We are against academic and other boycotts against Israel. Such boycotts will inevitably claw in and target Jewish communities outside Israel, and thereby do more harm — and not only to Jews — than any possible good, any possible help that they could give to the Palestinians.
Boycott is a crude, indiscriminate weapon that will hit Israel-Jewish advocates of a just two-states solution— and that has been and is a powerful current in Israel — as well as the chauvinists. It is a weak and ineffective weapon too. The boycott of South Africa, over 30 years after the Sharpeville massacre of February 1960, brought minimal results. The fall of apartheid came not from that boycott but from the struggles within South Africa itself.
But we understand and share the feelings of many of the trade unionists who voted for a boycott.
We agree with what they are trying to do — exert pressure on Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. The case for any activity that will, or simply that may, help the Palestinians, is as powerful as the situation of the Palestinians is nightmarishly terrible.
And it is not getting better. The Palestinians live under the brutal military-colonial rule of the Israeli state. We are within a few days of the 39th anniversary of that occupation.
The limited self-rule, the Palestinian quasi-state, that evolved after the Oslo accords of 1993 and effectively ended with Israeli re-occupation seven years later, was only a break in the four-decades pattern of hostile Israeli colonial rule: ruthless and frequently savage occupation, which uses Israel’s military superiority and modern military technology to lash out recklessly and often disproportionately in response to Palestinian action against the Israeli military in the Occupied Territories or against Israeli civilians.
The Palestinians have spent four decades in captivity to a state which has fostered colonisation, in large parts of the Occupied Territories, intended to be permanent and irreversible.
All explanation of the tragedy of the last decades in terms of Palestinian and Arab and political-Islamic intransigence and “unreasonableness” have to be scaled and measured against that all-defining fact: the Israeli military bestrides Palestine and Palestinian society, with the power to crush any part of it which it chooses to crush.
There is a big distinction between Israel’s reckless killings in pursuit of the organisers of Hamas’s suicide-bomb campaign, and the deliberate and intended slaughter of civilians by suicide bombs. But even that has to be put in the context of the enormous preponderance of Israel’s military power over the whole of Palestinian society and the degree of medium and long-term control of the overall shape of Israeli-Palestinian relations which that gives to Israel.
Israel has had and has used the power of a giant playing with a doll’s house which can be upended at will. That power has not been used, as it should have been, to shape a fair and politically viable settlement with the Palestinians, but to try to crush them.
The Palestinians are being battered and smashed, treated with reckless violence of different sorts and victimised by relentless, irresponsible, and predatory power (predatory in terms of seizing, colonising, and eventually planning to annex territory occupied in 1967).
International opposition by Western governments to Israeli activity in the Palestinian territories has sometimes been vocal, but so far never effective. The failure of the “road map” so far (if saying it like that is not foolishly optimistic) is the latest terrible example of Israel’s ability to ignore “international opinion” with complete impunity.
Another example, irresponsible, short-sighted, and narrow-sighted, is looming ahead: a unilateral Israeli decision to “finalise” its border with the Palestinians — relinquishing some territory and uprooting a few Israeli Jewish settlements while annexing the large swathes of Palestinian territory on which the most important settlements exist, and chopping up and surrounding the land ceded to the Palestinians with Israeli-controlled areas.
If it is true, as far as it goes, that Israeli currently has no possible Palestinian government partner in reaching an agreed decision on the border between Israel and Palestine, that too can’t be assessed outside the reckless and hostile exercise of preponderant Israeli power, over many years, against the Palestinians.
It is a fact that Israel encouraged the emergence of Hamas, thereby hoping to divide and politically cripple the Palestinians, keeping them at the mercy of Israel.
The seemingly most likely Israeli-defined borders will leave to the Palestinians not a contiguous territory in the West Bank capable of being, or evolving into, a proper independent Palestinian state, but truncated territories. It is no exaggeration to say that what will be left for the Palestinians, in quasi-independent bits of territory under effective Israeli control, will be akin to the bantustans of apartheid South Africa.
The very possibility of a just or at least a workable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians may be about to disappear from history — and with it, the possibility of anything like the “normalisation” of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and the Arab states, for generations to come.
The possibility of effective international pressure on Israel to compel a just, or at any rate liveable, settlement with the Palestinians seems more remote than it did when the “road map” emerged in April 2003 — and was then allowed to die, or go as near to dying as makes no little difference.
From this situation, this history, and this terrible prospect facing the Palestinian people, comes the NATFHE conference vote for an academic boycott of Israel.
None of the qualifications and caveats — and we are about to list them — can offset the fundamental fact that the Palestinians are at the mercy of Israeli power, that they have been and are now being battered by it, and that the Palestinians have not been able to look for rescue or help to the great Western powers.
The fundamental qualification is that the Israeli state’s great power compared to the stateless Palestinians has not been the only element in the picture. Not only Israeli chauvinists work, and have worked, against an Israeli-Palestinian mutual accommodation. The Israelis have faced powerful enemies whose stated goal has been the destruction of Israel.
Israel has emerged as what it is by a long interaction with the Arab world in which the Arab states, and virtually all Arab political groupings in all the Arab states, have until recently taken as their stated objective wiping Israel off the map, destroying the Israeli-Jewish nation, and killing, driving out, or subjugating the Israeli Jews.
Before 1948 Arab forces made war on the Jewish national minority in Palestine, the pre-Israeli community there. Under Arab pressure, on the eve of the Holocaust and while it was going on, Britain barred the door to almost all of Europe’s Jews seeking to escape persecution unto death by joining the Jewish national minority in Palestine.
The declaration of Israel — set up by authority of the United Nations — in May 1948 was met immediately by invasion by the armies of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, and by military contingents from other Arab states. Their objective, declared openly by the Egyptians, was to “drive the Jews into the sea”.
That was more than over-exuberant Arab grandiloquence: they would have done it if they could.
In 1948 the Israelis, far from having obvious military superiority, faced an international arms embargo as well as relatively well-equipped Arab armies led by experienced (many of them British) officers.
It was in the course of this war that three quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs — who, naturally, sided with the Arab invaders — were driven out or fled from the Jewish territory.
Half a million Jews were driven out or fled from the Arab states to Israel in the years after 1948. The refusal of any Arab state to recognise or make peace (other than an armistice) with Israel lasted for decades, and with most Arab states lasts still, over half a century later. The refusal of the Arab states to which they fled to allow the Palestinian refugees to work and integrate is the prime reason why so many refugees and their descendants remain unsettled.
A Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, was stipulated in the 1947 UN partition plan. It disappeared in the course of Israel’s war of independence, but not primarily to the benefit of Israel. Jordan and Egypt annexed most of the territory of the abortive Palestinian state.
Israel conquered that territory and reunited all of pre-1948 Palestine under its own rule (the dominant features of which rule, in the Palestinian territories, we have described above) in the June 1967 “Six Days War”, but the situation that sparked war (in which Israel struck first, destroying the Arab air forces on the ground) was created not by Israel but by Egypt and Syria.
After that war Israel indicated a willingness to trade territory for peace — withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza in return for recognition of Israel by the Arab states and “normalisation” of relations. Whether that offer was sincere or not was not put to the test by the Arabs.
The Arab states — and the PLO, then under Egyptian hegemony — went on talking about “driving the Jews into the sea”.
Of course there were people in Israel eager to take the chance to permanently expand the territory of their state. A tragic tacit “alliance” between the Israeli and the Arab chauvinists and intransigents not only has dominated the last 40 years but also continues now.
Again and again, atrocities by one side have been matched by the other in the continuous tit-for-tat alternation that has led to the terrible situation the Palestinians now face.
The 1967 war and the occupation — and a further war in November 1973, when the Arab states took Israel by surprise and won initial victories — triggered shifts to the right within Israeli society. Those intent on annexing as much as possible of the pre-1967 Palestinian territory have been greatly strengthened, and over time have determined Israeli policy.
The recent election by the Palestinians of a Hamas government is the latest tragic lurch into intractability in the long and terrible interaction of the chauvinists on both sides.
In 1988 the PLO formally abandoned the goal of destroying Israel, recognised Israel, and declared itself for a two-states settlement. Hamas, a religio-political movement, the political equivalent of the small constituency of Israeli religious chauvinists (one of whom assassinated the Israeli prime minister who signed the 1993 Oslo Agreement), is now the government of the Palestinians. It does not recognise Israel; it is at best willing to give it tacit recognition like the post-1948 armistices between Israel and the Arab states.
To argue that Israeli does not have the right to respond to the election of a Hamas government would be ridiculous. The argument from the “sacred national egotism” of the Palestinians that they have a right to elect any government they like carries the corollary that Israel too has the right to act according to the dictates of its own “sacred national egotism”.
But, repeat: none of that can offset the fact of the overwhelming power which Israel has, compared to the Palestinians — power which puts the Palestinians decisively under the control of Israel, and allows Israel to shape the situation.
On the boycott, here is a further consideration in Britain — and in other countries, though perhaps less so — the political nature of those organisations which are most prominent in advocating it.
Most of them do not advocate two states. They bitterly oppose any “recognition” of Israel. They want the destruction of Israel.
We have the extraordinary situation that the biggest organisation on the left, the SWP, which has distant roots in Trotskyism, supports the policy of Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalists and Arab or Islamic chauvinists. These strange, strange people, who are getting stranger, rejoice at the electoral victory of Hamas! They are for “militancy” — and never mind the politics, or the likely political consequences.
Like the most blinkered Israeli chauvinists, they rejoice in the loss of prospects for a reasonable “compromise” two-states settlement! They, and much of the “hard”, “revolutionary”, “Trotskyist” left, support boycott not as a blow to force a settlement, but as a blow against Israel’s existence.
By no means all who favour boycott share the position of those adoptive Islamic and Arab chauvinists. Nonetheless, they and their ally, the Muslim Association of Britain, British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, set the tone and the pace.
They counterpose to “two states” slogans like “Freedom for Palestine” which are seemingly more “revolutionary” and imply the destruction of Israel (which “Palestine” is understood to include) but remain undefined and unspecific so as to avoid alienating those who do not want to destroy Israel and do not reject “two states”.
If these people — these strange “sharia socialists”, “Quran-communists”, reactionary revolutionists, and “anti-imperialist” advocates of the destruction of a nation — think their policies can help the Palestinians, then they are politically stupid.
In truth they are not much concerned with the Palestinians. They do not want the situation resolved in the best way possible for the Palestinians.
Some of them see Palestine as a mere detail in a campaign for the spread, consolidation, and “restoration” of Islam. For others it is an engine of agitation against “imperialism” — by which they mean secular advanced capitalism. Some of the socialist allies of the political Islamists fantasise that the reactionary “anti-imperialism” being fostered will eventually, somehow, someday, come to be the “socialist revolution”.
The only way to be “for the Palestinians” — and those socialists who are not for the Palestinians are in their own way as far from the true spirit of working-class internationalism as are the “sharia socialists” — is to be for the two-states settlement.
In British politics now, the cause of the Palestinians is predominantly no more than grist to the mill of those who demonise Israel. So far, the advocates of a democratic two-states settlement have not been strong enough to redefine the issues.
Events in Israel-Palestine make it urgent to disentangle the Palestinian cause from the politics of the kitsch left and of the reactionary political Islamists with which that “left” is now shamefully entwined. It is time for those who are for the Palestinians, for an independent Palestinian state in adequate contiguous territory, but also recognise the right of the Israeli Jews to have their own state, to organise.
The AWL set up, four years ago, a “Committee for Two States”, but not enough activists have rallied to it to give it more than a flickering life. Today we make a new appeal: join us in generating a real campaign. Read the Committee’s statement at http://links-not-boycott.blogspot.com and give it your support.