Why Liberals Should Oppose Academic Boycotts

The Teachers Union of Ireland has unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academia. Heartened though I was by the hostility towards Galloway’s walkout at the Christ Church debate (his opponent, as he discovered, was – gasp! – born in Israel), it’s not an attitude matched in a lot of left-wing circles.

The much-quoted precedent was that of the anti-apartheid boycott in the 60s, one which was never as widely supported as pseudo-historians would have us believe. Whatever the case it would be ridiculous and illiberal to apply it to Israel:

  • No matter what the soundbites splutter, Israel is not an apartheid state. Arabs can vote for the Knesset. Gaza and the West Bank are excluded from the political process because they are not part of Israel, and that is the injustice here. A people without a state have created another: in Edward Said’s phrase, the Palestinians are the “the victims of the victims”.
  • The inevitable boycott is therefore indiscriminate towards political outlook: its characterisation of everyone in Israel as pro-occupation and anti-arab is itself a form of racism.
  • The result of this is counterproductive: it equates academics who are critical of the government’s policies – like Gideon Levy or Avi Shlaim – with Eretz Israel racists like Habayit Hayehudi. Israeli academics in Britain would lose their security based simply on the nation of their birth.
  • Even if these motivations were somehow purified, and the boycott became unambiguously anti-expansionist and anti-racist, it would still be a battle for censorship. Freedom of expression is the most liberal principle any society has ever had: it is the starting point of all intellectual progress. If you cannot beat a Zionist in debate then step aside and let someone else. Silencing them achieves nothing.
  • And it doesn’t work. It’s easily avoided and had virtually no impact on ending South African apartheid. Much like the frivolity that is the Gaza flotilla, it can only be understood as a symbol. And, as I say, a racist one at that.

The opposition to racism, to censorship and to the marketplace of ideas – chief emblems of liberalism – is made a mockery of. There are far better ways to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, one which achieves more and abandons less.

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8 Comments on “Why Liberals Should Oppose Academic Boycotts”

  1. Bravo. Very well said. The marketplace of ideas is the real marketplace where humanity evolves and progresses.

  2. Agreed and disagreed… It would not be an apartheid if everyone, arabs and non arabs, jews, christians, muslims, buddhists, white, black, aborigin or nationalised, had the same rights under the same flag, with the same laws, duties, chances, and perspectives. But Israel is not as that. Oh yeah,…. Israeli arabs have certain rights that black people had not in South Africa,… but that’s far from being a democracy. The fact that people whose roots into that land go back in generations have lesser chances to be fully israeli citizens than, let’s say… Woody Allen? for not being jewish, is simply shameful and revulsive. t’s like if Lebanese or Tunisians started to occupy eastern Spain coastal cities bcos they were here 2500 years ago when Phoenitia and later Carthage were founders of the first colonies that made us part of written history and bla bla bla… and we, the “locals” were set apart as 2nd class citizens…

    I remember the story sold to us, westerns in “Exodus”, and how Taha, the arab Mukhtar from Abu Yesha, is buried in the same tomb with Karen, the angelical danish survivor of the holocaust, … and Ari Ben Canaan swears swears on their bodies that “someday, Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace, not only in death but also in life”.

    I do believe in that. And same as me a lot of people. If they were not going to bring that nation to life, then they r not making the nation they said they’d do… They are being segregationist by race, religion, etc,… Letting aside occupied territories (occupation and colonisation itself is immoral to my eyes) every citizen of Israel, especially those who were living in that territory since its creation and centuries ago, shold be treated equally. Period.

    Anything else is a perverse mockery of democracy and human rights, as when Franco made elections…

    Does it deserve a boycott?… most surely. Would it work?… I’d say if it was general,…. yes… but being realistic, I guess that direct support on creation of a proper Palestinian citizenship would be more useful.

    • Mark says:

      Interesting thoughts, as always – I almost entirely agree with you on the main points. But in terms of “apartheid” we need to look at the situation in two ways: in terms of within Israel, and in terms of Israel’s control over the West Bank/Gaza.

      Within Israel, there is certainly discrimination but it’s largely cultural, rather than political. A number of racist policies have been pursued by various governments but they rarely come to much. We shouldn’t undermine racial gulfs, of course, which have to be foguht – like how only 5% of the Israeli civil service are Arabs – but that’s far from apartheid, certainly not enough so to warrant the attention that it does.

      In terms of the occupation – well that is the problem. The populations of the occupied territories have no state to call their own and yet are controlled by the IDF; they have some role in their government but none whatsoever in the Knesset. Certainly, religious Zionism plays a large role here – but the moment we call Israel an apartheid state, we appear to be conceding to right-wing Zionists who want the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. It makes much more sense to focus our energies on opposing that so that the Palestinian people can speak to the Israeli government for themselves.

      It just feels like a boycott misses the point. Maybe better to support left-wing opinion in Israel?

  3. hmmm maybe this debate can be an eye opener for the question? Because one coud feel that an arab member of the Knesset is entitled with all rights and feeling complete but…. just listen to her: http://almustarib.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/israel-the-enemy-within-the-cafe-al-jazeera-english/

  4. inkprogress says:

    Thought-provoking post. Do you have any recommendations of where to go to read about how the boycott of apartheid South Africa had little effect? The BDS movement use South Africa as a constant example of how boycotts can be effective; would be interested to read the other side.

    I think it is important to note however that the accusations of racism in this debate are far too proliferate and should only be used with extreme caution; I wonder if the term is just outright unhelpful in this instance.

    The impact of such a boycott may fall upon Jewish Israelis but this is a side-effect of an action clearly directed to send a message to the Israeli state. The oppressing force in the Israel-Palestine conflict happens to be the Israeli side; seeking to peaceably penalise this side does not necessarily entail racism against Jewish Israelis; just in the same way as boycotting goods from South Africa did not entail racism against white South Africans. I have reservations about the belief that to penalise one group which either directly oppresses, tacitly supports or indirectly benefits from the oppression of another automatically becomes racist just because the two groups are of different races.

    To explain further, I suppose it largely depends on whether you see racism as something which can be shaped, after the fact as it were, to any resultant situation in which a specific national, religious or ethnic group can be seen to be penalised (i.e. in this case – that of Israeli academics having their papers rejected), or something actualised through intent or motivation to persecute on the basis of hatred/ prejudice, which can be argued to be absent in boycott campaigns.

    Although my immediate response to Galloway leaving the Oxford university debate upon realising an Israeli was on the panel was that he was being racist, I wonder whether the boycott of a state as a whole symbolically coherent unit is rather different?/ Galloway’s action is also rather different when considered in light of this view.

    I’m also not sure whether your dismissal of boycotts as merely symbolic is fair given how powerful symbolic actions can be and how few tools peaceful protesters have at their disposal other than symbolic ones.

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Mark says:

      Sorry for the late reply! It’s been a bit hectic recently.

      There’s a very concise but helpful article on the South African academic boycotts here: http://www.monabaker.com/pMachine/more.php?id=A1105_0_1_0_M

      Since the UN embargoes never specified scholarly materials, it was left to private individuals and organisations. A surprisingly high number of South Africans did report some level of disturbance from foreigners – and the actual figure is probably significantly more.

      So I’d prefer economic embargoes, certainly more so than academic ones – something I should definitely have clarified in the post. Encouraging censrship does nothing to undermine settlement expansion, and as was the case in South Africa can be easily bypassed.

      Although the same principle of non-discrimination does still apply, the idea of an international embargo is far more justified against a democracy than a dictatorship simply because the link between populace and government is much stronger. Sanctions against Saddam did not harm him; he built palaces while he starved his people. Plus the UN would be better placed to identifying areas that would especially target settlement expansion in the West Bank.

      The argument – and it’s troubling for its accuracy – is that as an ally to the United States there’s no way economic embargoes might be placed against Israel through the UN. But if we can at least establish the moral – and pragmatic – rationale for a UN-sponsored sanction policy, focusing on martial supplies initially, then we will have a policy by which any pro-expansionist lobbies in Washington might be fought. In such context relying on private organisations is entirely fruitless.

      I do agree with you, entirely, that racism can be a superficial and largely unhelpful term to throw about. All I really wanted to show was that a boycott in favour of the Palestinian territories is far from a guarantee of racial equality – as it was more so in South Africa.

      I hope that’s perhaps elaborated my position? Thank you for commenting in such depth!

  5. No. I totally disagree. The occupation of Palestine and all that it entails: daily land theft, illegal arrests, torture, destruction of property, dehumanization of man, woman and child occurs because every segment of Israeli society participates in it. Many Israelis are clueless about what is happening a few meters away from them because they can’t be bothered with it because their daily lives are not negatively impacted. What Israel is doing is a fucking crime that it can only carry out because there hasn’t been a revolution for anything other than cheaper cottage cheese and lower rent in that fucked up shitty society. Until Israelis ALL OF THEM feel discomfort over what their lunatic (left, right and middle) governments are doing, NOTHING WILL CHANGE. And these little agents of the occupation that travel around the world to sell Israeli apartheid as anything but apartheid deserve to be treated like pariahs by EVERYONE.


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