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Pol/Econ: Boycotting Israel
Thursday, 31 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
And so predictably the UK union of lecturers and university teachers- the University and College Union, has voted to boycott Israeli academics. Such a boycott was on the agenda of the union in its previous incarnation- and now it passes on to the local branches for their views so this is part of a process rather than a moment of decision- but still it is significant for what it says about attitudes to Israel amongst the bien pensant left in the UK and across Europe- attitudes that in the view of your correspondent are harmful and ill thought through.

The Boycott you see is a foolish decision. Lets start with a fact- Israel occupies the territories inhabited by Palestinians who don't wish Israel to be there, Israel has committed human rights violations in the past and will do into the future. Upon those bare sentences the whole case for the boycott rests but the wisdom of such a case collapses as soon as you analyse it thoroughly- lets take it step by step but bear in mind that the boycott is only a boycott of Israel- not of any other country throughout the world- only Israel has been singled out, the question is why? and a further question is what effect will the boycott have.

The only grounds for boycotting Israel over other countries could be that Israel was uniquely susceptible to the pressure a boycott would produce (something I will come to) or that it is a uniquely bad country. Lets take the second idea first. Israel in occupying a place whose people want it to depart is far from unique within the world. China a country with whom the UK maintains vast ties- occupies Tibet and retains a ludicrous claim to the island of Taiwan whose entry to the UN it continually vetoes despite the fact that Taiwan is a democracy. Turkey occupies Kurdistan and its military brutally maintains a hegemony there. Neither China nor Turkey has ever, as Israel has, negotiated with their territories- despite the fact that Taiwan has an actual democratic government. Indeed China threatens anyone with nuclear war who would support a referendum in Taiwan on whether the Island should be part of China. Israel in Palestine has allowed elections to take place, has allowed foreigners to observe its progress and furthermore has negotiated with the Palestinian authorities- even when the question of who they represented was moot.

Israel furthermore is accused of human rights abuses- rightly those abuses are a stain on the Israeli reputation. But again is Israel uniquely bad in this regard. Between 2000 and 2004 there were 3023 Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israelis (and that comes from an anti-Israel source).The Chinese may have killed less people in Tibet recently- but put that in context of their murder of around a million Tibetans in the 1960s and they more convincingly eliminated the problem than the gentler Israelis. Put that in the context that in the war in Chechnya since 1990, according to the Moscow Times, estimates of deaths range from 160,000 to 200,000 with between 300,000 and 600,000 people fleeing according to Reuters. The order of magnitude is slightly different. The genocide capital of the world though in the last ten years must be the Congo- where we go up another order of magnitude- in the Congo more than 3.8 million people have died over the last ten years. Placed in that context why the agitation about Israel?

Well one answer might be that Israel is more amenable to this kind of pressure than other countries- being a democracy the screams of academics denied an opportunity to lecture on obscure fungi at Manchester University will echo and bring down governments. I hope the incredulity of my tone conveys the stupidity of the argument- unlike say boycotting sport in South Africa- boycotting academics is of little consequence to most of the rest of society- in a democracy it is likely to be obscured by the latest issues of the day. Indeed I'd go further the regimes that care more about membership of international organisations- academic federations etc- are those who are dictatorships- ultimately because respect abroad translates to them in popularity at home. Hence if you want to really effect a transformation- why not exclude all Chinese students and academics from UK universities? Why not do that a measure that would really anger the Chinese and have some real consequences instead of this effort?

Lastly one might argue that the Israeli academics living in a society which is a democracy and involves conscription are in a sense responsible for that society's policies. That is an odd presumption because of course it is not neccessarily true that every Israeli academic votes for a party that would endorse Israel's present policies- how can they be blamed for what other citizens do. Such an argument seems similar to me to the argument made by the July 7th terrorists that the Londoners deserved what they got because of the invasion of Iraq- the problem is of course as many noted at the time many of those killed had opposed that invasion. Likewise with the Israelis- how can the whole convict the parts? How can the individual Israeli citizen be held responsible personally for the actions of all his fellow citizens- would the academics like the principle reversed to them?

Ok so why is this happening- many might say that there is an element of anti-semitism- that a crime is worse if its committed by the Jewish state than if committed by another state. That Chechnyans, Kurds, Tibetans and Taiwanese don't really matter because British kids don't go out to Chechnya or Kurdistan or Tibet or Taiwan to build houses whereas they do go to Palestine. There are elements on the fringe who probably are partly anti-semitic but I think something else is going on here.

For journalists and observers Palestine is a fairly easy area to get to- the Israelis unlike the Chinese will help reporters, unlike in Chechnya assassinations of journalists who criticise the government are not rife. Because of that Palestine receives a great deal more coverage than other conflicts- there are over 20,000 results on the Guardian website for Israel and Palestine added together, compare that to the Congo's 2000 results or Chechnya's roughly similar number. In terms of media exposure the first conflict seems much bigger than the second two- though actually its the other way round.

One of the great dilemmas about living in the West is living with a sense of privilege- most of us feel guilty about that to some degree or another and try to help others throughout the world. One of the ways to do that is to respond to what seems to be the injustice of the day- to respond by condemning and seeking to take action to rescue the underprivileged. In the case of Israel- reporting has made the crisis seem like the worst thing happening in the world- personal contacts with those who have been abused reinforce that impression and consequently well meaning academics isolate Israel as the worst of all examples. Its a reinforcing circle- and leads to the boycott which ultimately will end with accusations of anti-semitism and little moving forwards on the peace process- this is a counterproductive move if it has any effect at all because it reinforces Israeli isolation. It reinforces the notion that the rest of the world is anti-semitic because the Jewish state is judged by ideas that others would not be judged by.

A peace process in Palestine is essential both for the future of the people of Israel and the people of Palestine- nobody can deny that who retains any grip on the world. It is through contact between Israelis, the outside world and Palestinians that that can happen- unlike say in Tibet where Chinese despotism makes that kind of exchange of ideas impossible- in Palestine it is possible and could be fruitful. Instead of boycotting Israeli academics- many of whom like Benny Morris for example have led the new historians in Israel who acknowledge some of the Israeli state's crimes- why not invite them to the conferences and then introduce them to Palestinian academics who you have invited. It won't solve the problem- questions like Jerusalem and the political orientation of both Israelis and Palestinians ultimately are at the bottom of that- but accusations of Nazi and boycotting merely deepens a seige mentality in Israel without actually inviting any real progress.

Its the kind of politics that makes the participant feel better whilst worsening the overall situation.