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David Hirsh
It’s not about Israel, stupid
UK boycott threatened British Jews, liberal culture before it came close to hurting Israelis

Uri Ram argued (October 6, 2007) that Israel’s official spin “diverted attention from the essence (that is, the occupation) to issues of secondary importance (that is, the boycott).” He argued that Israelis should not celebrate the defeat of the campaign to exclude them from British campuses, journals and conferences, but rather, they should focus on ending the occupation and coming to a political settlement with Palestine; as though it was impossible to do both.

 

Ram used the boycott publicity to underscore his opposition to Israeli human rights abuses. This is how the boycotters in Britain hope and believe their boycott would be used. One of the key supporters in my union of the campaign to exclude Israelis, gleefully sent Ram’s piece around the internal e-mail list on Sunday to demonstrate how successfully the boycott campaign encourages Israelis to act for the best. Mona Baker, who fired Israelis from her journals because of their nationality, carries a similar piece by Ram on her pro-boycott website, entitled “It’s not the boycott stupid, it’s the occupation.”

 

Uri Ram’s mistake is to assume that the boycott campaign is really about Israel. But it’s not about Israel, stupid, nor is it about Palestine; it’s about Britain. Nationalism can be an insidious temptation and it can narrow our perspective; it has narrowed Ram’s perspective. He is not considering the effect or the symbolism of a campaign to exclude a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish scholars from European universities; he is not thinking about how the argument to exclude is made in British public life. Ram seems only concerned with fighting an Israeli battle against the Israeli government.

 

I support him in his opposition to the violence and humiliation which sustain the occupation; I hope, with him, for a peaceful and just end to the occupation. But he should also support Jews and anti-racists in our fight against an emerging anti-Semitic culture in Britain. He should stop thinking that his own battle against his own government is the only important thing.

 

Ilan Pappe, another Israel-firster (in the sense that his only concern is to hurt Israel) runs around Britain saying that Jews are committing genocide in Gaza, that Jewish soldiers play football with the heads of Palestinian babies, that there is no political force in Israel that could end the rule of terror, and that Israel is unique because it is illegitimate, and is founded on the original sin of dispossession.

 

Boycotters push anti-Semitic ways of thinking

A small but vocal minority of British Jews kosherizes the campaign to exclude Israelis from the cultural and economic life of the planet. The boycott movement is largely Jewish led. These leaders transform the movement for Palestinian liberation in Britain into a circus in which to perform their own Jewish identity. They reassure the British intelligentsia that there is no connection between hatred of Israel (which they share) and the possible emergence of an anti-Semitic movement. Who can blame the British if they largely accept these “as a Jew” reassurances?

 

The atmosphere inside my union is poisonous. A colleague wrote recently to 700 members of the e-mail list that our opposition to the boycott was “racist down to its core.” He asked whether it was the “aim of those supporting Palestinian academics… to expose this rotten Zionist” – he meant me. This kind of sentiment and language is currently acceptable within my union and in parts public discourse. He argued that ordinary trade union issues “cannot be neatly compartmentalized so that we have separate arrangements for what is ‘safe’ (and does not threaten Zionism) and ‘not safe’ (in what actively opposes Zionism).”

 

He implies, even now, that those who deny that there was a massacre at Jenin are liars for Israel. He claims that “the whole Israeli education system - from nursery to university - is embedded in the Israeli obsession with war...” I could give reams of examples of the demonization of Israel, and of those who oppose Israel’s exclusion. Most “anti-racists” in my union do not see the problem with this kind of rhetoric.

 

The boycotters push anti-Semitic ways of thinking: Israel was set up by imperialism; Israel is uniquely racist, illegitimate, apartheid, Nazi; Brits should support Hamas and Hizbullah against Zionist imperialism; it is “obscene” to argue that (oppressed) Palestine should negotiate with (oppressor) Israel; Israelis are the only academics on the planet who should be excluded from the academic community; those who oppose discussing the rights and wrongs of excluding Israelis are enemies of free speech; those who don’t want a “scholarly” debate about whether Israel is responsible for US policy in Iraq are trying to “gag” brave peace activists.

 

I can see how it is tempting for an Israeli opponent of the occupation, who spends his life fighting the exclusive nationalism of Israeli governments, to seize a rhetorical opportunity to score some hits against an Israeli government. But Uri Ram should widen his horizons and should understand that the boycott campaign threatened British Jews – students, activists, lecturers – and it threatened leftist and liberal political culture in Britain - before it came anywhere near to hurting Israelis.

 

David Hirsh is editor of www.EngageOnline.org.uk and a sociology lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

 

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