J-WIRE: University – bad “misguided strategy” by Larry Stillman 18Jan13 January 18, 2013

by Larry Stillman    -   J-Wire     -    16 January 2013

Sad to say, moves to put a ban on contacts between the University of Sydney and the Technion  is a misguided strategy, as with the boycott  involving the Centre for Conflict Studies…writes Larry Stillman.

As the  Technion has said,  many institutions are involved in forms of warfare research and activity–look at the Australian Defence Academy in Canberra which has students from  not very nice regimes, as well as engaging in applied military research.  If Sydney was involved in some way with a project or program of an Israeli University that breached human rights and ethics protocols I could see the case for a campaign, but this does not appear to be the case here.

Israeli academia is full of contradictions, and these need to be considered. Until Ilan Pappe left the University of  Haifa, he was free to say what he wanted. Shlomo Sand is free to spout his second class history and political commentary from the University of Tel Aviv, and the list goes on and on. There are lesser known Palestinian critics who also have academic positions. There are also academics who I would not wish to sit on the bus with because of their politics, but that is the nature of academia.

But sadly, Israeli institutions of higher education are themselves under siege from modern McCarthyites, whether the likes of  the right-wing nationalist Im Tirzu , to  local Israeli academics aligned to  foreign private “think tanks” with the aim of outing “critics”. Many on the right would like nothing better than to turn universities into factories for nationalist ideology, rather than free thought, something which Israel desperately needs if it is to have a democratic future.   The Department of Politics at Ben Gurion University has been particularly subject to such threats by the  Council for Higher Education (CHE), because of the vigour of academics such as Neve Gordon in opposing Israeli policies.  The CHE has politicized a review of the department and it is still  not known if the department is to be closed down, despite protests from significant academic organisations abroad.  And now, there is the establishment of the military-governed Ariel University on the occupied West Bank–a move opposed by universities inside Israel.

By wishing to isolate Israeli institutions even further, the BDS movement though a crude strategy really does the cause of freedom for all Israelis–and ending the occupation a disservice.   Stomping on academic contacts is a mirror image in this regard of the right-wing nationalists in Israel who wish to punish all those who do not agree with them.

One of the problems as I see it with some in the BDS movement (for all the claims of adherence to the BDS charter), is that some proponents want to use it as a crude, and negative instrument, rather than as a tool for positive change in arrangements between Israelis and Palestinians.  Proponents want to use this club because they believe that Israeli academics are generally apolitical and are therefore complicit in the occupation and other crimes. They also want to make  anexample of Israeli universities because of the iniquitous situation of Palestinian universities under occupation,  and the lack of interest in this in Israel.

Furthermore,  they rightly claim that institutions such as Tel Aviv and Hebrew Univ are built on Palestinian land and refuse to acknowledge this, and the list of other sins put forward is endless.   But a blanket ban will not solve this problem, because it is a problem that infects the whole society, not just Israeli universities. Naomi Chazan, who taught African politics at Hebrew University before being in the Knesset said that in response to attacks from the right:   ”At stake, first, is one of Israel’s most precious treasures: its academic excellence. The production of knowledge and intellectual creativity depend on the nurturing of a climate of openness and the safeguarding of freedom of thought (yes, even when certain views are seen as anathema by many)”.  Given that academics tend to be politically liberal, creative, and pragmatic,  they should be seen as allies for a solution, not enemies.

The issue of  consciousness-raising and apologies for political sins, is part of the solution for the conflict between the two peoples. If they had any sense, proponents of BDS they would build links with Israeli organisations or diaspora Jewish critics who are prepared to take on these issues, but such “normalization” is something that is frowned upon in preference for a strategy which by and large, refuses to see  acknowledge Israelis or most Jews as having much of use to say because they may be “too sympathetic”  to their iron-clad concept of Israel.

This is of course misreading the situation and engaging in black and white thinking. While the BDS movement uses the South African experience as an inspiration, it is selective: change was as much about bringing along whites (particularly Afrikaners) as engaging in particular strategies for the oppressed population of South Africa (who are seen as similar to Palestinians).  Israeli Jews or diaspora Jews have their own particular history and  interests which does not make a parallel between them and the old regime in South Africa the same thing.  But to some in the BDS or Palestine movement, as with any movement, there is a need to find a simple target: and thus a crude view of  what consitutes “Zionist” interests provides an excuse for non-cooperation or a believe that the rights of Israeli Jews can be just wished away because they are “colonialist”.

I am opposed to the Occupation and the state-sanctioned crimes that go with it, but I believe in an internationally-backed joint political approach to finding a solution with as many Israelis as possible, even though that price is one which will, in my view, mean an end to current Israeli nationalism, but equally, one that will require Palestinians to take a deep breath. That solution will also mean massive changes in current arrangements, but I am also committed to long-term democratic process, not the crude, politically stupid solutions that come out of some in the pro-Palestine camp. We don’t need kangaroo courts.

Thus  the desire to punish Israeli academics collectively is not part of the solution, particularly when the freedom of Israeli academia is itself under siege. As I have said, if Palestine advocates wish to have real effect, they should work with their potential allies, not alienate them. And they should not get mixed up between their desire to feel good by spouting slogans in Sydney with what will work in Israel/Palestine.

Larry Stillman works at Monash University. He is involved in a research project with Hebrew University. He is on the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. The views are his own.

If you liked this article, please consider making a donation to Australians for Palestine by clicking on the PayPal link
Thank You.
Bookmark and Share

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, will not be published
optional, your blog address