Why Israel will always be vilified

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

David Aaronovitch | The Observer | 24 April 2005

Last Friday saw two examples of intelligent people behaving in a futile way. The first was the decision by the US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, to seek the death penalty for would-be suicide terrorist, Zacharias Moussaoui. Not only does such a sentence confer on Moussaoui precisely the heroic end that he was seeking (did Gonzales never read Brer Rabbit?), but it would also deprive the authorities of a potentially valuable source of information and psychological insight. All it does is make some Americans feel better.
And then there was the decision of the Association of University Teachers council in Eastbourne to boycott two (perhaps three) Israeli universities, the futility of which I now hope to prove.
Let us first look at the stated objectives of the boycott. What does it seek to achieve? The literature of the campaign suggests that these objectives, far from being focused, are many and nebulous. They are, according to the motion’s prime mover, Sue Blackwell of the English Department of Birmingham University, variously to ‘add to the pressure on the country’s economy and dent its international prestige’; to send a ‘message of support to students and colleagues in Palestine’; and to act as ‘consciousness-raising’ for British academics who, through the boycott, can be brought to realise how the world really is. A sort of speculum for their hidden political organs.
The boycott seems also to be simultaneously aimed at the Israeli system in toto, and at the specific misdeeds of particular institutions – Haifa University for political censorship, Bar-Ilan for having relations with the illegal settlements on the West Bank, and the Hebrew University for pulling down Arab houses to build student dormitories. The AUT executive is ‘investigating’ this last accusation, but the scope of these targets probably reflects the campaigners’ need to maximise support for their motion.
So, according to the disclosed agenda, somehow or other, the boycott will make Israeli academics think again about their support for the system, thus strengthening the forces of progress and justice. It will make Palestinians feel better, it will make Sue Blackwell feel better, it will help.
But will it? On Friday morning, the participants in the council meeting may have read an article in the Guardian by the progressive Israeli writer, Etgar Keret. He recalled how the Manchester academic, Mona Baker, sacked his translator, Miriam Schlesinger, from the board of Baker’s journal, the Translator. Keret reflected on the irony. Schlesinger was the former head of Amnesty International in Israel, as well as being a peace activist. Keret added: ‘Baker was not the first to call for a boycott of [Miriam’s] academic work. Israeli right wingers had been irked by her signature on some petition and had called upon students at Israeli universities to refrain from attending classes given by her and others of her ilk.’
If the AUT delegates read Keret’s appeal, just over half of them ignored it. And now, if they have their way, the Schlesingers of this world will be routinely boycotted unless, according to the terms of the motion, they show sufficient individual zeal in the cause of justice of the Palestinians. Sufficient zeal as judged by whom? We have no idea.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, you can easily imagine whose position is strengthened by the AUT boycott. And it isn’t that of the academics most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Look at the Europeans! Once again, they have singled Israel out for special treatment! Who can we trust but ourselves? In the United States, far more important to Israel than we will ever be, it will add grist to the arguments of those who want to support Israel at all hazards and under all circumstances.
So why do something so obviously counterproductive? The AUT delegates will have been reminded of the intolerable conditions of many of those living under Israeli occupation. They will have felt the emotional tug of those stories of checkpoint humiliations, collective punishments and the shooting of civilians. They’ll have seen pictures of the wall. The motion may make them feel better. Warmer.
After the vote had been won, Blackwell, a former Christian fundamentalist turned revolutionary socialist, told the press how glad she was to be part of a union that was ‘prepared to stand up for human rights’. The problem here, as she will have realised, is that if the AUT was to boycott places with bad human rights records, there’d be a whole lot of boycottin’ goin’ on. She has tried in the past to finesse this difficulty, at one point arguing: ‘You cannot talk about academic freedom and free debate in Israel in the same way you can talk about it in the UK, or in almost any other country in the world.’
This sunniness is rather obviously absurd. There is a significant level of academic freedom and debate in Israel, flawed though it may be, compared with much of the rest of the world. Take just one country, Tunisia, which has a run-of-the-mill torturing authoritarian regime and no debate in its universities at all. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me if many academics at Birmingham University have holidayed there, completely unhindered by Sue Blackwell. And then, of course, there’s China.
No, Israel’s universities are not bad and Israel’s human rights record is no worse than that of many other countries. So, inevitably, the tack shifts. Israel’s universities are intrinsically racist, according to Blackwell, with ‘Israeli academics routinely implicated in racist discourses against Arab students and Arabs in general’.
And that’s because there is something utterly unique about Israel itself, which marks it out from the merely abusive North Koreas and Irans. It has become an apartheid state, as South Africa was. And it, therefore, should be treated in the same way, with boycotts and disinvestments.
This is a genuinely, grade-A stupid argument, whether it emanates from the lips of Professor Steven Rose or the more sacred ones of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In itself, Israel is not anything like South Africa, where a majority was denied all political and civic rights on the grounds of race. What is analogous, however, is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, which bears comparison with South Africa’s occupation of Namibia or, some might say, Serbia’s occupation of Kosovo.
So the object of those wanting peace and justice in the Middle East is to bring about an end to that occupation, and enable the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. It is to persuade both sides that such a settlement is practical and to persuade both sides to make the difficult sacrifices that are necessary. It is to build confidence between Jews and Palestinians, and to strengthen, always, the hand of the peacemakers.
Unless, of course, you don’t believe that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state at all within any borders. And this, as it happens, seems to be the view of Sue Blackwell, who describes Israel as ‘an illegitimate state’. Unlike the United Nations, she does not believe it should have been set up and she would rather it disappeared. As she pointed out in 2003 to a previous AUT council: ‘From its very inception, the state of Israel has attracted international condemnation for violating the human rights of the Palestinian people and making war on its neighbours.’ Or, to put it even more bluntly, everything is all the fault of the Israelis.
The problem is that many Jews understand very well that this is her view and, unfortunately, will believe that it is also the view of all her fellow campaigners. Consequently, there will now be a battle royal (of which this article is part) about the rights and wrongs of these particular tactics, and the bigger picture will inevitably be lost. Everyone will return to their trenches and take the tarpaulins off their heaviest and most inaccurate artillery.
However, there may be a saving grace. Two years ago, Blackwell predicted that Tony Blair would be ousted at the next general election over Iraq. But if not: ‘Then it may well be time for international pressure to be brought to bear, since the British electorate will have failed in their moral duty’.
So, one last reason, perhaps, to vote Labour on Thursday week. To enjoy the sight of Sue Blackwell busily boycotting herself.