Disorientating response to the academic anti-boycott statements

Margaret Aziza Pappano, in her Electronic Intifada piece The Ivory Tower Behind the Apartheid Wall muses:

When these university presidents challenge the UCU to boycott them in their statements, they indicate that Columbia, Berkeley, McGill and Queen’s academics wish to be boycotted along with their Israeli counterparts because they think that such boycotts are wrong. One suspects that there may be faculty, staff, and students at these schools who do not want to be considered honorary Israelis and be boycotted by British universities. Is it within the proper purview of a university’s president to make unilateral pronouncements that have such potentially significant consequences for the intellectual welfare of its members?

In this way she frames pro-boycott academics as forces of nature who must boycott, cannot avoid boycotting, have no alternative but to boycott. Correspondingly she presents the university principles, in their condemnation, as if they were blaming a puddle for splashing them. But boycotters are not forces of nature or puddles: they have selected Israel as their special concern, they have selectively criticised Israel for abuses ignoring countries which are guilty on a larger scale; so far (as Jon Pike says) this is not ideal but it is understandable – where boycotters fall down is that they have selected punishment by exclusion from a number of other, more promising, more constructive courses of action. How might Jews feel about that, knowing that there are other levers UCU could apply towards ending the oppression of Palestinians including censure, selective reward, helping the harmed, and organised public protest but UCU plumped straight for the act of punishment. Pro-boycotters say boycott is the right tool for the job – Martha Nussbaum in Dissent gives a lucid and readable account of why it it’s a strange choice. They say it is the way Palestinians want to be helped, but there are strong indications, based on the date of the Roses’ original moratorium call preceding the NGO call, that it was British boycotters who sought the call from Palestinian NGOs. Even if this were not the case, we would have no grounds for accepting it on principle.

The university principles are right to condemn the boycott. If boycotters are genuinely worried about the “intellectual welfare” of those who might get tangled up in it then they know what they can do: choose a more constructive approach.

Need to take the opportunity to say, again, what has already been argued – that British universities wouldn’t be boycotting institutions. Much as pro-boycotters would like us to think otherwise, boycotts just don’t work like this. Rather, a small minority of individual pro-boycott British academics are campaigning to ratify a boycott which would be, if it ever had the opportunity to be put into action, effectively a boycott of individual Israeli academics since academics are necessarily attached in an official capacity to the institution which funds them or mediates their funding. OK, departments or institutions could pass policy which prevents their funding fees or expenses for attendance at Israeli conferences (I doubt they would, on the basis of a UCU resolution) but – and this is where the academic freedom argument ceases to be so academic – that would be a serious interference in individual professional development and all that this implies for the advancement of knowledge. Although it is important, as Judith Butler says, not to allow concern for Israeli, or our own, academic freedom to eclipse our concern for that of Palestinians, the absence of academic freedom for Palestinians does not on its own justify its removal from Israelis – and particularly when the support it will provide the Palestinians will be no more than moral. Conferences are indispensible, or should be – one-off opportunities to hear from, and collaboratively interrogate, leading researchers in your area. Maybe you veto any country which obliges you as a woman to cover your hair in public, or maybe you go anyway – that’s up to you, not your institution. One conference is not the same as another – if, in your professional estimation, you judge a conference as critical in your subject area, your institution would be jeopardising your academic standing if it prevented you from participating. This kind of thing should be an individual decision, but UCU wants to take it away from individual academics.

Understandably, pro-boycotters are nervous (in a legal sense) of publicising case studies or scenarios, so we remain unconvinced when they tell us impatiently that of course they are not planning to boycott individuals. Particularly committed boycotters will take the opportunity to boycott individual Israelis on principle, as illustrated by Mona Baker (but not quite so glaringly if they have any sense). But, even if successful in passing a boycott motion next year, the boycotters are already widely viewed as a divisive minority with influence in UCU incommensurate with the influence they hold in their institutions – for example, Stephen Rose lost his Open University debate, and Birmingham did not support Sue Blackwell’s boycott motion. I can say with a degree of confidence that there are no queues of Israelis seeking to work with this small pro-boycott minority because I dare say that any examples of boycott would have attracted, or been exploited for, publicity and we’d know about them. All of which suggests that the boycott, if it were ever implemented, would be largely symbolic, having no means of expression.

That’s not to say that being, symbolic, boycott would have no effects – individual Israelis and British Jews would be exposed to the rather nasty psychological effects of never being sure where they stand with potential international partners – Israelis may self-boycott as Daniel Statman has – or, in the case of British Jews who feel involved with Israel and believe that those five million Jews in Israel should keep their self determination, their colleagues. Haricombe and Lancaster document this phenomenon of self-boycott in detail in their study, Out in the Cold, of the South African boycott (which you’d have to read in the British Library but there’s a short paper on the Web). These individual effects, in the absence of positive effects on the circumstances of Palestinians, are one of the reasons why we should oppose the boycott.

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