28 April 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 29 2005

For the first time in a working lifetime of trade union membership, I’m seriously tempted to tear up a union card. Last Friday, one of my trade unions, the Association of University Teachers — I’m also in the National Union of Journalists — voted narrowly in favour of an academic boycott of two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan and Haifa, with a boycott of a third, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, possibly to follow.

I think I am probably in breach of the boycott at the moment — though I can’t be sure because I have not yet received details from the AUT of what the boycott is to entail. Several of my students at City University are here on scholarships organised by the Olive Tree Educational Trust in collaboration with Israeli and Palestinian universities to foster dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a great scheme to which I am fully committed, and I’d rather leave the AUT than endanger it.

But it’s not just my personal interest in this particular project that is making me think about resigning from the AUT. I’m against the boycott on principle and think that it’s a disastrously stupid course of action to pursue.

This is not because I’m a great supporter of Israel. I’m horrified by the brutality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and by the way Israel treats Palestinians who live inside its 1967 borders. I believe that the rest of the world should be encouraging Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and to clean up its act. Although I consider that centuries of anti-Semitic pogroms and the Holocaust give Zionism a large measure of legitimacy (and I cannot accept the argument that Israel is an illegitimate state), I recoil from the idea that states should be based on religion or ethnicity. In an ideal world I’d like to see a secular democratic state covering the whole territory of what was British mandate Palestine, with people of all faiths and none and every ethnic group living in peace and harmony.

In reality, of course, such an arrangement is a pipe-dream — and the best that can be hoped for in the short to medium term is a two-state solution, with democratic Israel living peaceably next to a democratic Palestinian state and both of them (with any luck) eschewing religion- and race-based politics.

The question, however, is how we get from here to there. Such is Israel’s might both as an occupying power and as a regional military force that it is clear that the only way is through dialogue and negotiation. To put it crudely, Israel is not going to be made to leave the West Bank and Gaza to a Palestinian state: it has to be persuaded. And for that to happen it needs to feel secure and to trust its Palestinian interlocuters.

This is of course a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to sort out. The Palestinian leadership has the particularly difficult task of convincing Israelis that a Palestinian state is not a threat but an opportunity, at the same time as persuading its people that responding violently to the humiliations of occupation — however tempting it might be — does nothing but strengthen the hands of the diehard Israeli right.

But the rest of the world can play a small but significant part in helping the process along. By encouraging cultural, political and academic dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians at every level, we can help build the mutual trust and understanding that is a prerequisite of successful creation of a viable Palestinian state. Boycotting Israeli universities as part of a grand strategy of turning Israel into an international pariah is precisely what we shouldn’t be doing.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I had yet another reminder the other day that I’m now middle-aged: an old comrade reminded me that this week marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of European Nuclear Disarmament at the House of Commons by Edward Thompson, Mary Kaldor, Ken Coates and others.

END played a major role in the movement against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, providing it with its leading intellectual spokespeople and ensuring that the pro-Soviet minority in CND was effectively marginalised. I worked for its magazine END Journal for three years in the mid-1980s — and I don’t think I’ve ever had a job that was quite as much fun.

Whatever, my old comrade and I got reminiscing, and we decided it would be a good idea to have an END reunion some time during the summer. We’ve not organised anything yet, but if you’re an ex-ENDer who’d like to come along, email me at Gauche.

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