The boycott should continue

From the archive (legacy material)

Oren Ben-Dor | The Independent | 30 May 2005

Driving towards my birthplace of Nahariya in northern Israel, you pass an impressively designed Holocaust memorial, dedicated to “the fighters of the ghettos”. It is difficult not to be touched by its importance and prominence. Three hundred metres further along the same road, lie the forgotten remains of the Arab village, al-Sumuriya, whose people were among the 750,000 Palestinians displaced in 1947-49 war. The contrast illustrates the way in which, in Israel, the Jewish catastrophe monopolises the national collective memory at the expense of the Other.
The decision last week by UK academics to overturn their boycott of two Israeli universities is a missed opportunity to awaken Israelis, and in turn Palestinians, to the urgent need to engage in a debate about all the skeletons in the cupboard, both Zionist and Palestinian. The Association of University Teachers is instead allowing denial and forgetfulness, on both sides, to work themselves out to a further catastrophe and continuing bloodshed. The vicious circle of victimhood, hatred and self-righteousness can never be transcended until each side allows the other to articulate the inner core of its pain and then sets out to address that trauma.
The withdrawal of the boycott suggests that some members of the AUT were pushed into an act of moral cowardice by the sense of collective guilt for past European anti-Semitism carefully fostered by apologists for Israel in the weeks leading up to the decision. However, it is also probable that some were confused about the purpose of the boycott.
Academic freedom is not some idle abstraction which unconditionally shields academic pursuits, as one might assume from the unhelpful utterances of figures in Britain, including Jonathan Sachs, who opposed the boycott in its name. Its purpose is to provide a means to transcend the publicly-sanctioned limits of debate. Such freedom is precisely what is absent in Israel. The Zionist ideology which stipulates that Israel must retain its Jewish majority is a non-debatable given in the country — and the bedrock of opposition to allowing the return of Palestinian refugees. The very few intellectuals who dare to question this sacred cow are labelled “extremists”. But what about asking whether Zionism itself is extremist?
The Israeli Zionist left, the self-styled “peace activists” who were offended by this boycott, are themselves sophisticated accomplices to the smothering of debate by limiting the issue to “the 1967 occupation”. The occupation that should be debated, but is not, is the occupation of the whole of Palestine.
Israeli universities have, by and large, been conscripted into the Israeli national consensus. The absence of academic freedom is evident not only in the behaviour of Haifa University towards the politics lecturer Ilan Pappe and those he seeks to defend. It is also evident in the pervasive marginalisation of the debate about the racist nature of the Zionist state, and about the catastrophe which Zionism inflicted on the Palestinian people.
Both debating Zionism and, linked to it, empathising with the victims of the Palestinian catastrophe “Nakbah”, must form part of the mainstream of academic discourse. And external pressure is needed to make Israelis aware of and prepared to reflect on these issues.
Academics should be held accountable for their failure to resist the curbs on academic freedom placed on them by their institutions. Whether they are mathematicians, historians, lawyers, philosophers or economists — all should demand that their institutions meet the challenge posed by the ideal of academic freedom. In Israel, sadly, they do not.
A boycott to foster real academic freedom in Israel should unite academics all over the world. What is at stake is the primordial freedom to question the racist assumptions that lie at the heart of nationalistic ideology and historiography. Thus, such a boycott is even more important than a general boycott of Israel as a criminal state, to which Israeli academics would be subject like the rest of the Israeli population.
However, we should demand more than a grudging “grant” of academic freedom to debate Zionism’s culpability for the Palestinian catastrophe. To compensate for the disadvantage that has been caused by the long history of Nakbah-denial in Israeli universities, these institutions should now actively facilitate and foster the debate; and allocate specific resources and opportunities.
The academic boycott that I defend is distinct from a comprehensive boycott against Israeli goods, sports, etc, (which I would also defend) for the state’s ongoing crimes in the Occupied Territories. Indeed Bar Ilan University, by supporting a college there, is an accomplice to those crimes. No, the boycott I wish to see is a boycott intended to produce academic freedom, something that all AUT members say they hold dear, one which prompts Israeli academics to ask questions that, currently, they dare not ask. It is about freedom of debate in a country that styles itself the “only democracy in the Middle East” but which restricts debate about the herrenvolk (master race) nature of its democracy.
Although the AUT has stumbled, this issue will return. I urge other academic unions to pick up the baton that the AUT has dropped.
The writer is a law lecturer at Southampton University: