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Academic boycotts of Israel are part of the problem not the solution

October 6, 2009 – 11:18 am12 Comments
Statement on the British cultural boycott in the New York Times*

Statement on the British cultural boycott in the New York Times*

by Philip Mendes

The last few weeks have seen a revival of the previously dormant Australian campaign for an academic boycott of Israel.

Jake Lynch, a former UK journalist recently appointed Director of the Sydney University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), convened a meeting at Sydney University on 15 September to propose an end to institutional ties between the University and two Israeli universities, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion in Haifa.

His initiative was supported by 22 signatures from other academics including most prominently Stuart Rees, Director of CPACS; Kenneth McNab, President of CPACS, and retired academic John Docker. Lynch invited Antony Loewenstein and Docker, two anti-Zionist fundamentalists of Jewish origin, to address the meeting in favour of an academic boycott.

Suzanne Rutland, the Head of Jewish Studies at Sydney University, was given a few minutes in question time to speak against the proposed boycott. She was supported by other academics and students. By all accounts it was a fiery and polarized meeting. Lynch later said he would continue to try to persuade Sydney Uni and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to endorse a boycott.

He is unlikely to succeed on either count. The Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Michael Spence, has stated publicly that “The University does not consider it appropriate to boycott academic institutions in a country with which Australia has diplomatic relations”. The NTEU previously stated in November 2002 that they would not be endorsing any boycott proposal.

The key principles against an academic boycott were recently discussed by Nick Dyrenfurth and myself in The Australian (“Racism risk in calls for Israeli boycott”, 19 September) and will only be rehashed briefly here.

Firstly, an academic boycott of Israelis alone is discriminatory given that it is based on an ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis as exceptionally evil, and is implicitly if not explicitly racist. This was acknowledged by the UK University and College Union in September 2007 when they withdrew their boycott campaign on legal advice that it was an infringement of anti-discrimination legislation. It is only fascists and xenophobes who classify whole peoples as inherently bad or inferior.

Secondly, the UK experience confirms that a boycott campaign will inevitably lead to a demonization of all those who support Israel’s right to exist whatever their political perspective on the West Bank settlements. In practice, this means a boycott of the overwhelming majority of Jews. As the leading left-wing UK philosopher and convenor of the anti-boycott Engage group David Hirsh has noted (here):

The Campaign to exclude Israelis from our campuses brings with it a toxic atmosphere. People who oppose the boycott are portrayed as pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist, pro-apartheid, uncaring of Palestinian suffering…And most of the people thus accused are Jews. With the campaign to exclude Israelis comes a campaign to libel Jewish academics and Jewish union members; Jewish students too.

Thirdly, the key boycotters are not internationalist advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. They are rather unconditional supporters of Palestinian nationalism. They favour the dissolution of the existing State of Israel and its replacement with an exclusivist ethno-religious Arab/Islamic state of Greater Palestine.

The key agenda of this paper, however, is not to provide a philosophical criticism of the boycott proposal. Rather, it is concerned with exposing how the boycotters use their one-sided pro-Palestinian bias to misrepresent the reality of the Middle East. For the simplistic construction by the boycotters of all Israelis as evil oppressors (to be blamed and punished) and all Palestinians as innocent victims (to be patronisingly protected from any critical analysis) is completely out of touch with the real events of the last ten years.

Until mid 2000, most of the Israeli Left and the Jewish Left worldwide including myself assumed that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and associated settlements were the key barriers to the implementation of a peaceful two state solution. We might call this the “root causes” of the conflict theory. But that theory was undermined by the following seminal events:

  1. The Palestinian Authority’s rejection of the two state proposals introduced at Camp David in July 2000, and subsequently improved on in various forms by US President Clinton culminating in the unsuccessful Taba negotiations of January 2001, and later the rejection of Prime Minister Olmert’s similar proposal in September 2008;
  2. Palestinian demands during and subsequent to these negotiations for a return of 1948 refugees not to the proposed Palestinian State, but rather to Green Line Israel, a demand completely incompatible with any commitment to a two-state solution;
  3. The outbreak of the violent intifada in September 2000 which was really an undeclared war against the Israeli Green Line civilian population including the long parade of suicide bombings. These bombings reached their apex in March 2002. During that horrible month, there were eight separate suicide attacks resulting in the deaths of 63 people and many hundreds injured. The final straw was the attack on the Passover seder in Netanya’s Park Hotel which killed 30 people and injured 140. This attack provoked the Israeli invasion of the leading West Bank cities in an attempt to destroy the terror networks, and stop the carnage. Yet the first Australian boycott petition was ironically initated by Ghassan Hage and John Docker immediately after this invasion in May 2002. Their clear purpose was to blame the Israeli victims of terror, and defend the Palestinian perpetrators;
  4. The ongoing rocket attacks on the Israeli border town of Sderot which only increased in intensity after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In short, I now believe that the absolutist nature of Palestinian political culture is as significant, if not more significant than the Israeli West Bank settlements, in precluding a compromise deal. And hardly anybody today
believes that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is likely in lieu of commensurate radical changes in attitude on the Palestinian side to bring peace. To be sure, I still believe that the Israelis should withdraw and eventually will withdraw from most of the West Bank to facilitate a lasting two-state solution, but this will only happen as part of an internationally supported peace package that addresses violence, extremism, and national and religious prejudice on both sides.

Today, the Israelis and Palestinians are sadly engaged in a process of mutual destruction.

The Israelis fear that any political or territorial concessions will only be used by the Palestinians to initiate further violence. They associate the suicide bombings with the Oslo peace process, and link the rocket attacks to the withdrawal from Gaza. Consequently, they have elected a government which is ideologically opposed to real compromise and implicitly acts as the political arm of the settlers movement.

The Palestinians are desperate in that they have gained little from years of political and ideological struggle, and believe that the Israelis plan to take over what is left of their national inheritance. Consequently, they have turned to Hamas and other violent groups which favour terror as the first rather than last resort, and oppose any co-existence with Israel.

In this context, the last thing we need are boycotters who demonise one side of the conflict as if they are Collingwood supporters barracking against Carlton or vica versa. Their infantile slogans will only perpetuate the conflict. Rather, we need dispassionate mediators who can build new bridges between the currently irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian narratives to find a compromise solution.

Dr Philip Mendes is an advisory editor of Engage, the left-wing academic group which campaigned successfully against academic boycott proposals in the UK. He is also a long-time member of the NTEU.

* Image uploaded by j-go & erango in the cungo

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Previous coverage on the proposed academic boycott in Galus Australis:

  • Letter from Australian Jewish academics – boycott unjust and counterproductive
  • Michael Danby argues that boycotters are hypocrites

Previous coverage on cultural boycotts in Galus Australis:

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