I reckon about the boycott

Further to this hastily scrambled post outlining some predictions about how pro-boycotters would respond to failure, some late reflections. I sat on this draft for days.

Just by way of preamble, in my wet-eared ignorance I assumed things would go to a membership-wide ballot, possibly as far ahead next summer if Jimmy Donaghey and Jon Pike’s ballot petition didn’t deliver. I thought, like Academic Friends of Israel, that the UCU lawyers were helping UCU to side-step anti-discrimination law:

The question that needs answering is: can the UCU legally call for a boycott of Israeli universities? In 2003 Professor Wilkie discriminated against an Israeli academic who wanted to work for him in his Oxford Laboratory. He broke his University’s discrimination and equal opportunities rules and even possibly his contract of employment. If the UCU encourages its members to boycott Israeli Universities will it be liable? Only the UCU knows the answers and they are not telling anyone yet.

By trying to involve as many of its 120,000 members as possible in the consultation process the UCU appears to have outmanoeuvred The Stop the Boycott group’s call for a ballot of members on the issue. The UCU are now saying a vote will be taken at local branch meetings.

(Circular email from Academic Friends of Israel, 6 Sep 2007)

So I didn’t anticipate that legal advice would oblige UCU’s Strategy and Finance Committee (SFC) to intervene and put an end to the boycott campaign in UCU. I assumed that BRICUP / PACBI / members of the SWP and UCU Left would have a good understanding of the legalities over the years they’ve been submitting motions to union congresses and having them blocked for a number of reasons including their unlawfulness. I find it maddening that people are prepared to hijack UCU time and money for their futile project to exclude Israeli academics – particularly when they then complain about money spent on the legal advice to make sure that their project didn’t wreck the entire union with an inwinnable court case. Because it seems that if you boycott Israeli academic institutions – and I’m not sure where or whether individuals come in – then that’s not just wrong, it’s unlawful. I’m not sure to what extent the fact that the country in question was Israel came to bear on the legal advice because honest to god I haven’t seen the advice (I told you I was an atrocious Lobby).

At that stage it became apparent to most people that there was no point having an official boycott debate any more, or an official boycott tour. But nobody at UCU ever tried to prevent pro-boycotters opining about Israel at as much length and intensity as ever, and nobody even said that they had to tone down the opprobrium which is their favoured mode for this. Anti-boycotters noticed immediately that the only thing which was ruled off-limits was the actual, official academic boycott of Israel and the official vote. I understand there will be a speaking tour on Israel and Palestine – good, and I hope it’s on an anti-occupation theme. But personally I could do with fewer die-hard quixotic gestures on the part of boycott supporters, who seem to seriously believe this union is their bauble.

Anyway, the predictions and the actuality.

The means justified the ends – the debate was the important thing

Even the SWP accepts that a ballot of the membership would have overturned the boycott – but UCU never got to have one. I can’t (and hopefully time won’t prove me wrong) get too upset about this. As David Hirsh rightly points out in a Harry’s Place comment, the debate was a fundamentally wrong debate:

“A ballot – combined with public “debate” would have normalized, legitimized, and publicized those who were for an exclusion of Israelis.”

Dangerous because it hinged, preposterously, on denying Israel’s right to exist. One example of this is the ubiquitous apartheid analogy, which implies that Israel and Palestine (often referred to by would-be politically correct pro-Palestinian activists as ‘Israel-Palestine’) are a single country in which Israelis wall out Palestinians – this despite the fact that Israel hasn’t annexed the West Bank nor Gaza, and even Sharon was talking openly about an independent Palestine towards the end of his active life.

David Hirsh also points out that a virtue would have been made of any minority of members voting in favour of boycott and the boycotters would have been encouraged to elaborate their ill-fitting South Africa academic boycott analogies – the SA boycott took a long while to get off the ground, we are frequently reminded, and we should expect to be involved in this boycott campaign for the long-haul – “throw a tiny pebble”, “water on a stone”, that kind of bilge.

But then, in response to the legal advice which obliged the SFC to de-ratify the boycott campaign, the debate became the important thing for boycotters – but in a different way to how I anticipated. For most it was corollary of the boycott, available for – a face-saving measure – promotion to a central aim as if it were the main point of the boycott all along. Following the advice there were strenuous efforts to make it, as the part of Resolution 30 that the lawyers don’t have a problem with – into the central issue. Without seeing the legal advice, pro-boycotters set up a petition protesting the “abandonment of the democratic discussion initiated by our congress”, exhorting UCU “not to cave in to these outrageous legal threats of censorship” and calling for the debate to be resumed. A small proportion of members (447 out of 110,000) including over 40 local association leaders, have signed since it was set up on 1st October. 447 is over half of the membership of the activist’s list, though fewer signatories are in fact list-members (I get the impression the petition was circulated round some branches – unlike the ballot petition I tried to get circulated round mine…)

Several people were then moved to protest that UCU had imposed a ‘gag’ or ‘ban’, including Dr Amjad Barham of The President of Federation of Union of Palestinian Universities’ Professors & Employees – who had originally called for a boycott.

We wish to state clearly that we believe that our British colleagues have been deprived of an opportunity to better inform themselves about an issue which is of concern to conscientious academics and intellectuals the world over. Moreover, we are disappointed to see that the leadership of a prominent organization of academics such as yours has not defended the right of its members to engage in debate on this matter. Open debate and discussion are the foundations of academic freedom, and thus we cannot understand why the door to open consideration of controversial ideas has been so abruptly closed.

Priyamvadar Gopal, a Cambridge academic had a recent piece in the Guardian which suggested that the debate had been outlawed, rather than the boycott and associated tour:

“Academics, however, can’t afford to ignore this appalling attempt to undermine that most fundamental intellectual value – free debate.”

The SWP, backing rapidly away from the boycott before the legal advice was announced, appeared to suddenly register the chance to capitalise on the mounting indignation about the SFC’s seemingly autocratic decision, and made an opportunistic swerve:

“We won’t stand for being gagged on the say-so of anonymous lawyers. The debates on the boycott should be reinstated. And the next UCU congress should have high on its agenda how to deepen our solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

That was Alex Callinicos (curtsey: Engage) – but the piece was swiftly taken down and has to be read for now in the Google cache.

Israeli academic sociologist Uri Ram lamented the demise of the boycott and the “questions no longer up for discussion” (self-centredly neglecting its effects on Jews in Britain and prompting this excellent response by David Hirsh).

So debate became the important thing – in fact the only salvageable thing about this boycott. But the debate was never the subject of the legal advice, and in fact has drastically withered away in UCU. There’s no longer any grounds to make it the subject of a rank-and-file union protest. That didn’t stop pro-boycotters and disorientated freedom-of-speech campaigners erecting a straw man* which looked a bit like Sally Hunt, attaching a red herring* and piling in to take a swipe.

Since the boycott is virtuous, it must be the law that’s wrong

I originally assumed that the ‘law’ in question would be an external threat of legal action rather than a piece of advice commissioned by UCU. I find it disturbing that the legal advice has not been shared. It’s disempowering for the Exec and unnerving for Local Association secretaries. Many have taken it badly as another sign of UCU oligarchy, and are entertaining ideas about shady Lobby activities as a result. But equally it’s a piece of legal advice, albeit given by a pillar of human rights legislation, rather than a ruling, and would be enthusiastically challenged as such by anybody who felt themselves obstructed by it. So UCU (so far) resisted demands to share the advice (one or two of which were amusingly based in hitherto absent anxieties about whether we’d be allowed to boycott Burma or Zimbabwe or not) . Anyway, I’m not in favour of allowing the union to get sued for the sake of a cause which provides no real benefit to anybody while at the same time threatening significant harm to Israeli academics – a cause which anti-Israel campaigners have now filed as a matter of principle and cause celebre for union autonomy.

Considering we haven’t seen the legal advice, the alacrity in signing the petition to reinstate the boycott campaign doesn’t mean that the signatories want the boycott campaign back. It strongly suggests that they assessed unseen legal advice as a work of mischief. I can only think of two reasons for this – one is that they believed that the legal advice was slanted. Indeed the petition text refers to “a deluge of media abuse”, and a number of people have referred to the Zionist, Israel and Jewish Lobbies. But Lester, one of two lawyers mentioned by UCU Trustee Fawzi Ibrahim. Lester has had a big influence on anti-discrimination law – not somebody to dismiss just because his advice gets in the way of your boycott.

The other reason would have been that they were persuaded that the union’s freedom – in this case to implement discrimination and discuss a discriminatory measure – is more important than abiding by the law. And definitely more important than considering any “external pressure” on its own merits.

We haven’t seen the legal advice so I can’t say for sure.

The boycott was a righteous cause – anyone who opposed it is a baddy

I don’t know why I included this – it’s the same as the previous prediction really. At the same time it’s worth pointing out again that it’s a common insinuation or implication, and one of the main reasons this boycott is harmful for Jews. Plug away at asking pro-boycott activists what they actually want and, without denying the diversity of their opinions, it emerges that on the whole they consider Israel to be a terrible mistake and the occupation inevitable as long as Israel exists – in short they are anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism is prevalent, if not universal, among pro-boycott activists.

Trouble is, the majority of Jews support the existence of a Jewish state – the reasons should be obvious – and as Ben Cohen observes in his article on the ideological foundations of the boycott campaign:

“The existence of the State of Israel has been a critical pillar supporting the greater sense of security and confidence that Jews in Europe and elsewhere have enjoyed in the years following the Holocaust.”

It follows that if Israel is presented, by association with gold standards of evil such as apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, and through a campaign of bad news and selective hypercriticism, as iredeemably morally defunct, then what should become of a state like that? The answer is obvious. And what of its supporters? Clearly very bad people indeed. People who support Israel must be a menace in the same way that Israel is demonised as a menace. Maybe they don’t even deserve to exist.

It’s not that the majority of Israel’s supporters are Jews – that’s very far from true – it’s that the majority of Jews support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. To demonise Israel is not just antisemitic, because it demands questions about all the supporters of the demonic state, Jewish or not, but it is nonetheless antisemitic.

Now the Israel Lobby has blocked our decent, harmless boycott-protest, worse measures will follow and they’ll have brought it on themselves

No, wrong. Nobody has threatened nor pointed to worse measures.

What I reckon

Considering the boycott campaign was aborted by legal advice rather than rejected by the membership as expected the predictions weren’t so wrong. Of course in retrospect and maybe in prospect they were pretty obvious. The result is that the boycott debate was briefly eclipsed by a debate about union freedom, which in turn was gradually over-taken by more Israel-bashing, and then a particularly eager (as it seemed to me) display of anti-racist credentials in response to the Oxford Union’s choice of Irving as a speaker for its Freedom of Speech debate series. The question is what next?

All UCU has done is cancel the organised tour of Palestinian union members calling for a boycott, remove the possibility of implementing a boycott, and – presumably – transfer legal responsibility to those especially dedicated pro-boycotters who insist on UCU going ahead. Maybe some of the more heroic ones will go ahead – plucky UCU peace activist v. Israel Lobby? I know of some people who’d love that. But anybody prepared to throw so much away for a boycott which wouldn’t help anybody has got to be either mad or seriously embittered.

What I didn’t quite realise in all this (though it’s perfectly in keeping) were the extent the boycott activists would go to to drive wedges between and generally discredit anti-boycotters. Also the extent of the dog-in-the-manger efforts to rubbish peace plans and co-existence efforts. Proper peace activists have a word for people like those: spoilers. Like PACBI organising to get the One Voice concerts cancelled.

If UCU collectively feels like moving on, Jon Pike’s suggestions would be an excellent place to start. The entire piece is a reference point for anybody who is trying to arrive at their red lines (what petitions will I sign, what rallies will I attend, to whom will I donate, with whom will I make solidarity?). Because, to tell the truth, I found this entire UCU Motion 30 debate in conception and execution sickening. The sustained, simplistic, condemnatory assault on Israel, stubborn comparisons of Israel with gold standards of evil, boycotters’ victimisation of Palestinians, and impeachment of Israeli morality, all of which pass for pro-Palestinian activism in UCU these days gradually conditioned me to entertain suspicion as a first impulse. Plain and simple, it was an awful debate. I don’t remember discussing mitigating circumstances for Israel with pro-boycotters at all. Here are some glaring omissions in the debate:

  • What are the effects of threats on peace processes?
  • What is the likelihood that Abbas, Haniyeh and Olmert have already been talking these past few months?
  • Under what circumstances can Palestinian leaders best influence Palestinian paramilitary organisations?
  • What is the strategy for Israel and Palestine in terms of natural resources and infrastructure?
  • Between unconditional Jewish right to return and no right to return, what systems might there be which guarantee asylum while acknowledging the effects unconditional right of Jewish return has on Palestinian Israelis?
  • Who is ultimately paying for Gaza’s food?
  • What are the alternatives to Israel’s current policies in Gaza which acknowledge Israel’s security needs?
  • What effects has the security barrier / separation fence had on a) security and b) Israelis’ regard for Palestinians?

So what to do now? Things seemed a lot clearer before this debate. Now I’m conscious of the need to consider interests of British Jews alongside the interests of Palestinians and Israelis – this boycott campaign has served to drive a wedge between these two interests by necessitating a distinction between opprobrium and legitimate criticism, and difficult decisions concerning support where opprobrium co-exists with good aims and good results (as in the case of Anarchists Against the Wall).

As a point of interest, at least one (I understand) SWP member doesn’t feel obliged stand for the kind of opprobrium anti-boycotters obliged to field to on a regular basis – see how JohnG backs away from a debate:

“… its just ridiculous responding to people who just repeat slur after slur as their preferred means of debate. aside from anything else its a debasement of the value of a public culture.”

Aside from whether or not he had a good point, I have nothing but heartfelt empathy with the sentiment. Between May and October I was obliged to participate in a stale, futile, stupid debate in which boycott enthusiasts rushed to heap as much condemnation as possible on Israel in advance of local voting in October. Now there’s a chink of hope that I might be able to back away myself.

Although maybe not so fast – anti-Israel activism still live and dangerous in UCU. They write stuff like this and UCU’s response is inadequate. Would you turn your back on it?

*Boycott buzzwords. Words I don’t want to hear or use again for a very long time even if I have to paraphrase with 5 or 6 other words instead.

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