This debate was organised by my local UCU Exec in the light of a motion put forward by a member, David, which is anti-boycott and anti-occupation. The Exec decided – unilaterally – to split the discussion around this motion from the actual vote, and took the sinister step of inviting a very prominent, external, pro-boycott speaker to argue with local anti-boycotters – i.e. it engineered this debate. The format was 15 minutes each to present positions for and against the boycott, 3 or 4 rounds of questions from the floor, and 5 minutes each to sum up. There were maybe 17 – 20 people present.
It was agreed that the occupation should end and that the checkpoints were a intolerable degradation. Somebody made a spirited attempt to make us think about Lebanon, but that didn’t catch and, with the exception of the member (who had organised the debate) and Stephen Rose, both of whom invoked suffering Palestinians as the only reason any decent person should need to boycott, everyone was preoccupied by the consequences and practicability of the boycott.
David kicked off. He framed the boycott as an exclusion of Israeli Jews, anticipating that Stephen Rose would deny this. Pointed out that institutions don’t write grants, submit abstracts or papers, or attend conferences. Talked about norms of dissent, freedom and equality within Israeli academic institutions. Attacked the boycott on grounds of practicalities, racism, academic freedom and diversion of energies from UCU’s main business which is terms and conditions.
Stephen Rose began with some anecdotes which ‘prove’ that Israel is systemically apartheid, ladling out the pathos, presenting the boycott as the only way to fulfil our moral obligation to people with a claim to our solidarity. Started by saying that the boycott was not against Israeli Jews but Israeli institutions, and that it would fortify any right-minded Israeli Jews. He said everyone should be in favour of a just peace. He told a number of stories to demonstrate that Israel is a racist state, including proportions of Arabs in institutions, refusal of Haifa to host a christmas tree, and preferential allocation of halls at Haifa (inconveniently for him, this last was recently ruled illegal by the Haifa District Court). He claimed that if the proposal involved any other country apart from Israel, there would be not debate “of course” we would respond to calls from NGOs in other countries. He talked about an Israel lobby. He equated Israel to apartheid South Africa. He was a whisker away from comparing Israelis to Nazis (“after all the violence that they have experienced, it is truly awful to see them becoming the perpetrators”. He said academics were to blame for their apathy, complicit in the occupation, and implicated in Israel’s policy for their work on policy regarding demographics and the wall.
So, ignoring the pro-boycott prating (what little there was of it, because once again there was hardly any of that from the floor) the talk was about whether the boycott was universalisable or not. The point was made and reinforced without much opposition that applying boycotts universally was bureaucratically impracticable. At which point there were snorts of indignation and we were exhorted again to consider the suffering Palestinians. There was a lot of talk of academic freedom – SR asked reproachfully how we could consider it more important than Palestinian lives; David replied that it wasn’t but that it is important and should not be dealt with light-mindedly (I sometimes get the impression that the charge of simplicity is a very effective way of paralysing some academics who are on the verge of carrying out a rare real-worldly act). Somebody from the history department launched into a profuse review of atrocities ongoing internationally and unnoted, which went on for several minutes and ended with “I can’t help thinking that this is “Stop the Yids! Stop the Yids! Stop the Yids!”. In response, SR reassured us that he had anti-fascists in the family. Several people expressed astonishment at the arguments of others, and the word “disingenuous” was flung around with abandon.
David summed up last, and he was relaxed enough by then to survey the room from his table, shrug, sigh, and tell us that he wasn’t going to come back and do this every year, so could we please put an end to it now.
My stance on this hasn’t changed in the light of this rather stale debate (which shouldn’t have happened). Take calls from NGOs at face value? No I shouldn’t – NGOs can err, especially in a country whose just struggle for land, freedom, prosperity and peace has an undercurrent which wishes to obliterate Israel. That’s why the AUT Investigative Commission on Israel and Palestine came up with a boycott and greylist policy last year. UCU boycott as the only means of helping Palestinians? No, SR and the instigator of this debate want us to believe that this end justifies any means, but it’s just easy, cheap, impracticable and ultimately empty. Anybody interested in supporting Palestinians should form positive links to understand, exert influence, send resources, visit, and host. They should be vigilant for denial of Palestinians’ right to education. In dealing with Israel and Israelis, nobody can stop anybody else acting according to their own conscience. They should leave the Union out of it. Israel as apartheid? No – despite the fact that there are not equal opportunities, Israeli Arabs have the legal right to participate in all forms of civic life. Israel as special or different? Israel is different, but only insofaras any country is different. Israel came to exist, and exists now, for Jewish self-determination, and anybody who wishes to challenge that will need to circumnavigate the huge monstrous obscene fact of the holocaust (oops – I mentioned the holocaust). Every country has its own particular circumstances, and every person has their individual causes. But we are UCU, and what we are obliged to do is adopt a consistent policy which considers states equally on the basis of their laws and norms.
The anti-boycott drive at my institution has all the best arguments because it occupies the middle ground, and exposes the distortion and double standards at the heart of the Israeli boycott.