Cutting through the bullshit.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Too smart

Today’s Ha’aretz reports that

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking on Sunday told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he has noticed a marked deterioration in the situation in the Middle East since he last visited the region in 1990.

Whatever that may mean.

Two weeks ago, on 28 November, 1,015 students and 113 staff at Birzeit University issued a statement of support (linked from for Irish academics and calling for a comprehensive academic boycott.

Regarding the academic boycott proposal, I am tepidly supportive of a boycott for its symbolic value. However, I have three sets of reservations about the tactic:

1. An ordinary consumer boycott mobilises people at their weakest, as powerless consumers in the marketplace, to target their consumption on a basis other than strict economy. We can exercise our power much more effectively in our workplaces and on the streets. Even insofar as a consumer boycott may be effective, it disempowers its participants. By accepting the illusion that in boycotting Israeli goods they are doing something, some, perhaps a majority, may come to believe they are doing enough.

The proposed academic/cultural boycott disempowers ordinary people even more than a traditional consumer boycott. Decisions on what to boycott and when are left entirely in the hands of vice chancellors, journal editors, conference organisers, museum curators, and the like.

It does, however, provide scope for ordinary people to take action in our workplaces and campuses and on the streets to encourage compliance with the boycott on the part of those with the power to implement it.

2. I am not optimistic about the efficacy of a boycott of this nature. Even a full fledged economic and diplomatic boycott is unlikely to have the desired effect on Israel as long as the US is prepared to bankroll the Zionist project. It is worth remembering that the basis of Zionism is that Jews are entirely separate from the rest of humanity and need to do things on our own. It is easy to envisage Israeli academics, artists and athletes saying, ‘The hell with the Goyim. We’re better than they are anyway and it was always a waste of time sharing our profound ideas with them, competing with them, and displaying our sublime artistic works to them.’ It would be imprudent to underestimate Israeli arrogance.

3. While the majority of Israeli academics are probably fully supportive of Zionism, ‘transfer’, the occupation of 1967, etc. and eminently deserving of censure and ostracism, trying to exclude them from the global academic community has the potential to backfire. Academic journals purportedly publish articles on the basis of the contribution they make to the discipline. Of course in practice this is never the only, or even the main, criterion. But the nature of the proposed boycott undermines the principle. Once it is established as acceptable to exclude contributions from those who live under repressive regimes, this principle can easily be extended to victimise academics living under the oppressive regimes of official enemies as well as official friends.

The existence of a Palestinian campaign in favour of the boycott, however, definitively trumps my reservations.

Furthermore, as Laura Ribeiro, coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign, arged in CounterPunch in June, there is already a de facto boycott against Palestinian academics and academics concerned with Palestine,

It is increasingly apparent that any academic activity – be it research, debate or voluntary work – on the mere subject of Palestine, in Palestine, is either obstructed or forbidden. So while Israeli academics and political figures are busy mobilizing their supporters worldwide to protect the academic freedom of their intellectuals and institutions, other academics, researchers and students exercising their academic freedom in Palestine, are effectively being boycotted. The objective of this boycott is to thwart the advancement of Palestinian educational institutions, networks and discourse, and although any nationality can be subjected to it, its target is in fact the constitution of Palestinian education itself.

An issue that the campaign does not appear to have considered is that many Israeli academics seem to have affiliations with overseas institutions. This poses additional questions. To allow them to contribute to academic discourse wearing a different, non Israeli, hat would seem to undermine the boycott and particularly to favour the Israeli academics in most esteem abroad. In my view, the boycott would be a travesty unless one of its objectives is to strip Israeli academics of their affiliations with foreign universities.

The letter to the Irish academics enjoins a boycott that excludes certain individuals,

We therefore urge international civil society and the academic community to join our call to comprehensively boycott Israeli academics who contribute or refuse to stand up against the occupation. [my emphasis]

And this certainly seems consistent with the version of the Campaign statement on the Bir Zeit University Right to Education Campaign site,

Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies

Curiously, this wording is absent from the version of the Campaign statement on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel site.

On CounterPunch a couple of years ago, Omar Barghouti wrote,

The price that some conscientious academics may pay as an unavoidable byproduct of the boycott is quite cheap when compared to the price Palestinian academics, and indeed Palestinians at large, have to pay for the lack of boycott or any similarly effective pressures on Israel.

I’m pretty sure that his position is that it will not do to make exceptions for sympathetic Israeli academics, even, indeed, especially, if they support the boycott. And I have to concur. Apart from the thorny question of determining who is conscientious and who is not, to exempt them would put them in the invidious position of taking action to undermine their colleagues without being willing to accept the consequences themselves. If they genuinely support a boycott of Israeli academics, that has to mean they are prepared to suffer the effects themselves.

Anyway, it seems that notwithstanding the ‘marked deterioration in the situation’, Professor Hawking is too smart to have to support the boycott.

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