Should outside pressure be brought to bear on Israel for its actions in the occupied territories and what are the responsibilities of academics working there? Ilan Pappe discusses the effectiveness of the Israeli academic boycott.
Issues such as boycotts require some introductory remarks that are on the verge of the obvious, but nonetheless worth repeating. They can be summed up as a recognition of the uneasiness which accompany, and should accompany, any citizen who would call upon the outside world to boycott his or her own country. This means that any call for such a drastic action, should be thought over again and again and not taken easily off hand.
Having said this, I would like to present a non-ambivalent position on the question of boycott, after years in which I doubted the wisdom of such a move. I have been involved in political activism since the 1970s and in all these years I believed in the ability of an inside coalition of peace to lead the country onto reconciliation, without the need to resort to outside pressure.
The way to recommend boycott as a strategic act has first to go through defining clearly the aim of any outside pressure on the state. The overall objective is to change a policy not the identity of the state. Although I dream of bringing an end to the oppressive nature of the state of Israel and make it, together with Palestine, one democratic secular state – I do not think this can, or should be, achieved through the means of boycott. In a similar way I would not suggest, despite my overwhelming support for the Palestinian right of return, to employ boycott for affecting a change in Israeli policy on the question of refugees.
The device of external pressure should be employed to change a policy of destruction, expulsion and death. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was always oppressive and inhuman, but ever since October 2000, and particularly since April 2002, it became a horror story of abuse and callousness. Every passing day brings with it demolition of Palestinian houses, confiscation of land, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and death. The trend is for worse to come, with a sense of an Israeli government that feels it has a ‘green light’ from the US to do whatever it wishes in the occupied territories (including the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip). This free license atmosphere has legitimized the discourse of transfer in Israel and could herald the making of another Palestinian Nakbah in the form of a partial or massive ethnic cleansing in Israel and in Palestine. Israel is also developing genocidal tendencies as the daily killing of Palestinians (including many children) has become a normal and accepted facet of life for most Israeli Jews. There is an urgent need to stop this suffering and prevent future Israeli plans of inflicting more massive and irreversible damage on the Palestinian people and their society.
This is the aim of any human rights and peace activists interested in, and committed to, the Palestinian cause. There are three options of bringing an end to such a brutal chapter. One is an armed struggle. This has been adopted as the exclusive agenda by many Palestinians, and it has been a subject for internal debate inside the Palestinian society with regards to its productivity. It is not difficult to see why from a humanist and universal point of view, suicide bombs or military operations have not yielded an end to the occupation and are not likely to bring it in the future. Such action led to more innocent victims to be drawn into the conflict, hence entrenching rejectionist positions within the Israeli society, as can be seen from the election and re-election of Sharon in 2001 and 2003. Now in the new post-Sharon era, his party Kadima emobdies this inflexible position of the consensual position in the Jewish society. The military balance also cast doubt on the Palestinian chances for success in the near future.
The second option is change from within the society of the occupier. There is of course an impressive reawakening of the dormant Israeli peace camp. But it is nonetheless still a story of few thousands activists divided between dozens of NGOs and with very few parties in the parliament representing their agenda. In many ways, this line of action, despite its vitality and necessity, is even more hopeless than the military action.
This brings us to the third option, which in any case is suggested not at the expanse of the other two, but in completion. It does not offer death and violence as means of ending the Israeli mechanism of destruction and is not based on the internal and local balance of power. It is a call from the inside to the outside to exert economic and culture pressure on the Jewish state so as to bring home the message that there is a tag price attached to the continuation of the occupation. This means that as many Israeli Jews as possible should realize that their state has become a pariah, and will remain so, as long as the occupation continues, or more concretely until Israel withdraws to the September 2000 lines.
I am not deluding myself about the formidable obstacles on the way of such a strategy. While there is a chance of recruiting the European civil societies and governments, there is very little hope of achieving the same results in the US. However, this line of action was not attempted before and I was impressed when in April 2000, Noam Chomsky told a conference in Boston that in the 1970s despite his and others’ effort it was difficult to convince the PLO to begin a PR campaign in the US, since Arafat thought that having the Soviet Union on the Palestinian side was enough. I think it was a mistake then and it is crucial to start working in the US today. As in the case of boycott on South Africa, there is a need to begin in the grassroots level and NGO spheres of action with the hope of eventually affecting the higher political echelons. But even with partial success, there is much to be gained in generating a trend of ostracizing the Israeli official presence abroad. This can empower the inside opposition to the occupation, persuading hesitating voices and maybe convincing more to join the soldiers’ and reservists’ refusal movement.
This brings me to the question of a more specific boycott on the Israeli academia. I think by now it is clear from this article that such a discrete action has value only if it is part of a call for an overall campaign for external pressure. Within such a call, it makes no sense, for an activist like myself, to call on sanctions or pressure on business, factories, cultural festivals etc., while demanding immunity for my own peers and sphere of activity – the academia. This is dishonest. It should be recognized that activists for boycott themselves are likely to suffer if the campaign they call for succeeds. In fact it makes more sense to try and affect the economic, political, cultural and academic elites on the way to a policy change. The socio-economic realities are such that if you affect the life of the wealthy and influential, you get results, not if you add misery to those who are already deprived and marginalized.
How exactly should academics around the world show their discontent and dismay at both the Israeli policy and the lack of moral courage in the Israeli academia in the face of the continued atrocities, is a question that should be directed to those who are willing to take the move. We in Israel should first voice our moral support for such an act. This is the significance of adding one’s name, as I did, to a list of European academics calling on the EC to reconsider the preferred status granted to the Israeli academia. It is of course paradoxical for one to ask someone to boycott him. A call from within Israel is merely an affirmation that in our eyes as Israeli Jews this is a legitimate and ethical move, even if it can impact us as members of the Israeli academia.
For the success of such an initiative I think that it is important to distinct between institutional and individual action. I also think there is much reason in a gradual action that examines in every stage how successful was the campaign. Its basic purpose should not be forgotten: to bring as fast as possible to as many Israelis as possible the message that the international community would not tolerate the occupation (remembering that had it not been Israel, or another American proxy, the Jewish state could have risked military actions against her, if all other means to force it to end the occupation would have failed).
I conclude by coming back to the opening somewhat banal sentences. Yes, it is difficult to call for such a move. No wonder very few Israeli academics openly endorsed such an action. But for us inside Israel, despite the charges directed against us as traitors and worse, this is the only effective way for expressing our total rejection of the daily cruelties imposed by our government on the Palestinians. This is a very clear and convincing way of trying to put across the message that crimes against humanity are being committed in our name and we would like to join forces with anyone willing to bring an end to it, without violence or terror, but through pressure and persuasion.