Israel: the growing campaign for boycott

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Following Stephen Hawking's historic decision to boycott a conference in Israel, Tom Hickey looks at the growing campaign for BDS.

It has been an "annus horribilis" for Zionism and for Israel's apologists. The world's most famous physicist, Steven Hawking, joined the boycott of Israel. Noam Chomsky, long-time critic of Israel but opponent of the boycott, and the world's most famous philosopher of language, supported Hawking's decision. The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) declared for an academic boycott. The Asia-America Studies Association (AASA) declared support for a boycott.

To cap their dismay, the case of institutional anti-semitism brought against the British lecturers' union, the UCU, by one of its Zionist members fell apart. The judgement of an Employment Tribunal dismissed all the claims against the union in their totality, declaring that it was a case without foundation in law, and an "impermissible attempt to achieve a political end through litigious means". It also rejected the claim that Zionism was a "protected characteristic" of Jewish identity under the terms of the 2010 Equality Act. In other words the Tribunal found that the conflation of criticism of Israel or of Zionism with anti-semitism was without legal merit.

Along with the threat of a renewed Intifada, the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has emerged as the potentially most serious challenge to Israel's position and to the continuance of its long-term policy of piecemeal and de facto annexation of the whole of Palestine. While Hezbollah inflicted an unprecedented defeat on the Israeli military in Lebanon, and the strategic position of Israel has been fundamentally altered by the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the international response to the Palestinian appeal for solidarity threatens the global legitimacy of the state and its constitution in the medium term. It shines a spotlight for the world on Israel's peculiarity, and the odious nature of what is deemed necessary to defend it. The call for a boycott first came in 2003 when Palestinian academics called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched formally in Ramallah. In 2005, a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign National Committee (BNC) brought together 170 organisations in Palestine and in the diaspora committed to raising active support for BDS worldwide. Since then the success of the movement has been rapid. It has achieved in less than 10 years what took twice that long in the case of the boycott campaign against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Israeli reaction to the movement was initially complacent, relying on the standard reaction to criticisms of Israel; first condemning the critics as anti-semites, and then rehearsing the standard narrative of Israeli history as being a state that constitutes both the solution to the problem of Oriental and Occidental anti-semitism, and the bastion of Western, liberal values in the Middle East.

Brand Israel
From 2009, that complacency was supplemented with short- to medium-term tactical interventions whose ill-judged character was only matched by their desperation: the funding of unofficial anti-boycott campaigns to influence journalists and politicians, and to target hostile organisations and individuals; appeals to sympathetic Western governments to legislate against anti-Israel boycotts; engaging trade unions, companies and municipalities and civil society organisations in legal threats and expensive proceedings (Israel's anti-boycott "lawfare" strategy); and to rebrand Israel as a dynamic, fun-loving, socially innovative, scientifically gifted, and progressive society (the Hasbara initiative, otherwise know as "Brand Israel").

Latest in this desperate defence is the drive to secure more prominent official recognition in an attempt to restore legitimacy. In Britain, this includes persuading the government to place professor David Newman of Ben-Gurion University on the Queen's Birthday Honours List to honour his contribution to academic partnerships between Britain and Israel; joint funding of scientific and cultural partnerships and exchanges; and the foundation of Israel study centres and the associated funding of professorial chairs in carefully selected universities.

The defence of Israel having failed in the trade union movement, the recourse is to seek support and protection for Israel from those in power in Europe and across the world. Yet with each public relations initiative (for example, the presentation of Tel Aviv as the "gay capital of the Middle East") the military barbarism of oppression (drone strike assassinations that kill and maim civilians in Gaza, continuing attacks on the flotillas, and continued repression via detention, checkpoints and house demolitions in the West Bank) remind the world of the reality.

These are desperate measures not least because they are appeals to governments themselves mired in the unpopularity of their own austerity policies, and to authorities and to figureheads whose legitimacy and recognition are coming under increasing strain at home. Moreover, they represent a registration of defeat in the argument. In the UCU, for example, Israel sympathisers have now largely abandoned the field. Unable to concoct an argument to defend the indefensible, and with the canard of anti-Semitism no longer effective as a silencing mechanism, Israel's defenders find themselves disarmed and disheartened. There is little that could register more sharply this sense of desperation than the attacks on professor Hawking after his decision to support the boycott. His decision had a devastating effect, conferring popular and professional respectability on what Israel and its allies had thought and hoped was a marginal and unpopular movement.

Hawking joins the boycott
At one moment feted in Israel as the iconic representation and personification of human resilience and intellectual rigour that he undoubtedly is, Hawking then found himself disparaged as one whose physical infirmity had clouded his judgement, and whose moral compass was as fragile as his body was frail. The vitriol was remarkable, and registered the significance of his decision. Of equal importance was the integrity manifested in his subsequent refusal to allow that decision to be explained away by reference to medical considerations rather than as a response to the BDS call from his Palestinian colleagues. The websites, blogs and airwaves were awash with accusations of hypocrisy against Hawking since the technology that kept him alive and productive was, it was claimed, of Israeli origin. In fact, it was nothing of the sort.

As with almost every prominent event these days in Israel, the Hawking issue split the country. While the right, from rabid expansionist and disgraced former minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voice defiance and responded with further land confiscations and internationally illegal settlement-building approvals, liberal Zionists suddenly realised that BDS was not of marginal significance. Agonised pieces in the left-leaning Haaretz bemoaned the intransigence of successive Israeli governments' stances on a negotiated peace, and the continuing colonisation of West Bank land. For them, the Hawking affair meant that resonances with the anti-Apartheid BDS campaign against South Africa could no longer be dismissed as fanciful.

Victory in the courts
If Hawking's decision is the most immediately damaging blow to Israel's standing in the world, and the most important endorsement and extension of the BDS campaign to date, the most enduring effect with "slow burn" consequences is likely to be the outcome of the Employment Tribunal case against the UCU in Britain. The outcome could not have been more damaging for Israel's apologists. The judgment removes the possibility of a legal challenge to BDS on the grounds that it is anti-semitic. One immediate consequence of this judgement is the opportunity to raise, or to raise again, the issue of BDS in every union that has not yet adopted the BDS policy, and to do it now in circumstances in which the Tribunal's judgement can be used in response to any rhetorical accusation of anti-Semitism.

Second, in those unions which have adopted pro-Palestinian positions but have restricted these to the "occupied territories", it is timely to consider whether such a limitation is appropriate. Limiting the boycott to activities in Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law is to avoid key issues - the right of the Palestinian diaspora to return home, and the right of Palestinians inside Israel's 1948 borders not to suffer systematic ethnic discrimination. The achievement of a policy in favour of a boycott of illegal products or services from the West Bank alone is, of course, a positive step, but it runs the risk of not addressing the core problem of the area - the problem of Israel, the exclusiveness of its citizenship criteria, and the consequent insecurity that drives it to continual expansion geographically. This is the problem that is not addressed by a narrow boycott directed only at illegal products from the West Bank.

The TUI and the AASU decisions also raise again the issue of the academic boycott. Currently, there are 2,800 plus EU-funded research projects in which Israeli academic institutions are the lead or subsidiary partner with European universities. In which of these projects is your university a partner? How are you going to organise against it? What is your strategy for ensuring that your institution will not remain complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians through this association? Those are the questions that need to be posed by students and staff in British universities and colleges during the next academic year.