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In Support of an Israel Boycott

December 14, 2010

by Cheryl Greenberg

I am neither an anti-Semite nor a self-hating Jew. But I support the call for a boycott of Israel.

This was not inevitable. In fact, I opposed a boycott for a long time, for all the reasons usually cited: other countries act worse; the boycott would penalize those Israelis working most actively for justice; those who single Israel out in these ways usually also argue Israel has no right to exist or that Israel (read: Jews) controls the world. But a few months ago I changed sides. I traveled to Israel and the West Bank, I spoke with Israeli peace activists, and I saw what I saw.

In some ways, my decision was long in coming. When I was in college, we marched every day at noon demanding that the university divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. Weren’t we hurting the very forces battling for justice, we were asked — the companies committed to hiring without regard to race, and the black workers who would lose their livelihood if factories closed? Yes, we acknowledged, good people would suffer along with bad, but no other strategy was working against apartheid. Only an international boycott, with its attendant publicity, could pressure the government of South Africa to dismantle its segregationist system.

As happened.

Now I am at a college again, this time as a faculty member, and the proposed boycott is of Israel — worse yet, of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. While I have been conducting my own private boycott of Israel since the Lebanon war, refusing to spend money in a state that refused justice to Palestinians, a public singling out of Israel felt different to me, and an academic boycott seemed especially off-target. After all, what remained of the largely demoralized Israeli left was largely centered in universities, the last bastion of academic freedom and open inquiry in an increasingly right-leaning nation. And wasn’t the boycott call a convenient podium for anti-Semitic diatribes? In any case, how could I support the marginalization of scholars based on their citizenship?

In June, despite my own political qualms about Israel, I traveled there for a conference. I was sure that I could not embrace the academic boycott; in fact, I had argued just the week before that such a boycott contradicted the free inquiry standards I believed in.

I left a week later as a supporter.

While claiming it desires peace, the Israeli government persists in pursuing strategies that seem designed to create a new generation of Palestinian terrorists. Settlements in the occupied territories continue to expand, while the blockade of Gaza (and the ill-conceived attack on the flotilla) have done more to bolster support for Hamas than any public relations campaign Hamas could ever mount. The infamous separation wall, which in many places ignores Israel’s “green line” boundary and incorporates Palestinian land, is a visible symbol of the political and economic pressures Israel has placed on the West Bank. Checkpoints have even been outsourced to private companies so that ordinary Israeli citizens with submachine guns decide who may enter or leave the territories.

Without a Palestinian state, Israel’s two deepest commitments — to be a Jewish state and a democratic state — are becoming mutually exclusive. Yet in recent elections the right has been gaining ground. Bills to deny Israeli Arabs the right to serve in the Knesset and even calling for their expulsion have been publicly proposed. Demonstrators at pro-Israel rallies have been chanting “Death to Arabs!” And bigotry extends far beyond such rhetoric, even within the borders of Israel. Not only are most Israeli schoolchildren segregated, with Jewish Israelis in one school and Arab Israelis in another, but in one town Ethiopian Jews were placed in their own segregated classrooms until officials were forced to alter their policy. The Bedouin — Israeli citizens — have been labeled “nomadic” to delegitimize their claim to the land they use for their herds in regular migration cycles. Those Bedouin who agree to relinquish land claims may move into “recognized” villages that receive running water and electricity. Those who do not live in “unrecognized” villages where citizens cannot access the electricity flowing through power lines overhead nor any water from the water mains below them. Even the recognized Bedouin villages lack paved roads, street names, vegetation, decent houses, or any visible services.

It’s all much worse on the West Bank. I traveled there on a road for Israelis, on which Palestinians may not drive. I believe this is the definition of apartheid, for those who wonder whether such accusations are fair. We passed a well-watered settlement overseen by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) guard tower. On the next hill, we stopped at the town of Susya — actually, the former town, since the Palestinian families there had been expelled when the settlement came because they were too close for comfort.

Now a group of Israelis and Palestinians called the Villages Group has challenged these expulsions in court and have begun resettling the families to bolster their claim to the land. As of my visit, approximately ten families had returned. They live under plastic tarps on concrete platforms, sleeping on thin mattresses. They have no running water or electricity. Their one pit toilet is camouflaged be- cause the last one was destroyed by settlers and soldiers. They have planted trees again, hoping these will not also be chopped down as they had been before. The Villages Group pays for a van to transport the children to school because there is no local infrastructure. The day we visited, the Group had brought in an engineer to look at the biofuel generator they had constructed. When it worked, goat manure produced enough gas for a single burner on which to cook.

Meanwhile, the settlement expands. A new house is built on a hill adjacent to the settlement, which then stakes the claim for all the land around the hill — and Palestinians living there are ousted. Slowly but surely the land comes under Israeli control. The guard in the tower by the settlement kept his eye on us while we were there. Meanwhile, the villagers fed us handmade bread, tomatoes and goat cheese.

These “facts on the ground” are making the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more and more remote, and with Israel’s political shift to the right, there is not enough pressure internally to change the dynamic. Nevertheless, those who remain on the Israeli left persist, and have been exploring new options to bring world opinion to bear. Thus we come to the boycott.

The boycott call, by Arabs, Palestinians, and Jews, does not call for the severing of ties with individuals. To the contrary, boycott advocates desire the widest possible dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian academics — who are asked to refuse to participate in institutional projects, conferences, exchanges and the like. The argument for such a boycott rests on the conviction that Israeli academic and cultural institutions do not, in fact, serve as havens for activists but rather actively support Israeli policies in the territories.

There is, obviously, close interaction between engineering, scientific and technical academic departments and the IDF, but there is more to it. While emphasizing exchange programs, conferences and the like, Israeli universities broadcast their openness, but they do not protest the closing of Palestinian universities or the censoring of Palestinian scholars, and have, in fact, acted in concert with the right to subdue and punish dissent. Israeli academics who speak too loudly against Israeli policies have been threatened with salary cuts, marginalization or termination, and in some cases those threats have been carried out. Anti-occupation protests have been prohibited on some campuses, while “pro-Israel” rallies, including those in support of the attack on the flotilla, have been permitted. Many other examples reinforce the point that Israeli academic and cultural institutions, while portraying themselves as islands of free speech, academic openness and critical thinking, have protected and advanced the anti-democratic, self-defeating policies of an Israeli state that looks more and more parochial and belligerent and less and less egalitarian and just.

Israel and its Jewish supporters are fond of emphasizing klal yisrael, the unified community of Jews. If I am to believe that all Jews should feel a special commitment to the Jewish homeland, there should be no objection when I advocate publicly for the kind of Israel I believe in. This doesn’t mean Israel is worse than other countries — as progressive Jews, we protest all such injustices around the world, especially in our own country — but it does mean that if my tie to Israel is deeper, then surely I have a greater obligation to speak out.

The international pressure resulting from the flotilla deaths compelled Israel to ease the blockade against Gaza. Outside pressure can produce change. It is for this reason that I support the boycott as a potentially potent weapon for peace and justice.

Cheryl Greenberg is Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and author of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century, among other books.