/ 15 April 2011

No such thing as victimless boycott

The campaign to boycott Israel has won a victory by persuading the University of Johannesburg to end its scientific collaboration with Ben Gurion University (BGU). In Britain, the campaign has made headway among some trade union activists but no university anywhere has considered actually refusing to work with people based at Israeli institutions. Such a policy would break anti-racist law in Britain and violate the norm that the work of scholars is what counts, not their national origin.

South African support is priceless for the boycotters because they make their case worldwide by saying that a boycott of Israel would be similar to the ANC’s boycott of apartheid. Heroes of the anti-apartheid movement back the campaign and anti-Zionist Jews try to indemnify it against the whiff of anti-Semitism that lingers around it. People assume that if South Africans say Israel is apartheid and if some Jews say that the boycott is legitimate, then they are probably right.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, says that UJ’s decision “is a commendable step in the direction of ending relations with Israeli institutions” and it adds, breathlessly. “This decision is guaranteed to resound around the globe!” So it is surprising that Ihron Rensburg, the principal of UJ, says that UJ does not “subscribe to an academic boycott of Israel”. David Newman, a dean at BGU, sees it differently: “sensibly, UJ objects to the policies practiced by BGU … but in reality, it’s the first institutional boycott of an Israeli university.”

Rensburg’s attempt to spin the decision is disappointing. It relies on a spurious distinction between “institutional links” and “individual engagements”. But universities are self-managed collectives of academics who research and teach. Scholars are supported, and their academic freedom is underwritten, by their institutions. You cannot have a victimless boycott against universities without boycotting individuals. BGU, in the desert, is renowned for its work on water systems in arid conditions. Some of its scientists were helping to develop, with UJ colleagues, ways of bringing fresh, clean water to more South Africans. UJ has decided, for political reasons, to end this collaboration.

UJ scholars should be able to recognise an apartheid institution. The Rand Afrikaans University, from which it is descended, was set up as an apartheid project. Even its buildings were symbolically laid out in the shape that the wagons formed when under attack during the Great Trek.

Israeli universities are not part of a racist project; they are autonomous academic institutions like others across the democratic world. BGU does not support the occupation of the Palestinian territories. It has stood up against those on the Israeli right who seek to interfere with its academic norms and antiracist practices. It defends its own critical scholars, even those who go round the world calling on people to boycott their colleagues. Twenty percent of BGU students are Arabs and scholars at the university are involved in many joint projects with Palestinian colleagues.

Israel is not an apartheid state. Jews were forced out of European and Middle Eastern countries by racist boycotts and violence, including exclusions from universities. They went to Israel as refugees not imperialists. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was never inevitable and neither nation is free from responsibility for the oppression and the bloodshed. If the conflict is to be ended, it will be through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel and Palestine are not, like South Africa, a single but divided nation. Compare the ANC charter, which guaranteed in advance rights for minorities in a democratic state, to the Hamas charter, which calls for the killing of Israelis and the creation of an Islamist state.

Umberto Eco, the Italian intellectual, considers it “fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government”. No wonder then, that UJ pretends this is not what it is doing.

The boycott campaign is not motivated by anti-Semitism, but wherever it goes, anti-Semitism follows. One of its leaders, Bongani Masuku, a Cosatu official, has been found guilty by the South African Human Rights Commission of hate speech. Jews around the world are routinely treated as supporters of apartheid if they dare to oppose the boycott campaign.

When you educate people to boycott only Israel, when you tell them that all Israelis are responsible for human-rights abuses, when you mobilise a global campaign to say that Israel is uniquely racist, and when this campaign becomes central to progressive politics globally, you are, whether you know it or not, incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking. When ears are closed to concern about anti-Semitism on the basis that such concern is a marker of secret support for Israeli human rights abuses, then you know there is a problem.

UJ has chosen to boost the international campaign to exclude Israelis, and nobody else, from the global academic community. It is legitimising an anti-Semitic boycott, it is distorting the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle and it is depriving South Africans of clean-water technology.

Dr David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Hirsh is also the founding editor of www.engageonline.org.uk