Back the boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Ilan Pappe | The Guardian | 24 May 2005

lan Pappe, whose case was a focus of the lecturers’ boycott vote, appeals to UK colleagues not to back down
The Association of University Teachers’ decision to reconsider its motions on the academic boycott of Israel seems to confuse procedure and principle. I am not a trade union activist, neither am I a British citizen, but I understand there may – or may not – have been procedural, and even tactical, errors in the way the decision was taken. Either way, these issues cannot be the focus of the debate over sanctions and boycott. Judging by the amount of time spent – especially by the opponents of the new AUT policy – on debating procedural matters and tactics, there is a risk of the wider public losing sight of the main issue, namely the need to apply external pressure on Israel as the best means of ending the worst occupation in recent history.
I believe I am in a better position than many to judge the tactical and moral dimensions of the academic boycott of Israel. My case was singled out by the AUT as the reason for boycotting my own university, Haifa. I felt honoured by this attention to my predicament and, at the same time, hoped that the general context, the need to end the callous occupation, will not be forgotten. In fact, judging from the reactions in Israel, after an initial confusion between the principled issue and private case, there seems to be a better understanding here of the link between the occupation and the silencing of those who oppose it.
Whether the AUT decides to leave the motions intact – despite the wrath they brought upon me as public enemy No 1 in Israel – or reword the Haifa motion in such a way as to deflect attention from my own case and stress the link between the boycott policy and the occupation, I will live in peace with both options. I will be more at home with a principled decision on boycott that will be followed by a serious discussion of how best to apply a moral stance in practice. I will feel in all three cases that a great cause is being served. The AUT cannot go wrong whichever way it decides to pursue the much needed policy of spearheading and initiating external pressure on Israel through the means of academic boycott – if only to express solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, whose every basic human and civil right is being violated daily by Israel. Whatever the means, provided the AUT reaffirms its boycott policy, the association will be remembered in history very much alongside those British and European NGOs whose bold and honourable stand against apartheid in South Africa will always be engraved in our collective memory.
The University of Haifa threatens to sue the AUT for libel for false and intentional misrepresentation of action taken against me and the MA student Teddy Katz in and out of the campus. This affair is far beyond me or Katz, whose MA was disqualified after his bold exposure of yet another Israeli massacre in 1948. He was the first ever student to research the Palestinian catastrophe. I was the first lecturer to teach a course on that catastrophe, and how was I rewarded? By, first, an official attempt to expel me in 2002 and then by informal efforts, that have not ceased until today, to throw me out. Moreover, the threat to take legal action has nothing to with the university’s good name or historical accuracy: it is a typical Israeli – brutal and intimidating – response to any criticism. If intimidation has its way, as so often happened in the past, it will be used again and again. Its main purpose, in this case, is to silence dissenting voices in Israel. We, the dissidents, rely on our comrades in England and elsewhere to support us and stand by us.
Two issues must not be obfuscated. The first is that many of those official Israeli and Zionist bodies now demanding that the AUT rescind its early decision on the boycott openly justify and actively support the occupation, some in an official capacity as an integral part of the occupation itself. Second, and more important to my mind, should the AUT retract its principled and ethical policy of boycott, it will inadvertently send a message to all Israelis that the occupation is legitimate and immune from any external pressure or condemnation.
The occupation is a dynamic process and it becomes worse with each passing day. The AUT can choose to stand by and do nothing, or to be part of a historical movement similar to the anti-apartheid campaign against the white supremacist regime in South Africa. By choosing the latter, it can move us forward along the only remaining viable and non-violent road to saving both Palestinians and Israelis from an impending catastrophe.
Clearly, someone has to be bold enough to take the lead in pressurising Israel through sanctions and boycott in order to avert another cycle of the bloodshed that is destabilising the Middle East and undermining world security and peace. Who, other than academics and intellectuals, can be expected to provide this much needed leadership?
Ilan Pappe is a senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Haifa and head of the Touma Institute for Palestinian studies