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On the academic boycott (again) - plus exchange of letters
By: Ran Greenstein
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
14 October 2010

(reply by one of the academics critiqued, Robert Fine, appears below, plus subsequent exchange between Fine and Greenstein on the subject - OM)

On the academic boycott (again)

As calls for boycotts and sanctions campaigns against Israeli
institutions and practices become common, so do counter-voices seeking
to shield Israel from criticism. Official Israeli efforts are usually
organized through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its affiliates
(such as the South African Zionist Federation) and are easily
identified and refuted as sheer apologetics for oppressive practices.

Less official attempts in the same vein are sometimes disguised as
liberal progressive efforts to enhance the struggle against the
occupation by ridding it of particularly ‘offensive’ associations. An
example of this strategy is the concerted attempt to deny the
similarity between Israeli practices vis-a-vis Palestinians and the
South Africa practices of apartheid before 1994 (I dealt with one
practitioner of this approach, Benjamin Pogrund, here.

Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims
to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent
critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this
perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.

One site of this campaign is the UK group of academics operating under
the label of Engage, self-styled as “The anti-racist campaign against
anti-Semitism”. They present themselves as concerned with
anti-Semitism in the UK academic world, operating from a universal
cosmopolitan perspective, but in fact have become a tool in the hands
of those who reject all criticism of Israeli policies and practices as
tainted with anti-Semitism. Two recent items from their site serve to
illustrate the role they have undertaken, and the fallacies that
inform their approach.

In a response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed support for a
campaign to discontinue institutional relationship between the
University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
(BGU), Robert Fine argues: “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 country, 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.” And further: “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
nationality, there is a tangible risk of slippage from political
criticism to the vilification of a whole people.”

Why indeed single Israel out? First, we must recognize that Israeli
state institutions are in fact not singled out at all. Can Fine really
be unaware that his country and its allies have been boycotting the
Hamas government in Gaza (and for decades had boycotted the PLO), have
collaborated with sanctions campaigns at various times against Iran,
Iraq, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and various other
‘hostile’ countries, have invoked international human rights
legislation to prosecute political leaders and have used military
force on a massive scale against some of these countries? None of
these steps have been used against Israel. With the exception of few
feeble legal enquiries, almost always opposed by the UK and the USA,
Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone
unpunished. If Israel has been ‘singled out’ in this respect, it has
been for a privileged treatment.

But wait, Fine is a political theorist and would tell us – correctly –
that state is different from civil society, and his concern is with
the latter, not with the action of states. Let’s examine the issue. It
is true indeed that the academic boycott (though not other kinds of
boycott) as an issue has been raised by human rights and solidarity
organizations in relation to Israel but not to other oppressive
countries. Why is that the case?

To understand this, we have to go back to the anti-apartheid movement.
It argued that one cannot lead a normal life in an abnormal society.
The movement set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South
Africans, in order 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 football in Argentina (respectively sources
of great national pride), when both countries were under military
rule, but not the other way around.

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 firmly turned to the West,
they have become blind to Palestinians living under conditions of
military occupation and suffering from massive violation of human
rights. 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?

The academic boycott may become a successful strategy of political
mobilization against Israeli oppressive practices to the extent that
it manages to highlight what is wrong with the current situation and
put pressure on elite sectors in Israeli society to oppose their
government’s policies. In this vein, the petition that Desmond Tutu
signed did not call for a total boycott but specifically for
suspending relations with BGU until it took a stand against the
occupation, in the same way that South African universities were
expected to – and many did – issue statements against apartheid.
Whether such a strategy could or should be used against the UK, USA or
any other country is entirely irrelevant. No one ever demanded of the
anti-apartheid movement to act against all other oppressive regimes
before it could justify its specific claims to action; no one except
for PW Botha and his supporters, that is.

While some of Fine’s points are not without merit, he distorts the
essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the
exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity.” To
begin with, Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are
not affected at all. In addition, Jewish academics affiliated with
Israeli universities and non-Jewish academics are treated in the same
way – the campaign does not target Jews in particular. Further,
Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not
affected as individuals. No one in South Africa has called for their
exclusion from any academic activity whatsoever. The campaign is about
institutional relations, not about individual scholars. Fine’s
argument is pure fantasy as far as South Africa is concerned. There
were indeed a couple of instances a few years ago in which Israeli
academics were excluded in the UK as individuals, but these were
isolated incidents and most supporters of the academic boycott
campaign do not approve of such practices.

That criticism of Israeli practices may be turned by some into ‘a
vilification of a whole people’, as Fine cautions us, is theoretically
possible, but is that an argument for stopping such criticism?
Criticism of apartheid frequently turned into vilification of all
Afrikaners, criticism of US policies under George W Bush became
vilification of all North Americans, criticism of Iran has become
vilification of all Muslims, and so on. The problem of generalization
is real, and should be dealt with, but why is it that only in the case
of Israel this becomes an argument against criticism itself? Is that
not a case of singling Israel out? This is not to deny that
anti-Semitism may be a problem on the margins in some places. However,
to use that to undermine a campaign against the much more clear and
present danger of the Israeli state’s racist and oppressive practices,
which are backed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, betrays an
agenda that has nothing to do with concern with human rights and

Having said that, there is an important point implied in Fine’s
article. To make the most of the potential educational value of the
academic boycott campaign it must not become 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

This may be the most important contribution of the campaign: to side
with those fighting for change from within. Local activists in
Israel/Palestine 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 through such a
dialogue that the campaign can move forward.

Fine is misguided, though perhaps well-intentioned, and is respectful
towards Tutu. His colleague David Hirsh, in contrast, is out to do a
demolition job on one of the prominent activists and academics working
against the occupation, Neve Gordon.

Taking Gordon to task for changing his mind about the academic boycott
without providing reasons, Hirsh repeats the standard apologetic
arguments against the boycott campaign: that it opens the door to
anti-Semitism, that it singles out Israel alone for boycott, that it
harms the left in Israel, that it uses rhetoric like ‘fascism’ and
‘apartheid’ to portray Israel in a particularly bad light, and so on.

Setting aside the inconvenient fact that Gordon never called
specifically for an academic boycott, Hirsh has nothing to add to
Fine’s points beyond personal vilification. Ironically, but not
coincidentally, his attack on Gordon comes precisely at the moment
when Israeli progressives rally against what they themselves regard as
growing racist and fascist tendencies in Israel, expressed in
legislation the Government has just approved (expelling foreign
children, conditioning citizenship on loyalty tests, attacks on
Palestinian activists and organizations inside Israel, and so on).
That even some government ministers regard such trends as a threat of
creeping fascism is unlikely to deter Hirsh in his campaign against
Israeli dissidents…

What has changed to make Gordon support sanctions and boycotts now,
when he opposed them in the past? Without presuming to speak for him,
here are some possible answers: the legal and extra-legal campaign
against critical Israeli voices and dissident activists – Jews and
Arabs alike – has intensified dramatically in the last couple of
years, irrespective of their support for the BDS campaign. The freedom
of the press and of political expression in the media and public life
(including parliament) has shrunk. The space for peaceful protest and
hope for change from within has become more restricted. The violence
of the Israeli state has increased and the only effective – even if
limited – barrier to its further expansion is pressure from the
outside. Other strategies of persuasion from within have yielded
meagre results. The hysterical reaction of the Israeli establishment
whenever a boycott campaign achieves any measure of success indicates
its vulnerability to such tactics. Faced with all this, the concern
with the possible bias and double standards of the BDS movement (even
if it were genuine) pales into insignificance. Whatever pro-Israeli UK
academics may feel about the movement, their concerns have very
limited relevance to Israeli activists standing in the line of fire.
That many Israeli academics become radicalized as a result is hardly
surprising. What can they be expected to do instead? Fight the
occupation by obsessing over academic union officials’ e-mails, as
Engage is prone to do?

Ultimately, the bankruptcy of the approach offered by Engage and their
ilk is that they offer nothing by way of a strategy to fight the
occupation and oppression. At best, they are irrelevant to the
struggle. At worst, they actively side with the Israeli state and its
propaganda apparatus. Either way they have nothing positive to
contribute and must feel little satisfaction with their efforts: who
really needs useful idiots when you can go to the source and serve the
state directly?


2. Robert Fine (15/10/2010)

Dear Ran,

I have read your paper on the academic boycott that was published on
the Engage website, which contains inter alia criticisms of my own
response to Bishop Tutu’s support for the boycott. You raise important
issues to which I should like to respond.

Your first point is also my own. It is about how we ‘hear’ and
interpret viewpoints that conflict with our own. It seems to me
important to consider the substance of the arguments advanced, not to
avoid looking at the arguments by de-legitimising those who make them.
So when people criticise the academic boycott movement, it is possible
to dismiss such criticism by saying either that the critics are
‘easily identified’ apologists for Israel and the Israeli government
policies, or that they are ‘useful idiots’ unwittingly servicing the
Israeli state propaganda machine. I’m not sure in which of these
categories you would place my own contribution! Either way, there
remains the risk of dismissing the argument by demeaning the source.

Critics of the boycott movement come from many different political
standpoints, but speaking for myself (and this is, I think, mainstream
in Engage) I am critical of the policies currently pursued by the
Israeli government. More broadly I am critical of the occupation and
the human rights abuses that flow from occupation. And more broadly
still I am critical of the failure of successive Israeli governments
to recognise the real responsibilities that come with power.

I do not, however, hold Israel exclusively responsible for the
suffering and unfreedom of Palestinians. I try to understand Israeli
actions interactively, that is, in relation to others regional actors
some of whom are deadly enemies. And I refuse to demonise ‘Zionism’,
whatever that is, as the source of all that is wrong. I do not
endorse any nationalism myself – whether Zionist or Arab or Islamist
or indeed English – but I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a
right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to
treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow
Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own
Palestinian-democratic state. It is quite normal for people in modern
states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy
and national identity. The far bigger problem arises when there is no

My fellow contributors to the Engage website are not of one political
persuasion but none of us, as far as I know, rejects all criticism of
Israeli policies and practices and all of us seek to reconnect
antiracism and anti-antisemitism. I happen to be co-convenor a
European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism and a number
of individuals who contribute to Engage are also members of this
network. Our point of departure is that antisemitism is not a mere
ideology wielded by ‘Zionists’, any more than racism is a mere
ideology wielded by Black Nationalists.

It seems to me that as long as you treat ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word,
you can never get to grips with the complexities of the conflict in
the Middle East or the complexities of Jewish identification with
Israel in our respective countries. I believe that the analogy
between Israel and apartheid is one you have investigated in some
depth. There may indeed be some similar practices in relation to
settlements in the occupied territories and there is an
ultra-nationalist right wing in Israel adopting a disturbingly hostile
stance toward Palestinian Israelis. But the analogy ends there. In my
opinion it serves well to de-legitimate Israel (and in this context
justify a boycott) but it does not throw light on Israel or on the
conflicts in which it is embroiled.

I am in favour of assessing the justice and injustice of a situation
comparatively – for example, by comparing respect for human rights in
Israel and the occupied territories with the equivalent in Arab states
in the Middle East and in European states in the EU as well as in
South Africa – but analogy seems to me to bring comparative analysis
to a premature halt.

Why single Israel out? You say that Western governments do not single
Israel out, at least not negatively, and that Israeli war crimes and
violations of human rights have gone unpunished. You are on the whole
right, though in the European Union there are signs of an increasingly
‘tough’ official attitude toward Israel. As I see it, the first
question is whether Israel is a major human rights abuser in relation
to the inhabitants either of its own territory or of surrounding
territories. The comparisons you raise are indeed pertinent: Iran,
Iraq , Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

The second question is whether the state in Israel has succeeded in
making universities complicit with its own oppressive policies and
practices (compared, say, to universities in the same list). It seems
to me vital to get some perspective on what the state of Israel has
done, of which we may strongly disapprove, compared with situations in
which ethnic groups are slaughtered, oppositions forces murderously
suppressed, students beaten up and removed, trade union leaders
defenestrated, women stoned to death, and gay people persecuted. I
think you can lose perspective when you refer simply to ‘massive’
human rights abuses.

The issue here, moreover, is not what our governments do but what we
do. You say that an academic boycott hits Israelis where they most
hurt: the ‘obsessive need’ of their elites, and especially academics,
to feel an integral part of the global community. It seems to me that
feeling part of the global community is no bad thing – indeed a
feeling that we all ought to cultivate. Then you say: ‘With their eyes
firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians…’
This may be true of some but as far as I know the Israeli universities
are home to some of the more progressive Israeli citizens, Jewish and
Palestinian, who are anything but blind to what is happening to

Surely, our role is to offer our support to our academic colleagues in
Israel and Palestine, not to set them against one another and not to
cut them off from ‘the global community’. It is to support the
existence and indeed expansion of university spaces that doubtless
contain all manner of complicities but also make possible a culture of
radical dissent, critical thinking and respect for human rights. In my
view, no talk of ‘strategic advantage’ can possibly compensate for the
ill will of some and thoughtlessness of others that lies behind the
campaign to have nothing to do with these vital institutional spaces.

You say that ‘the petition that Desmond Tutu signed did not call for a
total boycott but specifically for suspending relations with BGU until
it took a stand against the occupation’. I don’t think this is so but
in any event it seems to me doubly problematic if the emphasis is only
on UJ-BGU links. First, one would have to pay some heed to the nature
of these links – which are mainly, I understand, to do with the
development of arid agriculture techniques. Second, one would have to
consider the overall nature of BGU, for example, the diversity of its
own student and staff or its links with Palestinian universities.
Third, one would have to explore whether there is space at BGU for
dissent, how that space has been used by dissenting voices, and what
actions if any the university has taken against such dissent. Having
not too long ago attended an antiracist conference at BGU, my own
impression is that the university as an institution comes out rather
well on these three counts. There are individuals within it who adopt
a militant, right wing rhetoric but, as Neve Gordon honourably points
out, their draconian calls for conformity have been resisted both by
the President of the University and the Dean of Social Sciences.

This brings me to my last point. You say that I ‘distort the essence
of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of
Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity”’. You are quite
right to say that Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli
universities are not directly affected. You are also right to say that
the boycott campaign does not formally discriminate between Jewish and
non-Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities. I disagree,
however, when you say that Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli
institutions are not affected as individuals and that no one in South
Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity.

You say that the campaign is about institutional relations, not about
individual scholars. It seems to me mistaken to think that an
institutional boycott does not affect individuals. Of course it does.
Institutions do not engage in research, write up papers, disseminate
their findings and apply them to practical projects. Individuals do.
If an institutional boycott is introduced, individuals will be
prevented from doing so outside Israel unless they leave Israeli
universities. This seems to me a recipe for discriminating against
individual academics on the basis of their country of work.

By the way, I think this is the substantive core of the argument
between Neve Gordon and David Hirsh: the former now seeing a
watertight wall between institutional boycott and individual
discrimination; the latter arguing, as I do, that the wall is
necessarily leaky. It has nothing to do with lying but with a
difference of political interpretation. If successfully implemented, I
wonder what the outcome of a boycott would be. My fear is that it
would encourage those academics who stay in Israeli universities to
batten down the hatches in opposition to an ‘antisemitic world’ and
those seeking to leave Israeli universities (whether for conscientious
or pragmatic reasons) to look for tenure in America, the UK or South
Africa. I can’t see how this would help foster a climate of diversity,
dissent and co-operation with Palestinians inside Israel itself.

You say I am against criticism of Israeli practices for fear that it
may be turned by some into ‘vilification of a whole people’. I am not
against ‘criticism’ but I am against vilification and I am against a
boycott of fellow academics based on their country of work. The point
I am seeking to make is that the arbitrariness of singling out Israeli
academe is connected with the search for ever more outlandish
justifications. We all know the difference between, say, criticism of
a literary text and vilification of its author because she or he is of
a particular social origin or particular political persuasion or
particular sexual orientation. We also know the difference between
criticism and banning a book because it is seen as ‘Jewish’ or
what-not. Boycott is not criticism. It is exclusion. We doubtless
disagree how marginal the problem of antisemitism is, but that it is a
problem is something we have to confront.

In my view your heart is in the right place but you could not be more
mistaken than to think that the boycott could and should be a ‘step
towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with
Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics’. If we want to do this,
then let’s do it. Not preface it with a boycott which the vast
majority of Israeli academics of various political persuasions are
opposed to and in relation to which the attitude of Palestinian
academics is not to my knowledge uniform or clear. If we want to
oppose right wing voices in Israeli universities, then support those
who stand up to them – including official representatives of the
universities themselves.

Let me end with a word about your comments on Engage. First, the
approach offered by Engage is one that tries to go beyond a politics
of victims and victimisers: a politics that allows one voice to the
victims and imposes absolute culpability on the victimisers. Engage
provides a space in which the complexities of a difficult situation
can be aired and debated.

Second, to campaign against antisemitism on the Left and from the Left
is hardly a mark of bankruptcy; it inherits an honourable tradition
that goes back to Karl Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s radical
rejection of Jewish emancipation and Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of
German Social Democracy’s equivocations over political antisemitism.
The fact that Engage alerts us to the dangers of overlap between
antisemitism and hatred of Israel is surely something we should all
welcome under the register of antiracism.

Finally, we cannot and should not accept the view that, willy-nilly,
criticism of the boycott plays into the hands of right wing Zionists.
It’s a bit like people saying in the old days that criticism of the
USSR played into the hands of imperialism. Sometimes this was true but
as often as not it was a way of refusing to hear the call of common

Best wishes, Robert Fine

Robert Fine ne is author of Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in
South Africa, a professor of Sociology at Warwick University, and a
leading social theorist.

Ran Greenstein (16/10/2010)

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your response to my criticism of your article. Let me
clarify my position: the academic boycott campaign is not a sacred
cow, and you can criticise it without necessarily becoming an
apologist for the Israeli state. Israeli scholars such as the late
Baruch Kimmerling and Neve Gordon argued against academic boycotts
without compromising their critical perspective. Unfortunately, most
of those who take this position on Engage do become – wittingly or
otherwise – such apologists. Your article falls, in my view, into this
category. You are indeed critical of some Israeli policies and
practices, but you present your views in a way that shields other
policies and practices from criticism.

Allow me to elaborate on that point. You argue: “I hold that a
Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even
as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal
citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form
their own Palestinian-democratic state. It is quite normal for people
in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between
democracy and national identity.”

There may be a contradiction between national identity and democracy
in all states. What is unique to Israel is that national identity is
defined solely in ethnic-religious terms, and civic nationalism which
encompasses all citizens equally does not exist. Further, it is the
declared policy of the current Israeli government and its
predecessors, backed by the courts, to ensure that such national
identification never emerges, and to suppress all its manifestations
by legal as well as coercive means. In this sense a Jewish democratic
state is a contradiction in terms. As the saying goes, it is ‘Jewish’
for Arabs and ‘democratic’ for Jews. The exclusion of Palestinians (as
second-class citizens, as occupied subjects, and as stateless
refugees) has been the foundation of the Jewish state since its
inception. What political thugs like Lieberman and Yishai
(respectively foreign and interior ministers) say openly today, has
been practiced since 1948 in a more diplomatic but no less oppressive
manner by all preceding governments.

You argue that the analogy between Israeli and apartheid practices
ends with the occupation and the views of the “ultra-nationalist right
wing in Israel”. I beg to differ. In a long analysis, which cannot be
replicated here, I argue that the analogy must be based on the
realization that ‘Israel proper’ (in its pre-1967 boundaries) no
longer exists. The occupation has lasted for 43 years (already a year
longer than apartheid), and there is no going back from it. Greater
Israel (with the occupied territories) and Greater Palestine (with the
refugees) are the meaningful units of analysis, when we consider
Israeli practices and compare them to apartheid SA (see detailed
discussion in
would welcome your comments on it.

You argue: “ It seems to me vital to get some perspective on what the
state of Israel has done, of which we may strongly disapprove,
compared with situations in which ethnic groups are slaughtered,
oppositions forces murderously suppressed, students beaten up and
removed, trade union leaders defenestrated, women stoned to death, and
gay people persecuted.”

I agree that if we wished to construct a universal scale of human
rights violations, that would indeed be the case. That may be a
worthwhile project, but not one I have any interest in. As an Israeli
citizen my concern with what ‘my’ government is doing. As a Jew, my
concern is with what the state that claims to represent me is doing in
my name. That it is not the only or the worst offender violating human
rights is irrelevant. Israel has done its share in expelling ethnic
groups (80% of the indigenous inhabitants of the territories that
became Israel in 1947-48), murdering opposition forces (defined as
‘terrorists’), beating up and killing students (in the occupied
territories), and so on. That some other governments behave similarly
is no consolation at all.

You argue that there are progressive academics and radical dissidents
in Israel. Of course there are, and I am proud to have met and worked
with some of them. But, the universities as institutions have NEVER
voiced the slightest criticism of human rights violations, the
occupation, military abuses, bombing civilian targets, and so on. They
have never raised their voices against suppression of academic and
educational life for Palestinians in the occupied territories. That is
why the campaign should target institutions and not individuals.
No-one I know in South Africa supports the exclusion of Israeli
academics as individuals from presenting papers, participating in
discussion, attending conference, publishing articles, and other such
individual activities. BGU, Wits and other institutions have hosted
Israeli academics of different political persuasions without any calls
to boycott them. The campaign aims to sever institutional links rather
than prevent relations between scholars. Read the UJ petition and talk
to those who signed it if you are sceptical.

How can a campaign distinguish between individual and institutional
targets? Here are some thoughts based on the need to convey the notion
that things cannot proceed as usual, that there is no normal academic
life in an abnormal society: do not attend any conference in Israel
that does not explicitly address issues of rights and justice; link up
with internal dissident forces and work with them to undermine
discriminatory and abusive institutional practices; boycott any
academic project that has military links; do not teach in specialized
programmes dedicated to members of the security/military apparatuses;
campaign against European or British financial support for any
academic programme that does not have explicit progressive content
(including ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ research); condition any further
cooperation by insisting that the institution subscribe to something
along the lines of the ‘Sullivan Code’, which was used under SA
apartheid to enforce a minimum code of acceptable practice. I am sure
you can come up with more ideas of this nature.

This is an ongoing debate. I am not the only one taking part and would
strongly recommend that you read today’s Mail & Guardian for an
effective response by Farid Essack to your article. It has not been
posted online yet, but I would be happy to forward it when it becomes
available (published in the meantime under

Best wishes

Ran Greenstein


Robert Fine, 20/10/2010

Dear Ran

Thank you for your considered response to my letter. I want to address
one particular and important argument you raise. You pick out this
passage from my letter:
‘I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend
itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in
Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied
territories to form their own Palestinian state. It is quite normal
for people in modern states to find ways of living with the
contradiction between democracy and national identity’

You reply:

‘What is unique in Israel is that national identity is defined solely
in ethnic-religious terms and civic nationalism which encompasses all
citizens equally does not exist… It is the declared policy of the
current Israeli government and its predecessors, backed by courts, to
ensure that such national identification never emerges… a Jewish
democratic state is a contradiction in terms.’

We agree there is a contradiction. I say the contradiction between
democracy and Jewish national identity is ‘normal’. You say it is
‘unique’ because national identity in Israel is framed in ethnic
rather than civic terms and because the exclusion of Palestinians has
been the foundation of the Jewish state since its inception. We also
agree that the distinction between ethnic and civic national identity
is an important one. It marks the difference between an idea of a
nation based on allegedly common origin, blood, religion, history,
culture, etc. and an idea of a nation of equal citizens regardless of
origin, ‘blood’, ‘race’, religion or ‘culture’.

And now for our disagreements. I cannot see what by this criterion is
unique about Israel. There are plenty of states whose national
identity has an ethnic dimension. It seems to me that most states
emerging from colonial domination or imperial rule have based
themselves on the right of their particular nation to
self-determination. In all such cases there are urgent questions
concerning the treatment of people inside the territories of these
newly emerging states, who are not deemed to belong to the ruling
nation in question. In the Middle East, as I understand it, many
states that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and then European
colonial rule have characteristically described themselves as ‘Arab’
or ‘Arab-Muslim’ and have faced the problem of how to treat non-Arab
minorities in their territories, such as Jews. The Jewish state in
this sense is no exception – it is the rule.

Second, it seems to me important not to overstate the distinction
between civic and ethnic national identity. In practice, ‘civic’
nations (including my own) may have their own ‘established’ religions,
their own more or less official ways of discriminating against ‘alien’
people, their own differential allocation of rights according to some
system of civic stratification (e.g. legitimate and bogus asylum
seekers), their own controls over the boundaries, physical and
symbolic, between nationals and foreigners, and so forth. We may not
like it, but Germanness, Britishness, Frenchness and I imagine South
Africanness have not been extinguished by the magic potion of civic
national identity.

Equally, those nations labeled ‘ethnic’ may indeed at one extreme
exclude, expel or murder those deemed not to belong to the ruling
nation, but they may also establish civic guarantees to minorities or
grant equal civic, political and social rights for all and not just
for their own. Just as the civic nation is not necessarily as civic as
it appears, so too the ethnic nation is not necessarily as ethnic as
it appears. We are in the terrain of social being as well as ideology.

Third, it seems to me important not to slip from a valid and useful
distinction between ethnic and civic national identity into the
recreation of a moral division of the world between us and them: ‘we’
who are civic and civilised; ‘they’ who believe in the purity of the
nation and act with corresponding barbarity. This is an old opposition
but Israel seems now to play a peculiar role in this reconstructed
binary. My belief is that the distinction between civic and ethnic
forms of national identity is being employed to represent ‘Israel’ as
the Other of civilized society, that is, as the incarnation of all the
negative properties that civic nations now claim to have overcome.
‘Israel’ serves here not as a real country embroiled in real
conflicts, but as a vessel into which civic nations can project all
that is bad in their own past and present and thus preserve the good
for themselves. In this scenario ‘Israel’ performs a symbolic function
as the ethnic-religious state par excellence – one that denies civic,
political, social and human rights to those who do not belong (the
Palestinians) and has an inbuilt inclination toward exclusion,
expulsion or genocide. Not only does this image of ‘Israel’ bear
little relation to the real thing, it also justifies any kind of
violence by the image-makers. Even the most valid of distinctions can
be put to invalid use.

Today it seems to me that your position paradoxically dulls the nerve
of outrage. In Israel it declares that Lieberman and Yishai merely say
openly what has been practiced since 1948. So according to your
account nothing has changed. It’s the same old story. There can be no
drift toward ethnic-religious fundamentalism in Israel because Israel
is by definition an ethnic-religious state. There can be no worsening
of the treatment of Arab Israelis since they have always been
second-class citizens. There can be no danger to the integrity of
Israel since it always has been and always will be ethnic-religious.
And what is more, it is unique. Would it be an unfair extrapolation
to say that for you Palestine is equally timeless: a just cause whose
essentially civic aims are not in the least tarnished by the Hamas
Charter or the Hezbollah Manifesto?

You acknowledge I am ‘critical of some Israeli policies and practices’
but you say my criticisms are not enough. What would be enough for
you, it seems, is the dissolution of Israel into a greater Palestinian
entity (including all Jews and Palestinians with a right of return for
all Palestinian refugees). To my mind, your approach contains the
potential violence of imposing an ‘ought’ onto reality. We have to
start from where we are – not from some ideal of where we ought to be.

In the Middle East the ‘Jewish’ state exists. It exists for historical
reasons. So too do various ‘Arab’ states. In no case has there been an
unblemished history of dealing with people deemed not to belong to the
defining nation. In every case there have been political arguments
within states between those inclined to ethnic exclusivism and those
inclined to civic inclusion. This is a political battle within states,
not a distinction between bad nations and good. It is a battle that
has often been lost.

It is clear to me that Palestinians have been to varying degrees more
or less excluded from the possession of civil, political and social
rights by many states in the Middle East. Their political leaders
claim the right to ‘their own’ state and Israel by virtue of the
occupation finds itself in a position to grant this right. It has not
done so for a variety of reasons, including or especially fear. This
failure has become a terrible weight on Israel’s back and my belief is
that the liberation of the Palestinian people will prove to be of
great advantage to Israel. The obstacles to this desirable outcome
come from many parts. To have any hope of achieving this outcome, our
political need is not to heap on “Israel” absolute culpability, as the
boycott call tends to do, but to support those in Israel, Palestine
and surrounding Arab nations who share this hope and oppose a politics
of despair.

If this is not enough for you, then what exactly is enough? In my
opinion, it is no answer to the ethnic-religious claim that Jews have
a God-given, absolute and exclusive right to their own nation in
Israel to say that Jews have no right at all to their own nation or
that the Jewish state is uniquely illegitimate. The one is the
negation of the other and like all negations can merely end up

You make a number of other points I should like to return to –
especially on the apartheid analogy and on the universality of human
rights – but perhaps we can pursue these on another occasion.

Best wishes,

Robert Fine

Ran Greenstein, 21/10/2010

Dear Robert,

Let me respond briefly to your thoughtful and useful discussion:

1. Is Israel merely one of many states that combine ethnic and civic
nationalism, and therefore is not unique? My answer is that Israel is
indeed unique as an exclusionary state. No other state is founded –
historically and at present – on the physical and political exclusion
of the majority of its indigenous population. No other state regards
its ethnic identity as the sine qua non of its existence with such
intensity. No other state is an ethnic ‘demographic state’ in the same
way. No other state combines the inclusion of all members of one group
(Jews), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links to the
territory, with the exclusion of most members of another group
(Palestinians), regardless of their specific origins and concrete
links to the territory.

The combination of inclusion of one group of citizens (and their
relatives and ethnic kin, however remote in time and place), with the
exclusion of another group of citizens (and their relatives and ethnic
kin, however close in time and space), is the source of the problem.
Some states in Europe or elsewhere give immigration preference to
ethnic kin, or use ethnic symbols in their flag or anthem, but none of
them pursues such a dual policy of inclusion/exclusion vis-à-vis its
own citizens.

2. Does Israel’s uniqueness mean it is uniquely evil? I prefer not to
use theological concepts in political debate. So, Israel is not ‘evil’
(uniquely or otherwise). But, it does violate human rights on a
massive scale, and it oppresses its ethnic ‘other’ – the Palestinians.
It is nothing new, and the intensity of oppression has changed over
time: from high intensity for the first two decades (when most
Palestinian citizens lived under military rule), to a more tolerant
policy for the subsequent 25 years, interspersed with bouts of
repression (1975-76). In the last decade we have witnessed renewed
intensity of racist oppression, culminating with the concerted
campaign waged by the current government (led by Lieberman and Yishai,
with the tacit support of Netanyahu).

So, in response to your query, Israel can fundamentally be an ethnic
exclusionary state, and yet the degree of political oppression at any
point in time shifts depending on contingent events and processes.
There is no contradiction here. From your work on South Africa you
would know that apartheid provided a stable framework of exclusion,
and yet there were periods in which it was intensified or relaxed as
the case may be. And, these variations led to sharp debates and
political splits between the enlightened and narrow-minded factions
(known as the verligte and verkrampte camps respectively).

3. You ask what kind of reform would be enough for me: the dissolution
of Israel into a greater Palestinian entity (including all Jews and
Palestinians with a right of return for all Palestinian refugees)? My
answer is more complex. The crucial step is the transformation of
Israel into a state of all its citizens. Not ‘dissolving’ or
‘eliminating’ Israel but sharing it equally as an inclusive non-ethnic
democracy. Further steps would be termination of the 1967 occupation,
and negotiation between Israel and representatives of the Palestinian
refugees over implementation of a solution based on UN resolution 194.

Final point, do Jews have a right to self-determination as everybody
else does? Yes, absolutely. Do they have a right to exercise their
self-determination against the wishes and at the expense of people
already residing in their designated territory? No, absolutely not,
no-one has such right. How to square the circle then? We need to start
from the existing situation and move forward: Israel exists and will
not go away, but there is no reason why its residents cannot transform
it from an exclusionary ethnic state into an inclusive democratic
state, in order to meet their concerns. That is my primary goal and
once we agree on it we can discuss what political strategies and
campaigns can get us there.

Best wishes

Ran Greenstein

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