Tuesday, May 10, 2005
David Hirsh Letter to the Guardian against the boycott
We oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and we support the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state alongside Israel. We think, however, that proposals by some members of the Association of University Teachers for a boycott of Israeli academia would be counter-productive.
The campaign for the academic boycott treats all academics as though they were responsible for government policy - which they are not. The latest proposal contains a clause which is intended to get round this problem by excluding from the boycott "conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies". This would mean that Israeli academics would first have to affirm their 'anti-Zionist' credentials before being allowed to function as members of the global academic community.
But there is no agreed definition of the word 'Zionism'. Some people define it as a form of racism. Others understand it as a Jewish national liberation movement. Others consider themselves Zionists if they support the right of Israel not to be conquered.
We oppose the proposal that academics should be subjected a political test. Does anybody suggest that American physicists should be excluded from the academic community if they do not repudiate Guantanamo Bay? Does anybody suggest that Chinese historians should be excluded if they oppose democracy? Does anybody suggest that Muslim mathematicians should be excluded unless they publicly repudiate the attacks of September 11? These kinds of demands would destroy the principles of openness, free speech and community that should define academia.
But the current proposal to make a distinction between good Israelis and bad Israelis is a tactical move: the boycott campaign really wants a total boycott of Israeli academia.
Last year there was a call by the religious right in Israel to boycott Israeli academics who had signed a statement in support of Israeli pilots who were refusing to bomb targets in the occupied territories. A government minister spoke in favour of a ban on the books of these academics. How would we support Israeli academics that come under such attacks if there is a boycott on links with Israeli academia?
Who should be teaching Israeli students? Do we demand that Israeli academics that are against the occupation should leave Israel and teach somewhere else? Do we demand that Arab students who are studying at Israeli universities should leave, rather than fight for equal rights?
We should be making more links, not fewer, with the Israeli academics who are doing good work and who are resisting the racist culture of the Israeli right. Formally, this question is dealt with by the good Israeli / bad Israeli formulation of the latest proposal, but this would create more problems than it addresses.
What effect would this boycott have on UK academics - and particularly Jewish academics? It would put UK Jewish academics under pressure to declare themselves 'anti-Zionist'. And what will happen to those who refuse?
David Hirsh, Goldsmiths College, London
Email from David Hirsh to those who supported his letter to the Guardian
Please have a look at this on Harry's place, which is my attempt to counter the argument that the pro-boycotters published in the Guardian of 20 April.
Please present our arguments to your own AUT delegates to the meeting this week.
A number of you have said that it might be useful to have a dayschool or a conference on the issue of the academic boycott. This might also address the issue of how to make positive links with Israeli and Palestinian academics and institutions. It might also address issues of antisemitism in British academia. I would be interested to hear people's views on this possibility. Who volunteers to organise it?
Just one apology - the Guardian agreed to print the statement late on Monday - and asked me to provide them with an edited version and choose five names 'ten minutes ago'. I hope people think the edited version did reflect the longer statement. But my picking of names was arbitrary, and I regret that I did not pick two or three of the eminent women academics who supported the statement. How do journalists do it? We have 5 months to write something - they have 5 minutes.
Best Wishes and Thanks
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