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Why I am against the AUT Boycott of Israeli Universities

John Strawson, Reader in Law, UEL 

Engage, May 4, 2005


The AUT Israel boycott has raised a great many issues; the right to education in Palestine, academics’ role in ending the Israeli occupation, Zionism, Anti-Semitism and academic freedom. All are issues of critical importance. This short paper attempts to outline my response to some of these issues, as an academic whose work focuses on the Middle East and Islam and who has a commitment to Palestinian education. For the past ten years I have been associated with Birzeit University through the European Consortium that supports the Institute of Law. This involves some academics mainly in Belgium and Britain who have been assisting in the teaching on a law masters program and increasingly becoming involved in research collaboration. Teaching at Birzeit over these years, I am fully aware of the impact of the occupation on education: checkpoints, roadblocks, violent settlers, IDF patrols, curfews, closures, military attacks – the re-occupation of the cities after 2000. In solidarity with my colleagues in Birzeit I think that generally I cannot accept invitations to Israeli universities until such time as they can accept such invitations on the same basis as I can – i.e. without having to apply for special permission. I am very aware that Palestinian academics have a range of views on whether an academic boycott against Israel is correct. I think it is most likely that the majority do favor some from of boycott. However, the Palestine Liberation Movement does not have that as its policy. Although I am privileged to be associated with the Institute of Law at Birzeit, I want to make it clear that my views on the boycott are not meant to have any special authority as a result, not to imply that they are in accord with the university or any members of its staff.

My Starting Point

My work on law and postcolonialism on the Palestine-Israeli conflict has always argued that the Palestinian predicament is the result of late colonialism in the region. In this the international community (via the League of Nations, the United Nations – now the Roadmap Quartet), the British and the Israeli state have all played their part. The Palestinians were first marginalized legally (Balfour Declaration and the Mandate) and then actually dispossessed – a process that continues with the settlements, the road system and the wall in the occupied territories. Palestinians have suffered the fate of peoples who have been victims of colonialism, much territory has been lost and new identities have been assigned. Drawing out the political implications of this process is, however, highly complex. The starting point in 2005 must be that some 5.2 million Israeli Jews and some 4.6 million Palestinians live in what was British Mandate Palestine, and are not going to leave. In addition some 3.75 million Palestinians live outside as refugees (UN figures, 2003) whose need to have their exile ended must be addressed. Arguments about whether or not Israel should or should not have been created are now quite irrelevant and should rank along side such historical questions as ‘should the United States have been created?’ or ‘Are Turks the legitimate inhabitants of Anatolia?’


Zionism, like all national narratives, cannot be reduced to one essentialist singular account. Zionism is contingent to the Palestinians’ fate which is why various Zionist discourses attempt to address the issue of justice for the Palestinians. This is in some ways analogous to the ways in which trends within Australian society approach the issue of justice for Aboriginals. There is a specific difference in that the origins of Jewish settlement in modern Palestine (I am not referring to the large, mainly religious communities continuously existing in Jerusalem, Safed and Hebron prior to 1917) is connected to the oppression of European Jews. The migration to Palestine was facilitated by British imperial policy (Balfour Declaration etc) but was not caused by it. In fact the Jewish population of Palestine fell immediately after the arrival of the British and only really grew significantly after Hitler came to power. Despite the language of colonialism deployed by the Yishuv and the Zionist movement, ‘pioneer,’ ‘agricultural colonies,’ ‘settlement’ etc. this was not a typical settlement colony. Land had to be bought from actual owners – unlike British policies of gaining land by deception in Africa or North America and then selling or leasing it to colonists. By 1948 Jewish ownership of land amounted to 7% of the total (UN figures) although the Jewish population was about third of the total. The UN partition plan in 1947 (UNGA resolution 181) was not an exceptional measure, against the background of the partition of India and the forced movement of 10 million Germans after WW2 to allow the reshuffling of Europe’s borders as the Soviet Union extended westward. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 did involve ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which the partition plan did not envisage. At the end of the war and nakba it should be recalled that no Jews (save for the Mount Scopus enclave) remained East of the green line. Zionism has been particularly heterogeneous involving social democracy, communism, Marxism of all varieties, liberalism, pacifism, moderate and extreme nationalism and overt racism. It was only on the eve of the creation of the state that even a name was agreed. Variations of Zionism argued for an ethnically pure Jewish State in all of Palestine and Jordan, a multi-ethnic state with Jewish autonomy in Palestine, a bi-national state, and partition – and gradations in between. It has to be remembered that it was the Soviet Union, in supporting the UN partition resolution, that described Zionism as the ‘national liberation movement of the Jewish people.’

Zionism and Anti-Zionism

The argument that Zionism is some false notion of nationalism is based on the assumption that other nationalisms are somehow natural and have some basis in objectivity. Nationalism, by its nature, is based on the notion of exclusion through reference to ethnic, linguistic, historical, locational and cultural criteria. The exclusion is then presented in highly romantic terms often served with a religious or racial sauce, which is used to justify the superiority of the nation over others. Any study of nationalism encounters mythic narratives. These are necessary in order to explain how the people being referred to got to the bit of land on which they now live, developed their language, maybe religion and their ‘way of life.’ Whether these accounts are secular or religious, the narratives dodge inconvenient histories, in particular what happened to the previous inhabitants. Zionism suffers from all these features. It is no worse than British nationalism, invented in the 19th century which tells its people that they invented human rights and the rule of law as early as 1215! The British avoid any real history of their murderous Empire; when do we hear of the genocide against the Carribs, the mass murder of the Irish, the concentration camps in the Boer War, the gulags in Kenya? Zionist history especially since the advent of its revisionist form has been perhaps more challenging than what is common in Britain. Zionism has been filled with many contradictions from the start. Reading Herzl, it is amazing that anything happened at all! (In rejecting Hebrew as the language for a Jewish State he says ‘who amongst us can even order a train ticket in Hebrew?’) He envisaged a state on the Swiss model, where only a minority of Jews would live and it could be located anywhere. The idea that Zionism is essentially racist is only consistent with the view that all nationalism is a form of racism. In that case all states that claimed to be based on nationalism would need to be removed as well. Anti-Zionism, however tends to argue one or some of the following ideas (a) Jews are not a nation (b) Jews are only identifiable by attachment to Judaism as religion © there is only tenuous evidence linking Jews to Torah historical accounts (d) the Jews come from Eastern Europe, not the Middle East (e) Jews are not a homogeneous group (f) Jews have collaborated with oppressors (Imperialism, the Nazis) (h) Zionism inevitably means oppressing the Palestinians. There are of course other views. These arguments all lead to an uncomfortable position that whereas all other self-declared nationalisms have validity, the Jews have no such claims. Yet in different ways the arguments about Zionism can be easily adopted to almost all other national situations. Yet no one asks ‘So exactly how is it that you are Australian?’ This question is posed to Jews a great deal. While there are honorable Anti-Zionist positions they are few. On the whole Ant-Zionism is close to, or a mask for, Anti-Semitism.

Representing Palestine

Whatever the politics of Palestinian nationalism at the time of 1947-8, or indeed in the immediate period after the creation of Israel, it is only in 1964 with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization that it is possible to trace an authoritative voice of the Palestinian people. Since the 1970’s the international community, through the UN General Assembly, has recognized the PLO as ‘the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’ It has acquired observer status at the UN. In 1988 the PLO adopted a two state solution, and abandoned its previously held position which projected a ‘democratic secular state’ based on the British Mandate borders – and expelling Jews not resident by May 1948. This became clearer with the Madrid process and later the Oslo Accords (in the period 1991-1995). Thus for nearly two decades, the position of the PLO has been for the creation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital being East Jerusalem. This is consistent with Security Council resolution 242 and the widely held legal presumption (recently outlined by the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the Israeli Wall in Palestinian Occupied Territory, July 2004) that these areas are illegally occupied and that Israel must withdraw from them and dismantle their settlements. While there are vast differences of opinion amongst Palestinians on the two state solution, it is the policy of the only internationally recognized representatives of the Palestinians. As a result it is reasonable that non-Palestinian supporters of Palestinian rights respond to it and to its policies. While non-Palestinian might want to argue an anti-Zionist position, it seems fair to point out that the destruction of the state of Israel is not the position of the PLO. Support for Palestinians and their rights, including addressing historical injustices, is not related to that issue at all.

Solidarity with Palestinian Universities, Scholars and Students

The curious aspect of the AUT boycott activists is that they do very little about actual solidarity with Palestinian Universities. The simple, although less headline grabbing tasks of making institutional links, developing teaching and research activities, enabling academic and student mobility, mobilizing educational resources, developing and maintaining academic contacts, seem low on their agenda. I just wonder what they were doing during the terrible years of Sharon’s war against the Palestinians? In my opinion the priority should be the building of effective links with Palestinian Universities. This is a positive contribution that extends academic freedom.

The Boycott and the Anti-Apartheid Campaign

The African National Congress called for a comprehensive boycott of apartheid in 1959, a call which was responded to by India, which led the campaign in the United Nations. Part of the cultural boycott was aimed at universities. The whole argument about South Africa in the apartheid years was that it was quite exceptional. The Racial Classification Board declared your race at birth, which would decide where you would live, what school you would attend, what job you could have, what wages you would earn, whether you could vote and what papers you carried. This does not happen in Israel, where Palestinians do have the vote, do participate in elections in all parties and while schooling is run on faith-based lines (as in many other countries) higher education is quite integrated. There are discriminatory laws, there is social discrimination and there is equivocation for equal rights on the designation of the state as ‘Jewish’. However, this is not apartheid South Africa where any organization opposed to the regime was banned and criminalized. The boycott campaign against apartheid was highly organized in this exceptional case. It received UN backing through the special committee on apartheid. The ANC played an active role in working out the policies and implementing them. This wide measure of international, and in particular UN involvement, ensured that this was a not a personalized vendetta and never aimed at South Africans. As an activist in the Anti-Apartheid Movement I well remember stressing that the boycott was against apartheid not against South Africa. It was not a matter of individuals arrogantly deciding what was a good for a national liberation movement – or selecting which academics they liked and which they did not according to a subjective political test. Placing Israel in the same category as apartheid South Africa is as crude as it is inaccurate. In fact it detracts from the actual apartheid features of the Israeli occupation the passes, the road system, checkpoints, closures and most dramatically, the wall.

The Boycott Activists

I was invited to two meetings of the boycott activists in the fall of 2004. I was slightly surprised, as my opposition to a boycott position was on record. I thought, however, it might be interesting, so I went and stated my position. I spoke in favour of positive academic links with Palestine and extending academic freedom. This seemed reasonably well received and in an e-mail discussion they seemed to be moving away from the blanket boycott position. The second meeting, which discussed the AUT resolutions, contained a rather unpleasant discourse. References were made to ‘rich and powerful Zionists’ and certain well-known Palestinian leaders and academics were described as ‘collaborators.’ While of course this was background and the opinion of individuals, it was, I thought, instructive and I broke any connections with these people, although it was suggested that I had ‘come under pressure.’

‘I feel that we may have not offered you enough support and that grieves me, because pressure experienced alone can be really horrible.’ I quote the email I was sent indicating the dubious and patronizing nature of a sect-like group. Sue Blackwell’s published views in the Guardian leave no doubt in my mind, that in the main, the people behind the AUT boycott campaign are rather crude Anti-Zionists. Blackwell says that Israel is an ‘illegitimate state’ and goes on to denounce Israeli academics for serving in the IDF, which is compulsory. Other little clues include comments that Israeli Universities have not denounced the occupation. But neither have British Universities denounced the occupation of Iraq. Nor did they denounce internment in Northern Ireland. I think that this group is attempting to use widespread and justified opposition to the Israeli occupation to be mobilized for another agenda.

Academics and the Occupation of Palestine

I do not think that an academic boycott of Israeli universities is correct in principle. Boycotts of universities always undermine academic freedom which must be seen as undesirable. The Chinese occupation of Tibet (for nearly 5 decades) has not provoked a call for a boycott for this reason. Exchanging ideas, debating issues, working on common projects, collaborative publishing ventures are valuable in and of themselves.

The university sector in Israel is currently under attack from the right wing for being too liberal, particularly on the Palestine question. Many academics need our support.

There is much original work being undertaken on history and politics, which undermines many of the reactionary ideas which are used to justify the occupation, settlements and the wall. See for example Baruch Kimmerling’s Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War against the Palestinians, (Verso, 2003). Ilan Pape’s work is challenging and although his alleged treatment is singled out as the main reason for the boycott of Haifa University, his work is published and widely read in Israel. Even his support for the boycott was published as an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post.

Academics at the end of the day, have little power in the political arena. However, what we can do is through teaching, research, publication and broadcasting attempt mobilize ideas for freedom. Working with people positively seems far more likely to help create conditions that will end the occupation than the negative boycott. The boycott is a call to do nothing about the occupation at all – and it plays directly into the hands of a growing body of Anti-Semitism in Europe where the boycott has a long tradition.

John Strawson, Reader in Law, University of East London
April 2005

Source: Engage


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