Monday, May 15, 2006

David Hirsh on the NATFHE blacklist proposal

David Hirsh is one of the British academics who started up the Engage website in May 2005 to help coordinate opposition to the blacklist of Israeli academics instituted by the Association of University Teachers (AUT). The Engage group played a major role in getting the AUT blacklist repealed. Now Hirsh argues against the newest version of this idiocy, a blacklist proposal introduced by members of the other major British academic union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE).

--Jeff Weintraub
May 15, 2006

David Hirsh replies to Steven Rose - Vote No to the Blacklist

David Hirsh replies to Steven Rose - Vote No to the BlacklistJacqueline Rose, at a conference last September became exasperated by patient logical arguments against boycotting Israeli academics. In the end she fell back on the desperate exclamation, "We have to do something!"

Never mind that a blacklist of Israeli academics will do nothing to help Palestinians or Palestinian universities. Never mind that a blacklist will do nothing to help unite all those who oppose the Israeli occupation in a campaign for a free and democratic Palestine. Never mind that the proposal to draw up a blacklist of Israeli Jewish academics, and no other academics in the world, fails every conceivable test of consistency.

In his recent Comment Is Free piece, Steven Rose, it seems, can do no better than his namesake Jacqueline. He argues that staying silent about the occupation of the West Bank, and the daily Israeli violence that is necessary to sustain it, is one option. The only other option is that academics should draw up a blacklist of Israeli Jewish colleagues and refuse to debate with them, refuse to invite them to conferences, refuse to engage in joint research with them; Israeli Jews must be excluded from the global academic community.

That is the false choice he offers. Either stay silent or boycott Israeli academics.

Perhaps Steven Rose has been playing tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum for too long with Melanie Philips on the Moral Maze. Melanie says Israel never does anything wrong; Steven denounces Israel as a "racist apartheid state".

But this issue is too important to decide in the manner of a Radio 4 game show.

We should neither stay silent about Israel's systematic violence, nor should we be satisfied by the counter-productive, passive, moralistic gesture politics of the academic boycott.

The President of Birzeit University, Nabeel Kassis, was in Britain last October telling how hard conditions were for academics and students under the occupation. He asked for our support, he demanded an end to the Israeli occupation, he asked for UK pressure on the Israeli government; he did not call for a boycott of fellow academics. Some serious and brave UK academics teach part of the year in Birzeit. That is positive support, that is solidarity. Some UK academics bring Israeli and Palestinian students to the UK, build bridges and educate young people. Some people in Britain send books, material support and equipment to Palestinian universities. That too is solidarity; solidarity rather than denunciation; solidarity rather than weaving fantasies of a simple world where there are only goodies and baddies.

The President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh speaks clearly and eloquently against the campaign to boycott his Jewish colleagues on the other side of his city. Nusseibeh asks for academics to come to Al Quds to teach, to help, to show solidarity. Nusseibeh asks for help for the Al Quds medical school that is short of funds, expertise and specifically dialysis machines. Al Quds university needs books. Don't stay silent, don't boycott Israeli Jews, do something to help Palestinians.

Steven Rose recycles a number of libels and half-truths from last year's failed and rejected boycott campaign in the AUT but he is smart enough to leave out the specifics this year. Last year when his campaign accused Haifa University of being a racist institution, this sorry package of libels nearly bankrupted our union; when the boycott campaign falsely accused the Hebrew University of building its new dorm block on occupied land it exposed AUT to an equally serious libel threat. Israeli higher education is not segregated. Both Haifa University and Hebrew University have about 20 per cent Arab students and have significant numbers of Arab faculty members. This is a rate of inclusion of minorities that would shame many elite British institutions.

Another of Steven Rose's misrepresentations is that "Israeli academics as a community - with some brave exceptions - are at best silent and at worst open in their advocacy" on Israel's immoral and illegal acts. The truth is that the universities are spaces in Israel where conflict is pursued through words and ideas rather than guns and bombs. They are amongst the most anti-racist spaces in Israel, spaces where ideas for peace are forged, taught and practised. Some academics will indeed be right wing, some may be profoundly reactionary. That is the nature of an open, democratic and free education system. It is a system that also guarantees a safe tenured chair for the extreme anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, even when he calls upon the world to boycott his own colleagues and his own institution. This is a list of hundreds of Israeli academics - hardly Rose's "brave exceptions" - that publicly support those of their students who refuse to serve in the Israeli army in the occupied territories. The Oslo peace process, destroyed by Israeli and Arab extremists, was forged by links between Israeli and Palestinian academics.

Last year there were debates in the universities up and down the UK in which academics seriously considered proposals for a boycott of their Israeli colleagues. Not one AUT branch backed the boycott. Not one. This year there have been only one or two discussions at NATFHE branches; the current proposals to draw up a blacklist of Israelis are pushed by a small coterie of activists who have not been mandated by the academics they claim to represent. The NATFHE Israel boycotters never bothered to ask their members what they think.

And make no mistake, a blacklist is what is proposed. "Conference invites members to consider... the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves" from "Israeli apartheid policies...". It is another half-truth in Steven Rose's piece when he claims that this is a boycott of Israeli institutions rather than individual academics. This boycott would be directed against Israeli Jewish individuals. Arab and Christian academics at Israeli institutions would be exempted under the political test. A handful of anti-Zionist Jews who chose to jump through the hoops held up by the boycott campaign would be exempted. Jews would be challenged to demonstrate their political cleanliness. An academic boycott would mean that UK based academic journals would refuse to publish papers from Israelis researching or teaching in Israel. Israelis would be excluded from academic conferences. Israelis would be disbarred from taking parts in joint projects with UK academics. Israeli Jews that refused to identify themselves as anti-Zionists would be punished for the actions of their government in a way that no other academic on the planet is punished - at least by people claiming to be antiracists and on the left.

What does Steven Rose mean when he says that "the academic boycott movement is growing as a personal moral and political act"? He means that he has given up the campaign for a collective, democratic, openly organised and regulated boycott by our trade unions and he is now satisfied by encouraging secret squalid little acts of discrimination against Israeli Jews. Mona Baker, an academic in Manchester, sacked her "friends" Dr Miriam Shlesinger and Professor Gideon Toury from the editorial board of an academic journal because they worked for Israeli universities. Both have long track records of publicly campaigning against racism and human rights abuses. Is Rose claiming that there is a growing number of similar individual exclusions that are being carried out in secret? This is the antithesis of the proud, open and public tradition of solidarity in the trade union movement. But it is exactly what his website is encouraging when it suggests that people email for advice on how to discriminate against Israelis "by private actions without wishing to be publicly identified." (Click on "Advice" after entering the BRICUP website.)

AUT and NATFHE are currently at the sharp end of a dispute. When the government demanded fees from our students it did so by arguing that this was the only way to pay university staff properly. So we are currently refusing to take part in examinations in order to insist that some of that money goes into our salaries. We don't know how long it will hold or whether we will win. We need unity. The "academic Intifada" does not bring unity to our unions and it does not help us to win this important dispute. Some academics are less willing than they might have been to take a lead from our unions because they think that AUT and NATFHE are posturing, Israel-hating organisations rather than real trade unions in which we collectively defend ourselves. The Israeli academic union is supporting us in this dispute.

The campaign for our unions to boycott Israel does damage to our unity and our strength. If this proposal was passed in NATFHE, it would do damage to the current dispute and it would put into doubt the merger of the two academic unions. Many members would simply resign in order to have nothing to do with the squalid policy. Some AUT members would resort to breaking up the unity of the new union.

Not only is our union damagingly split by this moralistic and posturing gesture politics, so is the Palestine Solidarity movement in general. There ought to be a strong and united movement around the world to campaign for a free and democratic Palestine. Most decent people are alienated from the movement that exists by the feeling that it hates Israel more than it loves Palestine. We need to build on the basis of a new kind of language - we need to argue for peace and mutual recognition, not for war against the "oppressors". The boycott campaign gives up on building a Middle East peace movement and replaces it with a lame and symbolic politics of despair and anger.

Steven Rose refers to the election of the Jew-hating, woman-enslaving, gay-murdering, democracy-drowning socialist-loathing Hamas as an act of "audacity". Where are his political bearings as a socialist and as a democrat? Hamas promised war against Israel but is unable either to fight or to win such a war. Instead it sits and watches the people who voted for it suffer. It refuses to renounce its principle that Israel must be made into an Islamic state; it refuses to renounce its view that Jews are responsible for every evil that has ever happened in the world; it responds to the murder of Israelis at a falafel bar by applauding it as a 'martyrdom operation'; and it blames everyone else for the misery of Palestinians.

Steven Rose would not live under a Jihadi Islamist government but he thinks that it was an audacious decision for Palestine. There is a significant stream of contemporary 'anti-imperialism' that routinely adopts this imperialist double-standard: liberty, womens' emancipation and human rights are 'western' inventions, good enough for 'us', but not important for 'the other'. Europe, Israel and the US now have an obligation to make sure that the Palestinians do not starve - and they should take that obligation seriously. Israel needs to withdraw its troops and its settlers from the West Bank and Palestine needs to stop attacking Israelis and to recognise Israel's right to exist. But Steven Rose's faux support for Hamas should make it clear to us where his priorities lie. He is more interested in a collective punishment for Israelis than in doing something positive that might work towards a decent future for Palestine.

As well as punishing Israelis, the boycott has the added bonus of exonerating 'us'. It is a 'not in my name' policy. It appeals to people who have an impossible need to feel themselves to be morally pure even though they live in a dirty world of complexity, conflict and injustice. They want to be able to feel that the corruption of the existing world is not their responsibility. Choosing to punish Israeli academics does not commit them to doing the hard work of changing the world, of building bridges, of making links; it does not take up any time or effort; it saves them from a feeling of complicity in the bad things that go on in the world. The fact that it does worse than nothing for Palestine is neither here nor there.

Steven Rose is contemptuous of those who disagree with him: those fellow academics, trade unionists, socialists, liberals and Jews who oppose his blacklist. He delegitimises any opposition with the buzzword of the moment, 'Israel lobby'; he characterises those who disagree with him as "pathetic groupuscules of Zionist fellow travellers". How seamlessly Rose slips into the language of the McCarthyite blacklist. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that academics know how to spot a lousy argument. Instead, he smears those that oppose him as a "lobby", convinced that his own case is so devastating that his defeat can only be explained by the intervention of an unstopposable and demonic conspiracy.

Rose says that "to achieve peace with justice must be the goal" but his proposal hinders both peace and justice. His proposal does nothing positive, it splits people campaigning against the occupation, it divides those fighting for peace and justice, it licenses a visceral hatred of Israel, it legitimates discrimination against Israelis and it hinders solidarity with the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements. It also damages our unions and our current dispute. I hope that delegates reject motion 198c at NATFHE conference.

David Hirsh
Lecturer in Sociology,
Goldsmiths College, University of London

This piece is also posted on Comment is free. (Guardian)