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Jonathan Spyer | Haaretz | 22 April 2005
The British Association of University Teachers (AUT) is due today to debate the question of an academic boycott of Israeli universities. The motions to be discussed single out the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University for condemnation. In all three cases, specific grievances are cited. The factual basis of each proves, on examination, to be flimsy in the extreme. Boycott is recommended against Bar-Ilan University, for example, because of a degree supervision agreement with the Judea and Samaria College in Ariel. The agreement is set to end this year - for reasons of a purely academic nature.
Observation of those proposing the boycott - and their statements regarding its intent - indicate that their concerns go beyond the merely parochial. Their fast-and-loose attitude to facts is hence unsurprising. The people behind the boycott campaign, of which the AUT initiative is a part, see in it the beginnings of an international campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel.
The prime mover behind the three motions being discussed by the AUT is a veteran anti-Israel campaigner, Sue Blackwell, who teaches at Birmingham University's Department of English Literature. For 19 years, up until 2002, Blackwell was an active member of the British Socialist Workers Party. This organization, of a Trotskyite bent, is famed for its virulent opposition to the existence of Israel. It is currently involved in an electoral alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain, an Islamist group openly supportive of Hamas.
On the first occasion, in 2003, that Blackwell tried to commit her professional organization to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, her motion was heavily defeated. This time, the boycott effort is directly linked to a Palestinian initiative - the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel - launched at Bir Zeit University in July, 2004. This endeavour is led by two not very well known Palestinian academics - Prof. Lisa Taraki, of Bir Zeit, and Omar Barghouti, an Arab-Israeli doctoral student at Tel Aviv University.
The wording of this campaign's founding statement includes a number of demands, including that Israel "accept the inalienable rights of the refugees" - a coded way of demanding that 3.9 million Palestinian Arabs, most of whom have never visited the country, be permitted to take up residence in Israel.
In addition, Israel must be boycotted until it rescinds "the entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa." Which means Blackwell, Taraki and Barghouti also want an international boycott that would interfere in the policies and identity of a functioning democratic state. Such an occurrence would be quite unique in international affairs. One might point out that the salient right which apartheid denied the majority of South Africans was the right to vote. Israel is in fact the only place in the Middle East (with the possible exception of post-invasion Iraq) which affords its Arab citizens this basic civil right.
We will have to wait in vain, however, for the furious motions at AUT conferences denouncing human rights abuses elsewhere in the Middle East, even without an accompanying demand for a boycott. There is no motion condemning the public execution of minors in Iran - such as the hanging of the 16-year-old girl, Ateqeh Rajabi, for "acts incompatible with chastity," in August, 2004. There is no call for boycotting the regime in Sudan, now reckoned to have murdered around 300,000 of its own citizens. There are no voices raised against the planned executions by the Palestinian Authority of individuals for the capital crime of collaborating with Israel.
All of which should seem strange only to the very naive. Because what lies at the root of the boycott campaign is not human rights, but politics.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been understood by the international community as a clash between two authentic and sovereignty-deserving national entities - the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab nations. The need is for a fair compromise between the two, to be accomplished through dialogue and negotiation.
But the organizers of the boycott campaign seek, through the employment of the apartheid metaphor, to market a different version of the conflict. It is a version which paints Israeli Jews as members of a bogus, illegitimate creation. This rootless, artificial collective, the argument runs, lacks the rights generally pertaining to states in the international system. The logical conclusion which they hope the world will draw is a return to the old Arab nationalist demand for politicide - the termination of "undeserved" Jewish sovereignty. To achieve this, what is necessary is not conflict resolution. Rather, the illegitimate entity must be hounded and isolated and confronted until it agrees to its own dissolution.
When it comes to Israel, the organizers of the boycott campaign, with their many friends in European and American radical circles, thus argue - on the basis of a groundless metaphor - for a thinly-disguised, politicidal nationalism. In so far as they are able to exert influence, it is to lead away from hopes for stability, compromise and co-existence. Should they succeed in their goal, which involves destroying any hope for a viable two-state solution, the result would be to condemn the two peoples to a future of strife without end. For the moment, they remain on the margins. It is imperative that they stay there.
The writer is a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, Inter-Disciplinary Center, Herzliya.