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I write as an ex-Israeli, who happens to be a British academic. I write because experience has taught my conscience the harm that results from silencing free historical debate, the danger inherent in not letting the Other’s voice challenge national heroic myths.
All my education in Israel was one sided, treating the Other as the enemy, the murderers, the rioters, the terrorists — without alluding, in any way, to their pains and longings. For my teachers and, as a result, for me also, for many years, Zionism was beyond reproach; it was a return to the promised land as a result of persecution, it was draining the swamps, it was building a state based on Jewish genius.
The Holocaust, in which half of my own family was murdered, provided a continuous supply of blinding collective memory — a memory of victim-hood, and as a result, a source of self-righteousness, much, much self-righteousness. The Holocaust (in Hebrew, “ha-Shoah” – the catastrophe) has always had the monopoly on memory in Israel, leaving no room for al-Naqba (Arabic, “the catastrophe”), the price that the Palestinians paid for the creation of the state. For my teachers, and for me, the 750,000 Palestinian refugees of 1948 were bitter enemies defeated in a war, not human beings with feelings, memories, lost lands and shattered self-respect.
I write this article because, shockingly, the denial and marginalisation of the Other’s story is continuing to this day in Israeli academic institutions. I write as an attempt to make a first step to denounce my association with this denial, to denounce my previous self. But I do not write just as a means to quickly remedy my bad conscience — knowing the powers of collective memory and collective denial, I acknowledge that there is no quick fix for that.
Instead, I write to make two urgent points which are germane to the upcoming debate on the AUT boycott of Israeli universities. First, overcoming naqba-denial in the Israeli academy is central to resolving the conflict in Palestine. Second as an academic of Israeli origin, I know that an academic boycott is needed to create the academic freedom which is needed to overcome naqba-denial.
Naqba-denial in the Israeli academy
Changes, especially those which require mirroring, have to come about organically. The vicious circle that mirroring has to transcend, that of victim-hood and hatred on both sides, has to be dissolved from within, rather than lifted with a dramatic flourish by the external logic of crime and punishment. And that is precisely why something has to be done about the denial and marginalisation of the naqba in the Israeli academy. The organic change that Israel so desperately needs cannot happen until the Other’s story is heard.
It should be noted that Dr. Ilan Pappe of Haifa University has called for a general boycott of Israeli academic institutions — his call was incorrectly paraphrased and narrowed in the reasoning provided by the promoters of the AUT boycott motion dealing with Haifa University. As I understand Pappe, his boycott call relates to the way in which the Israeli academy silences and marginalises, directly and indirectly, any attempt to discuss the crimes of Zionism in Palestine. As I understand him, Pappe seeks a boycott of all those Israeli institutions that silence this debate. Pappe protests against the censorship imposed by the dominant Zionist voice in Israel, as manifested in the highly stagnant and uncritical academic platform which hinders any possibility of debating, not to say rectifying, the crimes of Zionism.
With very few honourable exceptions, of which Pappe is one, those academics who consider themselves part of the Israeli left are part and parcel of the Zionist voice which silences the Palestinian story. The Israeli left has always been against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. There is no denial of that occupation either in the Israeli academy or in Israel generally; there are many “peace activists” who call for its end. But it is important to see that the Israeli Zionist left silences the Other’s story by limiting the problem to “the 1967 occupation”. Once the problem is limited like this, these lefties can assume the role of “innocents” who are unjustly targeted by a boycott whose promoters seek to open the Israeli academy to the bigger story. These Zionist lefties have good reason to be anxious — they are themselves the very sophisticated obstacle to the debate that Pappe wants to generate, but cannot, in the nationalistic academy, namely the debate about Zionism. The debate, if successful in Israel, would open to question the authenticity of the Israeli left.
It is not the occupation of the 1967 territories which is the point of the debate that the Israeli academy smothers and marginalizes. Instead, the big issue is the Zionist occupation of Palestine, the pre-1967 occupation which displaced the indigenous population in the process of establishing a state based on a dominant religion and ethnicity. All those “lefties” who now call for the academic boycott to be lifted (surprise, surprise …) and call themselves supporters of the Palestinian cause are themselves captives of the Zionist holy cow whose tenets they wish not, and are unable as yet, to question.
Creating academic freedom: the need for a boycott
An academic debate silenced by active, or passive, nationalism is evidence of smothered academic freedom. This is clear, not only from Haifa University’s treatment of Pappe and his few colleagues, but also from the inability of an important debate to take off in Israeli academic circles. The dominant paradigms of debate are well guarded — in order to keep the totality of the Zionist occupation of Palestine out of the discussion. Only a well-informed and firm external boycott will change this pathological academic complicity in keeping the Zionist question in the cupboard.
But why a boycott against all Israeli academics? Are they not innocent people who merely advance knowledge? Should we mix neutral academic activity with political debate? The answer is that Israeli academics are all accomplices to the smothering, delegitimizing and marginalising of debate by their institutions. By not raising their voices against their corrupt institutions, they betray the ideals that should guide them as academics. The official responses, by Haifa University, to the AUT boycott resolution show the lack of internal readiness and confirm exactly why outside pressure is necessary. Deep internal fetters, well embedded in the Israeli collective memory, will not allow the start of an academic debate that would result in the shattering of these inhibitions.
These Israeli inhibitions are disappointing, but the resultant need for external pressure must be recognised. Given this, the abstract, detached institutional responses from some leading British universities are also disappointing and play into the hands of the Zionist lobby. (Dare one say that related inhibitions, derived from a different, albeit related, collective memory, are at work here?) Criticism of the boycott is couched in terms of the need for academic freedom. How ironic it is that academic freedom, the very factor which is absent from the Israeli academy, the very factor whose creation provides a powerful motivation for the boycott, is the one whose pretended existence is used by critics of the boycott, including British institutions.
A general boycott
Moving away, but only for a moment, from the issue of naqba-denial in the academy, there are arguably very good reasons for a general boycott of Israel, in such areas as trade, sports and so on. Here, parallels with South Africa are not out of place. Such a boycott is separate from one directed against naqba-denial in the Israeli academy. When academics are included in a general boycott, it is as a result of their belonging to a population which is boycotted because its various activities nourish a criminal state.
Unlike the silence about the larger issue of Zionist culpability for the naqba, there in an extensive internal debate among Israelis about the occupation of the lands conquered in 1967. This has reached a stage where a general boycott on Israel would help to stop the occupation and the many crimes and Human Rights infringements that result from it.
It’s not just the occupation, it’s the naqba
But from the Palestinians’ point of view, an end to the 1967 occupation would not raise the real issue. Again, the opportunity of silencing the real issue will surely be seized by Israelis in their withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Any boycott must make sure that the world does not let Israel off the hook if it just ends the 1967 occupation. The boycott must also demand that the issue of the right of return of refugees to Israel is not allowed to slip away. No one is entitled to dispose of individual Palestinian rights in this matter or to forcibly transmute these rights into compensation. The refugee problem is a Zionist crime, an Israeli crime and, as such, Israelis must face it — whatever consequences its just redress may have for the makeup of the country.
A word of caution
But, in using a boycott to force Israelis to accept the Palestinian right of return, caution is necessary. Unlike the case of the 1967 occupation, it would be naive for a boycott to demand an immediate resolution of the refugee problem. Israel (and some so-called “moderate” Palestinians, dare I day) must be made to face the refugee issue. But Israel must also be allowed the time to deal internally with it. Caution is needed, because this is the point where the Zionist nerve is really sensitive.
At present it would be a mistake to declare a boycott explicitly against Zionism. Israelis are not yet ready to respond to a boycott phrased as such. If anything, a boycott “against Zionism” would play into the hands of those who are adept at manipulating the Israeli sense of victim-hood and would be very likely to make Zionist sentiment stronger.
Holding a mirror to the face of Israelis, exposing to them the unconscious preservation of their racism must be done slowly if it is to achieve the desired end — the gradual recognition that “a Jewish and democratic state” is an oxymoron, a recognition which, one hopes, will cause the gradual withering away of the Jewish state in favour of genuine co-existence. This process, which also involves Israeli society meditating on the relations between Zionism and Jewish Being, will take time. Indeed, the Palestinians also need time to overcome their nationalism intensified by the victim-hood and hatred that has resulted from the actual and symbolic oppression and domination they have suffered.
It was the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza who had, as one of his main principles the idea of “caution”. The “how” is as important as the “what”. The case of Israel is unique, perhaps, in its history, in its denials and complexes. An ill-phrased boycott will not allow the internal process to occur and this means bloodshed.
The academic boycott is needed to kick-start the process
Final resolution of the crisis in Palestine requires Israelis to face up to their responsibility for the Palestinian naqba. It is primarily, if not exclusively, in the Israeli academy that the necessary debate must start.
But for this to happen, academic freedom to debate naqba-denial and the Zionist question must not merely be “allowed” or “granted”. For academic freedom to be properly discharged, for it to be worth anything, much more is needed. Bearing in mind that, at present, the debate about Zionism and the Naqba is highly disadvantaged in the uncritical Israeli psyche, the active legitimation, facilitation, care for growth and flourishing of such a debate should be seen as a duty incumbent upon the Israeli academy and its academics. In other words, this debate must be allowed an equal opportunity and competition in the marketplace of ideas in Israel and, for that, active assistance will be needed to compensate for its current disadvantage in that market. The Israeli academy must allocate specific resources and opportunities for the debate to take off. But anyone who is willing to face facts can see, from Haifa University’s treatment of Ilan Pappe and those he has sought to defend, that, without external pressure, these conditions will not be met. If there were no other reason, that alone would be sufficient reason for the academic boycott.
The academic boycott is not simply another facet of a general boycott. It is much more important than that. The academic boycott is central to starting the process of Israeli self-examination that is a core prerequisite to a resolution of the conflict.
OREN BEN-DOR, originally from Israel, is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.