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Say no to an eye for an eye

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Different people, different countries, different approaches

Commentary by Andre Oboler, ZOTW Special

While I feel this article is a valuable contribution to the debate, I must say that I disagree with it. While David's position and actions are very constructive from a left perspective. I also think the ADL's actions are constructive from a non UK (and non left) perspective. They were not the only ones to propose such a boycott of the boycotters, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has done the same (and possibly first!)[1].

While this might not be a valid leftist position, not everyone is a leftist. It takes all sorts of action for all sorts of people. For a US academic, refusing to review a paper by Richard Seaford [2] [3] might be decent and positive action, though you may morally object.

Boycotting an academic for discrimination in their academic duties and role within the academic community may for many be morally justified, where as a boycott based on nationality and political beliefs never is. The difference is that for such a boycott to be legitimate only academics who have ACTUALLY boycotted other academics would qualify. This is not thought police (as the boycott's list is) but rather repercussion for actions within academia which are (for legitimate reasons related to academia) unacceptable to the community.

[1] http://www.zionismontheweb.org/academic_boycott/UK_boycott_redolent_of_Nazi_campaign.htm
[2] http://www.zionismontheweb.org/academic_boycott/an_academic_boycott_is_on.htm
[3] http://www.zionismontheweb.org/academic_boycott/seaford_boycotts_israel.htm

Say no to an eye for an eye

Source: David Hirsh on Comment is Free

2nd June 2006

We need to defeat the arguments for an 'academic intifada', not behave as if the brownshirts have taken over British universities.

My daughter is five and she knows what a Likudnik is. Well, kind of. If I catch her kicking her little brother, and I tell her she is not allowed to hit people, she will say: "Well, he started it." And my answer to that will be: "We're not Likudniks, you know."

Fortunately, she is still (just about) young enough not to be embarrassed by her Dad's lame and repetitive jokes.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is not five, but it does seem to be inspired by Likud's traditional strategy of taking revenge: you hit us, we'll hit you back harder; you hit us again, we'll hit you back again, harder.

ADL's response to the "academic intifada" is like Likud's response to the real intifada. Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director, said:: "We call on the entire academic sector in the United States to cut funding, support and contact with any academic who advocates a boycott of Israel."

The intifada is real and serious. It is a misconceived, politically counter-productive and desperate response to the violence of the Israeli occupation; and the violence of the Israeli occupation is a misconceived, politically counter-productive and desperate response to the violence of the intifada.

The "academic intifada" is an infantile parody of the real thing, and now the ADL has responded with a parody of the Likud tit-for-tat strategy.

The ADL's revenge comes complete with a new McCarthyite threat to academic and intellectual freedom. It is true that Israel-boycotters who take discriminatory action should be subjected to the normal disciplinary procedures that follow acts of unfair discrimination in universities. the But ADL is trying to organise a campaign to exclude academics on the basis of their beliefs, not their actions.

The ADL proudly claims to be "the world's leading organisation fighting anti-semitism through programmes and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry" But in its response to the Natfhe decision, it shows itself fundamentally to misunderstand the way contemporary anti-semitism on the left operates. This programme will do nothing to counteract hatred, prejudice or bigotry.

The ADL is right that the kind of boycott approved by Natfhe is in its effect, antisemitic. But it is quite wrong if it believes that people who "advocate" such a boycott are motivated by anti-semitism or understand the ways in which their advocacy licenses and facilitates the emergence of anti-semitic discourses and movements.

We need to win arguments, not to denounce and punish people for the crime of anti-semitism. We need to win the argument against the academic boycott campaign within the University and College Union (UCU) so that we can defeat it at the conference in June 2007. I am confident that this is possible. And we need to win wider arguments on the left and in academic and political discourse more generally about the contemporary version of what Bebel called the "socialism of fools", which is the "anti-imperialism of idiots".

There is a small clique of hard-core boycotters who cannot be won over. But the reason that they win votes at conferences is that there is a significant periphery that is seduced by its case. There are many people who are angered by Israel's treatment of Palestinians who accept on face value the dishonest analogy between Israel and South Africa. We need to show why "Zionism" is not apartheid; we need to persuade people that a boycott would do nothing to help end the occupation; we need to make people understand how the singling out of Israel and the demonising rhetoric of "anti-Zionism" leads towards anti-semitism.

The ADL shows little sign of understanding how to win this battle, either on the level of votes or on the level of discourse. It ludicrously claims the credit for reversing last year's boycott decision in the AUT. ("Only after ADL supporters and others around the globe expressed their outrage was a re-vote held and the boycott rescinded.") This extravagant claim mirrors the boycotters' allegation that the policy was overturned not by AUT members but by the global Zionist lobby. The ADL is arguing for this new boycott at a moment when the AUT has made it clear that it will oppose the boycott within the UCU. We need to win a vote next June, not behave as though the brownshirts have come to power in British universities.

And the ADL shows no understanding of the bigger political and ideological arguments that need to be won against a worldview that divides the planet into camps and waves the national flags of those in the "anti-imperialist" camp. There is a widespread left common sense developing that subordinates struggles for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, women's rights, lesbian and gay rights and rights for minorities to the global struggle against US led "imperialism". And in this worldview, Israel is positioned, for some, at the very vanguard of all that is evil in the world. That is where contemporary left ambivalence to anti-semitism comes from.

The ADL simply waves the Israeli flag in response to those on the left who wave the Palestinian flag, and it retaliates in kind with a McCarthyite boycott. The hard-core boycotters would like nothing better than to be targeted by what they will characterise as the world Zionist conspiracy: for them, it will be a badge of honour. And many people who are seduced by some of what they say will be further persuaded by this apparent confirmation.

The reason that left anti-semitism is such a crucially pivotal issue for our times is that only a consistent anti-racist politics can see off anti-semitism. If the left does not learn how to fight anti-semitism, then Jews are in big trouble because only an egalitarian and inclusive politics can defeat racism.

To defeat the boycott and to challenge the politics behind the boycott we need to fight for a way of thinking that arms people in Palestine and people in Israel who are fighting for peace and a better future. And globally, we need to fight for a way of thinking that goes inside national, ethnic and religious divisions and arms those fighting for their human, democratic, legal and sexual rights - as well as for their right not to live in poverty.

Communal organizations such as the ADL do not have to be unsophisticated nationalist flag-wavers. Jewish communities in the US have a strong, rich tradition of supporting the left and of reaching out to other communities - classically in the civil rights movement but also in the Jewish labour movement. The ADL itself has been involved in the campaign to reach out to the communities in Darfur that are, at this moment, facing genocide.

American Jews should organise against anti-semitism, but they should do it with a more intelligent and more egalitarian politics than the one that ADL has resorted to this week. This does not mean timidity. It is a strength, not a weakness, of the ADL that it responds loudly and militantly to anti-semitism. But what you say is as important as how you say it.

Respect is at the forefront of trying politically to organise Muslim communities in the UK. It is doing this spectacularly badly, but with some limited organisational success. It is dangerous because it appeals to every inward-looking communal prejudice that it thinks will garner support.

Muslim communities in the UK need to organise against Islamophobia, but they need to do so on a consistently anti-racist and egalitarian basis, not by fostering a way of thinking that blames Israel and "the Zionists" for the anti-Muslim racism that Bengalis endure daily in Bethnal Green - in the very same streets in Bethnal Green where the Jews faced off the British Union of Fascists in an alliance with the British left in the late 1930s.

Communal self-defence does not have to scapegoat others, it does not have to pander to bigotry, it does not have to wrap itself in national flags and it does not have to adopt the politics and methods of those that threaten the community.

Our links relevent to this article

Simon Wiesenthal Center: Press Release: Ban all grants to boycotters
AUT: Press Release: AUT does not endorse this policy
AJ6: Press Release: The Association of Jewish Sixthformers “dismayed” by NATFHE boycott
SPME Press Release: SPME Strongly Condemns the Boycott / Blacklist of Israeli Scholars 29/5/06
ADL Press Release: ADL Slams British Academic Boycott Policy 29/5/06
Spare us the analogies, Brian Klug, 30/5/06
INN: Sharp Reactions to UK Teacher Vote to Boycott Israel Academia 29/5/06
BLOG: Normblog - Vote of shame
Ynet: Britain slams Israel academic boycott 29/5/06
Ynet: UK educators shun Israeli academics 29/5/06
AP: British academics' union votes to boycott Israeli academics 29/5/06
BLOG: Adloyada - Surprise, surprise: NATFHE passes boycott motion
The Inter-Senate Committee of the Israeli Universities for the defense of Academic Freedom
Prof Steinberg addresses the UK National Postgraduate Committee on the topic of Academic Freedom
A boycott is already on
Israel boycott resurfaces in NATFHE - AWL
NATFHE: Chuck out 198C! - Jon Pike (Engage)
Academic Friends of Israel situation update from 25/5/06
The Peace Vigil Page, the protest against the AUT boycott
Al-Quds University - Hebrew University. Cooperation Agreement
Principles of Palestinian-Israeli Cooperation
National Postgraduate Committee Says: Don't take Academia Hostage

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