Let’s boycott dictatorships, not Israel...
EARLIER THIS month, two Welsh councils reversed their decision to boycott Israeli goods. The government recently announced plans to prevent local councils launching politically motivated boycotts of Israel. However, five councils in the UK — West Dunbartonshire, Highland, Newry & Mourne, Stirling and Clackmannanshire — still support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Discrimination remains widespread. Recently, a former Cambridge academic, Marsha Levine, refused to help a 13-year-old Israeli girl with a class project on horses. Why? Because she’s Israeli. Even though the request was totally unrelated to the pupil’s national identity, Levine, a supporter of the BDS movement against Israel, said she would only engage with the young girl when “there is peace and justice for Palestinians.”
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson criticised “lefty academics” in favour of a boycott against Israel and Israeli universities. He added that they were “foolish” to target the “only democracy in the region”.
And yet, at the end of October, 343 British academics signed a letter published in the Guardian entitled: “A commitment by UK scholars to the rights of the Palestinians.”
According to its key architect, Jonathan Rosenhead, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), the number of signatories has since risen to at least 650.
“A boycott is not a moral principle,” he concedes. “But the Israelis have consistently prevented the possibility of a Palestinian state. What is needed is for the Israelis to stop violating international law and abusing the human rights of Palestinians. We will boycott until there is a solution that the Palestinians can live with.”
Signatories of the academic boycott will not accept invitations to visit Israeli universities, act as referees in any of their processes, or participate in conferences funded, organised or sponsored by them.
Those who oppose a boycott believe that singling out Israel is inherently suspect: “It is very strange that Israel is the only target of this boycott campaign. With human rights abuse in China, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Egypt and 250,000 people killed in Syria they are still fixated on Israel,” says historian Simon Montefiore. “Nor do they focus on the human rights abuses of Hamas against their own people.”
Historian Simon Schama agrees: “Those supporting the boycott are understandably distressed. They might be less distressed by the sustained proviso in the Hamas Charter to liquidate the state of Israel,” he says. “It would be more credible to propose a boycott of the countless loathsome dictatorships across the world, who don’t have to suffer in the way that Israel does; surrounded by parties who
DAVID AMRAM has had an extraordinary life. He knew Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Pete Seeger, he played with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and worked with Leonard Bernstein and Elia Kazan among many, many others.
Amram is an astonishing musician. But he has also had a rich career as a composer. He has com- Fury: University College London has been at the centre of the boycott row. Simon Schama wish for their elimination as an entity. There is selective indignation going on here.” Schama insists that he is a Zionist to the extent that he passionately believes in the right of Israel to exist, but that doesn’t make him someone who approves of everything the Israeli government does. He believes that the boycott campaign alienates the very people who are critical of Israeli government policy, closing off the possibility of constructive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue:
“A boycott of any kind is discriminatory,” he says. “It undermines the academics in Israel who disagree with Israeli government policy, many of whom are anguished by much of what is going on in the West Bank, the mutual violence and the endless cycle of bloodshed on both sides.”
Only 12 per cent of the wider British public support a boycott against Israel according to a new poll published last month by leading research consultancy Populus and commissioned by Bicom, a pro-peace organisation in favour of a two-state solution. Of the 2,007 respondents, almost half believed a boycott would also hurt Palestinians.
“Support for boycotts is minimal. Most people in this country have a sense of fair play and they instinctively understand that boycotts of this kind are wrong,” says James Sorene, Bicom’s chief executive. “The boycott campaign rests on an anti-Zionist ideology that rejects the two-state solution and is questionable about whether it accepts Israel’s right to exist. So the very roots of the movement are not very helpful in terms of achieving peace. A boycott is the lazy option, it is armchair activism.”
Yet, in the light of repeated failures to negotiate, Sarah Colborne, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, insists that “an academic boycott is supported by people of conscience. The academic boycott doesn’t target individuals, but is aimed at the academic institutions, which help to bolster and maintain the occupation.”
One of the signatories of the academic boycott pledge, Dr Rachel Cohen, a professor at City University London, agrees: “My Palestinian colleagues have seen the situation in Palestine worsen, Israeli settlements spread and the conditions of their lives changed rapidly, at the will of the Israeli government. When, therefore, these colleagues asked me, and my British colleagues, to support a boycott they didn’t do so because this was the easy solution, nor because they instinctively favoured isolation. Rather, it was a last resort.”
For some students, by contrast, the academic boycott campaign heightens existing hostilities between Israeli and Palestinian groups on campus.
“Jewish students are intimidated,” says Jonathan Neumann, director of the Jewish Human Rights Watch.
“We have heard about students who have stopped going to lectures. Universities are supposed to stand for learning free from discrimination, and yet these academics are so willing to trample over the very principles of their own profession”.
David Tamman, 21, head of the Israel Society at LSE said that the atmosphere on campus is tense: “Those who sign the boycott petition are making it very difficult for students on both sides of the conflict at university, adding momentum to a movement that seeks only to stigmatise and demonise”.
Both LSE and Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, firmly oppose academic boycotts.
“The idea that you cut off communication with a free society, with a democracy, because you disagree with its government policy strikes me as appalling,” says historian Niall Ferguson, who maintains that a boycott is a bulkhead against peace: “It is an ultimately unhelpful and unconstructive black-listing.”