Boycott promotes debate

Protest takes nonviolent approach toward preserving intellectual freedom in Israel.

David Lloyd, Ph.D.

Published: Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At the height of Israel”s ruthless assault on Gaza, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution offering its total and uncritical support to Israel. This deeply biased resolution, reputedly drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and misleading in virtually every clause, is one small symptom of the extent to which the pro-Israeli lobby maintains a choke hold over the U.S. political process and prevents open and honest debate on Israel”s conduct and policies. Yet Israel is the largest single foreign recipient of U.S. taxpayers” dollars, benefiting from at least $2 billion per year or one-third of all U.S. foreign aid.

In the academic world, faculty who criticize Israel”s policies or challenge the political philosophy of Zionism and its disastrous consequences for the Palestinians are subject to insult, intimidation and even outright censorship. Such scholars” right to tenure has been concertedly attacked. Teachers who speak in public for the right of Palestinians have been faced with harassment, defamation and intimidation, though in most cases their “crime” has been their exercise of the right to free speech in contexts unrelated to their classroom teaching. Our mailboxes are filled with rabid messages of hatred, anti-Arab racism and, of course, the threadbare accusation that to be critical of Israel is to be anti-Semitic. The insidious racism of the latter accusation, which seeks to identify Judaism with the 19th century European nationalist philosophy of Zionism and all Jews with Israel, no matter what their conscience tells them about that state”s conduct, should be as unequivocally repudiated as should all actual anti-Semitism.

For any who spoke out against South African apartheid, or against Indonesia”s illegal occupation of East Timor, such conduct in public debate is singular. Proponents of divestment were rarely accused of anti-white racism; we were never told that criticism of Djakarta was equivalent to hatred of all Indonesians or of Muslims. Only criticism of Israel meets such violent attempts to silence it. In consequence, debate about U.S. policy regarding Israel and Palestine, surely one of the most important issues now facing this country, is shut down. So on the basis of an insidious brew of myth, ideology and partial histories, the United States blindly pursues its slanted policy in the Middle East to the detriment of its reputation and in isolation from the rest of the world.

It is on account of this climate of intimidation and the lockdown on political discourse that we resorted to calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of an international call for divestment. Where there is no access to the political process, those who seek justice must once more do so by appealing directly to the conscience of the public.

In response to the call from Palestinian civil society and from more than 500 courageous Israeli citizens, we urge a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, not only to protest their utter silence in the face of the ongoing destruction of Palestinian educational infrastructure, but also because we believe that the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions still can influence Israel”s public opinion and avert a catastrophic outcome. Boycott, by using the moral force of non-violent means, strengthens those elements in Palestinian and Israeli civil society that are seeking a just resolution to the conflict without resort to violence, ethnic cleansing or destruction. An institutional boycott neither targets individual scholars nor seeks to silence genuine dialogue. It calls for a moratorium on “business-as-usual” with Israeli institutions that have turned a blind eye to the destruction and disruption of Palestinian schools and universities and to the denial of academic freedom. Their institutional silence is the true death of learning and of intellectual exchange. It is Palestinian, not Israeli, institutions whose isolation must be challenged: For the former it is lethal, for the latter it can be short-lived.

For decades, Israel has been in defiance of international law and humanitarian norms. Israel has claimed to engage in negotiation while continuing to extend its network of illegal settlements and roads that segment Palestine and destroy any prospect of a viable Palestinian state. It continues to expropriate Palestinian lands and to build a separation wall that denies Palestinians their right to freedom of movement. It continues its resort to overwhelming military force and the use of weaponry illegal in civilian areas. In all this, it feeds and encourages the extremists and fuels the cycles of violence and hopelessness. None of this would be possible without U.S. material support and without the impunity assured by the United States” blind acquiescence.

We take no position on the outcome of negotiations. We do fear, however, that those Israeli and Palestinian commentators who believe that the two-state solution has been deliberately undermined by Israel”s illegal settlements and fragmentation of the occupied territories are right. The outcome will either be a state where Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, can live together in full equality or a terrible repetition of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. The latter solution is discussed openly by Israeli politicians and academics and has become all the more likely with the recent electoral successes of the racist party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Never have the prospects for a negotiated settlement seemed so fragile, and never has it been so urgent for the American public to exercise its moral force.

There comes a time in every struggle for justice when measures that have been unthinkable and unspeakable become morally imperative. In the struggle for justice for Palestine, boycott and divestment are now such measures.

We encourage people not to seek refuge in intemperate speech or censorship, but to seek information and debate. Whether you endorse or oppose the boycott, be informed. Go to the websites of Teachers against Occupation or the Association of Contract Background Investigators and read what we actually say and what others around the world, including Palestinian organizations, are saying. Read U.S. papers, but also Israeli papers like Ha”aretz or the Jerusalem Post, or read the work of Israeli scholars and journalists like Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris, Neve Gordon, Eyal Weizman, Amira Hass or Gideon Levy. Go to AIPAC”s website, but also to Jewish Voices for Peace or Tikkun. Above all, read the work of Palestinians, whose voices have been least heard and who have been most subjected to distortion. Read Mahmoud Darwish and Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said and Mustafa Barghouti; check out the website Electronic Intifada. Find out what they really have to say and then decide what actions you will take. For, above all, what we call for is the informed debate that has been denied to the American people for far too long.

Dr. David Lloyd is a professor of English at USC.

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