British Writers In Support of Palestine

November 20, 2015

Refuting J.K. Rowling + A Farewell to Irving Weinman

Followers of the UK debates around cultural and academic boycott will be well aware of the launch of the new anti-boycott group ‘Culture for Co-existence’, a response to this year’s significant formation of Artists For Palestine UK (APUK), which has to date garnered over 1090 signatures for its Artists Pledge for Palestine, and has in addition published a 64 page book The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel, a comprehensive response to all the questions that typically arise about the campaign.

In their recent brief letter to The Guardian (Oct 23) signed by, among others, J.K. Rowling and Simon Schama, ‘Culture for Co-existence’ argues that ‘Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and do not bring peace’ while ‘cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.’

I was sorry and frustrated, but not surprised, to see the cultural and academic boycott of Israel once again misrepresented by its opponents. Rather than research the issue and respond to the detailed case we have time and again put forward, the signatories have made veiled accusations of anti-Semitism, and in their own defense have offered only easy slogans that bear no relevance to how the arts are in fact leveraged in Israel.

Once again it must be pointed out that pro-boycott campaigners do not ‘single out’ Israel. Many of us also reject funding or prizes from other authoritarian regimes. I’ve never been offered such a prize, but I didn’t watch a minute of the Sochi Olympics – and this was a sacrifice, as I love figure skating. Not watching TV is not, however, an effective political action. The boycott of Israel has gained such traction and visibility – and carries additional moral weight – because it is not simply a set of isolated refusals, but a growing collective response to an organised call made by the Palestinians themselves. This demand for solidarity from artists, writers and academics comes from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), whose existence ‘Culture for Co-existence’ signally fails to acknowledge.

In addition, far from being ‘discriminatory’, the entire boycott movement is grounded in respect for human rights and international law. It does not target individuals at all, let alone on the basis of religion or nationality. Rather, it rejects co-operation with Israeli institutions and the Israeli state,  insisting that we not accept cultural offerings funded by a government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing and illegal occupation in defense of an apartheid state. Like its great precedent against apartheid South Africa, the boycott also asks international artists to reject commercial ventures in Israel until such time as the country honours its responsibilities under international law. If signatories would not have ‘played Sun City’, then they should not play Tel Aviv.

I am a poet and novelist and I do believe in the power of art to generate empathy and understanding for others. But art exists within a globalised economy of money and power, and cultural products cannot be automatically assumed to nurture positive political change: in fact, they may well do the opposite. In the case of Israel ‘cultural bridges’ serve only to strengthen a highly privileged relationship with the West. Decades worth of literary prizes,  rock-n-roll concerts in Tel Aviv, and state-sponsored theatre tours of UK have not led to freedom for the Palestinians and peace for all in the region. Cultural engagement has not even put a brake on Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements, its demographic warfare on its Arab citizens, or its ruthless assaults on Gaza. In Israel the arts flourish, but the situation for the Palestinians simply gets worse. Cultural events are not neutral, either: they buttress the country’s self-styled reputation as a ‘liberal democracy’, a reputation that ensures its war crimes do not simply go unpunished, but are rewarded with sympathy, respect, and eye-watering amounts of military and financial aid.

In contrast, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement subjects Israel to sustained moral pressure, and provokes the honest and informed debate that all campaign proponents welcome. Finally, cultural and academic boycott does not burn bridges. Nothing in the PACBI call prevents cultural exchanges or intellectual collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, or visits to the UK from Israeli artists, as long as these events do not involve Israeli state or institutional funding.

For further replies to the ‘Culture for Co-existence’ letter, please see PACBI’s Open Letter to JK Rowling, the astute analysis by BWISP member Sarah Irving of the Zionist actors driving the group, and statements by British artists for APUK.

* * *

Irving WeinmanVery sadly, I must also report in this update the loss of novelist, short story writer and BWISP co-founder Irving Weinman, who died suddenly on October 26th 2015, at the age of 78. His loss will be keenly felt by many. I first met Irving in 2007, when I came to Lewes to interview his wife Judith Kazantzis about her poetry. At the end of the interview, Irving joined us from the kitchen with three stubby bottles of beer on a tray, and we never looked back. I became a frequent visitor to their colourful home, often spoiled by Irving’s fabulous pescatarian cooking, always entertained by his marvelous raconteurship and inspired by his warm internationalism. Irving’s parents were shtetl Jews from Romania who lived in Paris before emigrated to Boston in the thirties where Irving was born. His mother spoke seven languages and Irving grew up hearing mainly Yiddish, Russian and French, and also much music in the house. A talented jazz pianist, Irving switched allegiance to literature in his youth. He attended writing classes with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, called James Baldwin ‘Jimmy’, and co-founded the Key West Writers Workshop and Lewes Needlewriters. As well as successful crime novels, he wrote powerful literary fiction. Wolf Tones is funny and tough, a punchy, insightful portrait of a difficult father-son relationship, and ‘the sad arterioscleroris of America’.

Irving, Judith and I founded British Writers In Support of Palestine in 2010, and Irving was a prime force behind BWISP’s early recruitment drive and letter writing campaigns. He also lent his significant presence to local supermarket protests, and spent four weeks in 2010 as a driver for the Road to Hope Convoy to Gaza, blogging en route.  In a tribute penned for his own anti-fascist blog and reposted by Jews for Justice for Palestine, Tony Greenstein notes ‘Irving stood in an anti-racist tradition that went back to the Jewish fight against anti-Semitism in Europe, not the Zionist tradition of anti-Arab racism. Irving was proud to be Jewish.  His attitude to Israel’s war crimes was ‘not in my name’.’

Recently, Irving published books on the craft of fiction, and was writing short stories based on his family history, including the experience of refugees fleeing the pogroms. He spoke of his mother to me after I returned from Odesa last year – he was very taken by the fact I had seen Isaac Babel’s drinks cabinet in the city’s small Jewish museum. I still have Irving’s copy of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People on my shelves, and there are many more conversations I would dearly love to have had with him. He is survived by Judith Kazantzis and her daughter Miranda; his son and daughter in America, Michael and Zoe; as well as grandchildren. Farewell to a wonderful friend.

September 11, 2012

Judith Butler Adorned: PACBI salutes an engaged intellectual

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 10:15 pm
Tags: , ,

BWISP congratulates renowned American scholar Judith Butler, who was today awarded the prestigious Adorno Prize in Frankfurt.  Butler, a staunch supporter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS), has been forced to defend her acceptance, speaking out in Mondoweiss against Zionist critics who sought to block the award with slurs of anti-Semitism. Here, she credits her own Jewish schooling as a founding force in her ethics, stating that ‘I was taught at every step in my education that it is not acceptable to remain silent in the face of injustice’.  BWISP is pleased to circulate this statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), saluting Judith Butler’s integrity and courage.

Adorn Butler with the Adorno Prize: She will add to its worth

Occupied Palestine, 10 September 2012 — The Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), the General Union of Palestinian Writers, the Association of University Teachers-Gaza, and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) stand in solidarity with Judith Butler in the face of the recent vicious attacks and bullying by Israel and Zionist groups in the West in their attempt to deny her the prestigious German award, the Adorno Prize [1].  Judith Butler’s humanism, critical thought and distinguished intellectualism entitle her without doubt to this and many other awards.
 
The main reason for this crusade against Judith Butler is her outspoken support for the Palestinian-led, global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  BDS calls for ending Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people through sustained, effective, morally-consistent pressure on Israel, on its complicit institutions, as well as on international corporations and entities that are implicated in Israel’s violations of international law.  In endorsing BDS, Butler is being consistent with her long tradition of standing up for freedom, justice, self determination and equal rights in other causes.  The fact that she evokes her Jewish identity and social justice principles associated with it to challenge Israel’s and Zionism’s cynical appropriation of Jewishness is what made her a particularly urgent target for propaganda campaigns waged by Israel and its lobby groups.
 
The great Palestinian thinker Edward Said once wrote:
 
“Nothing in my mind is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position that you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. … For an intellectual, these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence.

Personally, I have encountered them in one of the toughest of all contemporary issues, Palestine, where fear of speaking out about one of the greatest injustices in modern history has hobbled, blinkered, muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it. For despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual.” [2]
 
Judith Butler is such an “unafraid and compassionate intellectual.”  We salute her courage and call on every self-respecting academic and intellectual to stand with her against the hopeless, vindictive, yet taxing, attempt to silence her mind.
 
 
– Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE)
– General Union of Palestinian Writers
– University Teachers’ Association-Gaza

– Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)

 
 

[2] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, The 1993 Reith Lectures

May 25, 2012

[Report] BWISP / GUPW / PACBI Panel Discussion, Ramallah May 21st 2012

Some writers, British or otherwise, try to give words to the voices they hear in other languages.  Here are the words of a Palestinian voice I’m hearing tonight.  Perhaps it’s the voice of several loved ones, but also the voice of many I don’t have the privilege of knowing. Listen to the words the voice is quietly saying:

“So we know, don’t we?  This is life and we live it, and we don’t repeat ourselves too much.  Naturally we argue sometimes.  Oddly enough we are among the world’s experts in making the best of it.  The lies still being told against us are more than sixty years old.  They wall us in ceaselessly.  Nevertheless, and despite some of what happens every minute of the day, we make the most of it.  But for this life of ours not to become the living death which it also is, we have to continue – nothing can stop us – to proclaim and insist to the world that what we are being forced to live is a monstrous injustice……. Isn’t this how it is?”

                                                                                        John Berger  / May 2012

[Naomi Foyle writes:] Capitalising on my visit to the West Bank to visit The Freedom Theatre, PACBI  arranged an opportunity for me to share news of BWISP activities with a Palestinian audience, and to learn more about their struggle against Israeli apartheid in a panel discussion with Murad al-Soudani, Secretary-General of the General Union of Palestinian Writers.

The event, held at the Al-Bireh Municipality Hall and chaired by Dr Samia Botmeh, was very well-attended, especially considering that Nakba Commemoration Day and Hunger Strike Solidarity demonstrations were still on-going.  Over fifty people were present, filling the hall, and many made contributions to the Q & A.  The key results were:

  • the creation of an event that broke the cultural siege on the West Bank – let us not forget that I had to hide my visit from Israeli officials or risk certain deportation;
  • an opportunity for political networking that clearly demonstrated the current mood of hope, determination and solidarity that characterises the whole BDS campaign;
  • the promise of greater strategic links in the future between BWISP and GUPW.

Murad al-Soudani began by declaring that Palestinian culture includes all Palestinians – refugees, the diaspora and those within the West Bank and the 1948 borders.  At the same time, he insisted that Palestinian culture is outward-looking and evolving, and seeks to take its rightful place in a context of international exchange.  He also framed the academic and cultural boycott as a key strategy in the struggle against the normalisation of Israeli apartheid.  This is significant for BWISP members, who may encounter criticisms that only ‘dialogue’ with Israel can bring lasting political change.  The message from Occupied Palestine is that our colleagues resoundingly reject any Zionist façade of state-sponsored cultural exchange, which only buys Israel time to consolidate its stranglehold on Palestinian lives and land.  al-Soudani also noted that the GUPW has recently passed a motion committing the union to the struggle for freedom for Palestine, something new in its history.  This mobilisation of union members is a significant step, as demonstrated by the recent strongly-worded GUPW statement rejecting Tracy Chevalier’s efforts to meet with Palestinian writers while she was violating the boycott.  The Union call was heeded, and no Palestinian writer agreed to meet with her.

I then gave a summary of BWISP campaigns, including: protesting Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize; organising the Southbank debate on cultural boycott; our recent efforts to dissuade Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier from attending the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival; and our members’ deep involvement in the on-going Globe Theatre/Boycott Habima campaign.  I noted the positive progression of these campaigns, each of which has provoked international debate in the mainstream media:

  • each has pushed the issue of cultural boycott deeper into mainstream British discourse, so that now with the Globe Theatre campaign it is no longer possible to brush off boycott arguments with platitudes about freedom of speech; instead, critics of the boycott are being forced to grapple with the real issue – the need to refuse complicity with apartheid and war crimes.
  • attempts by Zionists and boycott critics to ignore or misreport our campaigns in the media have increasingly exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘dialogue’ argument;
  • the pressure is clearly being felt, as indicated by Chevalier’s misguided attempt to reach out to Palestinians, and the Globe Theatre’s attempts to offer compromise solutions – which were similarly rejected.

I ended my talk with a personal message from John Berger to the audience, which was received with pleasure and gratitude.  With his kind permission, I have included it above.

Questioners opened up the discussion in a variety of ways.  One noted that international archaeologists have long been operating a silent boycott of Israel, and are emboldened by more vocal campaigns.   The role of religion in the conflict came under critical scrutiny: I discussed the need for UK activists to counter accusations of anti-Semitism by making a sharp distinction between Zionism and Judaism, and a questioner highlighted the role of Christian Zionism in cementing the Occupation – something I am aware of from my efforts to challenge Michael Gove’s bias in the application of the Education Act.  The importance of Palestinian culture as a sometimes overlooked weapon in the struggle was also discussed, with al-Soudani suggesting that for Palestinians to organise their own international literary festivals would not be a ‘reaction’ to Israeli events (ie, a ‘balancing’ effort) but a positive action in its own right.  I cited Ghada Karmi’s comment that of all her books, her memoir has made the most impact on international readers, and here humbly offer the opinion that fiction, poetry and memoir can help scale what Berger calls ‘the wall of lies’ about Palestine.

I was also asked what it took to change a writer’s mind about appearing in Israel, to which I replied I wish I knew!  But thinking about it later, I realised that the current policy of ‘name and shame’ is the most useful strategy we have.  Of course, this is initially intended to chastise writers for breaking an international picket line, and as such may be misinterpreted as a purely punitive measure.  But shame is such an uncomfortable negative emotion it may in the long run provoke a change of conscience.  Certainly when I have felt shame in my personal life I have altered my behaviour in order not to experience it again.  Some writers, like Ian McEwan and Tom Rob Smith, appear to be impervious to shame, but others, like Chevalier, may feel it at some level, and thus be prompted to question their own blind participation in Israeli propaganda events.  It is important to note that the door is open for such writers to communicate with Palestinians in the future – just not while they are actively violating the boycott.

In conclusion, BWISP members and all UK boycott activists will be honoured to know that questioner after questioner thanked us profusely for our efforts on their behalf.  One had clearly been unaware of the amount of BDS campaigning in the UK, so the event was a chance to demonstrate to him the strength of UK resistance; another remarked that he felt Palestine’s ‘South Africa moment’ was approaching – a truly hopeful statement, but one that felt not unreasonable given recent BDS successes, and the powerful sense of unity and indeed excitement in the room.

May 13, 2012

GUPW Statement Condemning Mishkenot Sha’ananim Boycott Violaters

The General Union of Palestinian Writers | 10 May 2010

Boycott the boycott violators in the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem

[translation]

Despite the repeated boycott appeals to international writers participating in the International Writer’s Festival (Mishkenot Sha’ananim), to be held in Jerusalem between 13–18 May 2012, and despite the fact that a number of them have heeded these appeals, some continue to ignore the boycott calls and insist on participating in this festival. The festival is planned to coincide with the celebration of the settler-colonial state of Israel’s ‘independence day’, which coincides with the sixty-fourth commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe).
Not only are some of these writers – who crossed the Palestinian picket line – like the American writer Tracy Chevalier and the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, still participating in this shameful festival, they have also asked the director of the Festival, Uri Dromi, to arrange for them to meet with ‘local’ Palestinian writers in Ramallah, and to tour East Jerusalem to see the Palestinians. This Orientalist tendency to get acquainted with ‘the locals’ as objects of colonial voyeurism, and through colonial intermediaries, should be met on the Palestinian side with condemnation and boycott. The writers’ choice is between standing with the occupation or with freedom, as there is no middle ground between the two.  Exactly as no middle ground exists between a people that ‘lives in the homes of peace’ in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and another that has been expelled from it because it is not included in Isaiah’s Prophecies.
Holding the festival at this crucial time in one of the oldest settlement outposts in the heart of Jerusalem, which has been undergoing a process of Zionisation as part of an intensive plan to isolate it from the rest of Palestine, and as part of imposing an apartheid system on its Palestinian citizens, sends a clear message to the world that the ‘Israeli cultural establishment’ is an integral part of the ‘Israeli colonial establishment’: the first wages war on Palestinian memory, while the latter continues its war against Palestinian existence. In addition, holding the festival in Jerusalem under these circumstances sends a message that contradicts the propaganda promoted by the festival that claims its role is to ‘make Jerusalem a city of diversity, dialogue, and tolerance’.
Promoting Jerusalem as a legendary city that is quintessentially Jewish, extending from ‘The Tower of David’ to the ‘Judean Desert’, and the participation of top Zionist writers like Amos Oz, A. B. Yehushua, David Grossman, and Etgar Keret, along with Arab writers who don’t write in Arabic such as Sayed Kashua and Bouallam Sansal, turn this festival into a carnival of irony that should be boycotted for aesthetic, cultural, and political factors.
The General Union of Palestinian Writers, which is commemorating the Nakba with the rest of the Palestinian people, salutes international writers who are boycotting the Mishkenot Sha’ananim festival and condemns in the strongest terms the participation of writers whose names were announced by the festival organizers as participants. The Union calls on Palestinian intellectuals and cultural workers, writers, novelists, academics and journalists to boycott the festival and not to meet with its participants who are not welcome [among us] as they have shamed themselves.
The General Union of Palestinian Writers, as a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), takes this opportunity to call on free and conscientious writers of the world to respect the boycott criteria set by the BNC and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Taking a clear stand in support of the just Palestinian cause should be a top priority for engaged intellectuals all over the world. Anyone who does not know what freedom means to the Palestinians who lack it surely does not know yet the very meaning of freedom; and anyone whose conscience is not Palestinian, after today, it will never be.
Occupied Palestine, 10 May 2012.
 
The General Union of Palestinian Writers
http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1880

This statement was originally published in Arabic.  See:

http://www.pacbi.org/atemplate.php?id=338

Posted on 13-05-2012

Update on Mishkenot Sha’ananim Campaign

The Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers’ Festival begins today in Jerusalem.  While neither Tracy Chevalier nor Tom Rob Smith have engaged with BWISPs open letter requesting them not to attend, nevertheless there have been some significant developments:

Tom Rob Smith at first agreed to be facebook friends with BWISP members Eleanor Kilroy and  Naomi Foyle, and responded politely to Foyle’s private message by saying that he would think seriously about the issues and get back to her.  He also posted a reply to Kilroy on his wall, stating that his main reason for attending was to engage with his Israeli fans.  Kilroy and Ofer Neiman of Boycott from Within responded with pertinent arguments.  Three days later, Smith unfriended all of us and we have heard nothing from him since.  For a fuller account, read Eleanor Kilroy’s article here.

Eleanor Kilroy started posting links to the BWISP letter and other relevant sites on the Festival facebook page.  Seni Seneviratne and Naomi Foyle added comments, expressing our disappointment at the lack of engagement from the two writers.  So far the threads are still on the wall.(See the box on the right-hand side of the timeline – you may have to scroll down within the box to see the posts.)

Ynet then reported that Chevalier wanted to ‘meet Palestinian writers’, and had asked the Festival director to arrange such an opportunity in Ramallah.  The Ynet story mentioned our campaign in general terms, and also announced that Indian writer Vikas Swarup had cancelled his appearance at the festival, for ‘diplomatic’ reasons.  PACBI had asked Swarup not to attend.

PACBI and GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Writers) have issued an authoritative statementstatement requesting Palestinian writers to shun such an encounter with Chevalier and other festival attendees, which they frame as a voyeuristic Orientalist endeavor.

In the meantime, the Festival coincides with the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, and takes place as the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike reaches a highly critical stage.  Two Palestinians have currently refused food for 76 days – longer than any hunger striker has yet survived this form of extreme non-violent protest.  Many activists in Jerusalem are making the hunger strike their main focus, but a small group of us are hoping to stage some kind of protest at the festival.

Finally, Naomi Foyle is scheduled to report on BWISP activities at a PACBI/GUPW panel discussion in Ramallah on May 21st, and will blog on the event.

November 12, 2011

Norman Finkelstein: Playing Jenga with the Struggle?

On Friday Nov 11 2011, at UCL, world-renowned scholar and activist for Palestinian rights Prof Norman Finkelstein appeared in conversation with Prof Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), discussing the proposition:

The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Prof Finkelstein also gave a public lecture in the evening, which unfortunately I could not attend.  Following is my report on the afternoon conversation, which turned into a debate. A detailed account, and video, of the discussion can be seen here  My own intention is summarise the main disagreement between the speakers, and give my reaction to it.

Jonathan Rosenhead opened with a clear historical overview of boycott as a strategy, and ended by saying that in the case of Palestine, it should continue until the Palestinians ask us to stop supporting it – that is, until the system of oppression they suffer under has ended.  Norman Finkelstein responded by arguing forcefully that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign should work toward goals based in International Law, not some vague, impossible to define, outcome; and that we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the Palestinians’ lead, as previously this would have obliged us to support suicide bombing.  He said much else, including giving a review of the state of International Law on Palestine, and the helpful advice to cite this more in our literature, but I want to focus on this essential point of discord.

Frankly I was very surprised to hear Prof Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS.   I, and others, spoke from the floor, reminding both speakers that the demands of the BDS movement, as stated by PACBI, are clearly based on International Law:

[that] Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.

Prof Finkelstein responded by saying that while the first three demands are sound in law, the last, the demand for Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid, is not, because Israeli apartheid hasn’t been recognised by the UN or other bodies of International Law.  He claimed that without this legal underpinning, the goal of ending apartheid in Israel is counter-productive – that it ‘turns people off’; that BDS will never become a mass movement if we try to get people to sign up to tampering with the state of Israel itself.

I also tried to discuss this with him afterwards.  I asked him why,  if the situation in Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid,  we shouldn’t work toward getting iron-clad legal recognition of this fact.  But Prof Finkelstein rejected this approach, saying ‘ that would take 100 years’.

Underlying Prof Finkelstein’s hostility to this key plank of the BDS movement appears to be the fear that the demand to end Israeli apartheid is a disguised call to ‘end the state of Israel’, rather than ending the way the state is currently organised, which is how all the people I know interpret the demand.  After all, South Africa still exists as a state.   Personally, I think Prof Finkelstein is sadly out of touch with the robust health and rapid growth of the BDS movement.

Far from being a threat to building a mass movement, the demand to end Israeli apartheid is one that everyone can understand – every ordinary person on the streets of the UK knows what South Africa was like; all they need is some basic education about Palestine to see that apartheid is operating there as well.  Especially considering that the South Africans themselves are taking such leadership in BDS, and separate campaigns to End Israeli Apartheid are evident all over the internet, it’s a nonsense to say that the demand is unrealistic.  On the legal front,  the very recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine Capetown Session has recommended (among other pertinent goals):

The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, and to convene a special session to consider the question of apartheid against the Palestinian people.  In this connection the Committee should compile a list of individuals, organisations, banks, companies, corporations, charities, and any other private or public bodies which assist Israel’s apartheid regime with a view to taking appropriate measures.

In my view, the current BDS strategy is right on target, and I wish Prof Finkelstein would put his considerable legal chops in the service of the goals of the Russell Tribunal.

I also wish to respond to his second criticism of the BDS movement – that it takes its leadership from the Palestinians.  To deal first with his counter-example – in my view, the BDS movement is not at all comparable to the suicide bombing campaigns, which made no formal call for international support, and were never, to my knowledge, endorsed by any UK solidarity group.   Rather, solidarity works to provide and support democratic alternatives to such desperate, tragic, violent and, indeed, as Prof Rosenhead stated, politically counter-productive measures.  The Palestinians themselves have turned en masse away from suicide bombing as a strategy – as comedian and ‘extreme rambler’ Mark Thomas recently recounted in his recent Walking the Wall tour, countless Palestinians get through holes in the wall daily, not to bomb civilians, but in order to work illegally in Israel.   Instead, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly endorsed BDS, and taking our leadership from them is an essential part of the moral legitimacy of the campaign.

First, if BDS was just a matter of personal conscience, then indeed I would be a hypocrite for spending so much time promoting the boycott of Israel and not other countries with terrible human rights records.  Second, as I have stated before, it is not up to us in the West to dictate to the Palestinians how they should run their campaigns.   Instead, we can choose which campaigns we want to support, and then do so wholeheartedly, and in a spirit of solidarity, dialogue and willingness to learn.   I don’t believe in capital punishment for any crime, and would never endorse any kind of violence that was not clearly in self-defense, in the strictest sense of the term.  But as I have argued before on this blog, Palestinian violence must be seen in the context of 62 years of oppression, and ending that systematic injustice, in a way that is 100% consistent with the principle of Palestinian self-determination, is the only way to end that violence.

By criticizing this key demand of the BDS movement, and dismissing the paramount importance of the need to work in solidarity with the Palestinians, Prof Finkelstein is playing Jenga with the Palestinian struggle – poking and pulling away the foundational planks of its existence.   We don’t need that at this time.  We need an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation between the legal, civil disobedience, and BDS strategies. I thank Prof Finkelstein for his very useful summary of the legal position of the Palestinian cause and Prof Rosenhead for his profound commitment to the principle of solidarity, and I place these thoughts on record in hope that they may contribute to a spirit of unity in the popular movement for Palestinian human rights.

Note: Jenga is a game played with wooden blocks, which players take turns to remove from a tower and balance on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure that eventually collapses.  The word is derived from the Swahili term for ‘to build’. 

February 26, 2011

What Ian Did Next: McEwan in Jerusalem

By Naomi Foyle

No Atonement

It has been widely publicised that on Feb 18th Ian McEwan, in town to pick up his tainted Jerusalem Prize, attended a demonstration against the demolition of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.

On Feb 20th, McEwan’s next photo op found him at the International Conference Centre in West Jerusalem, shaking hands with Mayor Nir Barkat and President Shimon Peres, the authors of the very crimes he had been protesting against two days before. Here Minister of Sports and Culture Limor Livnat welcomed McEwan, and announced the launch of the People of the Book Translation Fund, which, in utter contempt for Arab-Israeli writers, will provide 500,000 NIS (about $150,000) toward translating into English over 10 Hebrew language books each year. Here, also, McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize with a speech he clearly hoped would exonerate him from the charge of profoundly betraying the Palestinian people, as well as his own apparent ideals.

Though not quite the incoherent ramblings of Muammar Gaddafi’s last stand, McEwan’s speech swung wildly in tone and content. He began by expressing craven gratitude to the state of Israel for hoisting his name up to ‘sit so awkwardly beside’ – oops! wrong quote! – I mean ‘stand alongside’ those of Isaiah Berlin and Simone de Beauvoir. [It is ‘the freedom of the individual’ that apparently sits awkwardly in Jerusalem…] McEwan next ‘reluctantly, sadly’ conceded that his critics (BWISP, though he could not bring himself to name us) were correct to insist he could not escape the politics of the prize; then, after retreating into a comforting fantasy of ‘the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel’, and treating his audience to a wholly Euro-centric view of the novel in Israel, he launched into a sustained and stinging criticism of Israeli and Palestinian ‘nihilism’. To strained silence, and a single ‘boo’, McEwan condemned Hamas rocket attacks, home demolitions, Operation Cast Lead, the siege of Gaza, and the racist Right of Return granted only to Jews, naming them all the opposite of ‘creativity’. He concluded by urging his hosts to end the ‘settlements and encroachments’; embrace a vision of Jerusalem as a twin capital; and in their urban planning and nation building ‘to aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel…’

Where to begin? BWISP has always taken a Zero Tolerance attitude to McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize. If he had stood up and endorsed the boycott of settlement goods, or called for diplomatic sanctions against the country until the siege of Gaza was ended, we would not have praised his speech, which was rendered meaningless by the context in which he made it. Nevertheless, in the spirit of ‘dialogue and engagement’ I will make a few personal comments on his words.

First, my own view of politics is miles from McEwan’s. To me it is self-evident that politics – like spirituality, emotion and creativity – extends into every aspect of human life. This is not a fact to be deplored or regretted, but a great challenge and opportunity to be embraced. And by that I do not mean I aspire to stand at a podium and tell war criminals to be poetic and imaginative and embrace diversity. For me, the way is the goal. If I want to live in a free and equal world, I must work with others as equals, in a deeply democratic manner. And when people are clearly oppressed, if I genuinely want to help their cause, I must work constructively through and against my own privileged preconceptions to stand and act in solidarity with them. I am as much a product of Western individualism as any middle-class white Euro-American writer – and I am also a feminist to the bone – but I believe that by opening myself up not only to the suffering and sumud (steadfastness) of the Palestinians, but also their deep insights into their own condition, I will grow as a person in ways that not only I, but also the world may need. For me (and for BWISP) to respond to the Palestinian call for boycott, to engage with PACBI – who have only ever communicated with me in a respectful, open and dynamic manner – is a way of actively dismantling the British and Western imperialism that has created the grotesque injustices the Palestinians have faced for 62 years. Naturally, paradoxes, mistakes and contradictions abound in life and in politics, but for me these could never extend to accepting money, hospitality or accolades from an apartheid state that rains terror and white phosphorus down on children in an open air prison, enacts laws that institutionalise racism, and builds a wall that not only steals a people’s land, but cruelly impedes the free passage of ambulances, pregnant women, students, teachers, day labourers, even truckloads of paper, chocolate and cement.

Perhaps Ian McEwan’s blinkered sense of politics explains his refusal to recognise the asymmetry of the Arab-Israeli conflict: for example, the fact that the rocket attacks, tragic as they are for all concerned, are clearly a reaction to the Occupation and not its cause. I cannot speak for other BWISP members on the issue of Hamas, but I myself made a commitment to BDS – and indeed co-founded BWISP – because it seems to me that if the international community does not actively embrace this non-violent method of resistance, we leave the Palestinians no choice but to resort to rockets and suicide attacks. As the Palestine Papers have demonstrated once and for all, ‘dialogue and engagement’ with the Israeli state only buys it time to consolidate its conquest of Palestine. Israel must discover that its belligerent expansionism comes at a cost. Governments are not yet willing to teach this lesson, so individuals and businesses must do so. The price BDS asks is absolutely not that of human life and limb, but will be taken, brick by brick, from Israel’s wall of ecomonic, cultural and academic wealth and prestige. Naturally political negotiations must continue, but they must include Hamas, with no preconditions. And they should be backed up by the S of BDS – political sanctions against Israel until it respects human rights and complies with international law.

McEwan’s inability to address Israeli violence, ethnic cleansing and apartheid as inherent aspects of the state’s colonialist goals, is an intellectual and moral failure that BWISP has tried to confront since our first letter to him. But oblivious to the political realities of the ‘facts on the ground’ he so deplores, he clings to the vacuous yet lethal belief that Israel ‘is a place of true democracy of opinion’. And in a final effort to have a ‘balanced’ trip to Jerusalem, he donated his $10,000 prize money to the Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace.

CfP, a group of ex-fighters on both sides of the conflict, professes entirely worthwhile goals: to end the occupation, to empower Palestinians and to educate in particular Israelis about the need to stop using violence in place of diplomatic negotiations. I was personally surprised that the group took McEwan’s money, as according to PACBI, two years ago, though an announced beneficiary of the Leonard Cohen concert in Tel Aviv fund, CfP ‘informed the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel in writing that they had decided not to participate in the concert and not to accept any funds from its proceeds’. But this organisation is relatively new, and expanding fast. And its logo, as a BWISP member pointed out to me, depicts two fighters each discarding an equal-sized weapon. Perhaps given its growing bi-national membership, CfP has been unable to sustain its initial support of the cultural boycott of Israel. I personally hope that internal debates may reawaken CfP’s members’ sense that their stated commitments to non-violence, and to working with other peace organisations, should extend to standing with the 170 Palestinian civil society groups that have endorsed the call to BDS. Otherwise, I fear that their position and reputation within the Palestinian Solidarity Movement may be terribly damaged – as indeed is already happening.

Reactions to McEwan’s speech came thick and fast. On Feb 22nd Mondoweiss published two posts, one a sharp retort by BWISP member Eleanor K, concluding that McEwan’s decision to stand with Barkat and Peres ‘underlined the poverty of his discourse’; and one by Marc Estrin, who ‘found the speech on the whole to be intellectually, and perhaps psychologically dishonest, calling up many frequent zionist tropes to mask and distort the reality on the ground.’

As BWISP joined forces with BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian Call to Boycott from Within to collectively compose our own response to the speech, on Feb 22 The Guardian published two short pro-McEwan letters. One kindly suggested that BWISP members now ‘eat their words’; the other was a single sentence declaring that ‘McEwan has shown that dialogue is more effective than boycotts’. This stunning refutation of BWISP’s position was pulled out of a vacuum of logic unencumbered by a single comparative example of a writer boycotting the prize; or indeed, a jot of evidence that McEwan’s speech had had, or would have, any effect whatsoever on the policies he denounced. It was especially disturbing to read this facile comment knowing that the false dichotomy of ‘dialogue vs boycott’ flies in the face of the actual dynamics of a debate in which Ian McEwan feels free to ignore his critics; BOYCOTT! members in Israel may soon face criminal charges for supporting BDS; and The Guardian‘s Harriet Sherwood – despite being sent press releases by BOYCOTT! – did not seek out BDS activists or Palestinian writers for her article of Feb 20, but lazily allowed McEwan to mis-define the movement for the paper’s readers.

On the evening of Feb 22nd, Ofer Neiman of BOYCOTT! and other Israeli activists confronted McEwan at a reading in Jerusalem, unfurling a large banner in the front row to remind the feted author that he was still ‘shaking hands with apartheid’. ‘Mr McEwan,’ Neiman reminded our Ian, ‘an apartheid system is not a democracy’. The writer, Mondoweiss reported on Feb 23rd, ‘did not seem very pleased’.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Ash of Jews Sans Frontieres weighed into the debate with two nicely contrasting posts. The first, Feb 23, was a spoof dialogue between McEwan and Peres at the ICC after award bash, ending with McEwan’s plaintive bleat ‘I feel dirty’, to which Peres responds, ‘You’ve got dip on your tie’. On Feb 24 the indefatigable Ash also contributed a superb analysis of McEwan’s ‘racist, white supremacist, misleading, confused, and Islamophobic’ speech, crediting the BDS movement for forcing the ‘imperial liberal’ to go much further in his criticisms of Israel than he clearly wanted or expected to.

Feb 25th, the BWISP and BOYCOTT! letter appeared in The Guardian Online. Unless McEwan responds, which given his less-than-chatty track record we do not expect, this letter and post will conclude our Jerusalem Prize 2011 campaign. Unlike campaigns to ask Gil Scott Heron and Elvis Costello not to gig in Israel, ours has not been an unqualified success. However, during the last month BWISP has consolidated its national profile, and achieved an international reach, with world-wide reports on McEwan in Jerusalem mentioning the pressure he has been under to reject the prize. This blog has more than tripled its hits, and we have attracted five new members. Most importantly, backed by the moral force of PACBI, and assisted by our gutsy Israeli friends in BOYCOTT!, we have de-normalised the Jerusalem Prize. No writer offered it in the future will be able to take it without giving serious thought to the issues we have raised. BWISP therefore dares to hope that our intense effort over the last month to lobby McEwan, and respond to his actions, has been a valuable contribution to raising the profile of the cultural and academic boycott in the UK.

Please note: The Guardian published our letter in full, with one crucial edit. Where we wrote ‘is rank hypocrisy’, they published ‘appears’. I therefore conclude this post with the original letter and its 35 signatories:

Dear Editor,

After rejecting the Palestinian call to boycott the state-sponsored Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan has massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group (Report, February 20). Should his detractors, as your correspondent David Halpin (Letters, February 22) suggests, now “eat their words”? We think not. Had McEwan refused the prize, protested in Jerusalem at his own expense, and attacked not Israel’s “nihilism” but its colonialist zeal, his own words of condemnation would have had integrity and bite.

As it is, McEwan has given Mayor Nir Barkat a golden platform for his outrageous views. Jerusalem is not a city where all may “express themselves in a free way”. Activists are arrested and deported, while racist internal laws allow the municipality to flout the Geneva convention by creating illegal settlements – a policy designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them is rank hypocrisy. Likewise, McEwan declares it is “urgent to keep talking” (Report, February 18), yet after his one official defence of his position (Letters, January 26), he has ignored all public and private requests to continue this debate. So much for courtesy, dialogue and engagement.

McEwan’s condescension reached its nadir, however, in Jerusalem, when he surmised that Palestinian writers – who were not sought out by western media – had refused to meet him because of outside “pressure”. By pandering to the state of Israel, Ian McEwan has alienated not only these principled individuals. We, British, Israeli and Palestinian members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, are appalled by his conduct.

Rowyda Amin

Prof Mona Baker

Oshra Bar

Ronnie Barkan

Ofra Ben-Artzi

Joseph Dana

Dr Naomi Foyle

Prof Rachel Giora

Ohal Grietzer

Connie Hackbarth

Iris Hefets

Shir Hever

Dr Ghada Karmi

Eleanor Kilroy

Zoe Lambert

Diane Langford

Eytan Lerner

China Miéville

Judith Kazantzis

Wendy Klein

Prof Nur Masalha

Dr Anat Matar

Dr James Miller

Dr Dorothy Naor

Ofer Neiman

Dr David Nir

Jonathan Pollak

Michael Rosen

Jonathan Rosenhead

Leehee Rothschild

Seni Seneviratne

Tom Vowler

Irving Weinman

Eliza Wyatt

Sergio Yahni

Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 28, 2011

PACBI Statement on McEwan and the Jerusalem Prize

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 5:03 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

The following statement may also be read in situ on the PACBI website

McEwan and Israel’s Accolades: Privilege and Ethical Responsibility?

The recent announcement by the British writer Ian McEwan that he will accept the Jerusalem Prize on 20 February 2011 during the Jerusalem Book Fair has disappointed many of his admirers around the world. In response to calls to reject the prize and refrain from participating in the book fair, he has said, “I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.” [1]

McEwan is not the first writer to present this kind of defense for accepting the Jerusalem Prize. Susan Sontag, who was awarded the prize in 2001, said: “It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair.” [2]

McEwan and Sontag are both factually wrong. The book fair is sponsored by the Jerusalem Municipality, a key node in the official Israeli structure of colonialism and apartheid, and a leading violator of Palestinian rights. The Municipality has, since its inception, been a major instrument in the colonization of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem. It is particularly notable for its role in promoting and deepening one of the starkest cases of urban apartheid in the world. The municipality continues to be actively involved in the illegal gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians out of Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes and destruction of property, and the sustained suppression of development in the Palestinian neighborhoods as a matter of policy [3].

John Dugard, a leading international law expert and former UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, had this to say about the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem:

The similarities between the situation of East Jerusalemites and black South Africans [under apartheid] is very great in respect of their residency rights. We had the old Group Areas Act in South Africa. East Jerusalem has territorial classification that has the same sort of consequences as race classification had in South Africa in respect of who you can marry, where you can live, where you can go to school or hospital. [4]

Moreover, it should be noted that the book fair is an important date on the Israel-promotion calendar, an occasion when Israel’s misleading image as a patron of book publishing and the arts in general is highlighted. The fair offers visiting fellowships to young editors, agents and scouts from around the world, in an attempt to advance the carefully crafted image of Israel as a center of world-class writing. The Jerusalem Prize is central in this deceptive campaign of diverting attention away from Israel’s persistent crimes and violations of international law.

Prominent writers who accept to participate in official Israeli events and receive the state’s honors are, in fact, unwittingly lending their names to the state’s hasbara effort, which is part and parcel of the “Brand Israel” campaign. [5]

What is more disturbing than certain writers’ refusal to see the connection among the event, the prize, and the apartheid state is a certain pretentiousness that characterizes their responses to appeals to shun a prize or refuse to be part of the Israeli branding campaign. McEwan’s response to the appeals he has been receiving is a case in point:

As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir – I hope you will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as you do yourselves. Your ‘line’ is not the only one. Courtesy obliges you to respect my decision, as I would yours to stay away. [6]

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who shared the stage with the President of the Israeli state along with the mayor of Jerusalem in 2009 while accepting the Jerusalem Prize, said of his decision to accept the prize:

One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. … Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. [7]

Did conscientious novelists need to “touch” South African apartheid before taking a moral position against it? Aren’t writers, as humans first and foremost, obligated to act by and defend the same universal principles of rights and ethical responsibility? It is difficult indeed to accept that writers occupy a privileged place as truth-seekers rather than being ordinary world citizens with a moral responsibility to speak truth to power and injustice.

At a time when the Palestinian civil society-initiated, global BDS movement is growing, the appeal to McEwan is not to cross the Palestinian, international, and increasingly Israeli boycott “picket line.” It is not a question of whether a person has a concern for “freedom and human dignity.” The issue is about one’s readiness and moral courage to act on this “concern” by standing with, not against, a movement whose chief objectives are freedom, human dignity and justice.

Accepting an award funded by Israel, a state practicing military occupation, colonization and apartheid, and hand delivered by some of this state’s worst representatives, in total disregard to a people’s non-violent movement for justice, cannot but call into question one’s actual concern for this justice. This act clearly undermines our collective and sustained struggle as a civil movement striving to affect change.

To return to the Jerusalem Prize, how can the hypocrisy and utter cynicism of an apartheid state bestowing a ”freedom of the individual in society” award have escaped McEwan and Murakami? The open letter sent in 2009 to the Japanese prize-winner Murakami by the Palestine Forum Japan makes this point:

“What we are particularly concerned about is the purpose of the ‘Jerusalem Prize’, being to praise one’s contribution to ‘individuals’ freedom in society’. This concept is in total contradiction of Israel’s criminal acts such as massacre, collective punishment, blockade policy, construction of settlements and building of the ‘separation wall’ in East Jerusalem that are effectively eliminating Palestinians’ freedom. If you receive the ‘Jerusalem Prize’ it will contribute to a false image of Israel respecting ‘individuals’ freedom in society’ which will be portrayed and spread by the media. We fear that the unimaginable devastation of humanity which Israel has inflicted continuously and systematically upon Palestinians will be disregarded and Israel’s actions will be accepted.”[8]

Finally, McEwan might be considering accepting the prize while acknowledging or even denouncing the violation of Palestinian rights in his acceptance speech. If he chooses to do that, he will be following in the footsteps of Susan Sontag (2001), Arthur Miller (2003) and Haruki Murakami (2009) whose acceptance speeches were critical of Israel [9]. We believe that this is not a principled option. McEwan’s very presence at the ceremony and the acceptance of the prize are what matter and what will remain on the record.

In informing his decision, McEwan would do well to consider the comments of Mike Leigh, who cancelled a scheduled trip in October 2010 to lecture at the Jerusalem film school in Jerusalem, emphasizing in a media interview his support for the cultural boycott of Israel. Referring to the boycott opponent’s advice for him to go to Jerusalem and make his critical statement there, Leigh said: “in so far as anything achieves anything, more publicity has come out of what I have done than would have been the case had I simply not gone, or had I gone and merely made a few statements that no one was listening to inside Israel.”[10]

We ask that McEwan reconsider his position and heed the BDS call by rejecting the Jerusalem Prize.

Notes:

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/19/ian-mcewan-accept-jerusalem-prize
[2] http://www.thenation.com/article/courage-and-resistance
[3] The policies of the Jerusalem Municipality are widely documented. For one example see: http://www.alhaq.org/pdfs/Report%20-%20The%20Jerusalem%20Trap.pdf
[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/feb/06/southafrica.israel
[5] On the Brand Israel campaign, see:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/world/middleeast/19israel.html; and http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/about-face-1.170267?trailingPath=2.169%2C2.225%2C2.239%2c
[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/25/ian-mcewan-defends-jerusalem-prize
[7] http://korjpcoll.springnote.com/pages/5600927/attachments/3229773
[8] http://palestine-forum.org/doc/2009/0129-e.html
[9] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1323032.stm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/jul/06/usa.israel
http://korjpcoll.springnote.com/pages/5600927/attachments/3229773
[10] http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/40043/zionism-to-hell-all-says-%EF%AC%81lm-director

Posted on 28-01-2011

November 18, 2010

Launch of European PACBI

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 12:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

November 8th 2010 saw the launch of the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This historic development follows an inspiring meeting of academic boycott activists from 9 European countries in Paris in September. Even a year ago such a meeting would have been unthinkable; this meeting demonstrates the widening and deepening of the academic and cultural boycott movement across Europe.

Further news is available at www.epacbi.eu. And if you have time today to be truly inspired by the commitment and achievements of international BDS campaigners to date, please check out the lastest special issue of the BRICUP Newsletter, which in conjunction with AURDIP (Association
des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine), announces in detail the founding of EPACBI and its guiding principles and priorities.

September 30, 2010

U of Johannesburg Begins Disengagement from Ben Gurion U

Sept 30 2010: PACBI Press release:
South Africa Champions the Academic Boycott of Israel

We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so. It behooves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice.

– Nelson Mandela, December 4,1997

Occupied Ramallah, 30 September 2010 — PACBI welcomes the decision [1] yesterday by the Senate of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) “not to continue a long-standing relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel in its present form” and to set conditions “for the relationship to continue.” The fact that the UJ Senate set an ultimatum [2] of six months for BGU to end its complicity with the occupation army and to end policies of racial discrimination against Palestinians is a truly significant departure from the business-as-usual attitude that had governed agreements between the two institutions until recently.

If the Senate decision was a commendable first step in the right direction towards ending relations with Israeli institutions implicated in apartheid policies and support for the occupation, the real victory lies in the intensive mobilization and awareness raising processes by key activists and academics in South Africa that indicated beyond doubt the groundswell of support for Palestinian rights in the country and that played a key role in influencing the UJ Senate vote. A petition urging UJ to sever links with BGU remarkably gathered more than 250 signatures of academics from all academic institutions in South Africa, including some of the most prominent figures. The mainstream media attention, in South Africa and the West, to the facts about BGU’s complicity and the heavy moral burden placed on the shoulders of South African institutions, in particular, to end all forms of cooperation with any Israeli institution practicing apartheid has been unprecedented, with views favorable to justice and upholding international law gaining wide coverage.

The UJ Senate has requested BGU to “respect UJ’s duty to take seriously allegations of behaviour on the part of BGU’s stakeholders that is incompatible with UJ’s values” and to provide more information about “BGU’s formal policies and informal practices.” Explaining this aspect of the ultimatum, Adam Habib, UJ’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, told Aljazeera [3]:

[W]e know that the BGU has collaborative projects with the Israeli army and we also know that the university implements state policy which invariably results in the discrimination of the Palestinian people. Crucially, there can be no activities between UJ and an Israeli educational institution that discriminated against the Palestinian people.

Salim Vally, a senior researcher at the UJ Faculty of Education and spokesperson for the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), welcomed the decision saying: “While the PSC supports an unequivocal and unambiguous boycott of all Israeli state institutions, this is a move in the right direction and we are confident that it would lead to a more comprehensive boycott of Israel in the future.” [4]

Regardless of all concerns about the details of the decision, a predicted outcome of a delicate balance of forces in a university that is still dealing with its own apartheid past, it cannot but be viewed as a triumph for the logic of academic boycott against Israel’s complicit academy, as consistently presented by PACBI and its partners worldwide, including in South Africa. It is, indeed, as a significant step in the direction of holding Israeli institutions accountable for their collusion in maintaining the state’s occupation, colonization and apartheid regime against the Palestinian people. As former South African cabinet minister and ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils wrote in the Guadian, “Israeli universities are not being targeted for boycott because of their ethnic or religious identity, but because of their complicity in the Israeli system of apartheid.” [5]

PACBI warmly salutes all those who worked on and who endorsed the campaign to cut links with BGU. The precedent-setting petition, endorsed by the heads of four South African universities and prominent leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Barney Pityana, and Kader Asmal, does not mince words in calling for severing links with BGU and, it implies, with all Israeli institutions complicit in violations of international law [6]:

While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.

Archbishop Tutu defended the call to sever links with complicit Israeli institutions saying [7], “It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice.” Reiterating his unwavering support for the Palestinian-led global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, he eloquently adds:

Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence – but surely we must recognise that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

While challenging BGU’s complicity, the UJ Senate decision does not fully heed the call by Archbishop Tutu or the 250 South African academics. It makes problematic assumptions and reaches, in part, conceptually and morally flawed conclusions.

First, by conditioning the continuation of links with BGU, among other conditions, on including a Palestinian university in a three-way collaboration, the UJ Senate decision indirectly assumes “parity between justice and injustice,” which Mandela cautioned against, and balance between an institution that is in active partnership with the system of apartheid and occupation and another university that is suffering from this same system. This position is morally untenable, especially when espoused by an academic institution that is transforming itself from an apartheid university to one committed to equality and social justice.

Furthermore, this attempt to cover up an essentially immoral relationship with BGU — that was forged during apartheid at the height of Israel’s partnership with the racist regime in South Africa — by suggesting a Palestinian fig leaf is in direct violation of the long standing position by the Palestinian Council for Higher Education which has consistently called on all Palestinian academic institutions not to cooperate in any form with Israeli universities until the end of the occupation. [8] It is also in conflict with the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel [9] and the Guidelines for the International Boycott of Israel,[10] both widely supported by Palestinian civil society, particularly by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), representing the academic and support staff in all Palestinian universities and colleges. Does enticing the victim of a criminal to “partner” with that criminal make the latter less so?

Second, the statement that “UJ will not engage in any activities with BGU that have direct or indirect military implications” is quite troubling in its logic, if taken literally, not as interpreted by Prof. Habib above. It basically says that it is acceptable to do business with a criminal entity so long as the particular business done with it is above suspicion. Had this logic been applied to a South African apartheid institution at the height of the international academic boycott, it would have meant continuing business as usual with that racist institution so long as the specific project conducted with it was not directly or indirectly implicated in apartheid policies. The fact that the institution as a whole is guilty of complicity in apartheid would have been deemed irrelevant.

BGU as an institution is guilty of complicity in the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies; nothing can make any “environmental” or “purely scientific” project it conducts with UJ morally acceptable until it comprehensively and verifiably ends this complicity.The culpability of the entire institution in violations of international law and human rights cannot be washed away by narrowing the focus or diverting attention only to details of the project with UJ.

As Archbishop Tutu said:

In the past few years, we have been watching with delight UJ’s transformation from the Rand Afrikaans University, with all its scientific achievements but also ugly ideological commitments. We look forward to an ongoing principled transformation.

A post-apartheid South African university that is in the process of transforming itself to a truly democratic institution cannot possibly complete this necessary transformation while maintaining a partnership with an apartheid institution elsewhere. We sincerely hope that UJ will continue on the path it has taken, by completely severing its links with BGU and any other Israeli institutions complicit in violating international law and human rights.

PACBI

[1] Media release issued by the UJ Division of Marketing and Communication on 29 September 2010.
[2] aljazeera.net
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ronnie Kasrils: ‘South Africa’s Israel Boycott’ Comment Is Free guardian.co.uk
[6] UJpetition.com
[7] ‘Israeli Ties: A Chance to Do the Right Thing’ TimesLive.co.za
[8] The Palestinian Council for Higher Education, composed of heads of Palestinian universities and representatives from the community, has, since the 1990’s, adhered to its principled position of rejecting “technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities” until Israel ends its occupation; this position was reiterated in a statement of thanks to the UK academic union NATFHE for adopting the academic boycott of Israel in 2006:Mohe.gov.ps
[9] ‘Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’ pacbi.org
[10] ‘Guidelines for the International Boycott of Israel’ pacbi.org

Posted on 30-09-2010

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