Boycott? A Jew-hunt won't help the Palestinians

Submitted by AWL on 6 February, 2007 - 2:29 Author: Sean Matgamna

From the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Two Nations, Two States

The boycotting of nations and states is a crude, undifferentiating and normally ineffectual weapon.

Typically, it has more to do with the taking of a political and moral stand by the boycotter than with effective political action. That said, boycotts are, nonetheless, sometimes useful.

A boycott of Israeli academics and scientific institutions is advocated by, amongst others, Hilary and Steven Rose. Sections of the left are trying to organise a boycott of Israeli goods. The most bedrock argument, though not a conclusive one, against these boycotts is attempting to organise, is that boycotting Israel (in unison with most of the Arab states) implies that only Israel is responsible for the present tragic conflict. That is not true.

Much blame does indeed attach itself to Israel and Israel is the oppressor of the people of the Occupied Territories. However, this conflict has been shaped over many decades within a framework determined not by Israel but by the Arab states' refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist - of 22 Arab states, only two, Jordan and Egypt, recognise Israel in this, its 55th year of existence - and by their determination, sometimes proclaimed, always implied, to wipe out Israel if they can and as soon as they can.

The catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in 1948 could not have happened had not a coalition of Arab states invaded Israel. In that war, Egypt proclaimed its war aim to be to "drive the Jews into the sea".

The June 1967 war - which led to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other territory - was precipitated by Egyptian war moves against Israel.

It is fundamental to the demonisation of Israel and "the Zionists" by much of the pseudo-left that Israel alone is blamed for the conflict, and serious people should not go along with this venomous historical myth-making.

But that objection to the proposal of boycott is not necessarily decisive. Whatever about the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict, Israel's existence is not now threatened. It is the very existence of the Palestinian entity on the West Bank, and maybe the potential for a Palestinian state, that is threatened.

If boycott will help the Palestinians escape from the trap which their Israeli chauvinist-enemies and their own wretched leaders have boxed them into, then the case for boycott is overwhelming. The decisive argument against boycott is that though it may answer the creditable need felt by individuals in Britain to "do something" it will not help the Palestinians. It will in practice, whatever people like Hilary and Steven Rose intend, be not an anti-Israeli-chauvinist but an anti-Jewish movement. That will not help the Palestinians.

The first fruit of the academic boycott initiative shows, and at the very beginning, what is wrong with it. At the beginning of July 2002, a Manchester professor, Mona Baker, removed two Israeli colleagues from the boards of two journals she edits on the grounds that she no longer wanted any "official association with an Israeli". One of the people sacked, Miriam Shlesinger, is the former head of Israel's branch of Amnesty International - a group which makes de facto solidarity with the Palestinians!

What Shlesinger thinks, what this person is politically, is of no account. The former head of Israel's Amnesty is as much an Israeli as Prime Minister Sharon is. All Israelis, even those on whom an eventual agreement with the Palestinians would depend, are to be targeted.

Equally illuminating in a different way is the article in the Guardian on 15 July, 2002, by Hilary and Steven Rose, where they defend the idea of academic boycott. They massively exaggerate the efficacy of the various boycotts of South Africa. The South Africa boycott movement started in response to the February 1960 massacre of 67 peaceful demonstrators and the wounding of 200 more, in Sharpeville, South Africa. Its effect - over nearly four decades! - was not great. Other things determined the outcome in South Africa, four decades after Sharpeville - not least the power of black working-class militancy. Identification of Israel with apartheid South Africa is part of the demonisation of Israel. It is nonsense. Israel does not exploit the Palestinians as the South African white caste exploited the South African black majority. Israel's existence is entirely separable from the things consistent democrats and socialists object to in its dealings with the Palestinians: Israel is nothing like apartheid South Africa.

The Roses' evocation of the precedent of the South Africa boycott does not necessarily imply that they equate Israel with South Africa. They say: "Every rational person knows that the only prospect of a just and lasting peace lies in Israel's recognition of the legitimacy of a Palestinian state and the Arab world's acceptance of a secure Israel behind its 1967 borders. But how to get from here to there? Is there anything that ordinary citizens, that is civil society, can do to bring pressure to bear to compel our governments and international institutions to move the peace process forward?"

The problem with this is that, in Britain anyway, those who will promote the academic boycott - and are already promoting the boycott of Israeli goods - do not share the Roses' "rational" political programme, "two states": a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The numerically larger forces on the British left share Hamas' programme: for them sympathy and humanitarian concern for the Palestinians is a chance to agitate for the destruction of Israel.

Their idea of "liberating" "Palestine" demands the destruction of Israel. It implies support for Arab states who still think they can destroy Israel. If, in the course of a new US war on Iraq, a cornered Saddam Hussein decides to go down in history as the destroyer of Israel - with germ warfare, nuclear bombs, or whatever - they will see that as progressive work. Slander? In 1991, during the Gulf War, the SWP backed Saddam Hussein's rocket attacks on Israel.

The plain and simple "demands" for "rational" friends of the Palestinians - those who are also fundamentally friendly to the Israelis' right to maintain a Jewish national state - is surely, "Israel out of the Occupied Territories, back to the 1967 borders, let the Palestinians form an independent state".

Yet the SWP and its allies on the National Executive of the Socialist Alliance rejected a motion from supporters of Solidarity and Workers' Liberty to campaign for solidarity with the Palestinians around this proposal. Why? Because it implies the right of the Israelis to go on "occupying" Israel.

The people who will "run" with the boycott idea belong to this spectrum. They are locked into the "anti-Zionist" mindset according to which opposition to Israel and "Zionism" is more or less identical with opposition to racism.

The record of this spectrum, over decades, is one in which their anti-Zionist campaigns have targeted Jews - in the National Union of Students for example, where Jewish youngsters who would not denounce Israel and "Zionism" as "racist", were routinely persecuted in the 1980s.

Hilary and Steven Rose say the sacking of the two Israeli academics is only a "mote", a dot as distinct from a beam, a freak episode unlikely to be typical. In fact it is not an aberration, or something atypical and freakish, but this campaign beginning as it is likely to go on.

Israel came into being as a result of the greatest single crime in human history, the Holocaust of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It was this crime, the preparation for it, and its aftermath, that, in the 30s and 40s, led to large scale Jewish migration to Palestine, and turned Jews throughout the world into Zionists. It is typical Jews - people reluctant even when they loathe Sharon's policies to distinguish themselves from Israel, whose foundations they see as threatened - that the boycott will inescapably target. It is Jewish businesses, not "Israeli goods" that will be the prime target of an economic boycott.

It is Jewish academics who will come under special pressure and be denounced for not supporting the boycott. Jews who are bitterly unhappy with the Israeli government but do not, for a large number of possible reasons, back the boycott, will find themselves classified as "the Zionist enemy" within reach. Some of them will thereby be pushed towards Sharon and the Israeli government.

So will academics and scientists in Israel, including those who, though they are Israelis by birth and Zionists - supporters of the Jewish state - by conviction, are opponents of Sharon and his policy in the West Bank and supporters of what the Roses rightly say is the only "rational" solution - a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Because this boycott, economic or academic, will, despite anybody's good intentions, be a recipe for a campaign against all Israeli and pro-Israeli Jewish academics and business people, it will do a great deal more harm - not to speak of injustice - than any good it could possibly do to the Palestinians. The urge to "do something" is an understandable and a good urge. But what we do politically must be in line with the goal which the Roses say is the only "rational" one, two states. It must be compatible with the opposition to racist scapegoating which the Roses and others of the boycotters share with us.

The demonisation of Israel, not to speak of the demonisation and victimisation of anti-chauvinist Israelis and of Jews not prepared to boycott Israel, cuts in the other direction to the only "sane" political programme for a resolution of the Jewish-Arab conflict.

Professor Baker is the true and proper embodiment of the inescapable logic of the "boycott Israel" campaign. Those who want justice for Palestinians and are also for the legitimate interests of Israeli Jews will have no part of it.

[From the AWL Pamphlet - "Two Nations, Two States", Second edition: 2004.]

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