Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another British Boycott

Israeli universities are under attack
(Photo: Ben Gurion University, June 2006)

UPDATE: I highly recommend Judy's blog, Adloyada, for her coverage of the boycott. She predicted that a boycott motion would be passed, and has some background on the union personalities pro and contra the resolution. She also notes some of the obfuscatory statements by anti-boycott groups, who claim that the motion will be subjected to balloting by all members, hence preventing it from being adopted as policy. On the other hand, she argues that no respectable universities will actually implement such a boycott, and that we should all take a pill. Check out these links - you are unlikely to get this kind of scoop anywhere else.

On Wednesday, delegates at a congress of the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain passed a motion that calls for the circulation, among the trade union's branches, of a Palestinian appeal to impose an academic boycott on Israel. As far as I can tell from the union's rather opaque press release, the branches will eventually have to approve the boycott for it go into effect.

This appears to be the text of the resolution passed at the congress:
In3 Composite: Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (University of Brighton, Grand Parade; University of East London, Docklands)

Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.

Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.

Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.

Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.

Congress instructs the NEC to
  • circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
  • encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
  • organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
  • issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.
Clearly, something is rotten in the state of British academia for such a motion to have passed once again. I do not intend here to demonstrate why Israel should merit not be boycotted by British academics, as the onus really ought to be on those behind this vile measure to prove their case. Perhaps most galling is the obvious injustice of singling out Israel, among all the nations of the world, as the one target deserving of this kind. But the simplistic, one-sided, and self-exculpatory nature of this resolution is also striking.

The first two paragraphs pin all the blame for the hardships suffered by Palestinian civilians, including the "denial of educational rights," on Israel. This is a willful and immoral distortion of the truth. The shootings, closures, and curfews to which the bill refers do not take place in a vacuum; they are responses to acts of terror against Israeli civilians. One may argue about whether specific measures are justified or not, but this resolution assumes from the start that all of Israel's actions are illegitimate. In other words, according to the framers of this motion, Israel's attempts to protect and defend its citizens from murderous attacks - designed specifically to kill Israeli civilians - are a priori immoral. Surely, this is perverse and itself worthy of moral condemnation.

The third paragraph then goes on to make all of Israeli academia complicit in Israel's alleged crimes. This, of course, is charge on which the call for an academic boycott hangs. Many people have made counter-arguments to the effect that a significant number of Israeli academics actually oppose "the occupation." While this happens to be true, such a counter-argument concedes far too much to a position that ought to be resisted with outrage and moral fortitude, rather than feeble apologetics.

As I have suggested above, blanket condemnation of Israeli actions in the territories is itself morally suspect, as it enjoins the state from protecting its citizens. However, even more dubious is the charge that Israeli universities and colleges as a whole are complicit "in the occupation." Israeli universities do not determine government policy. Even if a professor in the department of molecular biology at Hebrew University reports to reserve duty at a checkpoint in the West Bank, that scholar's research and teaching are not complicit in oppression. I was flabbergasted to read the statements of a certain Michael Cushman from LSE, which were reprinted in the Guardian:

During the debate, which lasted well over an hour, Michael Cushman, from the London School of Economics, said: "Universities are to Israel what the springboks were to South Africa: the symbol of their national identity."

Israel wanted to claim it was a normal democratic state and universities were integral to that, Mr Cushman said. "[But] it is not a normal state. They are not normal universities.

"Senior academics move from universities into ministries and back again," he said.

"Regularly, lecturers take up their commissions in the Israeli Defence Force as reserve officers to go into the West Bank to dominate, control and shoot the population."

By Cushman's logic Israeli hospitals, synagogues, and elementary schools are also "complicit" in the occupation. Indeed, as the allusion to the South African rugby team (the Springboks), banned from competition in the 1980s and until 1995, makes clear, this is the logic of the UCU motion: Israel, just like apartheid South Africa, has no legitimacy. Its entire society is criminal. Hence, all of its institutions are somehow involved in that rather abstract entity of "the occupation." In other words, no citizen of Israel is immune from the collective punishment meted out by the UCU or other unions.

The single-minded ascription of all evil in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Israel - indeed, the projection of this evil onto Israeli citizens, whether civilians or combatants - makes one wonder about the preemptive self-defense clause in the last paragraph of the motion. Is there any other people in the world today that this British union would choose to punish in this manner?

The dream of political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a nation with a state like all other nations, not only in order to provide Jews with a haven from antisemitism, but also to end antisemitism tout court, precisely by "normalizing" the Jews. This project has clearly failed. Israel has become the Jew of the nations - on its punishment (or, preferably, destruction), in the minds of today's redeemers of the world, hangs the restoration of cosmic justice.

Interestingly, the following motion did not make it onto the agenda of the congress, because it was received after a March 21, 2007 deadline:
VV Supporting cooperation between the UCU, Palestine, and Israel (Kingston University)

Congress calls for an end to the 40-year Occupation of Palestinian territory, and supports a free and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Preferring cooperation and rapprochement to hostility and exclusion, Congress believes that a boycott of Israeli academics would be counter-productive and harm voices for dialogue.

Reaffirming UCU's commitment to academic freedom and equality, Congress opposes punishing an entire academic sector for the actions of its country’s government – whether Israeli, Palestinian or any other nationality.

Congress resolves that that UCU support cooperative projects that bring together Israeli and Palestinian academia to work towards a peaceful settlement, and to work with Palestinian and Israeli Trade Unions to defend the right of Palestinian students and academics to study free from harassment or unfair restrictions.
I have seen no coverage of the boycott vote in the European press - if someone finds German, French, Italian, or Spanish reports on it, please post the links here. The New York Times has a slightly facetious article about the vote.

The American Jewish Committee is spearheading action against the boycott.


Judy said...

I have commentary on the politics behind the boycott motion here:



and here:

You will find the most extended press coverage of the development on the Guardian and BBC News web site. But in both cases, they draw what they say from the official statements of the UCU and the leading pro and anti boycott activists.

None of them will draw on the political antecedents which I discuss in those posts.

Anonymous said...

The BBc and the Guardian have been cooking this devil brew for about ten years, at least, and are serving it now well done. Asking the BBC and the Guardien about the boycot is like asking H. Ramon about French kissing and O. Glasser about the tender loving care of hospital nurses.