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Know the boundaries - David Hirsh and Jon Pike
Added by Alexandra Simonon on January 25, 2006 12:24:44 PM.
Know the boundaries - David Hirsh and Jon PikeThis article was published in yesterday's Haaretz.
Prospects for peace, already dire since the collapse of the Oslo process, are deteriorating still further. The open anti-Semites of Hamas seem likely to win a significant mandate in Palestine, and those who oppose a Palestinian state still persuade a significant proportion of Israelis. Kadima's project of unilateral disengagement, even if implemented fearlessly, is unlikely to lead to a just settlement of the conflict. We will see more terrorist attacks worldwide, and an intensification of the "war against terror." This context may accelerate the polarization of opinion in the United Kingdom between those who demonize Israel and Jews on the one side, and those who demonize Palestinians and Muslims on the other. We oppose both of these ways of thinking.

The Palestine solidarity movement in the U.K. is dominated by campaigns to boycott Israel. These campaigns divide those who want a just peace, and they portray Israel as a racist pariah state like the old South Africa. For five weeks last year, our union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), held Israeli academics responsible for the actions of their state in a manner in which it did not propose holding anybody else in the world responsible.

The boycott policy was advocated by people who argue that Israel is the only "illegitimate" state in the world; that Israeli nationalism is essentially different from other nationalisms; that Zionism is a form of racism, apartheid or Nazism; that Israel plays a pivotal role in global imperialism; that the Zionist lobby has huge, covert and illegitimate influence; that Israel is guilty of genocide. Some academics, who rightly wanted to do something to help Palestinians, naively went along with this campaign. The boycott campaign discriminated against Zionist Jews and relied on hate-filled generalizations about Israel and Zionism. The boycott campaign amounted to a singling out of Israeli academics, without any politically or morally relevant reason, for special punishment and particular abhorrence.

We forced a full, informed and democratic debate in our union, and the AUT membership overturned the boycott. We will continue to oppose an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, whether the boycotters pursue it openly or covertly. We will oppose ways of thinking that risk licensing an anti-Semitic movement in the U.K. But we will not do so on the basis of a hypocritical defense of academic freedom that stays silent about the impact of the occupation on Palestinian academics and students, or by muting criticism of the wrongful actions of the Israeli state.

One reason that the loathing of Israel is becoming respectable in British society is that the Israeli state often acts wrongly. Israel still hangs on to the West Bank, encourages Jews to build settlements there, and rules it as a colony. The Israeli government acts as though it plans to annex a significant proportion of the West Bank to Israel. Within pre-1967 Israel, there is still discrimination against Arab citizens, some of it formalized in law. Because Israel is the occupying power, and because it is vastly more powerful than Palestine, it must accept a major share of responsibility for squandering the opportunities for peace in the 1990s.

Anti-Zionists often talk about Zionism as though it was a monolithic entity. It is portrayed as one single project from the 19th to the 21st century, and the different political traditions within Israel are air-brushed out of history. Hostility toward Israel, in any form, is thought of as nothing but a response to so-called Zionist crimes. This mirrors the way that Israel's maltreatment of Palestinians is sometimes portrayed merely as a legitimate response to those who seek to "wipe Israel off the map."

The term, Zionist, has become a term of abuse that denotes an evil and racist ideology. It is thrown venomously at anyone who thinks Israel has the right to exist. The collapsing of Israeli and Jewish opinion into Zionism holds Israelis and Jews collectively responsible for the worst excesses of Israeli nationalists. Some people reserve particular venom for the crimes of "the Zionists" that they do not use when talking about other crimes. The genocide in Darfur is currently intensifying and is an incomparably bigger event in terms of human rights abuses than the conflict in the West Bank, but the actions of the Janjaweed do not make the blood of the average British liberal boil in the way that the crimes of "the Zionists" do.

For many on the left in the U.K., Israel has come to symbolize global US-centered imperialism just as, for some, Jews once symbolized the evils of capitalism. Palestine is often treated as a universal victim that stands for all the victims of imperialism. In this way, actual events in the Middle East are sometimes subsumed into a symbolic struggle between good and evil in the left's imagination.

We need a movement in the U.K. for a just peace, one that campaigns in solidarity with the Palestinian and Israeli peace camps. Such a movement has to be conscious of where the boundaries lie between reasonable criticism of Israeli and Palestinian actions on the one hand, and the demonization of Israel, Jews, Palestinians and Muslims on the other. We need to resist those who try to force us to choose between one camp and the other. We need to work for the politics of peace and reconciliation within both Israel and Palestine.

David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and editor of Engage; Jon Pike is a senior lecturer in philosophy at The Open University and chairman of Engage.


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