UCT and the anti-Israel boycott movement

Mike Berger says the university is harming itself by even contemplating this demand

The proposed academic boycott of Israeli universities and academic staff by UCT

"It is important to realize the elusive, ambivalent, pliant and changeable character of national identities. " - Issam Nassar

"My understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that we Jews and we Palestinians are both fighting for a territorial expression of our identity. We both demand recognition of our rights as a people for self-determination in a nation-state that expresses who we are and defends us against those who seek to harm." - Gershon Baskin

The current boycott initiative, like all such politically inspired projects, comes with a history, a meta-narrative and a context. The reality, however, is that a dispassionate evaluation which attracts a wide consensus across various shades of opinion is impossible at this time while the battle is still in progress. What follows, therefore, is a much simplified version of my personal views based upon many visits to Israel, a wide, cross-ideological reading partly on the topic but also very much around the dynamics and constraints of political behaviour.

This has left me with a healthy scepticism of moral claims from all quarters of the political spectrum and a healthy respect for the moral and political complexity of the real world. But given the raw deal Israel gets in our media (indeed most of the Western media) my emphasis will reflect my own perspectives.

There are two specific issues raised by the boycott initiative. The first is whether Israel is such a uniquely evil state that amongst all the totalitarian and criminal tyrannies across the globe, it alone deserves the special condemnation and political ostracism represented by this and like moves. I believe this proposition is historically absurd, morally repugnant and is driven by extreme ideological and religious partisanship.

More pertinent perhaps is the question whether the boycott initiative is a proper activity within the university setting. I will argue that it's not and that UCT, by countenancing such a blatantly political project, is undermining the concept of a University as a space where ideas and informed debate are the primary values. In so doing it is harming itself and damaging the future prospects of South Africa

It is trite to say that Israel is an imperfect country, but what does need emphasis is the much overlooked reality that Israel is at the same time the most remarkable example of national reconstruction in modern times, and possibly all of history.

Despite endless assertions to the contrary, Israel certainly does not represent a colonial or imperialist enterprise in any sensible historical meaning of those terms. Nor does it represent an Apartheid state other than fulfilling its original aspiration to create a secure National Homeland for the Jewish people necessarily implies a workable Jewish majority and an official recognition of Jewish national symbols and cultural-ethnic references.

I can understand that non-Jewish citizens of that country can object and I would cautiously support symbolic recognition of Arab, Muslim and Christian associations with a land which is significant to many peoples and beliefs. Having said that I am wholly satisfied with the primacy of the Jewish claim to territory within what was the cradle of the Jewish entry into history and all that implies.

In brief, small, impoverished and decidedly motley bands of Jews both before and after the Holocaust returned to the cradle of their emergence as a people to pursue their national aspirations in a Jewish homeland. This was in line with a widespread realisation of national identities within the 19th and 20th centuries.

To grossly understate decades of painful historical experience the early Zionist pioneers and traumatised post-Holocaust survivors faced formidable obstacles: human, economic, cultural, political, climatic and ecological. Through a remarkable blend of sheer tenacity, political creativity, hard-edged pragmatism and a modicum of good fortune, including desperately needed support from well-wishers, they succeeded in putting down roots. The present day Israel is the result.

I have recounted this briefest of histories to remind readers of the flawed but heroic story behind decades of false news, deliberate ahistorical distortions and systematic stigmatisation. Palestinian propaganda in particular turns this story of national revival on its head: Jews had no prior claims to or history within the area now occupied by Israel proper, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.

Absurdities abound. No Jewish temple ever existed in Jerusalem. The Tomb of the Patriarch in Hebron is a Palestinian, not Jewish heritage site. Jerusalem is exclusively a Palestinian city. And so on. Such revisionist ahistorical narratives are systematically disseminated and pursued in the UN and other receptive fora, especially academia. The intent is to deny Jewish nationhood and the political legitimacy of Israel as a prelude to its ultimate elimination.

The propaganda campaign in its Western dimensions was given special impetus by the BDS project which underlies the present initiative and which embarked on a sophisticated programme of public relations warfare against the Jewish state between 10 to 20 years ago. It has had a profoundly negative effect on public perceptions in the democratic West. In recent years, however, Westerners are rethinking old assumptions as reality bites in populations awakening to the threats posed by the import of incompatible cultures, by the sheer scale of the human residues of failed states and by indiscriminate terror flowing from extremist ideologies.

But the incitement continues unabated in the Arab and Muslim world and in vulnerable States like South Africa whose experiences, circumstances and dominant narratives provides fertile soil for the politics of identity accompanied by envy, blame and hatred.

In the closed, clannish and violently conflicted milieu of much of the Middle East, false stories about Israeli sadism and motivations are circulated endlessly via Imams, through social and official media and by other channels like schools. Such propaganda is often accompanied by genocidal anti-Jewish sentiments and incitement. Expurgated versions of this propaganda reach the West in forms designed to tap into the ruling norms and narratives of target groups.

Despite its location in the very eye of this violently chaotic milieu and its own set of internal faultlines Israel flourishes as an example of a culturally diverse, technologically advanced and open democratic society. Specifically, I am happy to assure the Zionophobes of the West, that Israel possesses world-class universities, a highly innovative technology sector, flourishing agriculture despite its aridity, a powerful citizen-based military and a vibrant, multi-faceted cultural scene.

On all indices which measure human welfare, innovation and economic achievement Israel punches well above its weight. And I'm not simply referring to the Jewish population, ethnically and racially diverse as it is. The Arabs, despite the fraught political space, largely share in these benefits and freedoms. This is particularly true for the much smaller Christian Arab community which is less inhibited by cultural factors such as female exclusion from the economic sphere.

Israel is in great demand in the West for its technological products, its intelligence expertise and experience in combating terrorism and its position as a bastion of the West values . Even more significantly, countries in Africa and elsewhere, despite enormous efforts to shut down any recognition of Israel, are beginning to embrace the advantages that diplomatic and trade relationships with Israel can bring their own people. Intelligent pragmatism usually wins out over ideology when the chips are down, to the benefit of ordinary citizens.

What of the Palestinians? They're in an unenviable position. Following the failure of the Arab world to destroy Israel by the preferred military, and frankly genocidal, military route in the second half of the 20th century, the manipulation of Arab-Palestinian refugees in the wake of the 1948 war against the newly-proclaimed Jewish State, to create a strategic dagger directed at the heart of Israel, seemed like an excellent option.

They were maintained in limbo in teeming refugee camps, fed a sustained diet of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and, as already alluded to, provided with the partly fictional status of an independent people who had been deprived of their rightful inheritance by Jewish imperialism and malevolence.

This ploy worked, in part, only too well. The Palestinians by now have the psychological attributes of peoplehood. Most believe in a reductionist mythology of their origins and subsequent victimhood at the hands of Jewish-Western (British especially) malfeasance. This story is regularly updated by what is widely known as Pallywood - the misleadingly humorous name given to the steady diet of vicious falsehoods concerning Israeli behaviour and motivations.

This strategy has indeed caused Israel many headaches, has poisoned its relationships with the West as intended and has provided reactionary and extremist elements within the Arab-Muslim world with a convenient rationale for their terrorist activities. But it has failed in its primary intent which was to weaken and destroy Israel.

Indeed it has become a unifying force. Despite multiple faultlines and real ideological differences within Israel, the existential onslaught against Israeli legitimacy has provided the glue to maintain the cohesion of a powerful national identity. It is also failing in both the more enlightened quarters within the West and in the Arab-Muslim world, which are shedding the politics of intractability and extremism in favour of pragmatic self-interest.

Such trends are driving the forces of reactions to step up their para-military PR activities. The proposed academic boycott is part of a much wider, hopefully last-ditch battle being conducted by leftwing anti-Zionist activists in the West together with frankly reactionary elements in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, in sub-Saharan Africa (including especially South Africa) and wherever grievances and divisions can be exploited.

BDS activists, together with members of the Fallist movement and parts of what is euphemistically called the 'traditional' camp in the ANC, are wedded to an intersectional perspective which stitches together disparate issues to create an amorphous global enemy around the nexus of corporate capitalism, white racism and privilege, patriarchy and Western (and Jewish) guilt. Israel is a small part of this tapestry but drawing on anti-Semitism and other fashionable tropes it can serve as a powerful rallying cry.

This binary division of the world into righteous activists on the one hand and evil reactionary forces on the other is a throwback to tribalist ideation and obscures real issues and potential pragmatic solutions. Indeed such 'compromise politics' are anathema to ardent pro-Palestinian activists.

In the revolutionary theatre of the boycott and many others like it, the Palestinians themselves seem to serve as disposable stage-props. To be blunt, the greater Palestinian suffering, the more effective is the narrative of grievance and dispossession. Alleviation of Palestinian 'suffering' is not the point of such activities since it would divert energy from the ultimate show-down in which in which the unbearable 'offence' of a Jewish state in the Middle East is reversed.

The second issue is that this initiative strikes directly at the Western idea of a University as a space for the free expression (and clash) of ideas. Implied in this norm is the presumption that such ideas will be backed by honest evidence and argument, neither of which can take place under the threat of violence and disruption. Such norms governing University governance also imply that the clash of ideas cannot be advanced by the inclusion of one's friends and the exclusion of one's enemies, which is also what this boycott proposes.

The pro-boycott movement is purely a political action attempting to pressure UCT into stigmatising and isolating Israel. It is being conducted as part of an ongoing diplomatic war of attrition against the Jewish state. This is not a question of ideas but of politics. If University autonomy and respect for ideas rather than force is to be upheld, what's to debate within UCT?

So long as such forms of warfare is the preferred mode of political engagement so long will the necessary terrain for dialogue elude us. If UCT is indeed serious about being involved in a conflict far removed from local issues and so fraught with emotion, then it should sponsor scholarly dialogue within the safe space provided by long-respected University norms of engagement.

The need for decisive, moral leadership from the VC cannot be displaced onto the shoulders of committees and surrogates. If Dr Price feels impotent to implement the values to which UCT should be committed he must resign.

Within the confines of academe, we await the emergence of new paradigms of political engagement which open avenues to peaceful cultural and political change. The boycott initiative simply combines propaganda with outright political coercion. UCT's own history and ambitions should prohibit its acquiescence in this perversion of University values.

Mike Berger