By Professor Ran Greenstein
Sunday Independent – South Africa – [26_09_2010]

Can one live a normal life in an abnormal society? The anti-apartheid movement believed that you could not, and must not. It set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South Africans, to force them to understand that change was necessary. One tactic chosen in this regard was boycotts and sanctions. Other campaigns against oppressive regimes have used similar tactics, selecting targets in order to maximize strategic advantage. The closer the target was to the core identity of oppressive groups, the more likely it was to be effective. Thus, it made sense to boycott South African cricket and rugby teams to disrupt the sense of normality of sports-mad white South Africans. This tactic would not work in, say, Burma or Sudan, whose oppressive elites have limited interest in sports. Using the same logic, it made sense to boycott Chilean wine and Argentinian football, when both countries were under military dictatorships, but not the other way around.

When we consider the campaign against the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, a careful choice of targets must guide action. While Israeli Jews are not the only ones who violate human rights, as the stronger side they are the chief culprits today. Their greatest source of vulnerability is the obsessive need to feel an integral part of the West and the global community. This feeling is particularly strong among the elites, including academics. It is central to their professional identity and it contributes to a sense of political complacency. With their eyes turned to the West, Palestinians living under conditions of military occupation and suffering from massive violation of human rights have become invisible to them. This is the challenge, then: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances?

With this in mind, a group of academics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), with the support of fellow academics elsewhere, have started a campaign to sever UJ”s relations with an Israeli academic institution – Ben-Gurion University (BGU). The campaign calls on UJ to suspend an agreement for scientific cooperation until Israel abides by international law, and the university takes a stand against the occupation.

As one of the signatories to a petition supporting the campaign, I would like to explain some of the reasons behind it (without speaking on behalf of any other signatory). But first, to clarify: the campaign targets relations between institutions. It is not aimed at individual academics of whatever political persuasions. It attacks oppressive practices rather than political views. It seeks to enhance exchanges and debates between different opinions rather than close them up. In other words, it is seen as an educational tool that opens us new opportunities to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and allow us to make an intervention on the side of protecting and promoting human rights for all.

Why use this particular tactic? There is nothing specific about BGU – it collaborates with the military, it turns a blind eye towards oppressive practices, and it practices discrimination against Palestinian students – but all Israeli academic institutions do the same. In a sense, signing the petition is a way of expressing concern about the broader context of occupation, denial of human rights and political oppression in Israel. It is unlikely on its own to change anything and the chances that BGU would yield to demands to renounce the occupation are extremely low.

At the same time, the potential educational value of this initiative is great, both in relation to South African and Israeli audiences. It sends a clear message that there is strong and growing disapproval of Israel”s practices, which are illegal and immoral, and that those who fight such practices within Israeli universities can expect solidarity from fellow academics elsewhere.

For this to work, it is important that it should not be seen as a punitive and externally imposed measure. Rather, it should be a step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics. Ideally it would help create a counterweight to the increasing pressure from right-wing forces that seek to silence critical voices at Israeli universities, including BGU.

Ultimately, this may be the most important contribution of the initiative: to side with those fighting for change from within. Local activists in Israel/Palestine – of both national groups – are subject to enormous pressure internally, and the only way they could sustain a campaign for change is by maintaining a constant exchange of information, solidarity, and a flow of moral and material assistance from the outside. It is only in dialogue between all the relevant constituencies that the campaign can move forward.

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