Toothless motions and hysterical attacks

The proposed UCU boycott of Israeli universities is an ineffective weapon, argues Hillel Ticktin.1 This is the first in a series of articles on the issue which will feature various writers

The Universities and College Union, the trade union for British academics, passed a motion earlier this year calling on its branches to consider whether to boycott Israeli universities. This follows motions which were passed by both its merged constituent unions, calling for a similar boycott, though they were later overturned or in abeyance.

There has been a huge level of publicity for the motion and its defenders and opponents. This is curious since there is no boycott and will only be one in the unlikely event that the branches of the union agree to call one next year. Furthermore the boycott itself is only of institutions, not individuals. This, in itself, makes the motion meaningless, since an institution cannot be boycotted without affecting individuals.

In this process, much has been made of a comparison with South Africa before 1990. As would be clear to anyone who read Critique No24, which is on South Africa, such a comparison is invalid. The political economy of South Africa was based on the superexploitation of the majority of the population and the so-called black homelands were little more than a propaganda ploy and a means of control over black urban workers. In contrast, Israel has dispossessed the Palestinian population of their land and turned the Israeli state into an exclusive ethnic and religious entity.

Nor is it true that the boycott against South Africa caused the South African government to change its attitude. South Africa changed when the US capitalist class decided that it would no longer sustain that country's racist attitude by lending to the South African state and when it was clear that the opposition had been defeated. It helped that the Communist Party, which effectively controlled the ANC, took an increasingly conservative line. For many, the settlement consecrated with the elections of 1994 was a classical sell-out, in which the majority of the population could gain little, if anything. Such has been the result. The standard of living of the majority may even be lower than it was in 1994, while a wealthy black bourgeoisie has formed in association with a growing 'middle class'.

The point is that boycotts have played a particular class role in the past. While not actually pressurising change, they propel 'elites' to power. It can, however, be different if the boycott is called by trade unions on a trade union basis, calling on union members to put forward leftwing demands.

In this instance, the boycott proposed is almost harmless and toothless, in that it proposes a boycott of institutions, but not of academics. Much, therefore, of the opposition, on grounds of academic freedom, is beside the point. As indicated above, it is not at all clear what boycotting an institution, but not academics, can mean. We must, therefore, conclude that the boycott proposed is more of a signal or token to Israeli academics and Zionists generally that they have to consider what it means to talk of academic freedom, when a section of the student and academic population is segregated in separate institutions, with inferior resources, and subject to constant harassment. Furthermore, it is also clear that the critique of the political economy of Zionism and of Israel is very limited and not at all encouraged.

Of course, it is also true that Marxist political economy is marginalised and worse in most of the world, so that Israel is simply showing us that academic freedom is very limited under capitalism. It is also true that the situation is even worse in most of the Arab countries, where the regimes can only be described as appalling both in their level of exploitation of the majority and in the absence of civil rights. That, however, does not alter the responsibility of Israeli academics to speak up against the nature of a regime contingent on the misery of another people.

Much has been made of the fact that academic freedom is under much greater constraint in many other countries and they are not being boycotted. That is true and it is a powerful point. After all, there are very few motions, if any, deploring the political discrimination suffered by the left in the UK and other countries of the west. There were few if any motions on the severe penalties that were visited on anti-Stalinists in the former Soviet Union and other Stalinist countries, some of which still exist under Stalinist control.

Nonetheless, if the motion can make some people consider the nature of Zionism itself, which is ultimately responsible for the nature of the Israeli state, something will be achieved. However, it has to be said, that it is also the duty of the left to come out clearly both against anti-semitism and islamic fundamentalism. It cannot be forgotten that it was the anti-semitism of the Arab regimes which drove out around one million Jews from their countries and into Israel. If not for this action, Israel might have had difficulty continuing to exist. The Palestinians, of course, are not responsible for the actions of Arab rulers, who at that time were semi-colonial subjects of the west, and must be regarded, on the contrary, as their victims.

It is clear that the only possible solution is an integrated Israeli-Palestinian society and state, with guaranteed civil and economic rights for the different communities. This, however, is most unlikely to come into existence within capitalism. Both Zionism and Hamas regard such a thing as impossible. A two-state regime with a crippled or economically backward Palestinian state is no solution. Provided the campaign for a boycott is conducted sensibly, it might provoke some people to move out of nationalism and take a more critical attitude to the policies of the Israeli state. That is the most a motion which is not a motion and a boycott which is not a boycott can achieve.

We have still to ask why there is such a hue and cry over the issue. How is it that Harvard's professor Alan Dershowitz can issue such bloodcurdling threats and why has there been such a mobilisation of Jewish and non-Jewish opinion against this motion? Such opponents of the motion have scored an own goal or maybe two own goals, since the only possible point of the movers of the motion, or non-motion, is to get publicity and in that they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Self-evidently the reason lies in the increasing insecurity both of sections of the Jewish population outside Israel and of Zionism itself. This is partly due to the real global political economic crisis and to the decline of Zionism. Trotsky was also right when he said that in every economic crisis anti-semitism grows. As we argued in Critique No41, anti-semitism has to be condemned and fought wherever it exists and unfortunately some of the movers of the UCU motion failed to condemn the real anti-semitism in Hamas and Hezbollah.

Academic freedom

Much of the argument on the basis of academic freedom might have had some kind of validity if, as indicated above, academic freedom were not so limited for the left and indeed for dissidents in general. It has always been true that those critical of capitalism and Stalinism have had a hard time in academic institutions, if they are ever allowed to enter those hallowed portals. Many on the left live a double life, writing one thing to be given tenure or promoted, and another for their desks or in journals which are outside the purview of academia. The very subject studied by Marxists is often judged illegitimate. Marxist political economy is judged not to be economics or sociology or anything else, not even political economy. Those who were anti-Stalinist suffered a double whammy, as their critique of the Soviet Union, and of Stalinist fronts, were often judged too extreme, making them unpublishable.

Those critical of established doctrines find life difficult, whatever the discipline. The reason lies in the nature of bureaucracy under capitalism. It is in the nature of inquiry, investigation and the discovery of truth that new facts and theories can upset long held doctrines. As those doctrines are held and taught by people who might lose their positions, reputation and the possibility of further academic promotion, they will tend to resist such critiques. Those who have preserved their integrity might act differently but it is in the nature of the hierarchical academic structure that those who bend to authority will be favoured. Furthermore, it is notoriously hard to judge the quality of well researched and coherent academic work. The main reason to provide such comparative judgements of the work is commercial - to consider how much more the institution might gain or lose by keeping or promoting people. As a result, the academic process is corrupted by the system which sustains it. Clearly there is limited academic freedom, but it is constrained and the outcry on the grounds of academic freedom sounds hypocritical, since those who raise it never defend those who need such help the most.

At the present time, academic freedom is more constrained, partly because of the various laws passed, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, which have to do with protection against terrorism. As Laura Donahue has argued, the danger lies in the atmosphere of fear that such laws and rules engender. One can argue that self-censorship becomes the norm and hiring committees become more selective when appointing or promoting academics. The increasing stress on value for money and so on short-term performance also tends to disadvantage theorists of all kinds, who might take many years to produce a meaningful theory. Of course, it is in the nature of such inquiry that the eventual theory might be disproved very quickly. The fact that the author will have had partial insights, encouraged other thinkers, developed the basis for the correct theory, etc might all be ignored, leaving the academic a cast off hulk. The need for long-term employment without censorship comes up against the money constraint, particularly at the present time.

Norman Finkelstein

The hysterical attack on the UCU motion on boycotting Israeli academic institutions and the alleged statements of Alan Dershowitz, that he will ruin and bankrupt academics who promote the boycott, demonstrate clearly what is what in terms of academic freedom.

This is the same Alan Dershowitz who, it seems, did his best to ensure that Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure. The De Paul's president accepted that Finkelstein's academic work was of the requisite standard for tenure, but argued that his vituperation against other academics and people was such that it vitiated the excellence of his academic work. In this instance academic committees recommended tenure and the dean and president turned it down. Even if the president were right about Finkelstein's name-calling, denial of tenure by administrators rather than academics calls academic freedom into question.

This is simply one more case of this type, only new in that it was the left which was openly denied jobs in the past rather than those critical of aspects of Zionism. No doubt there have been other anti-Zionists who have lost their jobs, but their cases were not made public. Critique carried the case of professor Bertell Ollman in some detail, when the president of the University of Maryland revoked his appointment and the matter ended up in the courts.