Responding to the Boycott
By Shalom Lappin, June 3, 2007
The Secretary General of the UCU, Sally Hunt, described the motions on the academic boycott of Israel passed at the UCU conference on May 30 as constituting not a decision to boycott, but a call for discussion of the boycott in the union's branches. In the article describing the conference vote on these proposals, which appears on the UCU website, she is quoted as saying:
Today's motion on boycott means all branches now have a responsibility to consult all of their members on the issue and I believe that every member should have the opportunity to have their say. The earlier motion means that any future calls for a boycott must pass key tests before a boycott can [be] implemented.This is a thorough misrepresentation of the conference motions. Resolution 30, adopted by a vote of 158 for, 99 opposed, with 17 abstentions, states, inter alia:
Congress instructs the NEC toResolution 31A, introduced by the University of Birmingham branch and carried, calls for:
* circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
* encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
* organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
* issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.
3. A moratorium on research and cultural collaborations with Israel via EU and European Science Foundation funding until Israel abides by UN resolutions.The 'Palestinian boycott call' that Resolution 30 refers to is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) statement. This statement justifies its boycott call by characterizing Israel as a colonial and apartheid state from its creation in 1948, and by virtue of its 'Zionist ideology'. The motions adopted at the UCU conference do not propose an open debate of a possible boycott of Israel. They commit the union to promoting PACBI's proposal throughout its branches in the UK during the coming academic year, with a view to implementing it at the end of this process. The UCU has, then, voted to sponsor the PACBI campaign on British university campuses.
It is important to understand precisely what the PACBI boycott call entails. It is not an instrument for criticizing Israeli government policy or an effort to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory beyond its 1967 borders. This movement does not seek a peace between Israelis and Palestinians within the framework of a two-state solution. It is an integral part of a rejectionist programme to dismantle Israel as a country. The architects of the campaign to support the PACBI boycott call within the UCU are perfectly aware of its nature, and have never concealed its objectives.
The executive of the UCU, and its predecessors within the AUT, have been systematically diffident and disingenuous in dealing with this campaign. While claiming to reject it, they have carefully avoided robust opposition and refrained from acknowledging its intent. This is characteristic of the consistently weak and incompetent leadership that they have provided on this issue.
The supporters of the boycott are fond of comparing it to the boycott of apartheid South Africa. It has been shown on many occasions that the analogy does not hold. Apartheid was a legal system designed to exclude a large majority of citizens from equal participation in the institutions of their own country, on racial grounds. The objective of the boycott, and the anti-apartheid campaign of which it was an element, was not to eliminate South Africa as a country, but to enfranchise all of its citizens. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a conflict between two national groups, clearly distinguished by language, history, and culture. In the course of this dispute, each national group has sought to subordinate the other. Neither wishes to share sovereignty with its adversary, nor do they see themselves as citizens of a common polity. The wars that this conflict has produced have resulted in the dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians. A just and rational solution requires that these effects be corrected within a framework that secures the right of both peoples to independence, peace, and security. The PACBI boycott campaign regards such a resolution of the conflict as unacceptable. Instead it seeks to reverse the current situation by subjecting the Israelis to the occupation and dispossession that the Palestinians have suffered.
The deeply dishonest comparison between the PACBI boycott campaign and the anti-apartheid movement conceals a fact that should be obvious. This campaign is a direct extension of the long-standing Arab League boycott of Israel. The latter was, interestingly, first declared in 1945 as a boycott of the Jewish businesses, goods, and services of the Yishuv (the Jewish community) in Palestine. That it was instituted several years prior to the creation of Israel and the 1948 war, which generated the Palestinian refugee problem, clearly demonstrates that this boycott was directed at a politically autonomous Jewish collectivity in Palestine, rather than against any particular government policy or action.
After Israel came into being, the Arab League boycott was administered by the Central Boycott Office in Damascus. It was pursued as a technique of economic warfare that formed part of the Arab League's general effort to delegitimize Israel and bring about its demise. It was rigorously applied, but with limited success, until the 1980s, when it started to dissipate. In 1977 the United States Congress adopted anti-boycott sanctions proposed by President Carter. These imposed fines and tax penalties on companies collaborating with the boycott - measures that played a significant role in undermining the boycott's effectiveness.
The rise of the boycott campaign in British professional unions coincides with their precipitous decline as effective agents of collective bargaining and industrial democracy. The constituent predecessors of the UCU, the AUT and NATFHE, had consistently failed to address the long-term decline in academic salaries and deep under-investment in UK universities. They showed themselves to be largely impotent in their attempts to protect their members' wages and working conditions. While tuition fees have soared, the government has made no serious attempt to correct the deterioration that threatens British institutions of higher education. It has also recently imposed deep cuts on research funding. The impresarios of the annual boycott hunt that now pollutes the UCU (and other professional unions in this country) have substituted the campaign against Israel for serious union activity addressing these issues.
It is important to note that the boycott is sui generis. It is not part of a general policy of expression of solidarity with oppressed people around the world. Victims of human rights abuse on a far larger scale than those of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are pointedly ignored. When critics of the boycott draw attention to this inconsistency of concern, their objections are impatiently dismissed as a pernicious exercise in distraction from the 'real problem'. The boycott is also not an exercise in labour movement internationalism. The large numbers of academics and journalists who are persecuted in other countries arouse no apparent interest among the leaders of the boycott campaign. Nor are they in any way sympathetic to the idea of working with labour unions and colleagues on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in order to promote reconciliation and common action for a two-state solution. In fact the PACBI campaign explicitly rules out such an approach by refusing to cooperate with anyone who supports it.
Several people have suggested that the boycott resolutions of the UCU and other unions are ineffective, and so need not be taken seriously. It is true that these resolutions have not interfered with institutional scientific cooperation between Israel and Britain. However, it would be foolishly insouciant to treat them as unimportant. The primary purpose of the boycott campaign is not to change Israeli government policy but to undermine the legitimacy of Israel as a country. It aims to isolate, not its political leaders and policy makers, but its people as a whole. It is, then, a form of branding which seeks to mark a group of people as social outcasts. The main damage that it does is to provide cover for acts of blatant discrimination against Israeli academics, committed by individual researchers acting as journal editors, conference organizers, tenure or appointment consultants, and in similar roles. We have seen several high profile cases of such individual boycott actions within the UK over the past seven years. This trend is likely to gather momentum if the boycott campaign continues unchecked.
In the end, the boycott is a far greater threat to the Jewish community in Britain than it is to Israeli academics. The latter will sustain robust research and teaching careers through a multitude of international connections that do not involve British institutions. Boycott actions constitute, at most, an unpleasant inconvenience for them. Alternative venues for publication and joint research can, in most cases, be easily arranged. However, British Jewish academics (and British Jews in general) will increasingly find themselves facing a stark choice. Either they endorse the boycott campaign and dance to its tune (as a number of prominent Jewish public figures have noisily done), or they face the prospect of being identified as Israel's supporters, with the public exclusion that this entails. Cowering in fearful silence will offer increasingly limited protection against a movement determined to make the Israel-Palestine conflict the defining issue on which one's claim to moral and political decency depends. In a polarizing environment of this sort, the fabric of normal collegial relations and academic life begins to unravel. This emerging dilemma is a reflection of the increasing isolation into which the British Jewish community at large is being forced.
The boycott campaign is largely the preserve of political extremists. That it has proven so resilient and effective in penetrating professional unions is due to the fact that it has encountered little active resistance within the mainstream. This is part of a larger pattern in which the obsessive hatred and demonization of Israel as a country has moved from the margins of the far right and the far left into the broad centre of public discourse through an ongoing stream of negative comment in the press. While much of this comment contains entirely legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies and actions, the image of Israel as an irredeemably criminal country has gained increasing currency across the political spectrum. This image now informs a set of largely unquestioned assumptions that define the parameters for much discussion on the Middle East in Britain.
People who do not share these assumptions have remained largely silent and aloof from the debate. Senior political leaders, labour union officials, journalists, cultural figures, academics, and university administrators have done little if anything to counteract the rise of the narrative that identifies Israel as a latter day junior Nazi state, even when issuing the occasional pious criticism. The rank-and-file memberships of the UCU and other unions have tired of the boycott spectacle, convinced that it has nothing to do with them. Most now simply stand aside, allowing the boycott advocates to stampede their conferences. As a result, small groups like Engage and their supporters have been left largely on their own to struggle against this narrative. The Jewish community, with its historically timid leadership, has offered low-key support from the sidelines, but it continues to avoid seriously confronting the problem, in the hope that it will subside, as in the past.
How, then, should we resist the boycott campaign and the toxic movement of delegitimization that it represents? It should be abundantly clear by now that entreating boycott supporters to adopt alternative methods for criticizing Israel's occupation of the Palestinians is entirely beside the point. Given the objectives of the boycott, attempts to persuade its advocates that a campaign which targets only Israel is unjust, undermining a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, are misdirected. It should also be apparent that while large numbers of union members may oppose the boycott, our efforts to prevent it through debates within the union have not moved them to take action against it.
By remaining in the UCU we allow its executive to claim that it is representative of a large membership with diverse views on the boycott. It also permits them to use our membership dues to finance the PACBI campaign endorsed by the conference resolution. It is time that we acknowledged the fact that the UCU (and other professional associations that adopt boycott resolutions, like the NUJ) have abandoned their role as labour unions committed to furthering the concerns of their workers. Instead they have chosen to grandstand on the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a form of ersatz militancy. The recent resolutions were not a mistake, or the result of a temporary lack of attention by the broader membership. We have had three boycott motions in the past four years, one of them overturned in 2005 after a grassroots campaign in the branches. The members of the UCU were fully aware of the boycott campaign and the likelihood that boycott motions would pass at this year's conference. They also had the precedent of the NUJ motion prominently displayed before them.
To remain in the UCU, and to continue to plead on bended knee for a reversal of the resolutions is as demeaning as it is inefficient. We can no longer afford to allow the boycott advocates to dictate the rules of the engagement, nor can we permit them to consume our very limited resources of time and energy in an endless round of defensive explanations. We should resign from the union immediately to avoid further collaborating with it in its role as sponsor of the boycott campaign.
While resigning from the UCU is a well-motivated course of action at this point, we also require a strategy for combating the boycott from outside the union, that will be more effective than the one we have been deploying within it. The key to devising such a strategy is, I think, exposing the boycott as a campaign for discrimination, precisely like the Arab League boycott, in which it has its roots. The purpose of the boycott is to disenfranchise an entire national group and ostracize its members, rather than to achieve a just solution to a conflict between two nations. Given this view, the task of an anti-boycott movement is to combat it through political action and legal constraints, as one does with other sorts of unwarranted discrimination. Specifically, we need to launch a counter-boycott that targets agencies of the boycott and organizations that cooperate with it.
What will the counter-boycott look like? I suggest the following two components. First, we should encourage our colleagues and all organizations (in Britain and abroad) to break their ties with any union or agency that adopts a boycott resolution of the kind that UCU or the NUJ has passed. We should include in the class of such resolutions those aimed at Israel in general, rather than, say, the products of settlements in the occupied territories. We are concerned with boycotts that deny Israel's legitimacy and conform to the Arab League model, rather than targeted boycotts aimed at particular Israeli practices. It is also imperative that the counter-boycott not be applied to individuals, regardless of their political views or their support of the boycott. Its focus should be institutions and organizations that engage in discriminatory behaviour.
Second, we should invite agencies and institutions that have not declared their position on the boycott to adopt a policy of non-discrimination that excludes the primary provisions of the boycott. In January 2003 the Linguistics Society of America adopted a non-discrimination statement in response to the first (unsuccessful) AUT boycott motion earlier that year. Its text offers a model for such a policy.
Linguistic Society of AmericaThis statement provides an economical, but effective defence against discrimination directed at Israeli academics under cover of the boycott. It does not mention the boycott or Israel, and so it can be used against a campaign directed at any national group and seeking to exclude people on the basis of their citizenship or country of residence. It is a natural extension of existing anti-discrimination laws that rule out unequal treatment for racial, religious, ethnic, or sexual reasons. Refusal to endorse a suitably customized version of this statement can reasonably be taken as evidence of support for the boycott. Therefore, an organization that will not commit itself to this policy should be subject to the counter-boycott.
Resolution: opposition to all discrimination and political sanctions against scholars on the basis of religion or ethnicity
3 January 2003: Approved by members attending the 77th Annual Business Meeting, Atlanta Hilton, Atlanta, Georgia
1 July 2003: Adopted by LSA membership in a mail ballot
Whereas there have been calls for and instances of boycotts of individual scholars (faculty, students, and administration) and their universities, in response to the actions and policies of the governments of the countries or regions where these scholars work, or to the scholars' religion or ethnicity,
Let it be resolved that the Linguistic Society of America opposes all discrimination and political sanctions against scholars in any aspect of professional life (such as employment, publications, promotion, conference participation, educational exchanges, and research collaboration), where such discrimination is based not on the conduct of the scholars themselves, but solely on the scholars' religion or ethnicity, or on the actions or policies of the countries or regions in which these scholars live and work, or of which they are citizens. Such boycotts violate the principle of free scientific interaction and cooperation, and they constitute arbitrary and selective applications of collective punishment.
Pursuing a counter-boycott organized along these lines will allow the opponents of the boycott to take the initiative and redefine the nature of the struggle. If the counter-boycott is successful, it will inflict a significant cost on agents of the boycott by marginalizing them in the manner in which they have sought to isolate Israeli academics and their supporters. Crucially, it shifts the terms of the debate over the boycott from a misconceived and pernicious analogy with opposition to apartheid South Africa, to a comparison of the counter-boycott with the struggle against racist and sexist exclusion.
The counter-boycott should not be limited to an effort to persuade universities and academic institutions to endorse a non-discrimination statement. We should also be pressing public and private funding bodies to insist on adherence to this policy as a condition for providing research grants to organizations. It should be the centrepiece of a generalized offensive against the boycott campaign.
Many people have suggested that the boycott resolutions passed by the UCU and NUJ are gestures with purely symbolic significance. That this is true should offer no consolation. It is in the very symbolic nature of these actions that their acutely toxic character resides. They are expressions of a growing movement to cast Israel and those who insist on its right to exist in the role of criminal pariah. Behind these resolutions flows a torrent of deep and obsessive hostility to the country, its people, and anyone associated with it. In a few short years this attitude has moved from the margins of the political spectrum into the mainstream of British political life. Our only hope for responding effectively is to engage the large reservoirs of moderate British opinion in the struggle against this hostility by exposing it for what it is. This requires us to approach fair-minded people with a call to stand against it that they cannot easily set aside. (Shalom Lappin, King’s College, London)
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