Tuesday, June 06, 2006

NATFHE, anti-Zionism, creationism - How long should we keep arguing with bigots? (Shalom Lappin)

Every spring, it seems, some tendencies in British intellectual and academic life re-emerge to promote a blacklist (fraudulently described as a "boycott") of Israeli academics. Academic blacklists are a bad idea in general, but it is especially dangerous and self-destructive when academics themselves support them. Oddly enough, there is never a serious proposal to blacklist academics from any other country on the planet. The reasons for this recurrent ritual obsession in Britain are no doubt complex, but unfortunately the phenomenon itself seems to be solidly rooted. Not only do these proposals sometimes get adopted by academic associations--for example, the original AUT vote in May 2005 and the NATFHE vote a few weeks ago--but even people who don't agree with them often treat their proponents as thoughtful and well-motivated persons whose views deserve careful consideration and sympathetic understanding, rather than dangerous bigots whose outlook and actions deserve unequivocal condemnation.

Shalom Lappin, who teaches in London and is active in both the Engage and Euston Manifesto groups, is getting fed up. Refusing to legitimate "irrational dogmatism" by taking it seriously should
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provide the basis for our response to what has become an annual Spring rite of introducing, and occasionally passing, resolutions to boycott Israeli academics in Britain’s higher education unions. For the past several years we have waged intensive campaigns to persuade members of these unions that boycotts are discriminatory and counterproductive. We have presented our arguments in considerable detail, but they have never been seriously answered by advocates of the boycott. Each time a resolution is defeated, the victory is annulled as quickly as it is won when we find ourselves once again summoned before the Inquisition of a new boycott effort the following year. It is a serious mistake for us to continue to play the role of the accused that has been allotted to us in this Medieval morality play.

[....] The leaders of the boycott campaign have made it clear in their public statements that they regard Israel as an “illegitimate state”. The purpose of their proposed boycott is, then, not to end the occupation but to delegitimise Israel as a country and to stigmitize its people as a collectivity. Given this view, it is obvious why they refuse to propose sanctions of a similar kind against academics in countries committing human rights abuses on a far greater scale. [....]

As in the case of the creationists, there is little point in pursuing a debate with the boycotters when they do not accept the basic principles of non-discrimination and universal access to academic institutions which form the basis of our opposition to their campaign. There are, of course, people of good will who may have been misled by the boycotters’ propaganda, particularly by the false and misleading comparison between their movement and the boycott of apartheid South Africa. It is important to engage these people in constructive dialogue. However there is no point in expending valuable resources in an enervating ritual that leaves us permanently on the defensive in a debate controlled by our adversaries. It is futile to attempt to persuade bigots that they are mistaken. One’s main concern should be simply to prevent them from implementing their ideas in a manner which disadvantages innocent people.

There are, I think, two elements worth pursuing in a more efficient strategy for dealing with the boycott. First, individuals and institutions that engage in acts of discrimination against Israeli (or other) academics on grounds of nationality or location should be exposed and vigorous legal action taken against them using current anti-discrimination legislation. If these actions are successful, they will set important precedents that will deter boycotters in the future.

Second, one should refuse to cooperate with institutions (journals, conferences, etc.) that are not willing to publicly commit themselves to the principle of non-discrimination and universal access. This principle excludes adherence to the boycott.

A strategy framed in these terms does not seek to penalize individuals or institutions for their opinions but only for their actions. It does not exclude people sympathetic to the boycott, but it does aim to stop them from engaging in acts of discrimination, and to prevent collaboration with institutions that commit or tolerate such acts. It should apply not only in the case of Israeli academics but to all people. [....] This is, in large part, the approach that the civil rights movement pursued in combating segregation in America. It is also the method through which contemporary human rights groups combat racial, religious, sexual, national, and ethnic exclusion. Given that we are dealing with a clear case of bigotry, we should adopt it as our primary instrument of response.
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I confess that I am sympathetic both to Lappin's position (despite my general reservations about the limitations of legalism) and to the response by Norman Geras.
At the same time, even though one may not want to waste further time arguing with these supporters, it isn't possible to stop arguing against them. As Shalom himself says:
There are, of course, people of good will who may have been misled by the boycotters' propaganda... It is important to engage these people in constructive dialogue.
The argument, in other words (and as always), is to persuade people who are open to persuasion, and one doesn't always know in advance who they are. This in no way negates the strategic focus which Shalom suggests, but it does mean we'll need to keep on making the arguments.
This position seems right to me, as far as it goes. But it does not resolve all the dilemmas involved here--which bear further pondering.

--Jeff Weintraub
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Engage Forum (June 4, 2006)

Responding to the boycott - Shalom Lappin

Responding to the boycott - Shalom LappinSteve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, is reported to have given up arguing with creationists over evolution. He is quoted as saying "I don't engage with creationists directly,” … “If somebody has decided to believe something - whatever the evidence - then there is nothing you can do about it." (The Guardian, May 30, 2006). This is clearly a reasonable approach to dealing with irrational dogmatism. It is important to respect the right of creationists to express their views publicly, but there is little point in attempting to persuade them to accept the theory of evolution, given the terms on which they conduct the discussion. The focus of an effective reaction to creationism should be to prevent them from imposing their views on others and subverting the teaching of biology in the educational system.

This approach should also provide the basis for our response to what has become an annual Spring rite of introducing, and occasionally passing, resolutions to boycott Israeli academics in Britain’s higher education unions. For the past several years we have waged intensive campaigns to persuade members of these unions that boycotts are discriminatory and counterproductive. We have presented our arguments in considerable detail, but they have never been seriously answered by advocates of the boycott. Each time a resolution is defeated, the victory is annulled as quickly as it is won when we find ourselves once again summoned before the Inquisition of a new boycott effort the following year. It is a serious mistake for us to continue to play the role of the accused that has been allotted to us in this Medieval morality play.

The terms of the various boycott resolutions that have been proposed at the AUT and NATFHE conferences make it clear that their object is not an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the establishment of a just two-state solution based upon Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders (or their full equivalent), mutual recognition, and reconciliation between the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. The leaders of the boycott campaign have made it clear in their public statements that they regard Israel as an “illegitimate state”. The purpose of their proposed boycott is, then, not to end the occupation but to delegitimise Israel as a country and to stigmitize its people as a collectivity. Given this view, it is obvious why they refuse to propose sanctions of a similar kind against academics in countries committing human rights abuses on a far greater scale. They do not question the right of these countries to exist, but reserve this distinction for Israel alone among nations. The academic boycott is, then, nothing more than a contemporary version of the traditional Arab League boycott from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and it should be treated as such.

As in the case of the creationists, there is little point in pursuing a debate with the boycotters when they do not accept the basic principles of non-discrimination and universal access to academic institutions which form the basis of our opposition to their campaign. There are, of course, people of good will who may have been misled by the boycotters’ propaganda, particularly by the false and misleading comparison between their movement and the boycott of apartheid South Africa. It is important to engage these people in constructive dialogue. However there is no point in expending valuable resources in an enervating ritual that leaves us permanently on the defensive in a debate controlled by our adversaries. It is futile to attempt to persuade bigots that they are mistaken. One’s main concern should be simply to prevent them from implementing their ideas in a manner which disadvantages innocent people.

There are, I think, two elements worth pursuing in a more efficient strategy for dealing with the boycott. First, individuals and institutions that engage in acts of discrimination against Israeli (or other) academics on grounds of nationality or location should be exposed and vigorous legal action taken against them using current anti-discrimination legislation. If these actions are successful, they will set important precedents that will deter boycotters in the future.

Second, one should refuse to cooperate with institutions (journals, conferences, etc.) that are not willing to publicly commit themselves to the principle of non-discrimination and universal access. This principle excludes adherence to the boycott.

A strategy framed in these terms does not seek to penalize individuals or institutions for their opinions but only for their actions. It does not exclude people sympathetic to the boycott, but it does aim to stop them from engaging in acts of discrimination, and to prevent collaboration with institutions that commit or tolerate such acts. It should apply not only in the case of Israeli academics but to all people. If, for example, the editors of a journal decided not to accept submissions from Palestinian scientists because of the election of Hamas as the government of the Palestinian Authority, and they were willing to suspend this boycott only for Palestinians who publicly disassociated themselves from Hamas’ rejectionist policies and support for terrorism, then we should refuse to deal with the journal until it stopped discriminating against Palestinians.

This is, in large part, the approach that the civil rights movement pursued in combating segregation in America. It is also the method through which contemporary human rights groups combat racial, religious, sexual, national, and ethnic exclusion. Given that we are dealing with a clear case of bigotry, we should adopt it as our primary instrument of response.

Shalom Lappin
Department of Philosophy
King’s College, London


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Norman Geras (Normblog)
June 4, 2006

Keeping on keeping on

Over at Engage Shalom Lappin argues that 'it is futile to attempt to persuade bigots that they are mistaken'. He's talking about the people who want to boycott Israeli academics and who have failed to meet the arguments put to them repeatedly and in detail as to why such a boycott - in fact, blacklist - is discriminatory, based as it is on the arbitrary singling out of the academics of one country and one country only. Instead of 'pursuing a debate with the boycotters when they do not accept the basic principles of non-discrimination', Shalom favours a stratagy of taking action, including legal action, against 'individuals and institutions that engage in acts of discrimination'.

He is right on at least two counts: one shouldn't concentrate one's energies on trying to persuade bigots; and the arguments against the boycott of Israeli academics - as set out for example in the debate last year over the AUT's policy - have never been adequately answered by the boycott's supporters. At the same time, even though one may not want to waste further time arguing with these supporters, it isn't possible to stop arguing against them. As Shalom himself says:

There are, of course, people of good will who may have been misled by the boycotters' propaganda... It is important to engage these people in constructive dialogue.
The argument, in other words (and as always), is to persuade people who are open to persuasion, and one doesn't always know in advance who they are. This in no way negates the strategic focus which Shalom suggests, but it does mean we'll need to keep on making the arguments.

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