Monday, June 25, 2007

I had NO idea this show existed on Aaj TV in Pakistan, and now it's gone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Life after Wolfenden

Today's Observer has a gripping account of the passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality in England (Scotland would follow only in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982!). The Act came a good 10 years after the Wolfenden committee recommended decriminalisation. Speculating on why the then Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe even initiated the process given that he was opposed to any change in the law, Geraldine Bedell suggests that

Perhaps he thought, by handing over to a committee, to shelve the issue. Perhaps he assumed Wolfenden would find against, in which case, he chose a curious chairman, because Wolfenden had a gay son, Jeremy. Antony Grey told me that when Wolfenden accepted the job, he wrote to Jeremy saying it would be better if he weren't seen around him too often in lipstick and make-up.

I can't help thinking of Leela Seth on the Indian Law Reform Commission.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I had a bizarre dream last night. I had written a book and wanted to use a Frida Kahlo painting on the jacket. But Madonna owned the painting as well as all rights to the image. I had to ask her for permission to use it at a reasonable price. She gave me an appointment and I found myself trying to convince her that my thesis was worth assisting in a four-minute slot between takes in a studio on Bayswater Road. I clearly have a desperate need to hobnob with the rich and famous. I'm the only celebrity in this village. Get me out of here!

Friday, June 15, 2007


The three state solution?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Israel academic boycott IV

Academic integrity demands that I blog this despite this, this and this. In an essay entitled 'Inside the other wilaya', written for Al-Hayat and Al-Ahram Weekly (June 4, 1998), Edward Said describes how during the 1954-62 war of national liberation in Algeria, the FLN divided Algeria into six districts, or wilayat, each of which had its own command structure, field of operation, and fighting forces. The seventh wilaya was metropolitan France itself, the idea being that given French military superiority, it would be crucial for the liberation movement to conduct political operations behind French lines, to win as much opinion and gain as much support as possible from French civilians. Similarly in South Africa, it was a major component of ANC policy to make sure that white South Africans were directly involved in the struggle against apartheid - indeed the ANC would become particularly reliant on influential whites and the international community when many of its own leaders were thrown into prison. Said speaks of the ANC-led boycott of visiting academics to South Africa in the 1980s and early '90s being lifted in individual cases - including for him, when he visited in May 1991 as a guest of the Universities of Cape Town and JoBurg. He had to be passed by the boycott committee, who reasoned that his presence there would enhance the anti-apartheid struggle. Seeking to apply the lessons of this experience to the Palestinian situation, this is what he has to say:

Our opposition, as Palestinians and Arabs generally, to the abuses of Zionism must deal with the other side with equal knowledge and discrimination. The idea that we should boycott all Israelis as a way of opposing normalisation is, in my opinion, far too blunt an instrument and in the end both impractical and self-destructive...there are many Israelis who are quite disgusted with the policies of the Netanyahu government and who can be effective in helping us with the struggle against apartheid, which currently disfigures the Israeli and Palestinian landscape...I emphasise this notion of acting and taking into consideration the existence of other wilayat as a way of criticising the ineffective notion of an absolute demarcation between us and every single Israeli or Jew. This is why in a previous article I spoke about the need for Palestinian intellectuals to address Israeli students, professors, intellectuals, artists and other independent people directly, rather than to say that we will never talk to or deal with any Israeli. In the absence of a real military option, in the absence even of a real front dividing Palestinians from Israelis (the two populations are mixed despite the dreams of Zionism to separate them), there is no way for Palestinians to gain their rights without actively involving Israelis in their struggle. A well-organised international campaign against the settlements; a major march including Israelis and Palestinians on one of the settlements; public meetings in which common goals are articulated. In such efforts, it is we, not the Israelis, who must take the initiative, and we must do so at the same time that we speak openly and candidly about putting our own house in order...we must take our cause to the very heart of the Israeli wilaya, to speak both of peace and of democracy for two peoples. Until we can do this and do it without complexes about speaking with 'the enemy', until we can make distinctions between the real forces of peace in Israel and the Labour Party, we will continue to drift and suffer the costs of occupation and undemocratic Palestinian rule.

In another essay entitled 'Breaking the Deadlock: A Third Way', written for Al-Hayat (June 30, 1998), he is even more critical of boycotts, and particularly academic boycotts. seems...fatuous to impose total blockades against everything Israeli...and to pretend that that is the really virtuous nationalist path. There are after all one million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Are they also to be boycotted, as they were during the 1950s? What about Israelis who support our struggle, but are neither members of the slippery Peace Now or of Meretz or of the 'great' Israeli Labour Party led by Ehud Barak...Should they - artists, free intellectuals, writers, students, academics, ordinary citizens - be boycotted because they are Israelis?...Obviously to do so would be to...ignore all the many victories for justice that occurred because of nonviolent political cooperation between like-minded people on both sides of a highly contested and movable line. And we must cross the line of separation - which has been one of the main intentions of Oslo to erect - that maintains the current apartheid between Arab and Jew in historic Palestine. Go across, but do not enforce the line.

And while he is massively critical of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority for the fraudulent peace that Oslo represents, he also says it intellectually responsible in effect to return to blanket boycotts of the sort now becoming the fashion in various Arab countries. As I said earlier, this sort of tactic (it is scarcely a strategy, any more than sticking one's head in the sand like an ostrich is a strategy) is regressive. Israel is neither South Africa, nor Algeria, nor Vietnam. Whether we like it or not, the Jews are not ordinary colonialists: as a people, they suffered the Holocaust, and they are the victims of anti-Semitism. But they cannot use those facts to initiate and continue the dispossession of another people that bears no responsibility for either of those prior facts...We must recognise the realities of the Holocaust not as a blank check for Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledged. And we must also recognise that Israel is a dynamic society containing many currents - not all of them Likud, Labour, and religious. We should be willing as Palestinians to go to speak to Palestinians first, but to Israelis too, and we should tell our truths, not the stupid compromises of the sort that the PLO and PA have traded in, which in effect is the apartheid of Oslo.

Something tells me that despite the considerable deterioration of the situation in Palestine since this was written in 1998, he would have said the same thing today. Since I brought up the Indian nationalist boycott of British institutions earlier, I am also obliged to add that Tagore was exceptional in his opposition to the boycott. The issues here are different, but the spirit is similar:

It hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the West in my country with the clamour that the Western education can only injure us. It cannot be true. What has caused the mischief is the fact that for a long time we have been out of touch with our own culture and therefore the Western culture has not found its prospective in our life very often found a wrong prospective giving our mental eye a squint. When we have the intellectual capital of our own, the commerce of thought with the outer world becomes natural and fully profitable. But to say that such commerce is inherently wrong, is to encourage the worst form of provincialism, productive of nothing but intellectual indigence. The West has misunderstood the East which is at the root of the disharmony that prevails between them, but will it mend the matter if the East in her turn tries to misunderstand the West? ('Reflection on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, 1921)

Israel academic boycott III

Colin Green, first clarifying what the UCU motion is about: 'the motion passed was not calling for a boycott, but for a 12-month debate about an academic boycott. I suggest that that is in the best tradition of academic freedom and free speech. We will encourage Israeli academics to visit us, as indeed they did for weeks before the recent debate, and put their case for or against.'

And then expressing his opinion on the substantive issue at hand: 'We cannot go on muttering platitudes about academic freedom and exchange of ideas. What freedom?'

The list of restrictions is too long to detail. Examples include: the closure of Birzeit University for four years; refusal of entry to that and all other universities for teaching faculty and students on the whim of heavily armed Israeli teenagers in uniform at checkpoints; refusal to allow passage to medical students to their teaching hospitals; raiding of campuses in the middle of freezing winter nights forcing women undergraduates to stand for five or six hours outside in their nightdresses simply to humiliate them while their dormitories were ransacked; refusal to allow doctors to attend their clinics and teach students on the ludicrous claim that their ID cards (valid for the previous 15 years) were fake; refusal to allow UK academics entry to Ben-Gurion airport and forced return on the grounds they were engaged in subversive acts simply coming to be medical teachers.

Then has been the refusal to allow a final-year student to attend his graduation ceremony and to add to his humiliation and torment by being forced at gunpoint to stand and watch the proceedings from only 400 metres away; refusal or long delays in granting exit permits for Palestinian research workers and teachers travelling abroad to conferences; the threat that if they travel overseas (especially if they have a Jerusalem ID) they may not be allowed back into their own homes again; endless restrictions on travel within the occupied territories so that attendance at lectures or important exams are a daily nightmare; the forced return of Gaza students "illegally" studying in the West Bank, some after seven years of separation from their families and in their final year of medical training; the deliberate shooting at school buses carrying six to 10-year-old children by Israeli snipers; recently, the kidnapping and imprisonment without charge of five senior university lecturers in Nablus; the killing of a young female medical student by CN gas. All of this I have witnessed at first hand.

Thanks Nakul for this link to a wide-ranging debate between Ilan Pappe (arguing for a one state solution) and Uri Avnery (for two states). Among other things, Pappe says: 'We need the outside world in order to end the occupation. We need public opinion in Europe, in the United States. After forty years we have the right to say that we need an outside pressure on Israel in order to end the occupation, that we don't want to wait for another forty years.'

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Israel academic boycott II

The UCU motion has generated an immediate, and occasionally vicious, backlash from all kinds of people - British academics, research funders, Tony Blair, and of course Alan Dershowitz, who has threatened to 'devastate and bankrupt' anyone who boycotts Israeli academics. The reaction from the pro-Israel lobby has been predictable, but it's the tactical cautions of Palestinian solidarity activists and friends that have plunged me into a sort of depressed paralytic ambivalence. In what follows, I make a distinction between the 'vicious' critics and the 'sympathetic' critics in reference to these two distinct groups of people, recognising that their criticisms of the proposed boycott come from very different places.

A lot of the vicious critics seem not to have read the UCU motion, which calls only for the circulation of 'the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches for information and discussion'. So there is no boycott yet, and there will be no boycott till members of individual branches have been polled - a process that will probably take the better part of a year. The UCU motion merely initiates a conversation about whether it would be appropriate to impose an academic boycott on Israel. It's ironic that critics have already slammed it for infringing freedom of speech, because by seeking to prevent this conversation from taking place that's exactly what the critics are doing. In all of this racket, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that Palestine itself has been boycotted, in a much more hard-hitting way, by the international community following Hamas's recent electoral victory. Given this, I consider the outrage that has greeted the merest possibility of an Israeli academic boycott absolutely obscene.

I don't have much to say to the vicious critics (Dershowitz et al), who sound like they will always be anti-Palestine, whatever Palestinians do. I take much more seriously the arguments of Palestinian solidarity activists and friends (including the two who have commented below). I agree that being in solidarity with Palestinians does not mean going along with whatever tactics they recommend/adopt. As liberals, or as people who respect human life on whatever basis, we rightly disagree with the military targeting of civilians. We criticise Palestinian suicide bombers for violating jus in bello, while recognising that they have a legitimate right to resist under jus ad bellum (i.e. we can recognise that they have good reason to resort to the use of force, whilst still disagreeing with the ways in which they use force, the targets they choose, etc.) This sort of position is morally uncontroversial, almost commonplace and we should continue to make these distinctions. But I've been thinking about the sorts of signals that we as solidarity activists on the outside send to Palestinians when we criticise them and about how these criticisms might be received. SG went to a lecture by Robert Fisk the other day and told me that he was critical even of the tactics that were adopted during the first intifada in 1987 (that one moment in the struggle when many of us thought we could agree with both the ends and the means) - 'I understand, but I don't agree', he kept saying, apparently referring to little children throwing stones. So we criticise Palestinians when they blow up civilians, we criticise them when they throw stones, and now when they suggest a non-violent boycott, we criticise that too. We have very good arguments for why they should not be doing what they are doing. But I'm beginning to feel like we are constantly lecturing these people from the outside, with little sense of what they are going through and without offering them any tangible support from the outside.

I encounter this problem a lot in the work that I do. Imagine that you are an academic interviewing a social movement. There you sit, with your notebook and pen, maybe your dictaphone as well, with your monthly salary trickling into your little savings account in Great British Pounds, with your tenure and your passport and maybe even a slick little work permit that helps you zip in and out of countries. And you're sitting across from some khadi-clad jhola-carrying activist (the clothes change depending on where you are, but it's often some analogous type), chain smoking (always), who's been in and out of jail on all sorts of charges, beaten, maybe even tortured, telling you what s/he's doing, has to do, to survive, in between a million phone calls in the course of which it's apparent that things on the ground are changing too fast for even you - paid to study this stuff full time - to keep pace with. This isn't just your job though. You are in solidarity with this movement, you believe in the cause, you want them to win, you want to help. And yet, being the academic that you are, you disagree quite fundamentally with something they're doing, or with the way in which they've chosen to do it. How do you sit across from this person, who has so little political space in which to manoeuvre that s/he's doing the only thing s/he thinks s/he can do, how do you tell this person from your position of privilege, 'I think perhaps you should be doing X instead of Y.' It's important that you find a way to say this because it's the morally right thing to do (fuck, that's a Blair phrase) and because it may even be the smart thing for them to do. But how do you do it? If somebody has an answer or just thoughts about being in this position, I'd like to know.

Assuming we can find some way to criticise beleaguered insiders from a privileged external position, we can and should return to a discussion of the pros and cons of the proposed boycott. I'm not going to engage in a point-by-point refutation of the arguments of the sympathetic critics - others have done this better than I could. But I've been thinking about why I seem rather more sanguine about, and welcoming of, the possibility of a boycott than many other friends of Palestine I've spoken to.

Part of the reason is that I come from a country that won its own freedom through the use of boycotts, so that the technique is a time-honoured element in our civil resistance toolkit. Another reason is that India did not have diplomatic relations with Israel till 1992 (although we officially recognised the state of Israel in 1950). As a staunch supporter of Palestinian liberation, India was one of the first non-Arab states to recognise 'Palestinian independence' and one of the first to allow the PLO an embassy in its capital. Like many other NAM states, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel only after Oslo, on the assumption that the parties were moving towards a meaningful settlement of the conflict. Now that we have seen what Oslo has delivered - an archipelago of bantustans, moth-eaten because of the continuous expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, and fenced off by the monstrosity of the Separation Barrier - it seems appropriate to snap those links again (and don't even bother talking to me about the need for 'engagement' - we don't 'engage' with Israel on anything except defence deals and anti-terrorism cooperation). We established diplomatic relations with them on the understanding that they were moving towards recognising Palestinian statehood, they have shown that they are not, therefore we should no longer have diplomatic relations with them. From an Indian perspective, an academic boycott is chicken shit, a sort of mealy-mouthed, watered-down reversion to a previous state of affairs - we should be doing much more, and we should be doing it en masse, the entire collectivity of Third World states acting together. A third reason why I am more sanguine about the boycott is the South African analogy, which I (and apparently many South Africans) think is persuasive. I am old enough to own a passport issued in 1984, which says in bold typeface (not handwriting): 'This passport is valid for travel to all countries except Republic of South Africa', and I am immensely proud of that. Nehruvian moralising was irritating and full of double standards, but these things meant something to us, they defined who we were as a country and what we stood for. We were a poor country then and the politics of gesture was all we could afford. Now when we're 'emerging' and blasting nukes in the desert we say and do nothing. None of this addresses the very real concerns that the sympathetic critics have vis-a-vis boycotts, but I hope it sheds some light on why I think this academic boycott is not some radical departure. We have been here before, it made sense then and it continues to make sense to me.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

I intend to reply to the comments to the post below when I have a little time. In the meanwhile, here's an excerpt from the obituary of Tanya Reinhart:

It is not easy for an Israeli academic to support the calls for boycott of Israeli academic institutions these days. Like any other segment of the Israeli society, the universities are paying the price of Israel's war against the Palestinians, with severe budget cuts and deteriorating research conditions. A freeze of the EU funds would, no doubt, make things even tougher. It is therefore understandable that the Israeli academia is mobilising its forces to attack any such boycott attempt. Understandable, but not just.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Israel academic boycott

I am seriously troubled by the proposed boycott of Israeli academics because I am, in principle, committed to freedom of speech, no matter how unpleasant that speech - particularly within the academy (if not there, then where?). And while this is a very unphilosopher-like thing to do (particularly if you believe veils of ignorance aid thinking about justice), I think of the many wonderful flesh and blood people I would never have known if this boycott had already been in place for many years. Equally, I am horrified that we are commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Occupation, with no end to it in sight. I cannot help but wonder how we can debate the freedom of Israelis to travel to academic conferences in other countries, to publish in journals, to receive funding from external sources, when - on the other side - the Separation Barrier has decimated access to basic education in the Occupied Territories, and students in Gaza are now prohibited from travelling to Birzeit in the West Bank to receive a university education. Even if the boycott went through, there would still be a tremendous disparity in the significance of the capabilities that are being denied to people on both sides. I find it difficult to summon up any outrage at the denial of academic freedom to Israelis working within relatively privileged institutions, when Palestinians are denied access to the most basic education.

Martha Nussbaum has written a thoughtful piece against the boycott in Dissent (link via this excellent blog, of which I've become a regular reader). As I've said, I am genuinely torn on this issue, but I find much to disagree with in Nussbaum's article. She claims to be uneasy about the 'single-minded focus on Israel', and argues that the principle of boycott is being inconsistently applied (why not boycott the US for Iraq, or India for Gujarat?). But the focus on Israel has much to do with the singularity of what it has done. It is difficult to look around the world and find another example of a 40-year long violation of public international law (recognised as such by the entire international community - including the US - in its continued designation of the 1967 Territories as 'Occupied'). And not just any violation, but the conquest and occupation of one nation-state by another. (It has recently come to light that Israel's own legal adviser at the time - a 36 year old named Theodor Meron(!) - told his government in no uncertain terms that 'civilian settlement of the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention'; ironically, the legislative history of the relevant provision of the Geneva Conventions reveals that the prohibition of settlement of occupied territories was 'intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories.' Certain Powers.)

Nussbaum suggests some disappointingly anodyne courses of action as alternatives to the boycott. #1 Censure: after 40 years of Occupation in defiance of the will of the international community, the suggestion that 'some sort of widely disseminated public statement that the institution in question has engaged in such and such wrongful action' might be helpful is, to put it mildly, optimistic. #2 Organised Public Condemnation: Nussbaum recommends the sort of activism that the fair trade movement has tried to encourage, in which individual consumers make decisions about when, why and whom to boycott. It's difficult to see how the privatisation of protest in this fashion promotes 'a sense of shared responsibility', as Nussbaum claims, in contrast to the democratic centralism (a much abused phrase I know, but I mean it in a genuine sense) of unions acting in solidarity with Palestinian unions that have called the boycott in the first place. The privatisation of protest is also a recipe for a sanctions regime with holes, which, anyone can see, would simply be futile. #3 Organised Public Condemnation of an Individual or Individuals: Which individuals should we single out for condemnation for the 40 year long occupation of Palestine? Clearly politicians and policymakers deserve more blame. But in a society where everyone serves in the army of occupation - including, it has to be remembered, virtually all academics - everyone is complicit. #4 Failure to reward: Intuitively, it seems rather odd to respond to violations of law by failing to reward, instead of punishing. #5 Helping the Harmed: This isn't incompatible with punishing the harmers, particularly given the recognition that harm has been done by someone to someone. #6 Being Vigilant on Behalf of the Truth: by using the boycott to promote compliance with law, this is exactly what we would be doing.

Nussbaum thinks that sanctions are a blunt instrument and she is right about this. It is difficult to use them to target the specific individuals who bear greatest culpability for the current state of affairs and who could do the most to change it. Sanctions, particularly in the form they are being promoted today, are a second-best response from global civil society (a much maligned, but defensible entity - sadly, I can't do that here!), born of the frustrated recognition that the international community of states cannot, or will not, do much to push Israel to comply with its legal obligations. Sanctions are all we have, given that states have demonstrated their inability, or unwillingness, to pressure Israel in any meaningful way. Sanctions are civil society's way of levelling the undeniable imbalance that exists between the two negotiating partners - an imbalance that permits one of the parties to create facts on the ground or settle the dispute unilaterally to its advantage, whenever it chooses. In this context, it's important to remember that solidarity activists are not talking about an academic boycott in isolation - it's not as if they think that by boycotting Israeli academia, the political crisis will be magically resolved. Instead, sanctions are envisaged as part of a more comprehensive campaign that would entail boycotting Israeli state institutions, businesses (particularly those in the Occupied Territories ), tourism, sporting events, etc. in an attempt to isolate the state diplomatically and/or persuade Israeli society to change the nature of its state.

Nussbaum is wrong to think that symbolic boycotts are useless. The sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa was one of the most high profile and psychologically compelling elements of the package, given the fondness of white Afrikaners for cricket and rugby. It didn't hurt anyone in a tangible sense, but it left the country out of activities that its citizens valued. In this sense, symbolic boycotts are sometimes preferable to economic boycotts because they are a useful way of putting pressure on societies without violating the basic rights of their citizens. We have seen enough (c.f. Iraq in the 1990s) to know that economic sanctions can be detrimental to human rights - so academic, sporting, cultural and tourist boycotts can actually be more, not less, justifiable.

But, as I keep saying, I am torn. (And it pains me to have to disagree so profoundly with Nussbaum, whom I admire so much.) The biggest reason for hesitation, to my mind, is that it is precisely these sorts of exchanges - academic, sporting, cultural, tourist - that might best promote understanding between enemies when the high politics channels of diplomacy are blocked by mutual recrimination and distrust or, worse, murderous violence. And if Israeli universities - as the best universities everywhere tend to be - are bastions of dissent, the last remaining spaces in which unpopular and heretical thoughts can be voiced in a society that is otherwise compulsorily militarised, should we shun contact with such institutions? Should we heed the call of Ilan Pappe - himself an Israeli academic, arguing in favour of the boycott - or should we conclude that without freedom in the academy (including the freedom to be pro-Occupation) Pappe would himself be unable to articulate the dissent he expresses so fearlessly.

Perhaps all of this turns ultimately on what counts as free speech. All free societies recognise certain limits on the freedom of speech. We can no longer speak in defence of genocide, slavery, piracy and racism . Somehow, the prohibition on colonial occupation has not yet made it into the jus cogens box. For those of us who see ourselves as postcolonial, I think we'd like to expand that box. Just a little. In recognition of some of the nasty little things colonialism did. This is our Never Again. I haven't said anything about 1948 and I can't claim to know what most Palestinians think about 1948 at this time. What they think is more important than what I think. But from my personal point of view, the question is not whether Israel has a right to exist - it is what borders does Israel have a right to exist within? I think it is pretty undeniable that Israel after 1967 has been a colonial occupier. Ronnie Kasrils (the current South African minister for intelligence) recently declared that Israel in 2007 was worse than apartheid. He should know. He was chief of intelligence for Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing). The norm against apartheid is part of jus cogens. The norm against colonial occupation should be. I support this boycott.

Friday, June 01, 2007

from the obituary of an activist

'As someone committed to activist journalism, he didn't waste but spent much of his time in such work of promoting movements and educating society instead of writing and producing a pile of books in his name.' Thoughts?

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