The choice is to do nothing or try to bring about change

From the archive (legacy material)

Hilary Rose and Steven Rose | The Guardian | 15 July 2002

The carnage in the Middle East continues; today a suicide bomber, tomorrow an Israeli strike on Palestinians with helicopters, missiles and tanks. The Israelis continue to invade Palestinian towns and expand illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Ariel Sharon refuses to negotiate while “violence” (ie Palestinian resistance) continues. Our own government sheds crocodile tears at the loss of life while inviting a prime minister accused of war crimes to lunch and providing his military with F16 spare parts.
Yet every rational person knows that the only prospect of a just and lasting peace lies in Israel’s recognition of the legitimacy of a Palestinian state and the Arab world’s acceptance of a secure Israel behind its 1967 borders. That is what every peace plan proposes. But how to get from here to there? Is there anything that ordinary citizens, that is civil society, can do to bring pressure to bear to compel our governments and international institutions to move the peace process forward?
One of the nonviolent weapons open to civil society to express its moral outrage is the boycott. Internationally this has been most successful against apartheid South Africa. It took many years but ultimately shamed governments and multinational corporations into isolating this iniquitous regime. The boycott called last year by Palestinian solidarity movements was against Israeli products. This too moves slowly, but only a couple of weeks ago it secured a ban on the sale of settlement-produced goods illegally labelled “made in Israel”.
The international academic, cultural and sporting communities had played a major part in isolating South Africa and we have increasingly learned of individuals who thought that cooperating with Israeli institutions was like collaborating with the apartheid regime. A writer refused to have her play acted in Israel, a musician turns down an invitation to perform or an academic to attend a conference.
It was these individual ethical refusals which led us to make the restricted call for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opened serious peace negotiations. We noted that Israel, a Middle Eastern state, was accepted as an integral part of the European scientific community while its neighbours were not. We canvassed a draft of the letter among colleagues in the UK and other European countries, and within days signatures of support came flowing in.
When the letter was published in the Guardian in April, it had over 120 names on it. A matching letter was published in France; its website now carries more than a thousand names. Another call was published in Italy, another in Australia. The Association of University Teachers adopted the moratorium call; the lecturers’ union, Natfhe, an even stronger resolution. In similar vein an advertisement signed by Jewish Americans appeared in the New York Times calling for US disinvestment from Israel until peace negotiations were opened.
What is self-evident is that a cultural and economic boycott is slowly assembling. It is not one monolithic entity. It varies from the very modest resistance suggested in our initial letter, such as personally refusing to take part in collaborative research with Israeli institutions, to more public gestures of opposition. Such acts are painful, even though the target is institutional, actions often mean a breach with longstanding colleagues. It is thus important that the boycott is coupled with positive support for those Israeli refuseniks who continue to oppose the actions of their elected government.
It is this that makes suggestions, such as that by Jonathan Freedland in last week’s Guardian, that the boycott is in some way comparable to that imposed by Nazi Germany on Jewish shops, so grotesquely hyperbolic. It matches the many hate emails that those who have endorsed the boycott have received, accusing them of anti-semitism or even Holocaust denial. If the supporters of the Israeli government cannot distinguish between being opposed to Israeli state policy and being anti-semitic, it is scarcely surprising that real anti-semites conflate the two.
Faced with this growing international movement, some have cried foul. Does the boycott not risk endangering those fragile academic links between Israelis and Palestinians that do exist? Yet these are in far greater danger as a result of the restrictions on movement which the Israeli government places on Palestinian researchers, and the repeated attempts to close down Palestinian universities. And no Palestinian has voiced this concern; on the contrary many among their academic community, such as those at the University at Bir Zeit, have endorsed the boycott call as helping to draw attention to the brutal restrictions on their academic freedom to teach, study and research.
The exaggerated attention to the “academic freedom” issues raised by the unilateral removal from an editorial board of two Israeli academics by one signatory to the boycott call is like focusing on a potential local mote to avoid the flagrantinternational beam. This sudden institutional preoccupation with academic freedom is not without historical interest.
During the height of the student movement of the late 1960s, university lecturer Robin Blackburn was sacked for a post-hoc endorsement of students who removed the London School of Economics gates. There was a resounding silence at this breach of his right to free speech. But it is strange to hear academic freedom invoked as an abstraction in a university world where much research is funded by corporate industrial interests, and where a biological research topic can be closed by a patent agreement. Only a couple of weeks ago two Harvard post-doctoral researchers were threatened with jail for sending cloned material from the lab in which they were working to one to which they were moving.
Unlike some of those whistle blowers who have called attention to the hazards of genetic engineering, no one is likely to lose their jobs as a result of being boycotted. At worst they risk isolation from the international academic research community. Those who have been threatened with dismissal, and worse, for supporting the boycott are those few courageous Israelis who have endorsed the call.
The choice today for civil society – and academics and researchers are part of civil society – is to remain silent and do nothing or to try to bring pressure to bear. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statement of support for the boycott closed with this quote from Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
* Hilary Rose is professor of social policy at Bradford University; Steven Rose is professor of biology at the Open University. They codrafted the Israel academic moratorium call.