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)

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