On 22 April, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), at its conference, voted to impose an academic boycott on two Israeli universities. The decision has led to legal objections, on grounds of which the AUT has told its members to hold off from any action until they receive guidelines from the union; and to demands by some AUT members for a special conference to reconsider.
Leading supporters of the 22 April decision have long argued for a complete academic boycott of all Israeli universities.
David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths College London, coordinated a letter to the Guardian opposing the boycott proposal. He explains his views here.
The picture I have of the debate at the AUT conference, which I'm trying to confirm, is unbelievable. There were very emotional speeches in favour of the boycott, and the president ruled that, due to lack of time, there would be no speeches against.
We agree with the pro-boycotters on opposition to some of what the Israeli state does - opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to the sometimes brutal behaviour of the Israeli government and army, and to the way in which academic freedom in Palestine is severely limited by the occupation.
We don't agree with them on how to oppose those things. We are for making stronger links between Palestinian and Israeli and British and global academia. At City University London there is something called the Olive Tree Project, where Israeli and Palestinian students are being taught side by side under scholarships. We're interested in that kind of engagement.
We want to do joint academic work with people who are opposing the occupation. We want to link with the sizeable section of Israeli academics, thinkers, teachers, artists, and musicians who are against the occupation and against racism.
I was speaking the other day to an Israeli academic who is also an activist. His position is that the boycott is lazy. The work that we have to do in building solidarity is harmed by a boycott, which may be designed to make us feel better, but won't help.
The boycott is ineffective, and it is tactically counterproductive. But beyond that the question is, why has the AUT chosen to boycott Israeli universities and no other universities in the world?
A legitimate reason might be if Israeli academia was the least free in the world, or Israel was responsible for the worst human rights abuses in the world. That is not the case. I could list a whole number of much less academically free universities, and much more serious human rights abuses.
So why has the AUT chosen to boycott Jewish academics in Israel because of the actions of their state, and no other academics in the world?
We are setting up a website called Engage, at www.liberoblog.com, as a forum for discussing, organising, and educating about the issues concerned with the boycott.
Engage has three central elements:
- to oppose the idea of an academic or cultural boycott of Israel;
- to encourage and facilitate positive links between Israeli, Palestinian, British, and global academia;
- and to stand up against anti-semitism in our universities, in our unions, and in our student unions.
Opposing the sometimes brutal actions of the Israeli army is not anti-semitic; but sometimes anti-Zionism is anti-semitic.
Following the events last month at the conference of the National Union of Students and the [AUT] boycott decision, it is time that this issue was raised clearly.
The case for a boycott
The British Committee for Universities of Palestine, a body campaigning for the boycott, has published this statement, written by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, to comment on the AUT decision.
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the UK voted in its Council meeting today to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities and to disseminate to all its chapters our Call for Boycott of Israeli academic institutions¦ Finally, boycotting Israeli institutions, as a morally and politically sound response to Israel's crimes, is on the mainstream agenda in the west; and no one can ignore it now¦
The taboo has been shattered, at last. From now on, it will be acceptable to compare Israel's apartheid system to its South African predecessor. As a consequence, proposing practical measures to punish Israeli institutions for their role in the racist and colonial policies of their state will no longer be considered beyond the pale. Israeli academic institutions will no longer be able to share in the crime while enjoying international cooperation and support.
Most importantly, Israel will start losing its so far assured impunity, its exceptional status as a state above the law, a country that considers itself unaccountable before the international community of nations¦
Boycott undermines fight for workers' unity
Camila Bassi, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, initiated the first statement of protest against the boycott, from an avowedly left-wing and socialist viewpoint.
The protest will be published in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 29 April, and is available online.
On Friday 22 April, a vote was rushed through the Association of University Teachers' (AUT) Council in Eastbourne to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
It was masked as a "selective" boycott of two universities, one of which has built an offshoot in the Occupied Territories. Yet, no sooner had was it passed than the pro-boycotters seized the impetus to call on the union to boycott further Israeli universities.
For Marxists, consistent democrats and campaigners for the Israeli withdrawal out of the Occupied Territories, who demand the right for Palestinians to form an independent state alongside Israel, this boycott is extremely worrying.
A proud pro-boycott agitator, Sue Blackwell of AUT Birmingham, declared to the BBC soon after the vote: "Most Israeli academics serve in the army's reserve forces. Most support the state's suppression of the Palestinians or at least don't speak out against it."
It is through these words that the synthetic politics of a boycott campaign begin to reveal themselves. Precisely who is to be blamed for Sharon's right-wing repressive government? Precisely what is advocated in place of a consistently democratic resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
I suspect that, in part, we are witnessing a politics that refuses to distinguish between illegitimate Israeli state repression in the Occupied Territories and the right of Israel to exist as a legitimate nation-state. Even the most well-meaning of those advocating a boycott of Israeli academia can surely not avoid the fact that such a boycott inevitably slips into, and fuels, a wider synthetic politics that blames all Israeli Jews for the repression of Palestinians.
A concession is apparently offered to some Israeli Jews if they are willing publicly to denounce Zionism. Yet herein lies a further problem. How does one define the multiple forms of Zionism? Is all Zionism racist, or was Zionism a movement for a Jewish homeland that gained resonance during the mass extermination of Jews during the Second World War and which included both reactionary right-wing and "assimilationist" and socialist elements?
As Marxists, are we to forget the words of Trotsky on the Jewish question, that "[i]n the epoch of its rise, capitalism took Jewish people out of the ghetto and utilised them as instruments in its commercial expansion. [In the wake of Nazism] decaying capitalist society [strove] to squeeze the Jewish people from all its pores?" Do we smudge out particular pages of history to achieve a convenient representation of Israeli Jews as the epitome of imperialism?
Some on the left, like the SWP, support boycotts of Israel - and on anti-war demonstrations refuse to dispute placards and rants by Hamas supporters of "Jews to the Sea", "Death to Israel". But we must be ready to challenge a sweeping demonisation of Israeli Jews, which denounces Jewish chauvinists but not Arab chauvinists, US-allied imperialism but not Islamic fundamentalism.
In the debate leading up to the vote at the AUT Council and since, there has been much talk of "academic freedom". Pro-boycotters have suggested that it is preposterous to talk of the loss of academic freedom for Israeli academics when Palestinians live under such brutally oppressive conditions. But are boycotts actually effective in achieving their aims? Do boycotts make for good precision tactics?
To both questions, in this instance, I think the answer is "no".
The AUT boycott promises a "knee jerk" reaction on the part of some British academics to offer solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, yet, in the fight for a two-state solution to the conflict - and for long-term Jewish-Arab working class unity - such a political gesture cannot but harm the cause.
Pro-boycotters are also keen to exaggerate the effectiveness of the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa (targeting pro- and anti-apartheid academics alike) over and above the power of black working class militancy.
There were strong arguments at the time against the South African boycott, and certainly the boycott meshed into arguments used to obstruct direct links between British and South African trade unionists.
Moreover, the analogy distorts the long and nuanced history of the Israel-Palestine conflict which is distorted into a direct equivalent of the South African white caste exploiting the black South African majority. A synthetic (and deluded) politics of boycotting substitutes the need for a more sophisticated political campaign.
What can be done by university academics and students in this situation?
A political platform must be mobilised that both opposes the AUT boycott and Sharon's brutal repression of the Palestinians. This platform must be committed to the basics of a socialist programme:
- For consistent democracy;
- For the withdrawal of the Israeli state from the Occupied Territories;
- For the rights to national self-determination of both Palestinians and Israelis;
- Against Jewish chauvinism and Arab chauvinism;
- Against imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism;
- For Jewish-Arab working class unity and trade unionism.