I've been planning to write this post for some time, but every week - every day, almost - seems to bring a further development. OK, Pai Mei
: here I go.....
Attentive readers may remember that back in May 2006 I wrote a post
criticising the call by NATFHE for a boycott of Israeli acedemics unless they were willing to voice opposition to "Israeli apartheid policies". I took issue with both the wording of the motion and the broad-brush approach to Israeli academia, suggesting instead that boycotts were a last resort (the proposed NATFHE one in any case smacked dreadfully of gesture politics) and that the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace had a better plan
, which included a much more specifically targetted boycott of the College of Judea and Samaria, situated in the illegal settlement of Ariel in the Occupied Territories.
In September 2006 I pointed out that the Israeli government is no supporter of academic freedom
. In October I added that neither is the USA
Now then. On 21 April this year the Guardian had two interesting letters on boycotts
, and I'd like to comment on them both. First the letter from Roger Lyons, with which I agree. Only a couple of years ago I attended the STUC annual conference and saw representatives from Histadrut and the PGFTU sharing a platform and calling for constructive engagement between trade unionists in the Scotland, in Israel, and in Palestine. This is the policy of the STUC, and of the TUC, and incidentally of my own trade union (whose forthcoming conference agenda contains a motion expressing solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied Territories but makes no mention of any kind of boycott or divestment). Imagine, then, my surprise to be informed on the website of the Stop The Wall
campaign that the PGFTU is now endorsing a campaign calling for trade unions to boycott Histadrut
! The only conclusion I could draw from that, assuming the document calling for a boycott wasn't a total fabrication, was that the PGFTU is riven with as much internal disagreement on tactics as any British trade union, and that its left hand knows not what its right hand is doing. I'm somewhat relieved to discover that this does seem to be the case
. As Stephen Hawking used to say in the BT ads, the important thing is to keep talking.
Moving on the the second Guardian
letter, from 130 British doctors and calling for the expulsion of the Israeli Medical Association from the World Medical Association. That seems to me more reasonable. It's targetted at the IMA which has sat on its hands during for 40 years of flagrant violations by the IDF of international conventions on provision of medical care. The letter points out that, frankly, they don't meet the required standard and should be flung out. Specific and productive: pretty much in line with the call to boycott the "Israeli university" built in an illegal Israeli settlement, and a long way from the sweeping boycotts proposed by the NUJ or the NATFHE. I look forward to hearing more of this one, and hope something comes of it.
In the past two weeks we have had the UCU (heirs and successors of NATFHE, post-merger) passing a motion, not (let us note) calling on anyone to boycott anything, despite what its hysterical opponents have been claiming. It calls for the UCU to circulate a boycott call (which appears to be the one to which I linked above under the "boycott Histadrut" tag) to its branches for "information and discussion". The president of UCU, Sally Hunt, believes that UCU members do not want a boycott, and that a ballot of all members would show that, even after the "information and discussion". I suspect she's right.
Anyway, the UCU are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Had they actually called for a boycott the reaction could hardly have been more unpleasant; and according to the Guardian
at least one prominent opponent considers the motion calling for discussion to be even worse
than a boycott call. This is Anthony Julius, visiting Professor of Law at Birkbeck College - not, one has to say,one of our more distinguished law schools - of whom we shall hear more later:"Going for a boycott is gesture politics in the first place but a resolution that comes close but avoids actually spelling it out is a gesture wrapped up in a gesture - it's nothing more than a bad smell."
One wonders how this oaf became a legal professor at all, but let's leave that aside for now.
1979 Nobel Physics Prizewinner Steven Weinberg has weighed into the UCU row, by cancelling a planned lecture in Britain
as a result.
There are those who consider that academics should not pontificate on matters outwith their particular fields of expertise. Curiously, Noam Chomsky and his opinions on US foregn policy and the Israel-Palestine situation are usually what these people have in mind. Perhaps they should also consider Professor Weinberg. His physics writings are brilliant, and include probably the best book of popular cosmological physics ever
; coming to Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time
after Weinberg's book, I found it contained (a) no terrifying difficulties and (b) nothing significant I hadn't already learned from Weinberg. However, on the subject of Israel Weinberg talks unmitigated rubbish, in spite (or perhaps because) of being on the board of governors of Tel Aviv University. Here are some extracts from a (subscription-only and unlinkable) piece he wrote last year (but quoted extensively on this anti-boycott blog
):If the lecturers' union Natfhe votes to boycott Israeli academics who refuse to oppose Israel's policies, then it will deserve the moral condemnation of the world. Israel is a democracy that extends full civil rights to all citizens - Arabs as well as Jews. It is in the course of withdrawing from Gaza and most of the West Bank, and it actively pursues ties with Arab academic institutions.
Oooh, Israel extends full civil rights to all citizens, Arabs as well as Jews, does it? That isn't the opinion of the US State Department
(see section 5 "National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities"), or of Human Rights Watch
; nor indeed of Israeli Jews who take the trouble to meet their Arab countrymen
before mouthing off.
And as far as "withdrawing....from most of the West Bank" goes, not only does the Israeli government have no such plan, it has exacted a promise from President Bush that no such withdrawal will be required of it by America. Ehud Olmert has explicitly ruled out
any return to Israel's legitimate borders. Oh, and further illegal settlement
is planned. Far from withdrawing, Israel is consolidating and increasing is presence in the West Bank, and a reinvasion of Gaza seems not wholly unlikely. The even-handed Israeli "democracy" is kidnapping political opponents
in Palestine and threatening them with execution
at home. Yet somehow for Professor Weinberg it is NATFHE, not Israel, which deserves the "moral condemnation of the world"? Dear God, how Britain will miss the opportunity to hear him babbling at first hand.Perhaps one could look beyond the issue of discrimination and boycott academics in North Korea, which has the most repressive government on Earth, or those in Gaza and the West Bank, where a government of terrorists has just been elected...
I don't remember complaints from Steven Weinberg when terrorist Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel.... And let's remember that both the Israeli and US governments explicitly approved the participation of Hamas in that election. Their volte-face came only after the wrong side won.The Natfhe draft proposal blames Israel for "construction of the exclusion wall". This barrier does impose a nuisance on both Arabs and Jews. However, it is not being built because Jews do not want to associate with Arabs. It is because they do not want to be murdered by them.
There was no thought of a wall until the intifada in 2002 reached new heights of brutality. In fact, the Israeli wall is not very different from the 13-mile "Peace Line" in Belfast, built to curb violence between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Even though incomplete, the barrier works: it has already greatly reduced the number of deaths of Israelis at the hands of suicide bombers. Since the wall saves lives, one marvels at the callousness of a call for Israelis to die so that Arabs will not be inconvenienced.
Well, as far as I am aware, none of the Catholics or Protestants in Belfast had their houses or land confiscated by the government as a result of the building of the "Peace Line". The "Peace Line" was built by the British government, but the difference is that they built it in Britain rather than extending it several miles into the Republic of Ireland and illegally annexing territory. For the rest, I can't improve on Ellis Sharp
's comments. so I shan't try.
Mind you, what kind of penetrating political analysis should one expect from a man who told one of his academic colleagues in all seriousness
"Don't romanticize Palestinians just because they are primitive" ?
Finally back to Anthony Julius, who has joined forces with Alan Dershowitz to threaten any British trade union foolish enough to believe that it can take decisions all by itself without the permission of a pair of celebity legal ambulance-chasers (Dershowitz defended Claus von Bulow and O J Simpson; Julius was Princess Diana's and Heather Mills's divorce lawyer). Dershowitz
, an apologist for US government torture and Israeli killings of civilians, has threatened to sue any professor who votes against the tenure of another based on the candidate’s ties to Israel. Yet nowadays Dershowitz himself is mainly known for his intemperate campaign to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein
of DePaul University, based on Finkelstein's unfavourable response to Dershowitz's book The Case For Israel
. And it is [irony] this brave champion of academic freedom[/irony] who has declared that he will "devastate and bankrupt" British academia. Well, well.
Two things are certain. One is that Dershowitz and Julius have no interest whatsoever in academic freedom, though they are
probably anticipating fat profits from any legal actions they initiate. The other is that their intervention is most likely to harden attitudes in favour of a boycott (though come to think of it if they're in it for the money that is probably the idea).
Strangely enough, I heard no protests from Dershowitz, Weinberg, or even Julius (who as a British resident is more likely to have noticed, though perhaps he was busy working out his earnings from the Mills-McCartney divorce) over this egregious example of a politically-motivated threat of academic boycott
, right here at home. Perhaps when a major donor to a British university threatens withdrawal of funding solely because she dislikes one of the students' personal websites (unconnected with the university) that doesn't count for the Dershowitz-Julius axis of hypocrisy as a threat to academic freedom? Of course, the student was a Palestinian while the boycotter was a British Jew, [irony]which may be relevant[/irony]. Moreover, Stowe is apparently an "expert in divorce law", so Julius would hardly wish to antagonise her: one must think of one's future cash flow.