Blogs > Cliopatria > A boycott

Apr 28, 2005 3:08 pm

A boycott

I am a member of the Association of University Teachers. With many of my colleagues and union members, I am appalled by the vote taken at the AUT's Council meeting last week to call us to boycott two Israeli universities.

This is an anti-semitic (if you don't understand why, read this), anti-intellectual, undemocratic, cynically opportunistic and morally indefensible act.

I do not intend to resign from the union (at present), though I fully sympathise with those, especially Jewish academics, who feel that they have to do so. Rather, I'll be joining in the pressure from within to have the decision reversed as soon as possible, and which is gathering pace as I write.

For those who have not followed this in detail, there is little I could say to add to the extensive and cogent comments of Chris Brooke (scroll down) or Jonathan Edelstein, or the statement made by Engage, a blog that has been set up to mobilise opposition to the boycotts and to campaign for the issue to be fully and properly debated (emphatically not the case at the meeting, which moreover should not be confused with a full conference of the AUT membership).

I also agree wholeheartedly with the large numbers of British academics who registered their protests in the letters columns of the Guardian last week before the meeting took place. I also want to remind readers of Cliopatria that despite the lack of a fair debate, the motion only just passed. It is my firm belief that once there is a full and proper debate, this boycott will be overwhelmingly overturned. The boycott hassupporters, I am sorry to say (I find parallels with South African apartheid particularly distasteful). But I want to state in the strongest terms that this vote is not representative of British academia. Not the least pernicious aspect of this affair is the way in which it threatens to bring the British academic community and my union into international disrepute, and to divide us and distract us from our own, pressing issues in British higher education.

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Hugo Schwyzer - 5/2/2005

I'm with Ralph. I find it infuriating when, in the middle of what ought to be an intelligent dialogue, someone announces that one particular position his opponent has taken immediately disqualifies him from being taken seriously. Sheesh.

Sharon Howard - 4/30/2005

Chris, since you decided to focus on a particular aspect of what I said, I could rephrase myself to get at my central concern. Should the members of an academic union be in the business of 'punishing' people?

(Except on occasion, of course, in disciplining their own members.) Of course, a union may well take actions that have negative impacts on others. That is the whole point of a strike or a boycott, using that impact as leverage in a dispute with employers. And, as it happens, it looks to me as though the AUT is in breach of its own policy on boycotts: "The AUT imposes or considers imposing an academic boycott on a university or college when we conclude that the actions of the institution pose a fundamental threat to the interests of members." ( It concludes: "we would have to conclude that it was justified in the sense that it would be worse not to do so in the light of the circumstances." But since you agree with me that the boycott is unjustified, there's no need for me to keep harping on that.

I do not know what appropriate action AUT members might take. But it would start with making more three-way connections between ourselves and Israeli and Palestinian institutions (and individual academics). And with having a properly informed debate about what might be appropriate forms of censure in international arenas, and more than that, what are appropriate processes for deciding what/whom to censure and on what grounds.

And I will say one final thing. I was born in the late 1960s. I was brought up and spent most of my life living next door to a war zone, a war of atrocities on both sides, a war that regularly found its way onto the mainland, that killed an estimated 3500 people in 30 years, and terrorised many more. In the 80s and early 90s, we never knew when or where the next bomb would come. Now, for all the ongoing problems, there is a real hope of peace in Northern Ireland. And what all that has taught us is that if there is to be peace - and the chance of future justice, genuine fairness, real security - sometimes we have to let go of the desire for retribution. And that is why I have so little sympathy for those who want to 'punish'.

chris l pettit - 4/30/2005

when you are dealing with universalities, human rights, and complicity in violations of international law, one must acknowledge that EVERYONE has a stake, no matter what country or state you are in. I would submit that we must move beyond arbitrary and artificial boundaries that allow us to hide from the problems. And yes, unions and those of us actually intelligent enough to critically analyze the problem without letting biased ideology get in the way do have a positive obligation to do what is necessary to refute and sanction those who are contributing to the destruction of international universal standards and agreements in favor of a biased and ultimately fatally flawed ideological stance. Please note that I am not accusing you of hiding in your response...I am just looking at it in international terms...we are humans first...separating and ultimately prejudicial religions, nationalities and cultures second. If there are individuals (or institutions) that are violating those universalities that apply to all members of humanity, all of us have a positive obligation to refute them and ensure that their ridiculous positions do not stand unchallenged and unsanctioned.

The boycott is an abomination...I give you that...but we cannot charge these professors with complicity or have these institutions fined and sanctioned what do we do? How do we refute the arguments of and demonstrate the utter lack of credibility that KC and others have on the the process actually upholding international law and human rights? Or is that just an impossibility and we should not whine about any of this because it is simply power relationships and should join the hypocritical and ideologically based side of our choice and instead of complaining just wage conflict (in whatever manner...see FrontPageMag, etc) on whatever ideologies you disagree with, completely eliminating human reason, law, morality and ethics as if they were a useless bodyparts (thereby confining scholars like myself, Judge Weeramanty, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Michael Mandel, and many others to the dustbin of history as scholars who actually used our ability to reason and critically examine history and overcome silly ideological biases...thereby taking us out of the usual ignorance of humanity in which reason has no place).


Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

Thank G_d you'll having nothing more to say, but of course your case closed isn't case closed.

Sharon Howard - 4/29/2005

Should the members of an academic union in one country be in the business of 'punishing' people in other countries? Setting ourselves up to be a kind of court (only without the proper apparatus for hearing all the evidence for a fair trial...), passing judgement, dishing out sentences? I can't think that doing such things is ever going to be a way to combat Horowitz et al.

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

So you would permit cross-burnings at the University of Alabama. Very, very revealing. Case closed. I'll have nothing more to say on this since you have effectively discredited yourself.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

I don't think campuses should be immune to the civil law.

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

So do you think that the school administration should allow cross burnings on campus?

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

You recognize a terrific statement when you find one. Must have been said by some great man. I think it is imprudent and offensive to fly the Confederate flag. That doesn't mean that I want to legislate against it. I think it is imprudent and offensive to fly a red banner with a hammer and sickle on it. That doesn't mean that I want to legislate against it.

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

The controversy arose when some students insisted on displaying Confederate flags in their dormitory windows. And, lest we forget, the Confederate flag flew in defense of some very severe restrictions on human freedom. It defended the bondage of most of the South's people of color, but as Clement Eaton taught us two generations ago it defended severe restrictions on the freedom of everyone in the South. Simply put, the Confederate flag is not just deeply offensive to a large part of the University's student and faculty community. It represents an offense to the idea of a university.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

I regret that you fail to see totalitarian similarities.

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

The last time I checked, Columbia University was proud of its Marxist scholars. When George Rupp spoke to our department about 5 years ago, he discussed the competition between NYU and Columbia over who would be the city's number one university. Criteria such as news coverage, applications and staff accomplishments went into the hopper. Among the recent additions to the staff that Rupp was most proud of was Jon Elster, who he made sure to describe as a Marxist scholar. It is a sign of your ideological myopia, Ralph, that you can lump communism or socialism with Nazism. Nazism is marked by illogic and myth-making. People don't approach "Mein Kamp" in the same way that they approach "Grundrisse". I feel sorry for you that this needs to be explained.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

And Communist and Socialist regalia, as well?

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

Wrong. The Swastika and the Rebel flag are beyond the pale of normal political discourse. I don't advocate shutting down neo-Nazi or KKK websites or banning marches by such outfits, but the college campus is an entirely different story. College administrations have a responsibility to keep the campus free of Nazi and Confederacy regalia.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

I take it you're all in favor of Che banners. Whatever theory it takes to clamp down on the opposition in the name of freedom for one's own party. Right?

Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

I would refer you to articles written by Jürgen Habermas during the Historikerstreit on the difference between Stalin and Hitler. I would also add that Marxists are not inclined to formulate things in this manner. Any student who was for communism would more likely hang a banner of Che Guevara from his or her window.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2005

You would want to protect the right to say "Stalin was right" here -- wouldn't you?

chris l pettit - 4/29/2005

Hope you are well...just a couple comments/questions...

I understand your position and support most of your contentions. I do think that...on a general macro level...that this boycott has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with some of the atrocious positions and policies of Israeli universities and their support of Israeli atrocities and violations of international law. I am sure that some of those who voted for the boycott did so on anti-Semitic grounds...but by no means was the general boycott based in anti-Semitism. Those shameful individuals who did vote on anti-Semitic grounds probably have no place in the conversation. I absolutely agree that the boycott is not the best way to go about things. There are many enlightened Israeli scholars and individuals at the universities who oppose Israeli atrocities and work towards peace, human rights, and reconciliation in the region. I have had the pleasure of working with several of them. This overarching general boycott chills quality discourse and only gives more weapons to the pro-Israel supporters of atrocities (meaning policies...not indivisual atrocities necessarily) and Zionism (see KC below). i think the point of the boycott was to protest and attempt to "punish" the administrators of Israeli universities and academics that do support Israeli atrocities and in some cases contribute to them. While I find it totally ineffective and offensive, my question would be, how do we deal with these ideological zealots and complicitors who, while maybe having education or experience, clearly lack intelligence, wisdom or any respect for human rights (note that this applies to zealots on either side of the conflict who disrespect homan rights and peace Israel or PLO lovers...I am sure I am as usual both a Zionist and anti-Semite). What action can be taken to penalize those universities and academics complicit in the violation of international law and human rights? How can they be removed from discourse and their vile positions refuted? This goes for all academics (like Dershowitz) that engage in the undermining of human rights and international law. I am totally in agreement that the boycott is awful because it punishes those who are undeserving along with those who are...and extinguishes quality discourse. but the fact remains that there are those who are complicit that need to be refuted and sanctioned. The funny thing is that, if there were accurate, logical, critically examined and beyond reasonable doubt accusations and proof of individual members of the boycott supporting it due to anti-Semitism, I would be all in favor of their sanction. As it is, the boycott needs to be repealed, unless it wants to single out specific academics or administrators...or come up with some way to sanction the administrations and academics guilty of complicity while supporting those open to quality dialogue, human rights, international law, and peace. Note that I would also sanction those scholars (if they exist in Israeli universities) that approve of Palestinian atrocities and are complicit in supporting them. Please note that complicity is not open to the ideological ramblings of the zealots on either side but is subject to objective, impartial analysis that is generated by international law, legal theory, and critical examination. In other words...anyone pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian atrocities need not apply for analysis.

What would your solution be? The problem being addressed by the boycott is a serious one and needs to be addressed...almost as serious as the witchunts taking place in the US (thank goodness I lecture in Africa). How do we solve it? how do we combat Dershowitz, Horowitz, Klinghoffer, KC (at times...although I do not want him to be seen in the same category as the other three "academics" I list here...he is an honorable scholar who is just severely misguided at times), and other academics.


Louis N Proyect - 4/29/2005

I'll say this. As a moderator of the Marxism mailing list, we do ban racist or sexist speech. You have the same sorts of rules here. But as long as you abide by these rules, it would seem that you can say anything you like. That is what I meant by free speech, not being allowed to say something like "Hitler was right." That sort of thing should never be said here, nor should you have the right to hang a banner out of a dormitory window to the same effect.

Sharon Howard - 4/28/2005

I do not think that anti-semitism is the *only* reason that Israel is singled out in this manner. I equally reject (along with Jacobson) any notion that all criticisms of Israel are anti-semitic, or anti-zionist. I do not think the boycott is purely a matter of anti-semitism. But I nonetheless think that that is a significant enough factor to use the term alongside the others in my description. And, yes, even to put it first in the list. Because, as far as I am concerned, this one has gone way beyond the line of justifiable criticism/ censure for particular activities. It reeks.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/28/2005

Mr. Proyect, Since you are the only one here who has been defending campus speech codes, others of us will take with a grain of salt your free speech claims -- because they are made _only_ in defense of _your_ speech.

Rob D. Priest - 4/28/2005


Much as I love and admire what you have to say, I'm going to have to say: I agree with everything you have to say, bar one thing.

I don't buy yours/Jacobson's suggestion that this is tantamount to anti-Semitism; like so many monocausal explanations, it obscures too much. By presuming that there can only be one reason why Israel has been "singled out," it ignores all the others. You do not have to agree with the other reasons to come to the conclusion that this is costly.

The answer lies with the Left, and not with the Left being anti-semitic, I think this needs to be stressed. The Israel/Palestine conflict has become the number one issue for the hard left not because of anti-semitism but because they, for mostly perfectly rational and non-racist reasons (that I don't necessarily agree with), have come to the conclusion that this is the most important conflict in the contemporary world, the most important issue for activists. I know people who take this opinion, people who believe this just as passionately as anybody else believes that their cause is the most important in the world, and they have their point. I've also met or heard people who take this opinion--Israel/Palestine is cause number 1--and in whom I have smellt the blatant stench of anti-semitism. But that's precisely the point: they are not all the same.

You don't have to agree with them, but what Jacobson does--disagreeing with this point--the uniqueness of the conflict--is enough to make the point anti-semitic, and what the hell throw in some recycled essentialist points about the history of anti-semitism to make it stick--fails to look beyond the easy answer.

Academia should be about subtlety. There is a real danger, thanks to both sides, that this could get lost.

Sharon Howard - 4/28/2005

Louis, I apologise for being rude. It is not you who has made me angry this week, and it was unnecessary to take it out on you.

Louis N Proyect - 4/28/2005

Sorry to make you angry, Doctor Howard, but I have no intention of "pissing off". This is a free speech forum and not governed by the same rules as Southern Illinois or Columbia University.

Sharon Howard - 4/28/2005

Louis, try reading some of the constructive and thoughtful criticisms of boycotts that I'm linking to. I have seen the 'justifications', and I am no kneejerk supporter of Israeli policy, far from it.

Then, if you have nothing useful to say, please piss off.

Louis N Proyect - 4/28/2005

(The author of this letter was an independence fighter in the Irgun, the armed Jewish resistance, and later a soldier in the Israeli army.)

Gush Shalom letter to Bar Ilan University

To Professor Moshe Kaveh President Bar Ilan University

Dear Sir

In various media interviews today you expressed anger at the decision of British university lecturers to declare a boycott against the Bar-Ilan University, calling it “an unacceptable mixing of politics into academic life”. When asked about the “Judea and Samaria College” which your university maintains at the settlement of Ariel, you stated that this was “an entirely non-political issue” and that said college was nothing more than “the largest of five colleges which Bar Ilan maintains at different locations in Israel”. Indeed, you declared yourself and your colleagues to be proud of the decision to establish the Ariel college, and you felt no contradiction between continuing to maintain that college, at the investment of a considerable part of Bar Ilan’s total resources, and the maintenance of extensive ties with universities worldwide, including in Britain.

As an example you mentioned your own ties as a physicist with Cambridge University and your plans to spend some time at Cambridge this summer – plans which, as you stated, remain unchanged also in the wake of the British lecturers’ decision.

Surely, a person of your intelligence and experience can be expected to note the obvious contradictions in the above position. As you well know, Ariel is not “a location in Israel”. Rather, Ariel is a location in a territory under military occupation, a territory which is not and has never been part of the state of Israel. Moreover, Ariel is a special kind of location: it is an armed enclave, created by armed force and dependent for its continued existence on force, and force alone.

The creation of Ariel is a severe violation of international law, specifically of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which specifically forbids an occupying power from transferring and settling its own citizens in the occupied territory. On the ground, the creation and maintenance of Ariel entailed and continues to entail untold hardships to the Palestinians who happen to live in the nearby town of Salfit and in numerous villages a long distance all around. Palestinian inhabitants are exposed to ongoing confiscation of their land so as to feed the land hunger of the ever-expending Ariel settlement, and their daily life are subjected to increasingly stringent travel limitations in the name of “preserving the settlers’ security”.

The government-approved plans to extend the “Separation Fence” so as to create a corridor linking Ariel to the Israeli border necessitate the confiscation of yet more vast tracts of Palestinian land, depriving thousands of villagers of their sole source of livelihood. Moreover, should the Ariel corridor be completed, it would cut deeply through the territory which the international community earmarked for creation of a Palestinian state, depriving that state of territorial continuity and viability. For that reason, the plan aroused widespread international opposition, not least from the United States, our main ally on the international arena.

In all of this the Bar Ilan University, of which you are president, made itself a major partner – indeed,since a violation of international law is involved, the term “accomplice” may well be used. The “Judea and Samaria College” which you and your colleagues established and nurtured has a central role in the settlement of Ariel, increasing its population and its economic clout. The college’s faculty and students are prime users of the “Trans-Samaria Road”, the four-lane highway which was created on confiscated Palestinian land in order to provide quick transportation to Ariel. The Palestinian villagers on whose land this highway was built are excluded from using it. They are relegated to a rugged, bumpy mountain trail.

It is you and your colleagues, Professor Kaveh, who started mixing academics with politics. A very heavy mixture, such as few universities anywhere ever engaged in. You cannot really complain when people in Britain, who have different standards for what is the proper moral behavior of academics (or for human beings in general) take action which you do not like. In fact, if you are truly proud of establishing and maintaining the “Judea and Samaria College”, you must have the courage of your convictions and take the consequences. Much better, of course, would be for you and your colleagues to sever your connection with the ill-conceived settlement project – and than you can quite rightly demand that the boycott be removed from your university.


Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom (The Israeli Peace Bloc)