A boycott will only strengthen the Israeli right (David Newman & Benjamin Pogrund)
The purpose of a boycott has to be carefully thought out because it might not serve the cause it is meant to help, as was seen in apartheid South Africa. Britain played a leading part in the academic boycott of that country and those who supported it certainly felt emotional satisfaction at doing what they thought was the right thing. The effects on the ground, however, were calamitous: the English-language universities traditionally depended for their life blood on infusions of lecturers from abroad, especially Britain, to bring fresh thinking, energy and courage. But they did not come, because of the boycott and because the South African government discouraged them, and this contributed to a steep decline in university resistance to apartheid.But read the whole thing.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A boycott will only strengthen the Israeli right
This self-defeating campaign of double standards is strangling liberal voices
David Newman and Benjamin Pogrund
Wednesday May 25, 2005
We are opposed to the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We are equally opposed to the, at best misguided, at worst immoral attempts by the Association of University Teachers to boycott the Israeli academic community. Such a boycott would do irreparable harm to the tenuous, but growing, Israeli-Palestinian relations and joint research at almost all of Israel's universities. For those of us who are active in the pro-peace, anti-occupation movements in Israel, the boycott only serves to make our work almost impossible. If there is a public space in Israel where liberal voices can be heard, it is the universities.
As far back as the pre-Oslo days, when the Israeli government forbade all relations between Israeli citizens and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the first significant links were forged through academic contacts. These links have grown during the past decade in the many ongoing dialogues and negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian academics, particularly in the difficult period since 2000 when almost all formal political dialogue between the sides ceased.
It is ironic that it is precisely these voices of liberalism which are under attack by the voices of rightwing patriotism in Israel and elsewhere, in an attempt to delegitimise all pro-peace and anti-occupation voices, even to the extent of seeking to have some of them dismissed. But, to their great credit, the Israeli academic establishment has refused to take this easy option, most notably in the case of Haifa professor Ilan Pappe. Instead, it strenuously defends freedom of expression as a basic right for all Israeli and Palestinian academics.
The boycott attempts from abroad only serve to strengthen the voices of the Israeli right, and their simplistic arguments that the British academic community is collectively anti-semitic and - in the words of one senior Israeli professor on the eve of Holocaust day this month - is guilty of repeating what the Nazi-era Germans did to Jewish academics. This knee-jerk, somewhat hysterical, reaction goes down well with the Israeli Jewish public, large sections of whom remain convinced that they stand alone against a hostile world that wishes for nothing more than the extinction of the Jewish state.
The fact that some of the AUT boycott leaders have categorically stated that they see the state of Israel as being "illegitimate" brings into question the real motives behind their action. The boycott leaders may not see themselves as antisemitic, but they are guilty of inadvertently feeding into a growing anti-semitism on British campuses and helping to create a feeling of insecurity among Jewish students, who no longer feel safe in what should be one of the most secure and free public spaces of any society.
Why do they pick on Israel? Why are they silent about transgressions of freedom in other parts of the world? If they want to concentrate on the Middle East, why do they not take a stand about those states that openly declare their desire to destroy Israel, a state created by the United Nations, or which systematically deny equal rights to ethnic and religious minorities, women and political "others"? Why do they falsely seek to equate the oppression suffered by black people in apartheid South Africa with Israel today? Yes, there are economic and political inequalities in Israel/Palestine, and academics are actively involved in redressing some of these injustices and promoting affirmative action programmes. Why do the boycott instigators continue to falsely claim that Zionism is effectively racism? This was tried once at the UN and was eventually dumped, but it is still used as a means of delegitimising the existence of the state, as the instigators of the boycott are clearly intent on doing.
The purpose of a boycott has to be carefully thought out because it might not serve the cause it is meant to help, as was seen in apartheid South Africa. Britain played a leading part in the academic boycott of that country and those who supported it certainly felt emotional satisfaction at doing what they thought was the right thing. The effects on the ground, however, were calamitous: the English-language universities traditionally depended for their life blood on infusions of lecturers from abroad, especially Britain, to bring fresh thinking, energy and courage. But they did not come, because of the boycott and because the South African government discouraged them, and this contributed to a steep decline in university resistance to apartheid.
And the idea that certain universities or, for that matter, certain academics (such as those opposing Israel government policies, or Arab professors) would be free from the boycott, is obnoxious. Is the AUT really prepared to be party to such a process of selection, based on political views or ethnic background?
In a letter from the European commission last week, the EU made its position very clear, stating that "'boycotting' behaviour against Israeli scientists is totally unproductive and worrying ... is unacceptable in project(s) funded by the European Union. The European commission will do its utmost to discourage such an unacceptable way to penalise scientists from wherever they come from". Boycotting Israeli academics would bring into question the basic right of British institutions to benefit from European, or any other form of funding that assumes equality of access and opportunity by all, regardless of national, religious or ethnic origin and affiliations.
If the AUT is really concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, it should be investing time and effort in promoting more, rather than less, Israeli-Palestinian cooperative projects in the fields of health, education and technological advancement. It should be inviting Israeli and Palestinian scholars to take part in joint research projects; it should be hosting joint forums of political and social dialogue; and, most important, it should be using its research expertise to contribute to the furtherance of peace and conciliation between the two peoples. By trying to promote a boycott, it is only serving to worsen relations between the two peoples and to open itself to charges of double standards.
· David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel and co-editor of the journal Geopolitics; Benjamin Pogrund is director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem and formerly deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg.