The British University and College Union (U.C.U.) recently voted in favour of discussing a boycott of Israeli academia to protest Israel's continued occupation and abuses of Palestinian academic freedom. This action has caused no end of furor from Jews and Israel supporters around the world, as well as the obvious anger of Israelis and Israeli academics – including furious calls for counter-measures.
People like Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz claims to have set-up a team of 100 of the world's best lawyers to "devastate and bankrupt" anyone targeting Israeli universities. Dershowitz also said he would get tens of thousands of the world's most prominent academics to boycott British academia. This call was immediately supported by 2,000 American scholars, including nine Nobel Laureates, who vowed to boycott any event that excludes Israelis.
The British and global media has been filled with articles by academics, some arguing the case for a boycott and others arguing against. I hate to say that I am – for once – forced to sit on the fence, wait, and see what happens.
Awhile back I would have supported a boycott, after interviewing Ilan Pape, an Israeli academic and avid campaigner for the boycott initiated by Palestinian civil society, which has been struggling to take any kind of hold. Ilan Pape, like many supporters of the Palestinian boycott, draw parallels between South African apartheid and Israel. They believe because the boycott of the S.A. apartheid regime was instrumental in bringing equality in South Africa, a similar-type boycott could force Israel to moderate its behaviour and eventually grant equal rights to Arabs in Israel and a viable state of self-determination to the Palestinians.
I now believe that any boycott of Israel might do nothing more than worsen the siege mentality inside Israel, which comes from relentless and frequent attacks – firstly from the surrounding countries and now from the surrounding Palestinian terror groups.
This siege mentality causes Israelis to believe that relinquishing any land will place them into the same strategic weakness that led them defending massive attacks in 1948 and 1967. As Reuven Kossover, an Israeli Jew commented: "Any solution that strips us of strategic depth is suicide. A country whose borders are 16 kilometers wide can be cut in half by a determined tank attack."
In fact Israelis are always at threat, and the threat is usually portrayed by their government as a threat to their very existence. Jews, who endured the Holocaust – the worst atrocity of the 20th century – know all about fearing for their existence. Then they were granted a supposed Jewish haven by the U.N. General Assembly and the British, who were given control of Palestine after World War II. Immediately they had to fight to create their state, against an Arab enemy wanting to drive them into the sea.
The surrounding Arab enemies never accepted the creation of Israel, so the Jews feared that the next war could be just around the corner. If anything, another attack was more likely due to Arab anger about the forced expulsion of Arabs by Jewish forces.
In 1948 Israeli and Jewish solidarity was at an all-time high; after the Holocaust and successfully repelling the first Arab attack. According to the Israeli government, the Arabs had left their homes willingly – or on the word of the Arab invaders, who told them to leave and return when the war was won. Of course, Israelis were going to believe their government over the ruthless Arabs.
So, Israelis were living in their new State of Israel – in fear of the next war, which came in 1967, then in fear of the next war, which came in 1973. Their fear has been heightened by regular skirmishes with Palestinian and other terror groups since the first Intifada began in 1987, culminating in the Lebanon war and a major Gaza incursion last summer. Now Israel is embroiled in further Gaza fighting, and Israelis live in fear of the next rocket or terror attack. As if that wasn't bad enough, their government's propaganda is telling them that a nuclear Iran will cause a second Holocaust: The sort of propaganda picked up by U.S. conservatives, Presidential candidates and anyone desiring U.S. control over Iran's oil reserves.
This constant existential fear has increased the siege mentality to incredible proportions, along with Jewish solidarity, preventing any real resentment of Israel's oppression from within.
Actions that would further heighten this siege mentality and further increase solidarity between all Israelis in supporting their government's policies will continue to push the possibility of any lasting peace further into the distance.
However, the reasons I am not completely against the boycott is that I still agree with Ilan Pape on the possibility that such a boycott by academics might make Israelis begin to look at their government's actions more closely. This might begin a wave of discontent at their government's handling of the occupation. While it would probably start small, it might grow in the course of time.
And the amount of anger that this has caused inside Israel shows that it is very hurtful to them; their desire to end it may eventually cause them to begin forcing change from within.
Also, the media hype is drawing attention to the fact that intelligent people are so opposed to Israel's actions that they are willing to put the U.C.U. and its credibility on the line to take a stand. This is important because Israel has continually gotten away with its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention – which Israel says does not apply to the occupied territories – and U.N. Resolutions and U.N. and other international laws. And not least because of unwavering, unquestioning and unconditional U.S. support, which has run at an all-time high under Bush, and the candidates who might succeed him as President show no signs of ending it.
So, support of Israel seems to be important in the quest for American votes. Also a factor is the large amount of campaign funding from the Jewish community seeking to ensure continued U.S. support for Israel.
However, if the threats of counter-boycotts and such like don't stifle the debate or lead to the boycott being trashed, the U.C.U.'s controversial stand could finally begin to change the level of support for Israel in the U.S. and around the world. If this happens in America, then politicians and presidents may be forced to change their stance toward Israel. This in turn may force Israel to fall into line with international law, and maybe even to end the occupation and find a lasting peace.
So I’m going to sit on the fence over this, and see where it leads.