When nothing but a boycott of Israel will do

The latest in the series of diversions created by the academic boycott campaign to draw attention away from the decision that their boycott and therefore the union was wide of the law is Hammam Farah’s UCU: Between Boycott and Apartheid.

The title is a fair indicator of the article – if you’re not in favour of the boycott then you’re a supporter of “apartheid, oppression, and colonial aggression” and moreover, according to the narcissistic strap, history will judge you that way. There’s hardly any need to read on, except it’s an indication of the direction the boycott campaign is taking since being derailed at the end of September. Basically, mutiny and – you may be surprised to learn that it’s possible – a pledge to intensify condemnation of Israel.

Firstly it was common knowledge that UCU leaders were seeking legal advice and boycotters didn’t complain at the time. Possibly they assumed, like everyone else, that the advice was intended to help UCU avoid falling foul of anti-discrimination law. Maybe some believe that the principle of union freedom trumps the law, but were prepared to turn a blind eye to the advice as long as it went their way. But when the boycott turned out to be unsupportable legally as well as ethically, Farah inexplicably accuses the leadership of “hypocrisy” and being the “sole violator of academic freedom”. He, like many other pro-boycotters, hastily dismisses advice he hasn’t even seen, and advice which there is good reason to take seriously.

No more persuasion – this piece is a snap to heel for any waverers who might be entertaining the idea that the boycott is racist in effect and, in the singular devotion it inspires, sometimes even in intent. “No, no, no, no, don’t let the anti-racists pull the wool over your eyes, look over here – look at the injustice, the homelessness, the blood, the guns, the children. Are you furious? Yes? Well forget peace talks – we have to boycott the Zionist devils*. Entirely. Now.”

The piece then attempts to disengage us from our critical faculties with another long list of Israel’s alleged evils. It’s right to be angry about the dispossession of Palestinians and the harassment, interference and violence they have to endure, and right to protest the enormous disparity between their life prospects and those of citizens in neighbouring countries, as well as how comparatively poorly Palestinian Israelis fare on many social and economic indicators. It’s right to scrutinise the role of Israeli policies in these circumstances. Like Farah, the anti-boycott campaign Engage has drawn attention to the student occupational therapists denied the right to travel to their placement sites, as well as other cases of interference with Palestinians’ right to participate in higher education.

But campaigners like Farah try to persuade us that we have no choice about how our protest should be channelled. To boycotters, opposing the separation wall is just cosmetic. They regard peace and trust-building efforts as suspect. Campaigning for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a dispicable sell-out. To them, any contact whatsoever with Israelis constitutes ‘normalization’. All they say and do implies that they want one state but, undermining as it is to all efforts to bring reassurance, trust, and coexistence to the region, their boycott strategy can only lead to conflict. And signficantly, they won’t be drawn into discussions about Hamas or Hizballah.

It’s obvious that the efforts of people like Farah to agitate us are not for the sake of stimulating creative anti-occupation thinking – they’re part of an exclusionary and hate-filled agenda to make us boycott Israel. This is why boycotters ignore assaults on Palestinians by entities other than Israel, such as Lebanon’s repeated and fatal incursions to rout Fatah al-Islam from the Nahr el-Bard Palestinian refugee camp, the violent repression prosecuted by Hamas, the condemnation by Amnesty International of the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live in neighbouring states. And it’s also why they find positive links and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, such as One Million Voices and York University’s Stop The Hate event so intolerable.

Boycotters also realise that it’s wrong to ignore, among other situations, the violence and displacement in Darfur, the repression of Burmese, Chinese and Zimbabwean dissidents, and the intimidation and imprisonment of ‘collaborating’ academics in Iran. To cement our special concern for Palestinians and to ensure that it’s expressed only as condemnation of Israelis, boycotters exaggerate a case for Palestinians which should and does speak for itself. Consequently a proportion of the claims in Farah’s piece are false and others are spurious.

It isn’t true, for example, that UCU’s lawyers recommended that “even debates on the issue at the union’s meetings should be silenced” – UCU Trustee Fawzi Ibrahim disillusioned us of this nearly four weeks ago. UCU members remain free to continue the debate and hold regional meetings ans even the speaking tour is going ahead, rescheduled for Spring. Farah’s references to “muzzling” and “suppression” are groundless.

Equally groundless is his “fair demand” to know who provided the legal advice – since October 1st we’ve known that it came from Anthony Lester QC (architect of the 1976 Race Relations act, co-founder of the Commission for Racial Equality) and Anthony White QC of Matrix Chambers. A third legal opinion may have been sought in addition. It is fair, however, to ask to see the advice.

As well as inveighing against non-existent UCU policies, Farah reheats old charges against the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose expansion was exaggerated in 2005 to strengthen that year’s boycott campaign. These charges were thoroughly refuted by HUJ and boycott was consequently abandoned. Why do Hammam and others irresponsibly persist in making them? His other charges against Israeli institutions are unsubstantiated – does he imply, for example, that Haifa is discriminatory in applying its own regulations and this is why there is such a high proportion of Palestinian Israelis facing disciplinary action? He takes no responsibility for clarifying this.

So when Farah grandly offers us a place in history if we only “dedicate more time to disseminating the painful details of this … apartheid” we should avoid following his bad example. And it’s probably a good idea to note that, in the absence of any improvements for Palestinians as a result of this series of boycott campaigns in recent years, for UCU it has wasted time, wasted money, wasted effort and risked us being taken to court. The discriminatory boycott proposed would have made the UCU vulnerable, and the decision to request and take legal advice and prevent it – effectively making it the responsibility of individuals – should be recognised as the right decision by everyone. It also leaves UCU free to pursue more constructive ways of supporting Palestinians.

*See Nicola Teixeira’s 2006 coverage of York University’s ‘Stop the Hate’ event for the university’s Excalibur magazine, ‘Stop the hate’ campaign turns hateful.

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