Despite Sue Blackwell’s media notoriety, Hilary Rose is probably the most prominent spokesperson of the movement for an academic boycott of Israel. Her visit to a meeting organised by the Oxford branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in May therefore provided left activists in the city with a valuable opportunity to debate the issues surrounding the boycott intelligently. Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity.
Rose spoke after a passionate twenty-minute speech by a representativefrom the >Friends of Birzeit University, an organisation which campaigns against the disruption and denial of Palestinian students‚ right to education by the Israeli occupation. Everything this speaker said was spot on; what was less reasonable was Rose’s endorsement of his contribution as corroboration of her pro-boycott position, as if opposing Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians automatically means supporting a boycott.
In addition to this totally unjustified assumption, Rose concentrated on in the hoary old claim that Palestine solidarity activists should relate to Israel in the same way as anti-apartheid activists did to South Africa (which seems odd from someone who calls for two states in Palestine, as apparently Rose does, i.e recognises the rights of the Hebrew-speaking Jews to their own state).
Attempts to raise the differences between Israel and South Africa and discuss the difficult nuances of even the South African boycott (should we have boycotted South African universities? what about the ANC’s opposition to direct links between black South African and international trade unions?) were dismissed out of hand by Rose and other pro-boycott speakers.
The meeting then took a turn for the more ridiculous when an SWPer got up to claim that the Palestinians mattered because they were a symbol for the world anti-capitalism, and that any rational considerations must be subordinated to the demands of the “movement”.
Some on the left do support the boycott in good faith; one speaker, for instance, raised the important point that the bulk of Palestinian trade unions are pro-boycott. Those of us who appreciate but disagree with rational arguments such as these need to respond thoughtfully, but at this meeting as so often were prevented from doing so by the sheer volume of anti-Zionist ranting.
This was particularly the case because of appalling chairing by Stephen Marks, a local Labour Party activist so passionately in favour of the boycott that he did his best not to notice any of the three AWL members with our hands in the air and weighed in from the chair whenever he felt like it.
It was useful to meet students from Oxford University Palestine Society who we can hopefully debate and/or work with in the future. But the overall level of debate was terrible. Surely the pro-boycott camp can do better than this?!