In yesterday's Guardian
there appeared two letters. One was from 603 academics from various nations and called on the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) to reject a conference motion calling for a boycott of academic links with Israeli lecturers unless they are willing to voice public opposition to "Israeli apartheid policies". The other was from the Federation of Unions of Palestinian University Professors and Employees and was supportive of a boycott. Further details in this article
Both letters contain some truth. The Palestinian letter states that "cooperation with the intelligence services, the army, and other agencies of the occupation regime is part of the routine work of the Israeli academy. No Israeli academic body has ever taken a public stand against the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, nor criticized their government's long-standing siege of Palestinian academic institutions." The authors of the other letter consider that "the political test for Israeli academics builds on a tradition established by McCarthy in the US and the anti-semitic purges in communist eastern Europe. We oppose forcing academics to sign a statement to demonstrate political cleanliness." Nothing to disagree with there, I think.
The danger of the proposed NATFHE approach is not hard to spot, in that reference to "Israeli apartheid policies". I shall accord the framers of the motion the benefit of the doubt and assume, possibly wrongly, that the phrase was intended to carry some meaning rather than merely serving as a lazy and gratuitous insult. Apartheid, if you recall, was a official, constitutionally-underwritten policy providing for separate and highly unequal treatment of sections of the South African population solely on the basis of their racial origins. Despite what many of Israel's supporters in the United States (an example) (another)
would like us to believe, Arab citizens of Israel do not have anything approaching equal rights with their Jewish neighbours. (See this report
by the US Department of State, especially Section 5, subheading National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities
. Or this article
by Human Rights Watch.) But however unpleasant such discrimination may be for those on the wrong end of it, it falls a long way short of any valid comparison with South African apartheid, or even the situation in the Southern US back in the 1950s.
Of course, the NATFHE motion isn't about Israel's treatment of its own Arab citizens at all; it is concerned with the Israeli occupation of, and military interference in, the West Bank and Gaza. And there the apartheid comparison instantly comes apart, because the occupation is just that: an illegal military occupation
following an invasion. To describe any part of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories as apartheid is to imply that the OT forms part of Israel and that any human rights abuses there are simply an extension of domestic discrimination; and then to overstate that discrimination so as to weaken the argument. Read my lips: apartheid was not about illegal military occupation, it was about domestic racial policy. Read them again: Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza isn't domestic, because even the Israeli Government does not consider those areas to be part of Israel. Israel's policies in the West Bank are no more "apartheid policies" than are Britain's in Iraq, though similarly wrong-headed and illegal. Ironically, I find that people most prone to lazy characterisation of the Israeli occupation as "apartheid" were also keen to have Ariel Sharon arraigned as a war criminal. Well, which is it?
Even an Israeli academic who loathed the occupation might find himself unable to oppose "Israeli apartheid" (unless the quality of thinking in Israeli academia is no better than that of the framers of the NATFHE motion).
However flawed that motion may be (and however badly-timed in terms of NATFHE's own domestic preoccupations with industrial action and merger with the AUT) the alternative is not for British and other academics simply to sit on their hands and ignore the issue. My dislike for useless political gestures is matched by my enthusiasm for those who suggest constructive alternatives. The Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
published this excellent piece
in Wednesday's Guardian
, which recommends several actions which should be undertaken, including a specific boycott of a proposed university in an illegal settlement in the OT. I hope the FIPP's call will be heeded in our further and higher education instutions, whichever way the NATFHE vote goes this week.