Tuesday, June 12, 2007 

Boycotting and bullying.

The decision by the president of DePaul university to deny Norman Finkelstein his application for continued tenure highlights the yawning chasm between campus politics on both sides of the Atlantic. A little less than two weeks ago the University and College Union passed a motion by 158 to 99 for a "a comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, in solidarity with a call made by Palestinian trade unions for such measures. In one country, the anti-occupation argument wins, while on the other the accusations of antisemitism against those who are critical of Israeli government policy appear to have prevailed.

The background to Finkelstein being put out of a job is part of the wider argument, increasingly conducted outside Israel itself, about the differences between antisemitism and anti-Zionist expansion, about the rights of the Palestinians to resist and organise in the face of both a 40-year occupation and how the peace process can be moved on from outside. Finkelstein, a widely acknowledged brilliant analytical academic, the son of Holocaust survivors, has long been a thorn in the side of unapologetic pro-Israelis, most notoriously writing an attack on what he calls the "Holocaust industry", which he regards as both exploiting the shame and guilt felt about the failure to stop the Holocaust into treating Israel with kid gloves, ignoring its own abundant abuses of human rights and failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

Finkelstein's undoing appears to have been taking on Alan Dershowitz, an equally vehement defender of Israel to Finkelstein's ardent criticism. You might know Dershowitz more for one of his other ideas: proposing, despite his own opposition to torture, that authorities could gain a warrant which would allow them to engage a "suspect" with non-lethal forms of interrogation in a "ticking bomb" scenario. He more recently toured studios in effect defending rendition, making much the same argument, slightly altered by saying that since torture was already evidently taking place, that there should be set guidelines on what is and what is not allowed. Another similarly enlightened argument he made was that Israel should declare a unilateral ceasefire in responding to Palestinian terrorism, and that if militants didn't similarly declare an end to operations, that a village or town identified as being an operations base for the militants would be given a ultimatum, after which all the houses and buildings in the village would be destroyed. Even by the Israeli standards of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians, such a measure is terrifying in its base inhumanity.

Ignoring the more tedious elements of Finkelstein and Dershowitz's conflict, Dershowitz was one of the first to write to DePaul university calling for Finkelstein's request for further tenure to be denied. While Finkelstein's methods of responding and arguing are by his own admission polemical, and he strays occasionally into ad hominem attacks, with him making mistakes in his claims against Dershowitz's book The Case for Israel, there are few who regard him, as Dershowitz does, as an anti-Semite or a bigot. Ignoring perhaps the usual suspects who support and defend him in Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, highly respected historian of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim, formerly of Haifa university, both went on Democracy Now! to support his continued tenure.

The whole dispute perhaps tells us more about how academia is being increasingly divided and ruled in Europe and America than it does about anything else. The biggest difference is how almost all political opinion in America is amazingly pro-Israeli, especially considering the relatively small Jewish population, which in any case overwhelming votes Democrat. Various reasons for this, differing between a highly successful Israeli lobby, itself the subject of high controversy involving Alan Dershowitz last year after a highly notable paper attempted to show how the Israeli lobby and US foreign policy intertwined, neo-con ideology which itself is highly caught up in the Likudist outlook on the Middle East, the support of Christian far-righters, for their own various selfish reasons, and just general sympathy for a people which without the intervention of the Americans may well have been close to being wiped out, all play a part, as does the continued concern about the intentions of Iran, at least now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from the equation. The "war on terror" has also thrown the two nations together in something of a common cause, despite the obvious differences between the various motives behind the attacks which both have suffered.

The movement towards boycotting Israel in Europe suggest that the opposite is true here, but this is almost certainly not the case. Prior to the removal of Conrad Black, the Telegraph was one of the strongest defenders of Israel policy in all areas, and while perhaps slightly less strident now that it's under the Barclay brothers, it remains mostly the same. It's not just the Melanie Philips' of this world that are shrill in their speaking out on Israel's behalf, but other organisations like Independent Jewish Voices, which while critical would by no means support a boycott of academia. The attempts to portray some of this legitimate criticism, as Deborah Lipstadt has, as soft-core denial, or even as Philips did, as Jews somehow being for Genocide, often shows just what those who are critical of the occupation have to face for speaking out. This is partly down to the defenders of Israel both using hyperbole and over-selling themselves at the same time, and while pro-Palestinians do fall into this trap as well, there is no other debate which so often descends purely into mud-slinging, with accusations of bigotry, self-hatred and racism never being far from surfacing.

As is so often the case, the middle road again seems to be the best course. I've never seen it adequately or lucidly explained exactly what an academic boycott of Israel is meant to achieve: it seems, despite the no doubt honourable intentions of the Palestinian trade unions and universities in calling for one, that it's meant to more send a far too easily misconstrued message to the world, with predictable results in backlash terms. It smacks all too much of intellectual circle-jerking, doing nothing to help the Palestinians on the ground while the great debate swirls round and round. The only boycott that really matters at the moment is the one which continues to cause economic devastation in the occupied territories, and which has more than a hand in the descent in Gaza into all-out civil war. That is the one which needs lifting, but it seems to have been almost forgotten. Finkelstein should be at DePaul, while universities ought to petitioning the government and the EU to lift the reckless and irresponsible boycotting of Hamas which is only penalising the people who had the audacity to use their democratic vote.

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