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.”



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