Counterpunch – 30 May 2006
There were some remarkable admissions in a piece by the distinguished Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling in the immediate wake of the British teaching union NATFHE’s vote yesterday to offer members moral backing if they boycott Israeli universities. British academics opposed to Israeli colleagues’ complicity in the lengthy and continuing occupation of the Palestinians are now advised to boycott them and their institutions.
Today, and quite incidentally, Kimmerling wrote in the daily Ha’aretz newspaper of a decision taken by his own institution, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to offer a special fast-track degree programme to members of the General Security Service, or the Shin Bet, which has used its fearsome intelligence gathering abilties to maintain the occupation of the Palestinians for nearly four decades.
The Shin Bet is possibly best known for its interrogation methods when extracting confessions from detainees. Although torture was banned by the country’s Supreme Court in 1999, the Shin Bet has continued with its notorious practices during the second intifada, according to the Israeli human rights group the Public Committee against Torture.
According to Kimmerling, Shin Bet staff will not only be encouraged to further their education with government grants (maybe no bad thing), but the Shin Bet itself will be able to devise the study course. As Kimmerling notes, the most likely result will be a “professional studies” programme relating to the Shin Bet’s work.
Kimmerling rightly observes that such a programme clashes with the very values of free speech and free thought supposedly embodied by his university: “Although both institutions [the Shin Bet and Hebrew University] conduct ‘research’, the objects of the research and the methodologies are day and night.”
Such arrangements are nothing new in Israeli academia, Kimmerling points out. There are strong ties between the universities and the defence industry because “some university staff join academia after [military] service and careers in the defense establishment, and not all of them manage to ‘go civilian’.”
In fact, Kimmerling understates the problem. Anyone who has spent time in an Israeli university will know that its academic staff and the country’s huge defence industry are intimately entwined. The geography department of Haifa University, for example, was until very recently headed by Prof Arnon Sofer, who is best known in Israel for advocating ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, both occupied Palestinian non-citizens from the West Bank and the minority of Palestinian citizens from Israel.
Sofer, who has also taught at the National Defence College and the Police Training College for many decades, once boasted to me that he had imparted his values to almost every senior security official in Israel. Stickers on the doors of nearly every lecturer in his department declare membership of the National Security Studies Center, Sofer’s own government-funded “research” body that disseminates his obscene ideas.
Kimmerling offers his own high-profile example of this “partnership”. Menachem Milson, the dean of the humanities faculty at Hebrew University, was in the 1970s and 1980s head of the military government — misleadingly known as the civil adminstration — in the West Bank. In that post he developed the notorious “Village Leagues”, local Palestinian militias financed by Israel whose role was to weaken Palestinian support for Fatah and thus prolong the occupation while Israel concentrated on its illegal colonisation of the territory.
Kimmerling himself has written at length about the terrible nature of Israel’s occupation: that it has been designed to destroy any hope of Palestinian sovereignty even in the small ghettoes left to the Palestinians of their original homeland by extending Jewish domination. He even coined a term for this slow and relentless erosion of the Palestinian people’s rights: politicide.
So, given his own evidence, what are Kimmerling’s conclusions about the legitimacy of the British union’s boycott? That it is, he warns, “no small hypocrisy”. This judgment echoes his denunciation last year of the short-lived decision by another British union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), to recommend a boycott of several Israeli universities. After vigorous campaigning by pro-Israel supporters, the vote was rapidly overturned.
What are Kimmerling’s reasons for objecting to such boycotts? Because “no one dared propose a boycott of American or British academic institutions after the invasion of Iraq, or Chinese academe for human rights violations.”
Are these comparisons, dutifully trotted out by apologists for Israeli occupation of much less intellectual stature than Kimmerling, reasonable? Let’s examine them.
The Chinese abuse of its own population’s rights and the violation of the Tibetan people’s rights through its lengthy occupation of their homeland deserve continuous and vocal denunciation. But does it follow that a boycott of Chinese universities would have the same meaning and effectiveness as one of Israeli universities?
China has long been treated by the West as a pariah nation, even if it often covertly trades with Western governments. No one in the West describes China as a democracy or believes that the Chinese authorities have allowed any room for civil society to emerge. In fact, we know that Chinese dissidents, including academics, have received terrible punishments, such as being imprisoned, tortured and killed.
So how exactly does Kimmerling imagine that a boycott of Chinese universities will encourage dissident views, and how will this help progressive politics in the country? If the Chinese government offers no space for critical voices, how can actions by British academics make a difference?
What is needed in the case of China is concerted sanctions by Western governments against the Chinese authorities. The fact that this has not been forthcoming is not the responsbility of European or American academia.
Also, unlike China, the tiny country of Israel receives huge sums of aid from the United States — this week it was announced that the House of Representatives has approved $2.5 billion for next year — and special trading status with the European Union that greatly benefits the Israeli economy. Most of the US money does not have to be accounted for, thereby subsidising the occupation industry of which the universities are a part and the harmful government-sponsored initiatives of professors such as Arnon Sofer.
So while on the one hand China is officially condemned as an authoritarian and anti-democratic state for its abuse of human rights, Israel is showered with financial rewards for its occupation. It therefore falls on British and American academics to distance themselves from their government’s support for Israel through the limited means available to them.
What about American and British universities? Following NATFHE’s logic, should British academics be boycotted for the invasion and occupation of Iraq?
Ignoring the obvious point that British academics are hardly in a position to boycott themselves, let’s examine Kimmerling’s argument. He is suggesting that there is a double standard at work: British academics are seeking to punish Israeli academics for the occupation while no one is punishing British academics over the occupation of Iraq. But this analogy is patently false.
First, the reason the British union wants Israeli academics punished is for their collective silence and collaboration with the occupation. One of Israel’s main universities, Bar Ilan, has a campus in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, which the government intends to annex behind the wall it is building. As Ariel is about 14km from the Green Line, the pre-1967 border, such a move will end any hope of a viable Palestinian state.
With a few honorable exceptions — Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart and Kimmerling himself — almost no one in Israeli academia is speaking out against the occupation or about their own universities’ implicit or overt support of it. Kimmerling’s article about the Shin Bet studies programme is a very rare example of such public dissent.
That is hardly true in Britain, where academics have been at the forefront of the huge opposition in the UK to the invasion of Iraq and to the country’s subsequent occupation. Campuses are alive with protest and debate about the legitimacy of Britain’s role in Iraq. The fact that it is not represented in the British media is a failure by the country’s media, not the academics.
The same is most definitely not true in Israeli universities, where protests by Jewish staff and students all but never occur. Arab students who have tried to protest against the occupation of the Palestinian territories at Haifa University, where most of them are based, must seek a permit from the university authorities which they are almost always denied. Demonstrations are usually filmed by university officials. Students are then arrested later by the police, and others punished by university special disciplinary committees. Arab students facing these sanctions have rarely received any support from Jewish students or academics.
(It should also be noted that Palestinians are denied all acess to Israeli universities to study, while their own educational opportunities are severely damaged by the checkpoints, curfews and invasions associated with the occupation. Arab students belong to the country’s minority of Palestinian citizens, one in five of the population, who are grossly under-represented on campuses and systematically stripped of their voice. Arab lecturers account for less than 1 per cent of academic staff.)
The second point is that whereas the American and British occupation of Iraq is in its infancy, the Israeli one is reaching what should be its mid-life crisis. At what point does inaction, turning a blind eye, become culpable? Surely four decades of ignoring the Israeli occupation stretches our denials of moral responsibility beyond credibility.
Were the occupation of Iraq still to be in its stride by the year 2040, and British universities keeping quiet, I would very much hope academics around the world would be taking action against their British and American colleagues too.
Which leads us to the third difference. Whereas the success or failure of American goals in Iraq is still open to question, Israel’s plans to steal Palestinian land have been consistently successful and are only gathering pace. In fact, as British union delegates appear to understand, hopes of salvaging any viable state for the Palestinians have almost run out of steam. The Israeli government is now planning the final stages of its annexation of Palestinian land — misleadingly called “convergence” — and with it the destruction of any chances of meaningful Palestinian statehood.
Kimmerling, however, does have one valid point. In truth, it will be hard to boycott American academics and universities even if they prove themselves in the long run to be as spineless as Israeli ones. This is because the Western academic system is sustained by American academia; without it, the system would probably collapse.
The fact that it will be difficult to penalise American academics may be unfair, but it is hardly justifiable grounds for British academics to shun their moral responsibilities to bring whatever pressure they can to bear on Israel to end its gratuitious occupation. Such boycott campaigns can be effective — as should be obvious from the high-level efforts made by the Israeli government last year to help overturn the boycott vote by the AUT.