Recently the issue of an academic boycott of Israel has again reared its ugly, obsessed and stupid head.
This first came up in 2005 when the Association of University Teachers proposed an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This proposal was defeated. Then last year, the new University and College Union which replaced the old AUT again proposed a boycott. This was defeated again when the union received legal advice telling it that such a proposal would breach the Race Relations Act. And now the UCU has again passed a motion recommending a boycott.
In that short paragraph I have attempted to summarise three raging and splenetic years.
One of the reasons I felt alienated from the status-quo left was its obsession with Israel. Although my parents were radical leftists, they were also broadly supportive of the Israeli state and so I didn’t grow up with the standard baggage relating to this issue. Thus, the way others looked at the Middle East or even the whole world through the prism of Israel – either as America’s proxy in the ME or, more sinisterly, as the Zionist tail wagging the American dog – just left me cold.
Israel is the G-spot of the reactionary left. Mention that country’s name and you’ll get a torrent of invective and abuse. I’ll quote a typical example.
It is not “the Palestinian problem” which is at issue but the Israel problem. Israel is a violent sectarian fundamentalist state which has successfully ethnically cleansed much of the indigenous Arab population, stolen most of its land, its property and its water and forced it into miserable ghettos. It has used the most savage repression to achieve its aims, which have been achieved only with the complicity or active support of Britain, the USA and other superpowers. This has been accomplished with the help of an ideology which downplays the long history of sectarianism and terrorist violence inherent in the Zionist project, perceives the Holocaust as primarily a valuable propaganda tool in casting Israelis as victims, and defines criticism of Israel as anti-semitic. So much Palestinian land has now been stolen that the two state option is no longer a realistic solution if justice and equality are to be achieved. (The vision behind Blair’s “road map” is of a pair of shrivelled Bantusans with a quiescent client Palestinian leadership which accepts the losses of the past half century and the abandonment of the 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered in squalid camps around the Middle East.) The only reasonable future in that geographically tiny part of the world is a single state where Jews, Christians and Muslims live side by side as equals, but that option requires dismantling a Zionist state where the essence of citizenship is to be Jewish and where anyone who is not Jewish has second-class status (change ‘Jewish’ to ‘Protestant’ and you’d have Ian Paisley’s paradise on earth).
It’s a measure of this fixation that the author of the above screed is not a writer on Middle Eastern issues, or even a political blogger. He is a retired Brit Lit blogger, talking about a novel by Ian McEwan that has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. (Note also that he’s against the two-state deal – which is the only sane and workable solution – and advocates the dismantling of an entire country; which is not the most moral and practical course of action, to put it politely.)
Yet our web critic shares the fixation that makes the boycotters keep on plugging away with the embargo plan: in Engage writer Jon Pike’s words, they are ‘like Dr Seuss’s salesmen: ‘All day they’ve raced round in the heat, at top speeds, unsuccessfully trying to sell Zizzer-Zoof Seeds, which nobody wants because nobody needs.”
My own take is this. I have sympathy for the one of the few democratic states in the region, surrounded by governments and organisations who want to kill its citizens for religious reasons. I don’t doubt that the Israeli government has committed, and is committing, human rights abuses against Palestinians. That has to stop and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end.
People against a boycott of Israel make the argument that it is being singled out – no one is proposing an embargo against states like China or Syria that commit far worse crimes. They have a point, but we can’t be everywhere at once – isn’t it better to take on a single criminal government than none at all?
But the UCU is not proposing actions against the Israeli government – it’s proposing action against Israeli universities. It is proposing to cut off the flow of dialogue between Israeli lecturers, professors, researchers, writers and their British equivalents. Apart from the shameful notion of severing this free flow of thoughts and ideas, here’s an analogy that will make you realise how stupid the boycott proposal is: imagine if a Palestinian union broke all links with British universities because the British government helped to invade Iraq.
The boycott idea is, then, borderline racist because it identifies a broad sweep of Israeli citizens with its government. At the very least it refuses to recognise the diversity of academic opinion everywhere and the intellectual complexity of human beings. (How many British academics have you met who support the British occupation of Iraq?)
Of course, any boycott proposal will be prefaced by the fumbling disclaimer that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-semitic. In the same way, it’s not necessarily racist to be against immigration. But if someone says to me, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ or, ‘I’m not against asylum-seekers, but…’ nine times out of ten this will be followed by a statement of blatant racism, delivered by someone who doesn’t even have the guts to be open with their prejudice. Anti-Israelism is the respectable prejudice of the left just as anti-immigration is the respectable prejudice of the right.
So how has such a ridiculous and unworkable idea come close to being adopted by a serious trade union? After all, unions do not exist to make stupid and posturing political gestures. They exist to fight for better pay and conditions for their members. From Pike’s article:
In my field, I know that if a resolution for a boycott went before the British Philosophical Association, then of the three hundred professional philosophers in the UK, two, maybe three would vote for it – and they know who they are, I know who they are, everyone in the profession knows who they are. If the constituency is university academics, then the opposition to a boycott is overwhelming.
The answer is that the UCU, like many unions, has become influenced by the far left Socialist Workers Party. This party joins unions not to help workers or socialists but to increase the power and prestige of the SWP. A Manchester trade unionist told me she was sick of branches being decimated by the placard-wavers. She felt that SWPers sacrifice the basic needs of members in favour of pointless sloganeering. ‘If you say to someone, ‘Sorry, I can’t represent you at the disciplinary because I’m going on an antiwar demo,’ then they’ll tear up their membership card… we’ve had branches in London that have been reduced from thousands to hundreds of members because of the far left.’
The reactionary left has its own mythology and Israel is part of that. The reactionary left doesn’t care about Israelis or Palestinians but about promoting its mythology and narrative. Thus an argument over a small patch of land has taken on almost totemic significance. The conflict has moved from the human to the abstract: as David Hirsh says, ‘an empty vessel for us Guardian readers to fill with our own neuroses.’
It’s not the Palestine problem, or the Israel problem – it’s the mythology problem. From Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great:
I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel’s more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size have a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews) have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything.