And Finally…

Perhaps it’s not about the politics of pressure or of symbols, but about consciousness raising. (I heard Sue Blackwell suggest that it was, I think on the PM programme earlier this afternoon, though I might be wrong.) Well, fuck it, lots of us academics don’t need to be made much more aware than we are of the injustices of Israeli state policy. And if some of us aren’t, boycott motions as inadequate as these are almost certainly not the best way of educating the rest of us.

Alternatively, I’ve also heard it suggested (I think it was on the radio, it might have been on a webpage somewhere) that the point of this motion is just that it’s a first step. It doesn’t matter much on its own, but it may lead on to better things. If that’s right, then good. More effective politics of Palestinian solidarity and hostility to Israeli occupation, etc., is to be welcomed, even from British lecturers.

But I’ve also heard the kinds of phrases I don’t much like on the lips of the proponents of boycott — Israel as an “illegitimate state”, and so on. And if anyone is going to defend this as the politics of a first step, I want to know what the second, third, fourth and fifth steps are ahead of time, just to be sure, you know (and to mix metaphors) that they aren’t taking us onto a rather unpleasant slippery slope.

Symbolic Politics

Perhaps this isn’t about bringing real pressure to bear on Israel; perhaps it’s just symbolic politics, gesture politics, feel-good politics.

Maybe it’s that, and maybe that’s important. But it also provides a propaganda victory to all the cheerleaders for the Israeli government, who will say (and who are saying, but I’m not going to link to Little Green Footballs) that this is a victory for anti-Semitism, that we’re attacking academic freedom, that it’s a crap union, anyway, that double standards are rampant in this case, and so on. Lots of the people who will say these things are nuts, of course, and we shouldn’t worry too much that they’ll be saying the kinds of things that they’re going to say. But we’re handing over exactly the kind of ammunition that they most want to get hold of.

Obviously I don’t think there’s a significant anti-Semitism issue here, and I don’t really think there’s a core academic freedom issue in play here, either (though, as I say, the idea of the political test rather sticks in the craw). But we can’t easily evade all of the double standards problems this case opens up.

Why Israel, not other Middle Eastern countries? Other repressive, expansionist, colonial regimes? If we’re opposed to imperialism, why not boycott the universities of the leading imperialist power in the world, the United States, which also happens to be the major source of international support for Israeli government policy? And why not boycott ourselves while we’re at it, for the assistance that British academics often provide to the British state in support of its activities of which the AUT might disapprove?

Often charges of double standards are levied in pretty bad faith, to displace attention from somebody’s wrongdoing onto somebody else’s. And some of these questions can be addressed, to some extent, probably. But there are too many double-standard worries flying around this particular issue to make this a politically sensible road to go down.

Pressure Politics

There are principles at stake, but there are also tactics to consider. What is this particular boycott likely to achieve?

Well, strangely enough, I think that a union not well known for its political effectiveness to call for a boycott with no means to enforce it, that does not have overwhelming support amongst either its members or its delegates to Council, which affects only a very small number of its members, which gives Israeli academics an opt-out if they just say they don’t like what their government is doing very much, and so bloody on and so bloody forth, is unlikely to achieve very much at all.

It might, just, generate another Mona Baker / Andrew Wilkie cause célèbre. (I’m not sure we need another of those.) It’s unlikely to do more. And I don’t think it’s terribly likely to get the Israeli government or electorate to change its mind about the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

McCarthyism?

Academic trade unionists, of all people, should hesitate long and hard before approving the kinds of political declarations implicit in the call to boycott to “exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies.”

If this is about institutions, there shouldn’t be a get-out clause of this kind. If it’s about individuals, well, there’s a different set of issues there. But this compromise formulation seems to me to inhabit the worst of both worlds.

Vagueness

Council has resolved, first, “to call on all AUT members to boycott Haifa University until it commits itself to upholding academic freedom, and in particular ceases its victimisation of academic staff and students who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel”, and, second, “to call on all AUT members to boycott Bar-Ilan University until it severs all academic links with the College of Judea and Samaria and with any other college located in an illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories”.

If academic freedom at Haifa and the College of Judea and Samaria were really the concerns of the proponents of boycott, I think the language here would be a little less vague. Who is to decide when Haifa has ceased its victimisation of academic staff and students?

By what criteria can we determine when Bar-Ilan University has severed its final academic link with the College of Judea and Samaria? These things are not at all clear. Would a statement from Haifa University be enough? Or one from Dr Pappe himself? Or a ruling from the AUT executive? Or should it be referred back to Council?

Dishonesty

If there were a groundswell of opposition to what was going on at Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities amongst British academics, if representations from the AUT over the last three years concerning Dr Pappe’s case, for example, had been repeatedly rebuffed, then there might be good grounds for boycott. Boycott should be a last resort, not a first resort, if that’s a phrase.

But, in fact, it seem clear that these two universities have been targeted because the proponents of boycott know they won’t get the general academic boycott of Israel that they want through AUT Council, so they are trying to propose something they can get away with.

OK, so this politics. You settle for what you can get. Nothing wrong with that. But this is crap politics. (See the rest of these remarks, above and below.)

General Will?

I wouldn’t mind that the AUT was generally crap at politics, or that there hadn’t been much internal union deliberation if the policy adopted by Council clearly reflected the will of the majority of AUT members. But there’s no reason to think that it does. I don’t think the boycott motions would survive the test of campus ballots, for example. Nor is this just a matter of members versus their representatives in Council: there are divisions among the activists themselves, for the boycott motions seem to have been passed by Council fairly narrowly.

To conclude this bit of the discussion: unions that are crap at politics, and without an especially good record of widespread internal deliberation among grassroots members, should, on the whole, refrain from adopting obviously divisive political motions.

Deliberative Democracy

I’d have more respect for the boycott motions if they were the product of extensive deliberation inside the union in well-attended branch meetings, etc. I haven’t heard reports of widespread member participation on this issue. (Then again, I haven’t been keeping a look-out.) Reports of today’s Council debate suggest that discussion was brief and curtailed, and that only the executive got to oppose the proposed motions.

Pretty Crap at Politics

My union, the AUT, isn’t very good at politics. (It’s widely believed that the union once rejected a long-term deal from government to link academic salaries to civil service salaries, on the grounds that it could do better with annual collective bargaining.) Members don’t look to the union for guidance on national or world politics. It hasn’t acquired the kind of moral authority, forged in effective struggles over the years, that leads its members to respect the positions it takes because they are the positions it takes.