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.

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