Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

Four days after Israel tanks rolled into the Gaza strip, the Pew Research Centre for People and the Press conducted a poll of 1503 Americans, asking, ‘In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?’. Their principal finding was that 49% sympathised more with Israel, and 11% with the Palestinians. Another 5% volunteered that they didn’t sympathise with either side, and 15% with both, while a remarkable 20% didn’t know. Since Pew did not offer ‘Neither’ and ‘Both’ as response options, but only recorded them when respondents insisted, some, possibly all, of those who ‘Don’t know’ may actually have sympathised with both or neither.

As always, there are problems with the question, although in my view they are far from the most egregious I’ve seen in recent opinion polls. It suggests that there is some kind of parity between ‘Israel’ and ‘the Palestinians’, without actually presupposing or even implying it. Indeed, by naming the country in the case of Israel, and the group of people in the case of the Palestinians, there is almost a hint that there may be some difference, at least in status, but I’m dubious that respondents would have been terribly sensitive to the distinction, except insofar as they might think that being an actual country confers some special legitimacy on Israel. What I suspect would have influenced their answers most is a warm visceral reaction to ‘Israel’ and a corresponding aversion to its perceived enemies. I doubt many respondents would have interpreted ‘the Palestinians’ as incorporating those with Israeli citizenship or in the diaspora.

Now people who read blogs like this are well aware that there was nothing defensive about ‘Operation Cast Lead’, but I’m not entirely confident the same can be said about those who rely on the mainstream media for ‘information’. Since virtually every article about Gaza incorporates a compulsory reference to Israel’s wish to end rocket attacks, casting Israel in the role of victim, I find it surprising that there wasn’t even more support for Israel. But even given the propaganda environment, even for those who firmly believe the hasbarists’ claims about the lengths the IOF went to in avoiding civilian casualties, it’s appalling that only 11% found it in their hearts to sympathise with the mangled orphans on their television screens.

The Pew report, which uncharacteristically omitted to mention the ‘margin of error’, compares the results of the 7-11 January poll with polling results for six European countries from April-May 2007, during the period of the Hamas-Fatah unity ‘government’ in the West Bank and Gaza, concluding that there was ‘more support for the Palestinians than the Israelis’. Under such different conditions, the comparison isn’t really valid. But it seems likely that support for Palestinians in Europe would be higher now than it was in 2007, before the abortive June Fatah coup in Gaza. What they found then was that in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, there was a significant margin of support for the Palestinians over the Israelis, while in Germany more supported Israel. Half of those polled in Italy volunteered, ‘Neither’. Overall, among the six countries, 22% supported Israel, 27% the Palestinians, and 32% volunteered ‘Neither’.

I remain very sceptical of self identification as an indicator of political orientation, but there is a clear correlation between orientation, as measured by Pew, and sympathy to Israel over the Palestinians. Sixty percent of ‘Conservative’ respondents, 50% of ‘Moderates’, and 33% of ‘Liberals’ sympathised more with Israel, while 8% of Conservatives, 11% of Moderates, and 21% of Liberals sympathised with the Palestinians. In every group, there was significantly higher support for Israel than for the Palestinians,

Overall, sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians in the US has increased by 9 percentage points since a poll conducted just prior to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in September 2001, but declined from 52% in August 2006, immediately after Israel’s depredation of Lebanon. It would have been interesting to see the movements in sympathy for the Palestinians over time, but Pew doesn’t report them.

Meanwhile, for the first time, a group of US academics have launched a campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Eight days into the initiative, it appears that only 52 have endorsed the call for

1) Refraining from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions that do not vocally oppose Israeli state policies against Palestine;

2) Advocating a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;

3) Promoting divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;

4) Working toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;

5) Supporting Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

As I’ve written before, I think it weakens the initiative considerably to exempt institutions that ‘vocally oppose Israeli state policies against Palestine’, because it ‘would put them in the invidious position of taking action to undermine their colleagues without being willing to accept the consequences themselves’. Furthermore, while a selective boycott like this may provide an incentive for universities to express vocal opposition, while sectors outside academia remain untouched. Still, you have to start somewhere, and I certainly encourage any American academics who happen to read this to sign on by emailing the campaign at ‘uscom4acbi [at]’.

In contrast, when Alan Dershowitz called on ‘Academic and Professional Colleagues From Around The World’ in June 2007 to endorse this statement

"We are academics, scholars, researchers and professionals of differing religious and political perspectives. We all agree that singling out Israelis for an academic boycott is wrong. To show our solidarity with our Israeli academics in this matter, we, the undersigned, hereby declare ourselves to be Israeli academics for purposes of any academic boycott. We will regard ourselves as Israeli academics and decline to participate in any activity from which Israeli academics are excluded. "

4568, including some who were themselves Israeli or affiliated with Israeli institutions, responded within the first 11 days or so. Although the petition was relaunched last May, it, too, has now closed. The total now stands at 12,113, well short of their goal of 20,000 signatories, but still rather intimidating. I hope that the USACBI initiative will soon overtake Dershowitz’s, but I’m not holding my breath.

In another encouraging recent development, a Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) delegates meeting in Western Australia on Tuesday adopted the following resolutions, among others:

1. This delegates’ meeting of the WA branch of the MUA [hereafter this meeting] calls on the Rudd government to denounce the latest Israeli aggression against Gaza, and to cut all economic, diplomatic, cultural and political ties with the Israeli state until this aggression and the Israeli siege of Gaza ends.

4. We will participate fully in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign when it is initiated and support actions related thereof when they are called by either Friends of Palestine WA or other interested parties (including other trade unions). We call on the ACTU and Unions WA to join us in supporting the BDS campaign and specific actions related thereof

5. In furtherance of resolution 4, this meeting recommends State Conference adopt a position of boycotting all Israeli-registered vessels, and all vessels known to be carrying either goods destined for Israel or goods sourced from Israel. [Hat tip to Amy Thomas]

There’s not a great deal of trade between Israel and Australia, but what there is would almost certainly pass through Western Australian ports. While these resolutions are just a first step to the MUA actually blacking Israeli goods, it’s hard to exaggerate the move’s significance as a gesture. If wharfies in Europe and the US were to follow the WA MUA delegates’ lead, they could cripple the Israeli economy. Which just goes to show, when push comes to shove, it’s the ordinary working people who can really make a difference.

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