Keeping dialogue open

From the archive (legacy material)

Gargi Bhattacharyya | The Guardian | 18 November 2005

After attending a series of meetings about the Israeli academic boycott, Gargi Bhattacharyya still maintains that the issue is not about the ban – it’s about the occupation.
After last spring’s controversy about the academic boycott and a short summer lull, it has been a busy month of meetings about Palestine and education.
This week, David Hirsch and Ilan Pappe went head to head in Birmingham to debate the academic boycott of Israeli universities. For anyone who has managed to avoid the extensive media coverage of this issue, Hirsch is a founder member of Engage, the campaign group against an academic boycott of Israel. Pappe is an academic employed at the University of Haifa and one of the most well known Israeli advocates of a boycott. I should say from the start that this was not the most fun meeting I ever attended – and, sadly, I am someone who thinks meetings can be fun.
The academic boycott has been controversial to say the least – and the debate has been deeply felt, acrimonious and, occasionally, bordering on the threatening. In Birmingham, a significant proportion of the audience appeared to have come to voice their opposition to Pappe himself, as opposed to the boycott or any other issue. Another smaller group, including myself, came with serious suspicions about the project of Engage. Although both speakers presented thoughtful if controversial accounts of their positions, I am not so sure that the audience felt that we were engaged in a debate.
Hirsch stated clearly that he opposed the occupation of Palestine and supported the rights of Palestinians – but that he did not agree with the tactic of boycott, which he considered to be counterproductive and playing into the hands of anti-semites. Pappe spoke of the atrocities against Palestinians that he had witnessed and the reasons why he believed that only the pressure of international sanctions could change opinion in Israel.
However, although it would seem that there was some common ground politically between these two positions, the discussion from the floor was not about how best to support Palestinians. A large number of contributions attacked Ilan Pappe for suggesting that Palestinians were suffering and needing support – because, it was alleged, this was a one-sided and violent view. Pro-Palestinian speakers felt they had to answer the allegation of anti-semitism – understandably, as that was how the debate was set up. One member of the audience expressed his regret that the discussion could not be conducted in a manner more in keeping with the dialogic traditions of Judaic scholarship. I clapped him – but not many others did.
The week before I had been at the Edward Said Memorial lecture – an event that I expect will be banned in future as a glorification of terrorism. There Tariq Ali argued that the liberal conscience of the West had shut down in relation to Palestine and the suffering of Palestinians, not least because there was so little access in the West to reporting of life in the occupied territories or press analysis that voiced the Palestinian case. I am not sure that Said himself would give up on the liberal conscience so easily – but every time people suggest that it is up to us as Western academics, trade unionists, peace activists or general good-sorts to get both sides together and help them talk through their misunderstanding, I think I am getting a sense of what Ali means. It takes quite an effort of obfuscation to rewrite Palestinian resistance to losing land, livelihood, everyday freedoms and life as stemming from a failure to understand their Jewish ‘neighbours’.
Earlier in October, Nabeel Kassis, the president of Bir Zeit University, also came to speak in Birmingham. Although the meeting was about the issue of academic freedom for Palestinians, Dr Kassis made it clear that for Palestinians this cannot be separated from everyday freedom. When every aspect of life is constrained by the occupation, freedom of thought cannot be the only criteria of academic freedom. Bir Zeit has been closed off by checkpoints many times. There have been military incursions onto the campus itself. Significant numbers of students have been detained without charge – including Walid Hanatche who has been in detention without trial since May 2002 and who is the focus of a campaign by Amnesty International. All find it hard to get to classes. Staff members are reduced to teaching their courses in churches or private homes. And despite all this, somehow Bir Zeit continues to function as a respected university with an international reputation. In his speech, David Hirsch made two key arguments – one that a boycott of Israeli universities was not an effective tactic in support of Palestinian rights, the other that such a campaign provided a space for an anti-semitism that has contaminated too much of the history of the British left. Both are legitimate arguments – but they are not the same argument. For those wishing to support Palestinians in a struggle that demands no more than the chance to live a normal life unencumbered by military occupation and with the rights enshrined in international law, there is space to discuss tactics. Such a discussion should be lead by what our Palestinian comrades say to us. If there is anti-semitism on the left, and I am the last person to deny that the British left continues to find the issue of ‘race’ difficult, then there is a continuing need for anti-racist campaigning within the left and across all issues. The possibility that anti-semites will use the call for solidarity with Palestinians as a cloak for their racism cannot be a reason to abandon a just and legitimate cause.
Ilan Pappe, who even his enemies must concede to be a very patient man, argued that the debate about academic boycott achieved three things. It relocated the question of the occupation to the front pages of the international press; it offered a new agenda for peace in the form of a popular solidarity movement based on the anti-apartheid movement; and most importantly of all, it offered hope to the Palestinians, who have waited so long for the international community and its exhausted liberal conscience.
One of the bad-tempered interventions from the floor at the Birmingham debate was the assertion that boycotts were overrated and it was the black masses of South Africa who defeated apartheid. In the spirit of dialogue, I managed to bite back the desire to say ‘Duh!’ – it is Palestinians who will win freedom for Palestine – solidarity means, among other things, doing what we can to keep them hopeful. Spending all our time and energy getting tied up with the correctness or otherwise of various tactics is another indication of the shameful self-absorption of the Western liberal conscience, because it stops us from talking about Palestine.
Keep remembering: it isn’t about the boycott – it’s about the occupation.