Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Boycott that's Academic

BIR ZEIT students protest Israeli military preventing them getting to college.

SO. The about -to-disappear college lecturers' union NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) has passed its resolution supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Here it is:

Conference notes continuing Israeli apartheid policies,
including construction of the exclusion wall, and
discriminatory educational practices.
It recalls its motion of solidarity last year for the
AUT resolution to exercise moral and professional

Conference instructs the NEC to
facilitate meetings in each university and college,
and to circulate information to Branches,
offering to fund the speakers' travel costs.

Conference invites members to consider
their own responsibility for ensuring equity
and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli
educational institutions or individuals and
to consider the appropriateness of a boycott
of those that do not publicly dissociate
themselves from such policies.

The first two paragraphs were passed overwhelmingly. The last paragraph was passed with 106 votes in favour, 71 votes against and 21 abstentions.

Leaving aside that NATFHE will disappear as a union tomorrow when it is merged with the Association of University Teachers(AUT), this resolution has been hailed as a great victory by supporters of the Palestian cause; and brought a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from Zionists and their stooges. Engage, the home for former apparatchniks of the Zionist-run and financed Union of Jewish Students(UJS) has denounced it as "antisemitism", but these hacks have cried wolf so often and predictably they have almost got "antisemitism" a good name.

As a gesture of solidarity with the steadfast but suffering Palestinian people this NATFHE resolution is fine. As a gesture of defiance for the Zionists and reactionaries (and let's face it, some academic institutions here would turn down nothing if there;s free trips and money attached) it is to be commended.
But let's be honest. As a guide to useful solidarity action, it is worse than useless.

If anything it demonstrates that college lecturers aren't always the brightest knives in the drawer, and this lot have not learnt much. The academic boycott idea was raised four year ago as a call for a Europe-wide break in academic and scientific research links as one way to apply pressure on the Israeli government. to end its occupation policies and enter into serious peace negotiations.
Israeli and Jewish academics, notably the biologist Professor Stephen Rose, were prominent among the originators, though of course the continuing call for boycott is backed by Palestinian academics and students who are under siege and desperately need some kind of solidarity.

The boycott received some bad publicity when a lecturer at Manchester University, Mona Baker, tried to apply it removing the names of two Israeli academics from a specialist linguistics journal she edits. It was no more than a symbolic gesture, as the two only had honorary places on the journal; albeit an unfortunate one, since the individuals in question happened to have good records of defending civil rights and opposing their government's policies.
Professor Baker insisted her gesture was aimed at the Israeli state and the Israeli academic institutions which had appeared after the two people's names, not against them as individuals or on account of their nationality.

Nevertheless that was how it was widely reported, and even now you can read that she "sacked" the two Israelis. (As the story crossed the Atlantic it grew, so if you ventured into American Zionist chat lists you were likely to read that a full-scale purge of Jews was under way at Manchester). Neither Mona Baker nor Manchester employed the two, who remained in their posts in Israel. The only sacking threat came with the Zionist witch-hunt and hate campaign against Professor Baker.

Having criticised her misguided gesture in a letter to the Guardian (July 9, 2002), http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4457592,00.html
I wrote to the university authorities later urging them to resist the pressure for action against her (tactical errors are not sackable offences).
Fortunately I wasn't alone, and though our gobshite prime minister Tony Blair added his voice to those howling for Mona's blood, it seems they did resist. Professor Baker is still in post, and has gone on to produce a useful website discussing the boycott and background issues. http://www.monabaker.com/ Among the articles is one by Tanya Reinhart, an Israeli professor, supporting the academic boycott.

Professor Moshe Machover, one of the original signatories to the boycott call, has emphasised that it should not be aimed against individuals on account of nationality. Nor can we have tests to ascertain whether someone is entitled to excemption. If said individuals are known to have committed war crimes or even propagated racism they ought to be ostracised regardless of nationality. Moshe also goes into what might be legitimate and justified actions, such as opposing institutional links and EU research grants for Israel, and boycotting academic conferences sponsored by Israeli authorities. (Hitting the Right Target, Jewish Socialist, Spring 2006).

Last year's AUT resolution had the advantage of focussing on specific Israeli institutions and the way they were implicated in the occupation and land-grabbing in Palestine. Veteran Israeli peacenik Uri Avnery, not generally a boycott supporter, observed that Bar Ilan University had only itelf to blame for being targetted, since it had a centre on West Bank land running courses for settlers and army officers. Sue Blackwell, the mover of the AUT motion, took trouble to correspond with faculty members at Haifa University, with differing views of the boycott, to get a better picture of the situation there.

Of course her conscientious effort did not stop the Zionist distortions and calumnies against her (balanced incidentally by a continuing hate campaign against her from Israel Shamir, whom she helped expose as either a right-wing antisemite or a provocateur). It did not prevent the AUT resolution being reversed, after an unprecedented effort by its opponents. But it did make for a better resolution, which raised awareness, and could have been built upon.

Unfortunately the framers of the NATFHE resolution haven't done so. They seem to have learned nothing. I'm not one to place too much trust in union leaders, but I can understand why NATFHE general secretary, Paul Mackney, with whom I shared a platform last year when he expressed sympathy for the AUT boycott, spoke against his own union's motion: "Most of us are very angry about the occupation of Palestine," he said, "but this isn't the motion and this isn't the way. Any motion to boycott requires the highest level of legitimacy. As far as I can see no more than a couple of branches have discussed this motion. You cannot build a boycott on conference rhetoric."

Instead of dealing with the brutal reality of Israel's 39-year occupation the NATFHE resolution talks vaguely and inaccurately about "Israel's Apartheid policies", a lazy way of appealing to people's nostalgia for the good old days of student protests and anti-Apartheid boycotts (far less effective than people pretend) rather than analysing the specific character of Zionist oppression, and how we can fight it.

Hence referring to the "exclusion Wall", - when it is an anexation wall - and the lame talk of "equity and non-discrimination", effectively shrinking the Palestinian national freedom struggle into one of individual civil rights in Israel. The latter are important, but not the central issue. (Presumably though the placing of the parts are confusing, the policies which Israeli institutions and individuals are asked to oppose are the "Apartheid policies" mentioned in the first paragraph, and not the "equity and non-discrimination" mentioned in the last).

By coupling individuals with institutions for boycott, the NATFHE motion lays its supporters wide open to accusations that they are the ones doing the discriminating. It ennables the supporters of Israeli policies to hide behind fears that others will be unjustly treated, simply because they are Israelis. Indeed, since it only "invites members to consider their responsibility", it would leave Dr.De'ath from Porton Down free to moonlight at some Israeli institution with grisly military contracts, saying he saw no obvious signs of discrimination; whereas some seasoned campaigner whom the Israeli government would love to silence could find himself having to satisfy some half-baked vetting committee before he was allowed to honour an invitation to speak to a meeting here. (Sad to say something of this sort did happen during the anti-Apartheid struggle. A South African lecturer actively involved in helping black trade unionists was banned because someone in an office in London hadn't given the go ahead).

In reality, I doubt whether the NATFHE resolution will be interpreted so stupidly. The resolution does only ask invite members to consider their responsibilities, it does not propose setting up any committee to advise them(maybe it should) let alone question anybody. Besides, like I say NATFHE is about to disappear. You might even say this "boycott" is purely academic.

The vote is only a declaration of position, and given that the daily injustice, collective punishment and humiliation of Palestinians is far worse than anything anyone is likely to suffer from the union resolution, we have to declare ourselves on the side of the movers of this resolution, against those raving about "antisemitism" and even threatening legal action.

Nevertheless, we are entitled - indeed obliged - to criticise, and wish that it had been a better resolution. I don't know about marks for "effort". I'd put
"Could do better" on this one.

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At 3:06 AM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

I'd have probably voted for a targeted boycott.


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