An open letter to Sue Blackwell, leader of the AUT pro-boycotters
“There has been a massive and well funded campaign against us and incredible pressure put upon members in the run up to this debate.” Sue Blackwell on the defeat of the academic boycott of Israel, in the Guardian, 27 May.
I’ve known you for two years. I know you as a sane, committed, long-time socialist. A socialist who long ago saw through and broke away from the demagogy and mindlessness of the SWP — with the exception of one momentous political question, the Israeli-Arab conflict.
There, unfortunately, as they say, you have learned nothing, and you have forgotten nothing you learned in the SWP.
I have put at the top of this letter your comment to the Guardian after the AUT special conference on 26 May rescinded the earlier decision to boycott two Israeli universities which got through in muddle and confusion at the 22 April regular AUT conference.
Why? Because it seems to me to capture something which is most of the time difficult to capture — the point where proper objection to the Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians spills over into plain Judaeophobia and anti-semitism.
That sort of thing, I think, is always implicit in the politics of those who not only condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or anti-Arab discrimination within Israel, but also condemn Israel root-and-branch for coming into existence, and “Zionism” for bringing it into existence.
You make it pretty near explicit. Why did you lose the vote at the AUT conference, four to one? Because the decision to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities evoked “a massive and well funded campaign against us and incredible pressure put upon members in the run up to this debate”.
Well-funded? By rich Jews, you mean? Plainly that is what you do mean. Steven Rose spelled it out more in Socialist Worker (21 May): “AUT’s act provoked a furious counter-attack not just from Israel... but from Zionist groups around the world. They [sic] have demanded, and obtained, a recall conference of the AUT”.
Well, there was a furious backlash against the boycott, wasn’t there? And what else could explain it but the behind-the-scenes wealth and power of... Jews?
Now, it happens that I know exactly what was done to get the AUT decision rescinded. How do I know? Because I was one of those who initiated the successful campaign to rescind it.
As an office worker for the AWL, I responded to the first news of the AUT moving towards a boycott by ringing or emailing AUT members I knew, mostly “retired” one-time members of AWL, to explore what could be done. Camila Bassi, a university lecturer who is a member of AWL, put together a statement signed by academics and eventually published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and launched a website.
After 22 April, one of the ex-AWLers who had signed the statement, Jon Pike — neither rich, nor, as far I know, Jewish — took the initiative in collecting AUT delegates’ signatures for a special conference to reconsider the boycott. Another, Dave Hirsh, set up a website called Engage, and did much of the spade-work to get AUT branch meetings called around the country, and delegates mandated to oppose the boycott.
“Well-funded”? What would the “funds” have been for? In the area where large “funds” made a difference, the coverage of the issue by those mainstream media most likely to influence academics, your side of the debate did well. Today, as I write (30 May), the Independent carries an op-ed advocating a boycott of the whole Israeli population. For no other country than Israel would a more-or-less liberal paper publish such an article.
Certainly the head of steam that built up against the AUT decision involved Jewish and Israeli academics. They got support from the British-Jewish “establishment”, the Board of Deputies. What do you expect? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” What is wrong with that?
Consider your logic. If you get a motion through AUT conference to boycott Israeli universities (and the boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan was — you make no secret of it — only the thin end of a wedge, the thick end of which would be a general, and not only academic, boycott), then that is a triumph against entrenched “Zionists”. If you lose, that is because “they” were too strong for you, too “well-funded”.
The real problem is — isn’t it, Sue? — that too many Jews exert too much “pressure”. As Tam Dalyell said in 2003: our “country [is] being led up the garden path” by “Jewish figures” and a “Jewish cabal”.
Except that Dalyell was too crude, and it took the late Paul Foot — in the Guardian, 14 May 2003 — to put him right: “Obviously [Dalyell was] wrong to complain about Jewish pressure on Blair and Bush when he mean[t] Zionist pressure”.
In fact, the successful campaign to rescind the AUT decision was neither “well-funded” nor Jewish in origin. Your comments show your own preconceptions and, perhaps, your own driving forces on this question.
No-one need be anti-semitic, or even anti-Israeli, in order to become a militant activist on behalf of the Palestinian people. Not to oppose the policy of this and earlier Israeli governments towards the Occupied Territories and their inhabitants is either not to know the facts, or not to care about oppression and injustice.
The fact, however, is that most of those who dominate the stage of militant pro-Palestinian politics are effectively anti-semitic. Not racists. Except for a stray nutter here and there, the left — and these are mainly left-wingers — are not racists. Nor necessarily people whose mental furniture includes the idea that a thing like the campaign against the AUT boycott decision must be explained in terms of “well-funded” Jewish pressure.
But they tie themselves into anti-semitism because they are against Israel root and branch. They advocate the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Arab state in which Israeli Jews will have, maybe, religious and, maybe — maybe — civil rights, but no national rights. They deny Israeli Jews the right to national self-determination. They deny Israel the right to exist.
They grossly misrepresent the history of Zionism and of Israel’s origins (and here they merely pick up, without knowing it, the lies and nonsense purveyed by the Stalinists in the late 1940s and the 1950s). They preach hostility to all “Zionists”, that is, Jews and Israelis who will not agree with them about Israel.
That is how a straightforward thing like the campaign to rescind the AUT’s boycott decision comes to be explained — by reflex, I guess: did you stop and think before you said it? — in terms of a “well-funded” [Jewish] campaign.
The root of this shameful stuff — and it is shameful, Sue! — is in your support for root-and-branch opposition to Israel’s existence, your rejection of the only democratic and equitable solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict: two nations, two states, and your refusal to recognise the Israeli Jews’ right to self-determination.
You are the victim of a political culture on the left (or rather the kitsch-left) which begins with the Stalinists persecuting Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe and dressing it up as “only” anti-Zionism. It continues, in Britain, through the work of Tony Cliff— an out-and-out proponent of the destruction of Israel — and the SWP.
A slippery logic starts with good-hearted socialists like you, Sue, being persuaded that a single secular democratic state of Jews and Arabs would be far better and altogether more pleasant that what exists now.
It progresses to anger and indignation that the Israelis — whose agreement is the sine qua non of any such transformation — will not agree to dismantle their own nation-state, though they would be pioneers in human history in doing such a thing.
It then becomes support for the use of force to compel Israel to be “reasonable” enough to abolish itself, and so for Arab states, Palestinian suicide bombers, or international boycotts — regardless of the fact that the conquest of Israel by such force would produce nothing like the harmonious democracy you started out by wanting.
The underlying message, in different variants, is that Israel should never have come into existence; it is illegitimate. All the left and pseudo-left writers who have created the present British left culture of “anti-Zionism” have in common the delegitimisation of Israel. It is there as an undertone even in Hal Draper, who once angrily denounced Tony Cliff for wanting to destroy Israel.
And from that flows, or can be made to flow, the paranoia of seeing a “well-funded” Jewish campaign in the AUT members’ response to the April boycott decision.