Thursday, June 07, 2007
Why we need the boycott
Some of the discussion about the proposed academic boycott of Israel has missed a crucial point. For example, the Guardian reports it as already having started: “The boycott was launched by the UCU, which represents more than 120,000 academics, at its inaugural conference.” But there is no boycott, only a decision to debate whether there should be a boycott.
The motion was passed with a decisive majority at the UCU conference precisely because of the way it was phrased. The motion requires the union to hold a debate about having a boycott in every college and university up and down the land.
Therefore, those who seeking to overturn the motion in the name of academic freedom are in reality seeking to suppress the debate which is being proposed, and disempower the lecturers from debating the question of Palestine.
What is true is that if/when the union does pass a resolution for a boycott the new General Secretary Sally Hunt has pledged she will try to overturn it with a ballot of all members.
That’s a further reason why activists need to ensure the debate involves as many members of UCU as possible. The very process of having the debate with union members is an excellent contribution to raising awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, and puts further pressure on Israel.
The Jewish Week , a New York newspaper, accuses those advocating the boycott of anti-semitism and quotes Nachman Ben Yehuda, dean of the faculty of Social Sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem saying: “What does it mean to boycott the Israeli academy? It means to boycott Jewish professors. We need to put this on the table”
But there is not question of academics being boycotted because of their Jewishness, it is the institutions that are being targeted, because of the exceptional nature of the forty year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
According to Asaf Wohl, writing on the Ynet news site says: “One of the official reasons for the boycott on the Israeli academy is the occupation. Isn’t it ridiculous to hear such criticism from the citizens of a country that sends its army to the other side of the earth just to keep under its colonialist patronage two arid scraps of land in the middle of the ocean? From the citizens of a country that refuses to return Gibraltar to its legal owners? Not to mention its soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
However, the occupation of Palestinian lands is exceptional and unique in the modern world because of the question of the settlements. Israel is seeking to illegally annex East Jerusalem despite the fact that international law is now unequivocal that territory cannot be illegally acquired through conquest, and there are half a million colonists illegally living in the new Zionist towns and settlements in the West Bank.
The exceptional nature of these settlements, the land grab that they represent, and the systematic destruction of the Palestinian economy and civil society that they cause require pressure to be brought onto Israel.
The EU and USA have sanctions against the Palestinian Authority freezing funding, because the elected Hamas government does not recognise Israel. The symbolic issue of Hamas's refusal to acknowledge Israel is considered more important that the actualy existing failure of Israel to respect the territorial integrity of Palestine.
As the governments of the west have no intention of pressurising Israel, it falls upon civil society, and particularly the trade unions, to apply measured and targeted sanctions on Israel. As Kamel Hawwash, the only British Palestinian delegate to the UCU conference wrote in a letter to the Financial Times: "The mere discussion of boycotts took the debate on to the next (and in my view) necessary level. ... I am very pleased with this as a British Palestinian academic and I look forward to following the debate over the coming 12 months. I see the decision of the UCU as an opportunity for Israeli society as a whole and not just academia, to come to a historic realisation that they will only achieve peace and security when the Palestinians have their due rights and there is an independent, confident Palestinian state living side by side with Israel and not inside Israel."
The proposed boycott is in the interests of justice,and without justice there can be no peace.