MORE ON BOYCOTT OF ISRAEL

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 6 June 2009

by Jake Lynch

Responses have poured in to my column of last week (Why I’m Joining the Academic Boycott of Israel). All but a couple have been constructive. Some have raised important questions and counterpoints, worthy of serious consideration.

Perhaps the chief concern has been over the effect the boycott may have on relationships that constitute indispensable raw material for any effort at building peace. It prompts another effort at defining what is meant by an institutional boycott, rather than one affecting individual contacts. Academia is an industry, and it has three main revenue-raising streams of activity: teaching, research and consultancy.

I am presently partnering with colleagues in the Department of Media and Communication here at the University of Sydney, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, to create a new joint postgraduate degree program. The project is conceived as a way to bring challenging perspectives to bear on issues in global media, and create opportunities to engage with them for students worldwide. It’s intellectually exciting, but – there’s no getting away from it – there is a strong ‘business case’ for it as well, since it has a good chance of attracting fee-paying students in fairly large numbers. That’s why it can move from an appealing idea to being a realistic proposition to put to university managements.

If we were to embark on such a project with an Israeli university, we would be helping to bring in revenues to a strategic industry. That is, therefore, also something we can withhold. The argument for a boycott is that we resolve to do so, for as long as Israel refuses to abide by international law. International law, in this case, would include the humanitarian norms set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention – which Israel has accepted, and which have been found to apply specifically to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – and the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which are accepted by the vast majority of the international community, with Israel one of the exceptions. It would also include the inadmissibility of territory acquired by force, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip: the occupation, now compounded by the Palestinian land grabbed for Israel’s so-called ‘security fence’.

If we can withhold such a benefit, we can raise the cost to Israel of choosing to respond to the conflict with the Palestinians by recourse to violence, in preference to dialogue and negotiation to deliver justice on all sides. In this sense, the academic boycott is a component part of a larger and rapidly growing movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, covering a full range of goods and services. If I, as an academic, wish to support this, it is beholden on me to consider, first and foremost, what I ought to do in my own industry.

Israel is not alone in violation of international law, of course. In the other prominent recent case, UN estimates suggest that the Sri Lankan army has just killed as many as 20,000 Tamil civilians in its final push against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There is an equally pressing need, in the context of this case, to emphasise the importance of humanitarian protection. We should not give up the pressure for a proper impartial investigation of alleged war crimes, or the call for international humanitarian organizations, monitoring groups and journalists to be given unfettered access to the conflict zone.

However, the tactics must be different. Hillary Clinton’s call to suspend development aid payments to the country from the International Monetary Fund would be a good start. I’m circulating an appeal for the Sri Lankan cricket tour of Australia, scheduled for 2010-2011, to be called off. Neither would I go on holiday there, or drink Sri Lankan tea. These are, in this case, the strategic industries.

It would be feasible, in other circumstances, to launch a joint degree program with an Israeli university, since higher education institutions there boast world-class expertise. The same is not true of Sri Lanka. In my letter to the Sydney University authorities, asking for institutional links with Israel to be cancelled, I include the following phrase: the general responsibility to act is particularised by the opportunity to do so effectively.

Relationships

An influential figure in our academic program at CPACS is the eminent peace researcher and fieldworker, John Paul Lederach, with his emphasis on mobilising cultural resources to cultivate constituencies for peace. It’s an approach that depends on building relationships, and of course, people in a conflict who already advocate peace need to be helped, and their influence spread, by any outsider who wishes to work on it constructively. Such resources are always available, if we care to look for them, as Lederach argues in one of his books, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies:

“I have not experienced any situation of conflict, no matter how protracted or severe, from Central America to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, where there have not been people who had a vision for peace, emerging often from their own experience of pain. Far too often, however, these same people are overlooked and disempowered either because they do not represent ‘official’ power, whether on the side of government or the various militias, or because they are written off as biased and too personally affected by the conflict”.

I do not, of course, wish to overlook or disempower people with a vision for peace, on any side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and this is perhaps the essence of objections such as that from Sara Horowitz, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, who says: “I fear that this boycott you are proposing now will only isolate peace workers, not giving the chance to Israel peace voices to be heard. I understand that something needs to be done, but isolation seems to be a bigger problem for peace workers, who will be losing spaces where their voices could be heard”.

It is important to keep creating such spaces. Earlier this year, I created one myself, inviting to Sydney University an Israeli academic, Emeritus Professor Jeff Halper, who was visiting Australia as a representative of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, on a trip organized by a local campaign group, the Committee for Justice and Peace in Palestine. The point is, the Israeli academic industry did not benefit from his trip in any way, whereas we certainly did, since the perspectives he brought, and the verve and eloquence of both his talks and his writing, considerably enhanced the level of public debate here.

In an important column for The Nation, Naomi Klein described her own dilemma over the Israeli rights to her book, The Shock Doctrine. Until then, she had worked with a commercial publishing house, Babel, but she wanted to observe the boycott, so she approached a small, radical publisher, Andalus, instead. As she puts it: “Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus’s work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis”.

This is the challenge for us, too. I’ve enjoyed working with Israeli academics, and learned a great deal from them, through my research on peace journalism. All are peace activists, and they also make every effort to involve Palestinian colleagues in the work we do. We’ve collaborated in research projects sponsored by the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, which was set up by – but is independent of – the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement in Japan.

Toda are now preparing for their next conference, which takes place in Sydney next year, and one of the themes, on which they have indicated they will accept proposals, is peace journalism. I would gladly join a group with my Israeli and other colleagues to apply to Toda for funds to underwrite a peace journalism project at the conference, leading to a collaborative venture in published research. But I would not apply, jointly through the respective Research Offices of Sydney University and any university in Israel, for any research grant to be administered through university financial structures.

Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, the founders of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, say: “The fact that we go out of our way to ‘Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies’ follows from our realization that there is always a grey area where an academic may be perceived as representing her/himself rather than her/his institution” (from Academic Boycott and the Israeli Left, by Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, Electronic Intifada, April 15, 2005).

My call to the Vice Chancellor and Senate of Sydney University is to cancel institutional arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion University in Haifa, which take the form of exchanges of students and staff – fine, in themselves, but the problem is they are funded through university financial structures and therefore contribute to one of the revenue streams in the Israeli academic industry. That should be foreclosed for now. That is the proposition that the other signatories to my letter, including several senior academic colleagues and the Council of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, have supported.

Solidarity

Above all, the academic boycott call is an expression of solidarity with Palestinian academics, Omar Barghouti, Lisa Taraki and colleagues, who are trying to wage a non-violent struggle against oppression. Jonathan Freedland, influential columnist for the London Guardian, noted that President Barack Obama, in his Cairo speech, used words that “resonate in Muslim discourse”, notably his references to “dignity” and “justice”. To take a Lederachian view, for this conflict to be transformed will require reconciliation, and reconciliation is impossible without justice.

Justice can take many forms, and has to be negotiated between those most closely involved. One persistent theme of my conversations with Palestinian peace activists – academics and others – is for Israel to be seen to be somehow ‘reined in’; for impunity to cease, over the serial violations of international law and human rights that form its policies towards the Palestinians. That, in their conception, will be an indispensable building block of justice, however and whenever it is delivered. It’s also vital because impunity is not merely a denial of justice in a narrow sense, it also incentivises further violence: ‘we got away with it last time, why not do it again?’

Small signs are emerging that the boycott movement is already beginning to exert this ‘reining-in’ effect. Last month, the annual conference of AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee – the biggest pro-Israeli lobbying group in Washington – heard from its Executive Director, Howard Kohr, about the potential damage to Israel’s interests from global public opinion withholding its approval. His words are worth quoting at length:

“You know, we’ve all heard many times Israel accused of being a Western outpost in the Middle East. To those who make that accusation I say you are right. Israel is the only democratic country in the region that looks West, that looks to the values and the vision we share of what our society, our country should aim at and aspire to. If that foundation of shared values is shaken, the rationale for the policies we pursue today will be stripped away. The reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly $3 billion in Israel’s security; the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be; the readiness to defend Israel’s very existence, all are undermined and undone if Israel is seen to be unjust and unworthy”.

The boycott movement has opened up a line of reasoning – or, at any rate, opened it further – that for Israel to change its unjust and unworthy policies is in its own interests. AIPAC may not see it that way, and indeed the treasured US investment in Israel’s “security” is, I would argue, part of the problem not part of the solution: but there is a perception of leverage, and political realities can be reshaped around such a perception, especially when, as Kohr went on to say, “it [enters] the mainstream: an ordinary political discourse on our TV and radio talk shows; in the pages of our major newspapers and in countless blogs, in town hall meetings, on campuses and city squares”.

The author, Judith Hand, who issues a regular newsletter, A Future Without War (http://www.afuturewithoutwar.org) sees the Israel-Palestine conflict as “one of perhaps four or five great pivot points of a campaign to transform the future by non-violent means (pivot points being things that correspond to Gandhi’s Salt March or the Bus Boycott by Martin Luther King’s movement)”. Obama has already been criticised for likening the Palestinian struggle to the push for civil rights in the US, but the academic boycott is a small contribution to an attempt to bring about peaceful change, drawing on the same basic insights and traditions.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 June 2009.

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