I am presently partnering with colleagues in the Department of Media and Communication here at the University of Sydney, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, to create a new joint postgraduate degree program. The project is conceived as a way to bring challenging perspectives to bear on issues in global media, and create opportunities to engage with them for students worldwide. It’s intellectually exciting, but – there’s no getting away from it – there is a strong ‘business case’ for it as well, since it has a good chance of attracting fee-paying students in fairly large numbers. That’s why it can move from an appealing idea to being a realistic proposition to put to university managements.
If we were to embark on such a project with an Israeli university, we would be helping to bring in revenues to a strategic industry. That is, therefore, also something we can withhold. The argument for a boycott is that we resolve to do so, for as long as Israel refuses to abide by international law. International law, in this case, would include the humanitarian norms set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention – which Israel has accepted, and which have been found to apply specifically to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – and the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which are accepted by the vast majority of the international community, with Israel one of the exceptions. It would also include the inadmissibility of territory acquired by force, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip: the occupation, now compounded by the Palestinian land grabbed for Israel’s so-called ‘security fence’.
If we can withhold such a benefit, we can raise the cost to Israel of choosing to respond to the conflict with the Palestinians by recourse to violence, in preference to dialogue and negotiation to deliver justice on all sides. In this sense, the academic boycott is a component part of a larger and rapidly growing movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, covering a full range of goods and services. If I, as an academic, wish to support this, it is beholden on me to consider, first and foremost, what I ought to do in my own industry.
Israel is not alone in violation of international law, of course. In the other prominent recent case, UN estimates suggest that the Sri Lankan army has just killed as many as 20,000 Tamil civilians in its final push against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There is an equally pressing need, in the context of this case, to emphasise the importance of humanitarian protection. We should not give up the pressure for a proper impartial investigation of alleged war crimes, or the call for international humanitarian organizations, monitoring groups and journalists to be given unfettered access to the conflict zone.
However, the tactics must be different. Hillary Clinton’s call to suspend development aid payments to the country from the International Monetary Fund would be a good start. I’m circulating an appeal for the Sri Lankan cricket tour of Australia, scheduled for 2010-2011, to be called off. Neither would I go on holiday there, or drink Sri Lankan tea. These are, in this case, the strategic industries.
It would be feasible, in other circumstances, to launch a joint degree program with an Israeli university, since higher education institutions there boast world-class expertise. The same is not true of Sri Lanka. In my letter to the Sydney University authorities, asking for institutional links with Israel to be cancelled, I include the following phrase: the general responsibility to act is particularised by the opportunity to do so effectively.
An influential figure in our academic program at CPACS is the eminent peace researcher and fieldworker, John Paul Lederach, with his emphasis on mobilising cultural resources to cultivate constituencies for peace. It’s an approach that depends on building relationships, and of course, people in a conflict who already advocate peace need to be helped, and their influence spread, by any outsider who wishes to work on it constructively. Such resources are always available, if we care to look for them, as Lederach argues in one of his books, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies:
“I have not experienced any situation of conflict, no matter how protracted or severe, from Central America to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, where there have not been people who had a vision for peace, emerging often from their own experience of pain. Far too often, however, these same people are overlooked and disempowered either because they do not represent ‘official’ power, whether on the side of government or the various militias, or because they are written off as biased and too personally affected by the conflict”.
I do not, of course, wish to overlook or disempower people with a vision for peace, on any side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and this is perhaps the essence of objections such as that from Sara Horowitz, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, who says: “I fear that this boycott you are proposing now will only isolate peace workers, not giving the chance to Israel peace voices to be heard. I understand that something needs to be done, but isolation seems to be a bigger problem for peace workers, who will be losing spaces where their voices could be heard”.
It is important to keep creating such spaces. Earlier this year, I created one myself, inviting to Sydney University an Israeli academic, Emeritus Professor Jeff Halper, who was visiting Australia as a representative of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, on a trip organized by a local campaign group, the Committee for Justice and Peace in Palestine. The point is, the Israeli academic industry did not benefit from his trip in any way, whereas we certainly did, since the perspectives he brought, and the verve and eloquence of both his talks and his writing, considerably enhanced the level of public debate here.
In an important column for The Nation, Naomi Klein described her own dilemma over the Israeli rights to her book, The Shock Doctrine. Until then, she had worked with a commercial publishing house, Babel, but she wanted to observe the boycott, so she approached a small, radical publisher, Andalus, instead. As she puts it: “Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus’s work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis”.
This is the challenge for us, too. I’ve enjoyed working with Israeli academics, and learned a great deal from them, through my research on peace journalism. All are peace activists, and they also make every effort to involve Palestinian colleagues in the work we do. We’ve collaborated in research projects sponsored by the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, which was set up by – but is independent of – the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement in Japan.
Toda are now preparing for their next conference, which takes place in Sydney next year, and one of the themes, on which they have indicated they will accept proposals, is peace journalism. I would gladly join a group with my Israeli and other colleagues to apply to Toda for funds to underwrite a peace journalism project at the conference, leading to a collaborative venture in published research. But I would not apply, jointly through the respective Research Offices of Sydney University and any university in Israel, for any research grant to be administered through university financial structures.
Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, the founders of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, say: “The fact that we go out of our way to ‘Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies’ follows from our realization that there is always a grey area where an academic may be perceived as representing her/himself rather than her/his institution” (from Academic Boycott and the Israeli Left, by Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, Electronic Intifada, April 15, 2005).
My call to the Vice Chancellor and Senate of Sydney University is to cancel institutional arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion University in Haifa, which take the form of exchanges of students and staff – fine, in themselves, but the problem is they are funded through university financial structures and therefore contribute to one of the revenue streams in the Israeli academic industry. That should be foreclosed for now. That is the proposition that the other signatories to my letter, including several senior academic colleagues and the Council of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, have supported.
Above all, the academic boycott call is an expression of solidarity with Palestinian academics, Omar Barghouti, Lisa Taraki and colleagues, who are trying to wage a non-violent struggle against oppression. Jonathan Freedland, influential columnist for the London Guardian, noted that President Barack Obama, in his Cairo speech, used words that “resonate in Muslim discourse”, notably his references to “dignity” and “justice”. To take a Lederachian view, for this conflict to be transformed will require reconciliation, and reconciliation is impossible without justice.
Justice can take many forms, and has to be negotiated between those most closely involved. One persistent theme of my conversations with Palestinian peace activists – academics and others – is for Israel to be seen to be somehow ‘reined in’; for impunity to cease, over the serial violations of international law and human rights that form its policies towards the Palestinians. That, in their conception, will be an indispensable building block of justice, however and whenever it is delivered. It’s also vital because impunity is not merely a denial of justice in a narrow sense, it also incentivises further violence: ‘we got away with it last time, why not do it again?’
Small signs are emerging that the boycott movement is already beginning to exert this ‘reining-in’ effect. Last month, the annual conference of AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee – the biggest pro-Israeli lobbying group in Washington – heard from its Executive Director, Howard Kohr, about the potential damage to Israel’s interests from global public opinion withholding its approval. His words are worth quoting at length:
“You know, we’ve all heard many times Israel accused of being a Western outpost in the Middle East. To those who make that accusation I say you are right. Israel is the only democratic country in the region that looks West, that looks to the values and the vision we share of what our society, our country should aim at and aspire to. If that foundation of shared values is shaken, the rationale for the policies we pursue today will be stripped away. The reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly $3 billion in Israel’s security; the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be; the readiness to defend Israel’s very existence, all are undermined and undone if Israel is seen to be unjust and unworthy”.
The boycott movement has opened up a line of reasoning – or, at any rate, opened it further – that for Israel to change its unjust and unworthy policies is in its own interests. AIPAC may not see it that way, and indeed the treasured US investment in Israel’s “security” is, I would argue, part of the problem not part of the solution: but there is a perception of leverage, and political realities can be reshaped around such a perception, especially when, as Kohr went on to say, “it [enters] the mainstream: an ordinary political discourse on our TV and radio talk shows; in the pages of our major newspapers and in countless blogs, in town hall meetings, on campuses and city squares”.
The author, Judith Hand, who issues a regular newsletter, A Future Without War (http://www.afuturewithoutwar.org) sees the Israel-Palestine conflict as “one of perhaps four or five great pivot points of a campaign to transform the future by non-violent means (pivot points being things that correspond to Gandhi’s Salt March or the Bus Boycott by Martin Luther King’s movement)”. Obama has already been criticised for likening the Palestinian struggle to the push for civil rights in the US, but the academic boycott is a small contribution to an attempt to bring about peaceful change, drawing on the same basic insights and traditions.
Nearly two-thirds of Israelis in favour of direct, substantive negotiations between their own government and the leadership of Hamas. Some mistake, surely? Actually no – this was the finding of an opinion survey in February 2008 by Tel Aviv University. Barely ten months later, as ‘Operation Cast Lead’ got underway, pollsters were finding still higher majorities, up to 90% in some cases, in favour of war against the same Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.
We can all hold different, in some cases contradictory opinions about the same thing. Which comes to the front of our minds at particular times depends on circumstances. Nowhere does this psychological syndrome transfer more readily into political reality than in Israel. Part of Israelis’ inner landscape is the set of attitudes and institutional arrangements known as militarism: not merely the possession of and – for many Israelis – participation in, a powerful military machine, but the reflex recourse to military ‘solutions’ when political ones seem too complex or fraught with risk.
Israelis have been brought up on tales of ingenuity and derring-do by their soldiers and aircrews. The Raid on Entebbe saw a team of commandos free Israeli hostages from the grip of ruthless hijackers. The rescue repeated the success of a similar operation at Tel Aviv airport when special forces posed as mechanics, led by Ehud Barak, now Israel’s Defence Minister. The ‘six-day war’ of 1967 opened with Arab air assets being destroyed on the ground as Egyptian generals struggled to reach the office, the Israelis having taken the precaution of attacking during Cairo’s morning rush hour.
The recourse to the use of force has, therefore, assumed the status of default option in Israel’s relations with neighbouring countries and peoples, clouding and undermining calls for peace. Back then, the antagonists were Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Latterly, the Lebanese and, of course, the Palestinians have found themselves in the cross-hairs. Three principles of international law should govern Israel’s behaviour, as they are meant to restrict the responses of any state party to conflict.
The first is enshrined in Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the UN Charter, which states that: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. It means that aggressive war – shooting first – is effectively outlawed.
It was a key part of Israel’s narrative for the conflict to establish that ‘Operation Cast Lead’ was an act of self-defence, having sustained a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Interviewed as the military offensive got underway, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told NBC’s widely viewed Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press (on December 28, 2008), that: “About a half a year ago, according to the Egyptian Initiative, we decided to enter a kind of a truce and not to attack the Gaza Strip… Hamas violated, on a daily basis, this truce. They targeted Israel, and we didn’t answer”.
However, a fact sheet produced by the Israeli consulate in New York City, after the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreed with Hamas began in June 2008, said the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months. As Nancy Kanwisher, Johannes Haushofer and Anat Biletzki point out in the Huffington Post, the ceasefire ended on November 4th 2008 “when Israel first killed Palestinians, and Palestinians then fired rockets into Israel”.
This was a story ‘missed’ by most US media, according to an investigation for the Interpress service by Jim Lobe and Ali Gharib. “While the major US news wire Associated Press (AP) reported that the attack, in which six members of Hamas’s military wing were killed by Israeli ground forces, threatened the ceasefire, its report was carried by only a handful of small newspapers around the country”, they find.
“The November 4th raid – and the escalation that followed – also went unreported by the major US network and cable television new programmes, according to a search of the Nexis database for all English-language news coverage between November 4th and 7th.” Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco tells Lobe and Gharib: “While neither side ever completely respected the ceasefire terms, the Israeli raid was far and away the biggest violation. It was a huge, huge provocation, and it now appears to me that it was actually intended to get Hamas to break off the ceasefire”.
The second vital principle of international law, which Israel flouted in Gaza, is the protection of civilians in territories occupied during warfare, as provided for by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities… shall in all circumstances be treated humanely”, with an absolute prohibition against “violence to life and person”. A special conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention, held in Geneva in 2001, affirmed that these provisions did indeed apply “in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem”.
The general obligation to avoid harming civilians applies to Hamas as well, of course, and the rockets they lob over the fence into Israel are, by definition, indiscriminate weapons. The deaths and injuries they cause are also war crimes, but, given the sheer disparity of casualty figures on the two sides, it would be grotesque if the allegations against Israel were not the main focus of any investigation, tribunal or social action. The UN criticised Israel for attacks on its own property that killed or injured its staff, and international monitoring groups raised the alarm over the hundreds of civilians killed.
The third principle involved here is the general inadmissibility of territory acquired by force. UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 call on Israel to withdraw from the territories seized in 1967, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the latter case, of course, illegal Jewish settlements were dismantled, though, as Israel controls Gaza’s air space and seaboard, and one of its borders, it is still technically the occupying power.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that Israel’s so-called security fence, which has grabbed, divided and reticulated yet more Palestinian territory, is illegal. The judgement spelt out seven separate obligations for other states, notably that they should recognise the illegality of the situation, and refrain from rendering aid or assistance in maintaining it.
In all these ways, Israel is a serial violator of international law. But the chance of any real redress coming through the use of existing institutional arrangements is presently remote. Governments find they have interests that make it inconvenient to press the point, chiefly their aversion to upsetting Washington, which appoints itself the chief arbiter in the conflict for reasons perhaps best appreciated in the phrase attributed to Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan: “Israel is America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”.
There is, then, a situation of effective legal impunity. And if no legal discipline can be exerted, to disincentivise the recourse to violence, then the rest of us are faced with the challenge and opportunity to apply social discipline instead.
This does not entail overlooking breaches of international law or abuses of human rights by other countries. It is not ‘applying double standards’. In the words of the writer, Naomi Klein, “Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the strategy should be tried [on Israel] is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work”. The general responsibility to act is particularised, in this case, by the opportunity to do so effectively. This is why international campaigns for the boycott of Israeli goods and services, and universities, are gaining ground.
Israeli academics are the source of a great deal of significant criticism of, and opposition to, Israel’s policies – including the Tel Aviv University poll – so there is no suggestion that individual contacts should now cease. Discussions about peace journalism have been considerably enhanced by the participation of wise and clever Israeli academics, and that should continue. At an institutional level, however, universities are deeply embedded in the system of occupation and militarism.
I’ve led a call for the University of Sydney to cancel institutional arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion University, in Haifa. Though small in scale, these contacts are symbolic of a commitment to help Israel enjoy normal relations with the outside world, despite its record. For this to cease now would be our contribution, however minor, to raising the social, economic and political cost of militarism as an alternative to dialogue and negotiation. And that would bring a long overdue boost to the cause of peace with justice.