PAPERS FROM THE CONFERENCE HELD AT SOAS
Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles
An International Conference on Palestine
London, 5 December 2004
The Meaning and Objectives of the Academic Boycott
Two years ago when I first heard of the initiative to collect signatures for a petition directed at the EU for changing Israeli’s academic preferential position within that organization I did not hesitate and added my name. I was also convinced that the 100-150 Israeli academics who usually add their names to petitions and initiatives against the occupation, and in support of the ‘refusniks’, would do the same. This turned out to be a naive presumption. Apart from three other active members of the local faculties, the rest came up with a variety of excuses and refused to join the petition (that in fact did not even call for a boycott but for a moratorium on Israel’s preferential treatment in the EU).
Why Did I Sign?
Here is the gist of my attempt to explain myself inside and outside Israel. I have been a political activist for most of my adult life. In all these years, I strongly believed that the only way to change the unbearable and unacceptable reality in Palestine was to work from within, to be involved in an attempt to persuade the Israeli-Jewish society - to which I belong and into which I was born - to change its governments and policies. The balance of power in Palestine since 1948, and particularly since 1967, has convinced me that, as in the case of other colonialist enterprises, the change from within the occupier’s society was a key factor in altering an oppressive situation on the ground. In our particular case, it meant that only a new initiative from within Israel could open the door for meaningful negotiations towards a comprehensive solution to the question of Palestine.
Ever since 1987, the outbreak of the first Intifada, I have begun doubting the effectiveness of the option of the change from within. However I still believe that eventual reconciliation can only be achieved by a direct dialogue between the two peoples. Furthermore it is only through education and persuasion that a comprehensive settlement will be worked out--one which will enable the Palestinian refugees to return and the two peoples to share the land within an agreed political structure based on mutual recognition and universal principles of equality and justice. However any significant move towards such reconciliation cannot even be achieved without an unconditional, immediate and total end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Moreover, whereas the final features of a solution should be negotiated from within, there is little hope of ending the occupation through negotiations or a dialogue with the occupying power. We have tried it in the past; it has failed with dire consequences.
Such negotiations were reflected in the ‘Oslo Peace Accords’. These accords have become futile as a means of ending the Israeli occupation. The so-called ‘peace process’ was based on the assumption that a tangible transformation of the occupier’s mentality and policy could be affected. In reality, the diplomatic manoeuvres played into the hands of the Israeli occupiers. This meant that the most brutal occupation in the second half of the twentieth century has been kept intact-and will be so for the foreseeable future-while the world will continue to talk about ‘windows of opportunities’ which have opened since Yasser Arafat’s death. This sad event will not contribute to ending the occupation, since the occupier has been spared any meaningful outside pressure directed at making it alter its oppressive policies and warning against future plans of further ‘ethnic cleansing’ and destruction.
For outsiders, the hesitations and internal debates in Israel may seem spurious. But they are not for people like myself, an Israeli-Jewish citizen. Any decision to give up, or to downgrade, the importance of the internal struggle to end the occupation means further alienation from our own society. And yet a small number of people like myself, a tiny minority that continue to grow steadily though not impressively, has reached the conclusion that since the struggle from within cannot work on its own, the only chance for success would be the struggle from without, i.e. the international campaign. And this movement can only take the form of boycott and divestment.
I concluded my initial reaction to the Palestinian and international boycott initiative in the following:
The closing of the public mind in Israel, the persistent hold of the settlers over the Israeli society, the in-built and structural racism within the Israeli Jewish population, the daily de-humanization of the Palestinians and the vested interests of the army and the industry in holding onto the occupied territories, mean that we are in for the haul-a very long period of cruel and oppressive occupation.
Why the International Academic Boycott will be effective?
Alas two years have passed since these words were written; the destruction in Palestine has been wider than we had dreaded and the Israeli actions have reached higher levels of savageness and inhumanity.
This was my main reasoning for advocating boycott. Obviously this argument is not shared by the vast majority within the Israeli academia, even by those who regard themselves as belonging to the ‘progressive’ anti-occupation ‘peace camp’.
Why didn’t they sign? Why did they react strongly against my own signature? My first inclination was to attribute their position to their fear of losing their own posts or damaging their promotions within Israeli academia But I also suspected there were deeper reasons that not only explain their refusal to sign, but also explain, rather paradoxically, why the international academic boycott will be effective. The Israeli academia is the window dressing of the Jewish society’s moral and cultural self-image. Also academics in Israel are closely and almost integrally associated with the Israeli army, the political system and the industry. Rather than being a critical agency vis-à-vis these pillars of the society, the academia has become one of them – directly culpable in maintaining the occupation, more specifically by providing moral and ‘scholarly’ explanations for the oppression in the occupied territories. This academia, at the same time, is almost totally dependent on Western academia for its financial and scholarly survival. Subsidies and peer reviews, which are largely in the hands of the Western academia, are main features of a long-standing collaboration between the local campuses and academic institutions in the West.
With the passage of time, I became even more convinced of the validity and utility of the international boycott strategy. Now there seemed to be two main advantages to the boycott campaign. The first is born out of the encouraging reactions around the world to the idea. This means that after a long period of inaction, new avenues are found to express external support for and solidarity with the Palestinians, far beyond the International Solidarity Movement and its important contribution. It is as if there is no need for a ‘proper Palestinian ANC’–given the current dismal conditions of the Palestinian Authority – to provide guidance for an effective anti-Apartheid movement of solidarity with the Palestinians. The quest for such an avenue has been made urgent given ‘peace’ charade promoted by the Quartet and Middle East countries such as Egypt.
But together with the assurances and convictions, some apprehensions have been expressed. The boycott is a tool and not a vision or even a comprehensive strategy. Its main purpose is to serve as the highway on which we can now travel in order to maximize our efforts against Israeli occupation and oppression. At the same time we should not forget that we are not all clear about, or agree on, the final destination; worse we are not entirely sure about those in the driving seat. Who exactly is our ANC? What is the Palestinian equivalent of the South African campaign of equal votes and opportunities? How does the boycott campaign relate to the armed struggle and resistance on the ground? In short, we may have found the right tactic, but we are still in the dark about the overall strategy.
The questions raised above lead me to conclude that we should continue with the boycott and divestment campaigns, while articulating our overall struggle in the direction of re-invigorating and redefining the struggle for Palestine, in terms of leadership and objectives, so that our particular campaign does not become an isolated endeavour.
Summary of the Day (5 December)
We began I think all by acknowledging that we were here because of Hilary and Steven Rose, whose moratorium initiative moved us all into action.
Victoria Britain began the day by reminding us that the anti-apartheid movement appeared at a time when the ANC felt almost defeated and demoralized. It was indeed, as Tom Paulin remarked in his keynote address, a mass movement that took time to materialize. It also had roots within the Irish civil struggle which alerted Europe to the possibility of boycott; but it also took time – and a lull of few years – before the protest became effective and influential.
Tom Paulin gave us the wider context of cultural struggle and representations as tools and strategies against oppression and occupation. This means of course that our camp has to expand beyond academia into the media and the arts, both as form of protesting against the occupier self-images and propaganda as well in support of augmenting the Palestinian representation of their plight and rights.
Lisa Taraki clarified how widespread and committed is the Palestinian academic position on the initiative; weary of false dialogues and co-opted policies. Without this support the whole campaign would seem futile. No less encouraging were the news from America as reported by Lawrence Davidson. The various divestment initiatives and grass root support for them show as Lawrence pointed out that there is a process, intensifying and promising. A sentiment shared by Betty Hunter who updated us on the PSC activities in the UK and its vital role in the future boycott campaign.
I wish we could all have a pocket version of Omar Barghouti’s systematic and devastating rebuttal of all the possible anti-boycott argumentation. His presentation leaves me, at least, utterly convinced that we are on the right track forward. There is no need to look for justification but just ways of maximizing our impact.
The Jewish voice, as well as the Israeli one, was clearly heard in this conference. Ur Shlonsky suggested expropriating the struggle against anti-Semitism from the Zionist establishment in Europe and in Israel and Ben Young brought the support of Jewish students to our campaign. I personally identified strongly with Haim Bresheeth’s analysis of the turning point in his political understanding of the essence of the Zionist project: much worse than that of the apartheid, as it is meant to destroy the Palestinian people. His, and I hope my contribution as well, echoed calls of ‘boycott me’, heard by whites in South Africa. A point made also by our friend from the ANC, from whom we learned that we are building a model of Jewish support for the Palestinian cause very much like the Jewish support in South Africa for the ANC and we shun the false paradigm of parity - of two peace camps on equally culpable sides – offered by the Zionist peace movement.
With the promise of John Docker to take the struggle to Australia and the news of BRICUP consolidating itself and making a presence, we can go back to our keynote speaker’s wide historical perspective and realize that this will be a long journey with ups and downs, but one which its very onset provides oxygen to the people suffocating under occupation; people who at present have no political or military means of resisting an ever increasing brutality and destruction on the ground. I am sure we are all aware of what we mean and how much more we can do. But today we have started and this by itself makes this meeting historical and significant.