Sep 27, 2010


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

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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