WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
October 8, 2010.
Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian
Archbishop Desmond Tutu shines a torch of social justice in places where many politicians fear to tread. He was one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid and remains a critical voice in the new South Africa. On the Israel-Palestine question, however. I should like the opportunity to express my disagreement with him.
In support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Tutu asks:”Are we willing to speak out for justice when the moral choice that we make for an oppressed community may invite phone calls from the powerful or when possible research funding will be withdrawn from us?”
He asks: “Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own previous humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about all the downtrodden?”
Now there is every reason for Tutu to shine the torch of justice on injustices in other nations as well as his own and every reason to explore injustices taking place in Israel and Palestine. I have no argument with him on this. However, his formulation of the problem is to my mind ill considered.
First, the “they” Tutu refers to — those who threaten to withdraw research funding from those who speak out for justice, those who have forgotten their own experience of humiliation, those who do not care about the downtrodden – are refered to as “our Jewish sisters and brothers”. If he reflects about what he has written, he may share the discomfort I have in reading this characterisation of Jews.
Second, the question of why he singles out Israel and Israeli academic institutions is not explained. Why not a host of other countries that repress their own inhabitants or occupy foreign lands, or a host of other universities that are equally implicated in policies of state? My own countr, Britain, has after all been engaged in two bloody wars with casualties that far outnumber anything that has involved Israel. Why not boycott British academics?
The academic boycott campaign he supports looks to the exclusion of Israeli Jews — and only Israeli Jews — from the scholarly life of humanity. This seems to me discriminatory.
Third, Tutu corrodes a fundamental distinction in political thought, that between civil society and the state, when he asserts without qualification that “Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime”. This is a half truth. Universities are also an important forum of dissent. The relation between civil society and the state needs, to be addressed more seriously if we are not to hold a people responsible for the human rights abuses of their government. In other cases of international solidarity we support democratic forces in societies that are suffering under or struggling against oppressive states or movements.
Fourth, Tutu is careful not to demonise Israel but he does not take responsibility for the possible consequences of his support for an academic boycott of Israel. This campaign opens the door to the deployment of ever wilder claims to justify the special treatment of Israeli Jewish academics — for example, that Israel is inherently ethnic cleansing, genocidal or akin to Nazism. To justify discrimination against certain academics by virtue of their nationalit, there is a tangible risk of slippage from political criticism to the vilification of a whole people.
Fifth, Tutu offers one particular account of the Israel-Palestine conflict in which Palestinians exist mainly as victims and Israelis mainly as victimisers. His boycott proposal, however, does not afford recognition of the fact that there is a plurality of discourses concerning the complex origins and responsibilities of this conflict. One of the ill effects of an academic boycott would be to reduce this plurality of narratives to just one hegemonic version of events. Surely Tutu would agree that no understanding can come from refusing to hear alternative points of view.
The problem is that we no longer quite hear even our own words. It has become almost common sense to say Israel is a uniquely illegitimate state, Zionism a uniquely noxious ideology, supporters of Israel a uniquely powerful lobby, and memory of the Holocaust a uniquely self-serving reference to the past. This discourse is shared by a range of parties — not only sections of liberal and radical political opinion committed to universal moral values, but also fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist parties with no such commitments. . .
In short, the danger of a boycotting response is to heap on “Israel” absolute culpability. It does not meet our real political need, which is to understand a conflict, to help find a peace between the parties, and support those in each nation who oppose bigotry, racism, violence and despair. Justice should be viewed in a more relative, interactive and comparative way.
Robert Fine is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, England.
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(Photo credit: snydertalk)
UPDATE – October 26, 2010
“Tutu urges Cape Town Opera to call off Israel tour” – TIMES Live, South Africa.
TIMES Live reports:
“Tutu says: “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”
“Cape Town Opera should postpone its proposed tour next month until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances.”
Tutu says only “the thickest-skinned South Africans would be comfortable performing before an audience that excluded residents living, for example, in an occupied West Bank village 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, who would not be allowed to travel to Tel Aviv, while including his Jewish neighbours from an illegal settlement on occupied Palestinian territory.”
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