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Jonathan Rosenhead's speech to the Leeds University Debate on BDS on 19 March 2014

This House believes that UK academics should join the movement for academic boycott by refusing to engage with any Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the Occupation and abides by international law       
 - speech in favour of the motion by Jonathan Rosenhead

I have to start by some unpacking. Evidently I need to argue why academic boycott is relevant and important, and to do this I need to explain the significance of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a whole. That leads us to the question of “Why Israel?”, or in its fuller version “Why pick on Israel?”. That last question in turn carries with it the suggestion that if we look for antisemitism as the cause of this selectivity we won’t go far wrong. So – a whole interconnected nest of questions and issues.

There is not time to develop fully, or in some cases at all, a range of other arguments relevant to the motion. I will barely mention the array of inhumane Israeli policies that recruit so many people to boycott; the possible effects of BDS on internal Israeli politics; the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian academic life; and more. [In the debate several of these were addressed by the seconder of the motion Dr Sue Blackwell.]

What is boycott?
Boycott is a non-violent tactic available collectively to those who are otherwise weak. It was first made explicit, and gained its name, from the struggle of Irish tenant farmers in the later 19th century against the brutal agent for an absentee English landlord. They withheld from him not only their labour but also all other services, and in short order Captain Boycott was sent packing back to England.
The idea was further developed in the 20th century to include consumer boycotts. In the 1950s both in Montgomery Alabama and in Alexandra in South Africa, refusal by the local black population to use the bus system brought victory – respectively desegregation, and the rolling back of a punitive fare increase. Soon afterwards in another mutation, consumer boycott was employed not by those who were under the cosh, but by others who could support them by selectively withholding their purchasing power. The California grape boycott, and the actions especially by students against Barclays Bank, were both variants on this approach.

The direct mechanism of all of these burgeoning forms of collective withholding were financial – the boycott targets would suffer financially and so have an incentive to cut a deal good enough to call off the boycotters. What then are we to make of those apparently more esoteric forms which developed from the 1960s – academic, cultural and sports boycotts? Though there were costs to some of their boycott targets they were relatively negligible, certainly not such as to divert a nation state (as opposed, say, to a mere university) from its chosen course. Yet it was precisely in such a struggle that they were first employed, that against apartheid South Africa. And the academic, cultural and sporting boycotts of South Africa are generally credited with playing a significant role in undermining that noxious regime.

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions as a political strategy
None of academic, cultural and sporting boycott, nor the three of them combined, can bring down a system of government with a thriving economy, effective armed forces, and the willingness to use them as brutally as necessary. How then can these boycotts nevertheless play a role in just such a positive transformation?
Evidently an active international boycott movement can provide heartening evidence to an oppressed people that they are not forgotten by the external world. Boycott can also provide the committed with day-to-day personal reminders of the unresolved issue, and generate practical activities that bring people together and cement the solidarity movement. So far so good.
It gets better. Each boycott activity is an opportunity for political education in society as a whole. Campaigns in the streets, in the press, in the theatre or in the university provide a forum where the violation of human rights and international law can be explained, and dramatised.

We are talking about Israel here, so let me be specific. Our governments (of whatever party, and indeed whatever Western country) have been supporting Israel wrong or wrong, even as Israel’s actions have become more outrageous. The mobilisation of civil society through these boycott campaigns that bring the issue into the high streets and work places has the aim of building such a pressure that even our governments will need to pay some heed.
Those practicing boycott should not do so because it makes them feel more virtuous, or not only for that reason. BDS would be a self-indulgence if it were only a moral, even quixotic gesture. It will be able to effect history, and even prevail, only if it is, or is embedded in, a coherent strategy of change

The South African analogy
How might that work in practice? Here we have the South African example as a possible model. Over time the incessant and growing campaigns over its iniquitous political system changed the common understanding of that country. From being an upstanding, English speaking, cricket playing stalwart of the British Commonwealth, its position was gradually degraded to that of international pariah.

This change did not just affect Guardian readers. Businesses, here and around the world took notice of this general shift in perception, and although their leaders may not always have done so for principled reasons they started to have doubts about investing in South Africa, and even began disposing of the assets that they already had in that country. In other words, at first hesitantly and then in a growing stream, divestment from South Africa took hold. It came to seem like an unsafe place to do business. So B(oycott) was followed by  D(ivestment), which did have a direct and increasing impact on the South African economy. Boycott had generated what sociologists call an “emergent norm” which transformed the field of ideas about how South Africa should be viewed and treated.
With the general public in so many places expressing their views on the country, and with the business community significantly voting with its feet, the bulwarks against governmental action began to crumble. National and even international S(anctions) were put in place. And the intransigent Boers came to realise that they only had limited time, and did the best deal they could with the African National Congress.

Boycott is not a quick fix. It took 30 years from the start of the boycott until South Africa was free. The achievements of the Israeli boycott are already substantial, but stamina will be required if it is to fulfil its potential.

History doesn’t play out the same way twice, or at any rate it cannot be relied upon to do so. And of course Israel is not South Africa – they differ in natural resources, population, social structure, resources, geo-political location….   Israel doesn’t have Table Mountain, game parks, Black Mambazo, gold mines and so on. So if people draw parallels between Israel and South Africa it can only be on a restricted number of features.

The first parallel is the existence of a dominant group defined along racial lines that monopolises effective power, and maintains it through a network of administrative controls backed up by racially-oriented legislation and muscular, even brutal enforcement. To put it simply, apartheid.

Secondly the Israeli economy and culture, like those of South Africa, are open to those of the Western developed nations, and are indeed thoroughly enmeshed with them. This is a strength of Israel’s position, but also a point of strategic vulnerability to boycott. Boycott practiced by us as citizens can impact on them in ways that more isolated societies (think North Korea) would be immune from.

What makes Israel a Boycott target?
I take it that those interested in participating in this debate will already know about this sad track record. But I should at least mention

  • the illegal Occupation
  • the historical and continuing ethnic cleansing
  • the refusal of the internationally mandated right of return of refugees
  • systematic discrimination against Palestinians inside pre-’67 Israel
  • regular, routine and sometimes extreme violence

Throughout this 60+ year saga Israel has had the unwavering support of our governments. It is this impunity which places the responsibility for action on civil society. Just as in South Africa, the request for boycott has come from the representatives of civil society there. There is one difference however – the type of academic and cultural boycott requested from Palestine (in 2004) is far milder than that which was asked for and embraced in the case of South Africa.

Institutional academic boycott
The South African boycott was individual – for example South African academics were turned away from registering at some academic conferences. By contrast the Israeli boycott is institutional, targeting universities through their formal activities. We are enjoined not to publish papers in their journals, attend conferences held there, participate in their recruitment and promotion procedures etc. There is no impediment to the exchange of ideas, only to business as usual.

The aim of academic boycott is not the reform of Israel’s universities. Certainly were one or more of those universities to end their discrimination against Palestinian students and in favour of those who have served in the IDF; to offer some restitution for the requisitioned Palestinian land on which they are partly built; to campaign against the restrictions which obstruct Palestinian higher education; and to offer a principled critique of Israel’s expansionist policies and violations of international law – then they would be welcomed to the side of the righteous. They might even, logically, support academic boycott, as the courageous members of Boycott from Within do. But as of now the reality is that no university, no staff association or any other body associated with an Israeli university has adopted a single one of these positions.

In fact although it might seem conceptually possible for Israel’s universities to become liberal islands within an otherwise unchanged Israel, this is in effect a pipe dream. The Occupation has lasted for nearly 50 years, and the West Bank and Israel are now in effect one system. All Israel’s institutions are not so much complicit with as deeply embedded in Israel’s expansionist project. The universities serve the state in many ways – providing policy advice, performing R&D for the military, offering courses for the Shin Beth etc. So to achieve a whole new university system needs a whole new Israel.

The aim of boycott then is not modification of the posture of Israeli universities. Academic boycott is a component of the BDS strategy as a whole, and it will continue while it is needed and requested by Palestinian civil society. The demands of Palestine’s Boycott National Committee and of PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) are for the ending of the Occupation, the right of return for refugees, and the ending of discrimination within pre-1967 Israel. It is the extent of progress on these issues that will determine the continuation or termination of the academic boycott

Why pick on Israel?
This is the most frequent query, in the form of an accusation, that the boycott movement faces. Boycott opponents say “Many other countries are worse. Why don’t you go after them?” It would seem that only perversity or prejudice could target the lesser offender while ignoring the more serious.

In this formulation there is however an embedded assumption: that there is an ordered list of ignominy that we all consensually share. This is a far-fetched assumption. Different people for all sorts of reasons – family ties, political or religious beliefs, even eccentricities of thought - are moved to action by different causes. These can easily be sufficient to motivate some people to organise in support of an international cause that is well down other peoples’ lists.
Yet there is another fatal flaw in the ‘why pick on Israel?’ argument. Most people (now, but not so overwhelmingly then) see the South African boycott as legitimate, even admirable. Yet right in the centre of that campaign, from 1975 to 1979, was the period of the Cambodian killing fields in which perhaps 2 million perished. Doubtless there should have been more international action, and protest, than there was. But surely no one would say that the Cambodian atrocities made the boycott campaign against apartheid invalid or illegitimate. One certainly cannot say, could not have said, ‘go boycott Cambodia first’. Boycott was not an appropriate tactic/strategy for Cambodia. Boycott what, exactly?

The openness of a society to our own systems is one of the pre-requisites for a successful boycott campaign. And there is another factor. Israel is, as apartheid South Africa was, ‘one of ours’. All those other atrocity-laden states that anti-boycotters like to cite as targets of preference are, like Cambodia was, already subject to criticism, condemnation or sanctions from out governments. In Israel, however, impunity rules. That puts a special responsibility on civil to society to take the necessary steps to activate the conscience that our governments seem to have mislaid.

Antisemitic?
Boycott opponents often say, in effect “OK, I agree that Israel isn’t perfect. But you are only doing what you are doing because you are antisemitic”.
“Oops” I say “but I am Jewish.”

“Ahah” they say “you are obviously one of those loathsome self-hating Jews that tries to curry favour with our race enemies by attacking your own”. Or words very much to that effect.

The argument is of course entirely circular. No criticisms of Israel, whoever makes them, can be legitimate. Such utterances, it seems, clearly demonstrate one or other of these mental deformities, which means they can be dismissed as the fulminations of a diseased mind.

Antisemitism certainly exists. (I am not so sure about self-hating Jewhood.) The Palestine solidarity movement, in all its diverse forms, recognises the need for vigilance. There could be nothing so destructive of the campaign’s momentum as an authenticated charge of antisemitism. But there is more than self-preservation in this concern. The membership of the movement is solidly progressive, with an anti-colonialist and anti-racist backbone. Antisemitism is abhorred by the movement’s members as a particular form of racism with a long and dishonourable history,

The calculated, for it surely is, routine use of the antisemitism gambit is a dangerous as well as a malicious slander. Why do they do it? The crude and sometimes effective reasoning, is that it can divert discussion away from the critique of Israel’s policies, and instead towards the motivation of the critics. Its aim is to put those who dare to criticise Israel on the defensive. It is as intellectually dishonest as it is unscrupulous.

That is not quite all that there is to say on this subject. The antisemitic trope is rolled out time after time after time by Israel’s supporters. As in the case of the little boy who cried “Wolf!”, the result can only be a long-term reduction in alertness to the real danger. Antisemitism exists, still. Those who miscall it so frequently are, in effect, antisemitism’s best friend.

Last word
In Summer 2013 the scientist Stephen Hawking withdrew from Israel’s Presidential Conference convened by President Shimon Peres. Here’s what he said in his message of withdrawal:
I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinions on the prospects for a Peace Settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.

BRICUP

 

Page last updated March 30, 2014