with the momentum for positive support. But it needs to be asked, how do these circumstances relate to the acts of Palestinian negationists, international agents and the Intifada? And what has alleviating them to do with academic boycott?
It is important to understand why our course of action is supposed to be boycott. Al Botmeh told us that Israel is colonial and we should be anti-colonial (more clichι). Arab Israelis are themselves persistently presented as colonised Palestinians. Although Israel is not a colony but is founded on the immigration of refugees with the approval of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, this contention that Israel must be opposed as if it were itself an illegitimate colony resonates with early stirrings of this current boycott, an alliance of the hard left and hard islamists at the 2002 Cairo conference, a key episode in the fixation on Israel and the US in their war on imperialism.
Why else boycott? Because the peace process and the Israeli "so-called peace movement" have been condemned by Lisa Taraki as a failure. In fact a two state solution inches closer. Israel gains recognition and the terms of a peace settlement have been set out in unprecedented detail at Taba.
Why else? Taraki talked about Israel's pride in its academy as if the academy were an ornament to be confiscated for bad behaviour. "It's very important that you hear from us that the boycott works", said Al Botmeh. Why? "Because Israel is very annoyed and we like this, of course". Considering the weight of what they are asking for from UCU, that's glib. The reason Israel is annoyed is because the boycott campaign is wrong. The reason Jews and anti-racists are annoyed is that most boycotters, in their ignorance or as a conscious strategy, are confidently rebranding 'Zionist' as 'racist' as if Zionism were the extent of the reason for the circumstances of the Palestinians, rather than one strand of Zionism as one factor. This monocausal approach to the conflict is, along with their destructive pressure on the democratic centre, the boycotters' defining error.
Why else? Israeli academics are "complicit in the regime of control and oppression" for a number of badly muddled reasons. "Israeli academics are the people who are shooting at us". But the Israeli army is a conscript army and if you don't do your time in the army you do your time in prison. Even conscientious refuseniks understand better than to condemn their peers for serving - why doesn't Taraki? Israeli academics, says Taraki, are complicit because no institution has spoken against the occupation. Academics are also complicit because they are involved in professions law, architecture, urban planning - which enforce the occupation. This eagerness to apply complicity as rationale for boycott is deeply flawed, leads directly to political tests, and seems more like collective punishment of academics than anything else. It sits badly with the insistence that the boycott isn't targetting individuals.
At one stage Linda Newman paused the discussion to remind us of UCU's legal advice that a boycott of Israel would be unlawful. There were groans and sighs, the chocolate-eater kept his silence and a few moments later the business of calling for a boycott of Israel was resumed.
There was plenty of time for questions and comments. It seemed once again that expert academics in important areas the boycott campaign depends on (for example, ethics, history, international relations) had stayed away. There was a consensus that we mist do something urgently, but little inclination to examine the credentials of a boycott as a good something. As one uncritical participant from the SWP later remarked, "You don't have to agree with everything about the boycott to realise that something very wrong is happening in Palestine. Something has to be done". Jon Pike introduced several of the biggest problems with the boycott, including the fact that it is unwanted in UCU, deals lightly with academic freedom, accepts the dangerous tenet that academics can be en masse complicit in the acts of their state, and that Taraki seeks to de-legitimise Israel's existence. Lastly he raised the impossibility of boycotting institutions without boycotting academics and drew attention the summary dismissal of two Israeli academics from the board of the boycotter Mona Baker's journal. This interruption of the pro-boycott narrative was resented. In response Al Botmeh referred again to Israel as a "colonial project". Taraki bustled that obviously there wasn't time that evening for such niceties and reduced Jon's questions down to a false choice between free speech and saving lives. She put forward a distinction between academic freedoms and academic privileges where the right to associate or to seek funding was not a right but a privilege. "Our conscience is clear" - with her hand on heart - "We don't think we're doing anything wrong". Conscience came up a lot that evening as an unerring compass of rectitude but only if you're in favour of the boycott.
Somebody asked Lisa Taraki to outline institutional, as opposed to individual, boycott. She replied that she didn't have a blueprint but then proceeded to outline "strict criteria", sandwiching the following between reminders that the boycott was a matter of individual judgement, not an exact science and that practice would make perfect. The first element was to undermine any area where an academy was gaining in status (I think this means we can now use boycott activity as one marker of quality in Israeli academia). We are to decline to attend conferences in Israel and state our reasons or not. We should raise questions about the legitimacy of Israel's membership in world bodies and campaign to get the editorships of national journals moved out of Israel. It is fine, she conceded, if the editor moves to Australia. But if we consider that it is the effects rather than the intent of the boycott that is important it's hard to see how the aim of precipitating a brain drain of individuals for whom migration has become their only chance to engage fully in academic life escapes categorisation as individual boycott.
A question about how Israeli academia responds to dissent was misleadingly answered to suggest that all dissenters are harassed and that "conscientious academics" are drummed out.
David-Hillel Ruben from Birkbeck voiced a number of reservations. His point about Egypt's little-dicussed role in Gaza's isolation visibly ruffled pro-boycotters, but wasn't addressed. Neither was the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, nor the role of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in collaborating with the Nazis to eradicate Jews from the region. Again, the response was a manipulative appeal to conscience and relegation of such questions as distractions or niceties.
Somebody asked how best to make the human rights arguments which would most influence people but the speakers, with their negative agenda, seemed unprepared for this and it fell to another participant to refer us to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation (that is, a manifestation of conscience) which, it is worth noting, isn't anti-Zionist or a supporter of the boycott.
After that questions gave way, for the most part, to denunciations of Israel of wild-eyed and gesticulating variety the most impassioned and Jerry Springeresque of these were most heartily appreciated. Unless I am mistaken, a participant from Queen Mary, in an angry outburst, included a reference to the hidden tentacles of Israeli political influence - "a country passing resolutions in our union about who we can and can't boycott" which "should make any sane man's blood boil". This was received with loud applause.
The difference between boycotters and anti-boycotters is not, as one participant insisted, regard for human rights rather it is the anti-boycotters commitment to the Green Line as opposed to boycotters' efforts to turn back the clock to a time before the UN Partition Plan. Taraki and Al Botmeh seek to convince us that the academic boycott campaign (through some undisclosed mechanism) will save lives, but we don't believe that it will. There are no positive trends for the Palestinians that we can associate with it, and it is very unlikely that boycott has any effects on Palestinian lives at all. At the same time it tramples all over academic freedom, attacks the existence of a sovereign state, flies in the face of all viable peace plans, has no end-points to guide its practitioners, condemns some academics but not others as complicit in the acts of their state and - a well-recognised side-effect encourages condemnation of any Jew who is not anti-Zionist. This is why Engage, which accepts and makes criticism of Israel, is against this boycott however it's dressed up. The boycott seeks to sabotage and exclude people from supporting Palestinians with alternative measure to boycott. Any serious pro-Palestinian activist needs to continue to resist this monopolisation attempt by the boycott campaign.