Edition 26 Volume 5 - July 05, 2024

Boycotting Israel

Boycotts will not achieve the goal -   Ian Black

What am I to say to the Israeli I want to interview who replies: "I won't talk to you if your union is boycotting my country"?

The weapon of the weak -   Ghada Karmi

Only by making Israel a pariah state will its people understand they cannot trample on another people's rights without penalty.

Academic boycotts alone are of little use -   Mark Klusener

In South Africa, the academic boycott was backed up by economic, social and sporting sanctions.

Boycotter, boycott thyself -   Alexander Yakobson

Now the good news: they won't break us. Nobody is going to boycott Israeli hi-tech.

Boycotts will not achieve the goal
 Ian Black

In the bad old days, the boycott that mattered in the Middle East was the Arab boycott of Israel. No longer. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo accords with the PLO and world trade rules have left it a shadow of its former self: at a conference in Damascus last year, Arab League officials lamented that it was close to collapse.

Now the boycott is being given a new lease--and new forms--of life, not by Arab governments but by non-state actors from Canada and Norway to South Africa and Ireland. It has been tried in France and Italy. But these days it is Britain that is in the vanguard and at the heart of furious controversy.

Unison, the UK's largest trade union, is backing a total boycott--economic, cultural, academic and sporting--of Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories. University academics (the UCU) and journalists (NUJ) are considering or launching their own campaigns, generating high-octane debate and counter-campaigns by the Israeli government and supporters.

Opposition to the war in Iraq and mounting sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians are common to most European countries. So why does Britain seem to be a special case? Its past role in the region is one answer. So is the triumph of English as the language of globalization. Attitudes toward anti-Semitism may be another, though boycott campaigners hotly deny being anti-Semites. Steven and Hilary Rose (themselves Jews), who pioneered the academic boycott in 2024, call it "grotesquely hyperbolic" to compare measures against Israel with the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops. "If the supporters of the Israeli government cannot distinguish between being opposed to Israeli state policy and being anti-Semitic, it is scarcely surprising that real anti-Semites conflate the two," they argue.

Still, counter their critics, sensitivity to perceptions of anti-Semitism may be weaker in Britain than in continental Europe. (The UK, unlike Germany, France and Austria, does not outlaw Holocaust denial.) Yet a recent poll of British opinion formers for a pro-Israeli group showed that while 38 percent believed boycotters were anti-Semitic, 62 percent did not.

This suggests that even opponents accept at face value the campaigns' goal of ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories: their objections are on grounds of fairness and effectiveness (punishing one group for the actions of their government, reinforcing a siege mentality, strengthening the right); and selectivity/exceptionalism (why the exclusive focus on Israel and no boycott of Sudan, China, Iran or Zimbabwe?).

Conventional wisdom has it that boycott campaigns in the UK are driven by a "politicidal" alliance of far-left and Muslim organizations. In fact, the main proponents are academics and trade unionists linked to groups such as the veteran and well-organized Palestine Solidarity Campaign and newer ones such as Jews for the Boycotting of Israeli Goods and the British Committee for Universities of Palestine.

Another significant factor is the success in Britain of the campaign against apartheid where boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment played a major role. "Universities are to Israel what the Springboks were to South Africa: the symbol of their national identity," in the words of one UCU activist. Much hinges on whether a distinction is made between Israel in its pre-1967 borders and the territories--the nub of the argument between a two-state and a one-state solution to the conflict. If it is, it is logical to boycott the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel or to target the produce of settlements beyond the "green line".

Opposition to the Iraq war and dislike for Tony Blair's subservient relationship with George Bush have merged with the "root causes" view that more must be done to achieve a just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both for its own sake and to defuse Muslim resentment over perceived double standards. This is a debate in which "it's western foreign policy, stupid" is posited against the claim that "Muslims hate our values and freedoms."

Yet perceptions of Israel were changing long before the pivotal moment of the 9/11 attacks: the route from David to Goliath after 1967 is a familiar one, through the 1982 war in Lebanon, the first intifada and the narrative shift by Israel's "revisionist" historians. Daphna Baram traced this process in her study of the Guardian's coverage of Israel, succinctly entitled "Disenchantment". Disenchantment for some is demonization and de-legitimization for others. The debate over Israel's "security barrier"/"apartheid wall" and this year's 40th anniversary of the 1967 war have been galvanizing factors too.

Beyond the specifics of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the boycott phenomenon reflects a shift to political activism by citizens who see themselves as members of global civil society struggling to achieve what powerful governments and multinational corporations cannot or will not do. Environmental and anti-globalization campaigns are fueled by the same impulses.

And so the boycott/backlash debate rages on. The NUJ decision is being challenged by some of the union's own members, myself included: my view is that the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is an existential (and increasingly urgent) need for both peoples but that blanket boycotts will not help achieve that goal. And leaving politics aside, what am I as a journalist to say to the Israeli (or Sudanese, Chinese, Iranian or Zimbabwean) I want to interview but who replies: "I won't talk to you if your union is boycotting my country"?- Published 5/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ian Black is Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper.

The weapon of the weak
 Ghada Karmi

Boycotts are the weapons of the weak in conflicts. Their chief importance lies in their ability to raise public awareness and arouse disapproval. Yet, going by the paranoid reaction to the academic boycott of Israel, it might as well have been a declaration of nuclear war. No peaceable action in recent times has provoked so much anger and hostility as this British-based boycott.

In the wake of the British University and College Union's vote at its annual general meeting on May 30 to initiate a national debate on boycotting Israeli academic institutions, a wave of hysteria engulfed Israel and its friends. Articles appeared, before and after the vote, denouncing the UCU resolution and its initiators, and heated correspondence is still ongoing. Threats were made against members of the boycott group by pro-Israel organizations and individuals, and campaigns were mounted to defeat the boycott. Costly one-page advertisements appeared in The Times and The Guardian carrying scores of eminent signatories opposing the boycott.

Photographs of the boycott's "ringleaders", like those of wanted criminals, appeared on the front page of the major British Jewish weekly, The Jewish Chronicle, which also carried a distressed article by Britain's chief rabbi condemning the boycott as an anti-Semitic "witch-hunt". The Daily Mail's Jewish columnist Melanie Phillips declared "the age of reason" over. The Jewish-American lawyer and fierce warrior for Israel Alan Derschowitz has teamed up with his British counterpart, Anthony Julius to take legal action against British supporters of the boycott. While this would not be valid in British law, its aim is clearly to intimidate.

The fuss has not abated yet and more battles lie ahead this autumn as pressure is put on the UCU to ballot its members individually in the hope they will reject the motion passed by conference.

Two major misconceptions lie at the base of this response, both deliberately fostered. The first misconception is that the boycott is aimed against Israeli academic individuals, and the second, and more important, that it is anti-Semitic.

With regards to the first misconception, the boycott in fact calls for a ban on dealings with Israeli academic institutions, for example, not participating in joint research, conferences or other collaboration with them. In a malicious misrepresentation of this position, opponents claim that the boycott will end the free exchange of ideas with individual Israelis and encourage discrimination against them in British academia. By suppressing "free speech", this would end any hope of change in Israel's policies that academics could have brought about, an erroneous argument that has galvanized opposition in Britain to the boycott.

The second charge of anti-Semitism follows closely on this. The allegation is that the real reason for the boycott is hatred of Jews, a new outbreak of an old gentile affliction. Nothing is more designed to provoke and mislead than this charge, which, its authors know, antagonizes all Jews and many non-Jews.

In fact of course, the imputation of anti-Semitism is a red herring, as so often when Israel is criticized, and its aim as always is to deflect criticism. In the case of the British boycott committee, it is particularly inapt, since most of the members are Jewish. The campaign started in 2024 with a letter that two British academics, Hilary and Steven Rose, published in The Guardian calling for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions in support of a similar call by Palestinian civil society organizations. These, representing a majority of Palestinian academics and other professionals, had united to form a campaign for boycotting Israel because of its repressive polices against them.

The Guardian letter spearheaded a growing demand for Israel to be called to account for its policies, soon joined by many academics in Europe and beyond. Support was particularly strong in South Africa, which had lived through a similar boycott during the apartheid era, and was especially sympathetic to the boycott's rationale and aims. Since that time, the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel has grown, resulting in the Association of University Teachers' Union voting for a boycott against two Israeli universities at its meeting in 2024. Thanks to a vigorous pro-Israel campaign against it, the decision was overturned within a month. But the issue did not go away, and resulted in the vote for the boycott two years later by the newly formed UCU which had absorbed the AUT.

Academic boycotts are not new to Britain. In 1965, a boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa was initiated by 34 universities in response to a call for solidarity by the African National Congress. After a prolonged British campaign, the boycott was adopted as policy by the AUT in 1988 and remained in place until the end of apartheid.

The academic boycott against Israel is no different. Israel's well-documented repression of Palestinian academic life and victimization of Palestinian teachers and students is a scandal to be denounced by all those who claim to care about academic freedom. Rather than rushing to Israel's defense in a situation so perverse and immoral, all efforts should be directed toward boycotting all Israeli institutions. Only by making Israel a pariah state, as happened with South Africa, will its people understand they cannot trample on another people's rights without penalty.- Published 5/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ghada Karmi is a member of BRICUP and author of "Married to another man: Israel's dilemma in Palestine".

Academic boycotts alone are of little use
 Mark Klusener

The academic boycott of apartheid South Africa is often cited as a model for the current boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The reality is that they could not be more different except in one aspect: such boycotts alone are ineffective.

In South Africa, the academic boycott employed a series of international embargoes on institutions and scholars during the apartheid era. But it was backed up by economic, social and sporting sanctions aimed at isolating what had become a pariah state.

As early as 1964, 496 British professors from some 34 universities signed a declaration protesting against South African policies of exclusion and separation. Proponents of the boycott believed that academics should not be immune from the political and social ills of apartheid.

South African universities--government institutions reliant on state funding--were obliged to follow the law of the land and impose segregation policies along racial lines. Universities and other institutions of higher learning thus became institutions mostly for white South Africans. And as white nationalism grew, numerous Afrikaans-speaking universities sprung up and gained popularity in this period. Such institutions were exclusively for white Afrikaners. Students of other races and language groups were excluded and discouraged from enrolling.

At the time, anti-apartheid cleric Desmond Tutu encouraged the sanctions but said it should not be a blanket boycott on institutions but rather a case-by-case embargo. Tutu nevertheless felt the boycott served to remind so called liberal universities that they were not doing enough to champion the end of segregation in universities.

By 1980 the momentum of the anti-apartheid movement had grown to such an extent that the United Nations called for "academic and cultural institutions to cut links with South Africa".

But there was opposition to the boycott. Opponents from within the anti-apartheid movement felt that the lack of interaction and free flow of ideas was stifling the development of the very people the boycott aimed at helping.

In reality the academic boycott was more of a symbolic gesture then a concrete strategy for ending apartheid. On the contrary, it encouraged the growth of ideas and the development of homegrown technology. Academia thrives in exchanging and debating ideas. Being cut off encouraged South African institutions to resort to more rigorous internal exchanges as well as inter-university exchanges.

Furthermore, in some cases academics were able to maneuver around blockades. Often a third party would be used to exchange ideas and research. Many academics simply ignored the boycott, especially in the field of science. Others imposed their own restrictions on themselves, not bothering to apply or submit work to international bodies.

A survey conducted in 1991 by the University of Illinois found that the academic boycott of South African universities was more of "an irritation then a true obstacle to academic development". The survey concluded that with the exception of making a symbolic gesture the academic boycott had very little true impact in isolating South African institutions of higher education.

It is even less likely that an academic boycott against Israel will succeed. Unlike in South Africa, where the international community, eventually including the United States, endorsed boycotting the racial policies of the apartheid state, there is less cohesion with respect to Israel.

The proposal for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions first appeared in a newspaper article in 2024 in which academics Steven and Hilary Rose called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel. Three years later, the British based Association of University Teachers, which was then the trade union representing teachers and professors, launched a boycott of two Israeli universities. But the backlash from the Jewish Diaspora was so severe that the boycott lasted less than a month.

Changing its tactic, the same trade union, which later changed its name to University and College Union, tried a more subtle approach. It called on academic institutions to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions".

But such a boycott will fail. Universities in the US have not backed their British counterparts and there has not been widespread condemnation, in contrast to the case of South Africa. The international Jewish lobby--considerably more effective then the pro-apartheid lobby ever was--has been quick to overturn any attempt at punitive sanctions. Israel's strong historic and economic links with the United States make it practically untouchable.

An academic boycott of Israel in isolation is never going to achieve its goal. Even the hope of a symbolic gesture of defiance is unlikely to do more then draw unwelcome comparisons with academic boycotts in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Any academic boycott will be ineffective if it is applied in isolation: it needs to be backed up with economic and social sanctions.- Published 5/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Klusener is a South African journalist currently living and working in Ramallah. He started his career in the the early 1990s in South Africa and has worked for various South African and international media organizations for the past decade.

Boycotter, boycott thyself
 Alexander Yakobson

It is often asked, in response to the (mainly academic) boycott against Israel, why Israel is being singled out while countries with an indisputably worse human rights record, such as Iran, Sudan or China, are left alone. The question makes sense, though the comparison is hardly complimentary to Israel.

However, an even more pertinent question arises: why don't the boycotters start by boycotting their own country--in most cases Britain, as well as its closest ally, the United States? Why are we not seeing British and American universities boycotted? If a full-fledged self-boycott is somewhat impractical, why, at the very least, are British and American academics not required, on pain of academic excommunication, to renounce Bush/Blair/Brown and all their works? This could easily be arranged, and would surely help foster a healthy atmosphere of self-criticism and open-mindedness in British academic life. Assuming that the supporters of boycott take their own rhetoric even half-seriously, there is simply no rational explanation why they don't begin the charity of boycott at home.

The leaders of the boycott campaign and no doubt most of their supporters don't just believe that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a political mistake, or even merely a violation of international law. They regard it as a crime against humanity, no less. They blame Bush and Blair for many tens of thousands--perhaps hundreds of thousands--of Iraqi dead (including many thousands of children whose death is blamed on the sanctions prior to the war). These figures exceed considerably the total number of casualties on both sides throughout the entire history of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Most people killed in the Middle East in recent decades have, of course, been Muslims and Arabs killed by Muslims and Arabs. Blaming all the carnage in Iraq on Bush and Blair is, needless to day, silly and unfair, whatever one thinks of the decision to go to war. But this is what those people profess. How then can they justify boycotting Israel and not the US and UK?

It might perhaps be argued that the Iraq war, however horrible, has yet to become a "chronic disease" on a par with an Israeli occupation that has lasted for decades. That Israel had no peace prior to the occupation, and has been repeatedly attacked from every piece of land it has handed over to the Palestinians, either by agreement or unilaterally, since the beginning of the peace process--this, naturally, is something unmentionable in polite society.

In many respects, then, including "collateral damage" to civilians, the comparison with the Iraq war is unfair to Israel. Be that as it may, the American government is blamed, vilified and demonized by the people in question for much more than Iraq. They regard America as the principle source of evil in our world for many decades. Countless sins, disasters and crimes from every corner of the globe are laid at America's doorstep--including, of course, the Israeli occupation itself and every other Zionist iniquity. Are these not sustained by Uncle Sam? Why, then, not boycott him?

Noam Chomsky once remarked that it would have been far more logical to boycott American universities than Israeli ones. The former friend of the Khmer Rouge and the admirer of Hizballah is no friend of Israel. But the obsessive, nauseating hatred of Israel, so popular in certain European circles, is not his cup of tea. One recalls the method of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism suggested by Chaim Baram, a radical Israeli journalist who does little apart from criticize Israel: someone who says that Israel is an agent of American imperialism is a legitimate critic, but someone who says that America is a puppet of Israel and international Zionism is an anti-Semite. Chomsky takes the first option; the British boycotters act in a way that points in the direction of the second--assuming, that is, that these people have the courage of their convictions, however misguided.

But perhaps this is too much to assume. Certainly, an anti-Israel boycott is a much cheaper way to demonstrate one's affiliation with the Forces of Progress than an anti-American one. But whatever mixture of ideas, emotions and calculations drives these people, one thing is clear: the anti-Israel boycott cannot be justified by reference to universal principles. It is an entirely particularistic attack on the Jewish state.

Now the good news: they won't break us. Nobody is going to boycott Israeli hi-tech. Economic ties and research cooperation between Israel and the European Union have grown steadily closer in recent years, in step with the calls for boycott. Most British academics will surely ignore the boycott. The boycotters will, no doubt, succeed in harming some Israeli scholars. This is a pity. They will also remind all Israeli academics, however critical of their government, that it is not merely the policies of their government but their country and their people that are under attack. This is not necessarily a bad thing.- Published 5/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alexander Yakobson is a senior lecturer in the Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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