A current affairs programme on Israeli television is planning a report on reactions towards Israel’s policy in Gaza ‘taking place outside Israel, mainly in the UK’, and in particular, the call for an academic boycott. How I know is that I’m one of the people they’ve got in touch with to ask for my opinion. The email from the producer says ‘We’re trying to understand the intensity of this, the meaning of this, are there any concrete levels for that or [if] it’s a “silence boycott”, are there a group of academics organized acting together for this goal, or each one is protesting alone?’
This is my reply:
I must speak as a secular anti-Zionist Jew. Not just in reply to your email, but in whatever capacity I have as an intellectual on the fringes of the public sphere, so what follows will also be posted on my blog, where you can also find other things I’ve written about these issues.
My initial comment is that I’m not at all sure you’re asking the right questions. The call for an academic boycott is basically a manfestation of the growing feeling that Israel’s actions are indefensible. If this tendency has found strong expression in the UK, this is certainly connected with the charge of operating a form of apartheid against the Palestinians, since the British, with their strong historic connections with South Africa and the anti-Apartheid struggle, understand what this means very well.
More easily, for sure, than they could comprehend the kind of comment made by the late Jose Saramago, when he reflected after a visit to Palestine in 2002 that ‘what is happening in Palestine is a crime that we can compare to what occurred in Auschwitz.’ This is just too difficult to get your head round. Actually the truth is even more convoluted, because Israel has turned itself into a ghetto the size of a small country which then pursues a policy of ghettoisation of those it has made—through military occupation—its own internal enemies. In the early years of the Second Intifada this was still a terribly shocking thing to say. Now, when I find myself speaking of this with colleagues and friends, it is more likely to call forth assent, though the thought remains deeply disturbing. The words which crop up most frequently to describe it are ‘what a tragedy’. But who can fathom it?
I can’t give you details about the organised aspects of the academic boycott—you can find out, I’m sure, easily enough by googling, and searching the major UK serious press (Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, New Statesman, etc.)—just be aware that depending on what sources you look at, you’ll get a more or less biased view of the story, which goes back a few years. I can tell you that I was an early signatory to a letter to the press when an academic boycott was first mooted, in the same spirit as I’m a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (jfjfp). Importantly, it’s a call to boycott institutions, not individuals. It is also a call on conscience. No-one, I imagine, really expects any university to pursue such a policy. In my own, there are many, both Jews and non-Jews, who lend some degree of support, but just as the position of the University remains an ecumenical one in religious terms, similarly, as the host of a major human rights research centre, it believes in open dialogue. I have discussed this myself with our Vice Chancellor, who was a member of a delegation of UK university heads to Israel two or three years ago, and who insisted that they visit Palestinian universities also. I respect his position; he respects mine. The University has also hosted visits from Israeli scholars, and when meeting them, we discuss the issue.
You want to understand the meaning of this? At what level? Political? Ideological? Psychological? Another terrible irony: Israel corresponds to the political theories of Carl Schmidt, infamous as an apologist for Nazism, for whom the political was based on the distinction between friend and enemy, for this is the way that both Israel and its official creed of Zionism behave. The effect is to create enemies both internal and external—the latter through gratuitously and unnecessarily alienating not governments but people by using the memory of the Holocaust as emotional blackmail.
The opposite is also true. When I visited Iran a few years ago for a film festival (I was invited to talk about Latin American cinema which was featured in the Festival and on which I’m a published scholar), it was just after Ahmadinejad made his Holocaust-denying pronouncements. My hosts didn’t know I was Jewish, but the subject arose on the first day and never went away, and I didn’t hide my criticism. I simply said that practically half my family was lost in the Holocaust, and it was stupid and counter-productive to use Holocaust denial to criticise Israel. I was even asked about it on a television programme where I was interviewed about the festival, and said the same thing.
Political, ideological and psychological are all bound up with each other, and therefore mirrored in the failure to distinguish between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, in other words, between racism and authentic political opposition. If many protestors are also unclear about the difference, this is Israel’s responsibility. For my part, I believe in publicly opposing Israeli policy and Zionism precisely because I’m a Jew, precisely in order to demonstrate the difference. I think this is an ethical as well as a political obligation.
Have you seen Yoav Shamir’s latest film Defamation? Do you understand what it’s saying? It presents a portrait of a Zionist ideology which thrives on inculcating in its young a concept of antisemitism which is highly dubious because it is not given historical grounding. Sending Israeli schoolkids on educational trips to Auschwitz and telling them to beware the Poles because they’re all antisemites ill prepares them for relations with the world beyond the Middle East (and Poland). Yet how many young Israelis who emigrate—there are so many of them—decide to return because they’ve encountered antisemitism? Yes, possibly a new antisemitism exists, but how has it come about?
As for someone like myself being accused by Zionist fundamentalists of being a self-hating Jew, I have to laugh. It doesn’t compute. The charge is stupid, it’s part of the same scheme of emotional blackmail, and says everything about the accuser and nothing about the accused.
I’d better stop there.