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Debate Room: Should there be a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?

Two commentators tackle the issue…

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

A PUBLIC DEBATE on whether or not Irish and international academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions took place in Trinity College Dublin last week – with several respected academics putting forth their views on the divisive issue.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to the event itself, two speakers have kindly condensed their arguments for and against the proposed boycott below…

Professor Alan Johnson, British political theorist 

Prof Alan Johnson is the Editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region, a free quarterly journal, app and website. He was a professor of democratic theory and practice at Edge Hill University before joining BICOM in 2011. A Senior Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre, he founded and edited Democratiya, a free online journal of international politics from 2005 until its incorporation into Dissent magazine in 2009, where he serves on the editorial board. He was a co-author of the 2006 ‘Euston Manifesto’, a modern statement of social democratic antitotalitarianism, and in 2007 he edited Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews.

Alan recently completed a study for the UK government, examining journeys taken by young British Muslims ‘in and out of extremism’ and developing strategies to counter radicalisation. He blogs weekly at The Daily Telegraph and World Affairs.

All the speakers at Trinity want to see a Palestinian state. The debate is about how to achieve it. On our side, we think Palestinian statehood will be achieved by dialogue, deep mutual recognition between the two sides, the development of trust not just between leaders but the peoples, excruciating compromises, then the division of the land – two states for two peoples – the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.My opponents think Palestinian statehood will be achieved by delegitimising Israel and boycotting Israel. And their Palestinian state will replace Israel. Palestine instead of Israel, the so-called one-state solution.Boycotts are worse than useless if what we seek is mutual recognition and two states for two peoples. Boycotts are counterproductive, unfair and simple minded.

Counterproductive: Boycotting Israel will only create a sense of siege within Israel. That’s why Noam Chomsky calls the proposal to boycott Israel ‘a gift to Israeli hardliners’. Boycotts strengthen extremists and weaken moderates, on both sides. They undermines the very forces most committed to mutual recognition and peace. That is why the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opposes a boycott of Israel. Boycotts also threaten academic freedom and exchange, halt the flow of ideas and stop collaboration between institutions. And whether deliberate or not, boycott campaigns have sometimes incubated an environment that has been hostile to Jews, not just to Israelis.

Unfair: Israeli civil society and the Israeli government are two separate things. That is why Palestinian Sari Nuseibeh, former President of Al Quds University, said ‘It is within the academic community … [that I find the] most progressive, pro-peace views … seeing us as equals … if you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.’ Unfair also because there is a double-standard at work, singing out Israeli Jews and only Israeli Jews for exclusion from the academic life of humanity.

Israel agreed to divide the land in 1947 when the UN proposed partition, and more recently at Camp David in 2000 and Annapolis in 2008. Israel released over a hundred terrorists just to draw the Palestinians into peace talks in 2013-14. Two-thirds of Israelis support two states for two peoples. But look, Israelis wont agree to commit national suicide, so they reasonably seek negotiations leading to recognition and security guarantees.

There is a better, more constructive way to support Palestinian statehood. We can encourage and assist all efforts towards dialogue, engagement, deep mutual recognition and a culture of peace. We can get involved with constructive ‘pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-Peace’ organisations.

Nelson Mandela set out the right stance. He said progressives should “recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism.’ Be even-handed: ‘insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.’ Be positive not polarising. ‘We wish to encourage that process’ said Mandela, ‘and if we have the opportunity, to assist.’ So should we.

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Professor Ilan Pappé, Israeli historian 

Prof Pappé is the author of seminal works including A History of Modern Palestine and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Born in Haifa, Israel, where he lectured for many years, he is now a professor at the University of Exeter, and one of the leading Israeli advocates of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The Israeli Jewish society’s perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the Palestinians are not a static affair. They are based on both the first impressions of the early Zionists and by the developments on the ground ever since Zionism arrived in Palestine. The first impressions were bad enough: the Palestinians were usurpers of the Jewish ancient homeland and could at worst be tolerated in small numbers on the land, or at best, somehow be spirited away, in the words of the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl. The inevitable result of this attitude was the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, the imposition of military rule over those who remained in Israel and the creation of mega prisons in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip once these were occupied.With time, ideas about diminishing somewhat the Jewish territory by suggesting a two state solution emerged as a tactical way of implementing this Zionist vision in Palestine. But ever since the beginning of this century, the Israeli Jewish society, politicians and electorate alike, distanced themselves from this option and seemed content with the status quo that allows Israel to control, directly and indirectly, Palestine from the river to the sea.

In recent years, if the status quo is not enough, the Israeli political system shifted to the right and with it came harsher policies: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank, genocide in Gaza and apartheid inside Israel. Without an international reaction Palestine and the Palestinians would soon disappear.

How can it be stopped? The Palestinians have tried armed struggle which failed to liberate even one square inch of the land. Some chapters in this struggle had horrible repercussions for the Palestinian people and it is probably less apt today as a successful strategy. They then put their faith in a diplomatic process that was meant to end the occupation of the 1967 areas. The peace charade was based on the misconception that there is a significant voice within Jewish Israel that is willing to limit Zionist racism to 80% of Palestine, and leave alone the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The ‘peace process’ allowed Israel to deepen the Judaisation of the West Bank, to a point of no return. At the same time, this international immunity enabled Israel to expand the apartheid system against the Palestinians inside Israel and to ghettoise Gaza. Israel became a worse regime than apartheid South Africa ever was.

It has to be stopped and quickly. The same methods used against apartheid South Africa and other rogue states are being called for. The most effective way is to send a message to the cultural and academic elites who are still received warmly in the western world as representative of the only enlightened state in the Middle East. In reality, they represent a rouge regime whose moral legitmisaiton should be questioned. They should be targeted first, and their targeting is already bearing fruit. For the first time we hear voices of significant dissent from within these communities in Israel. It should be followed by divestment and sanctions which have finally began to appear – the only international activity that seems to deter the Israeli government.

The non-violent method of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), when expanded and adopted as an official strategy by the PLO and the Hamas (and we are close to this tipping moment in time), will offer a horizon and alternative to desperate armed struggle that leads to nowhere.

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About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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