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Losing the debate, boycott opponents rely on legal threats

Last month at the University of Leeds, a debate was held on the boycott of Israel. The specific motion read: “This house believes that UK academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides by international law”.

Arguing for the motion were Jonathan Rosenhead and Sue Blackwell, both active members of British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). Against them were Robert Fine and Hugh Hubbard, the former an active campaigner against the boycott of Israel. In the pre-debate vote, the motion was backed 53-37. By the end of the debate, that had shifted to 68-23 in favour of academic boycott, a clear majority.

Robert Fine’s speech against the boycott was subsequently posted online by Engage (though without the inconvenient result), an anti-boycott campaign group. It is a perfect example of how even the more ‘sophisticated’ anti-BDS arguments are flawed, and built on misrepresentation.

Fine claims that the boycott “punishes” Israeli universities and their members “for the deeds and misdeeds of the state”, repeating later how the boycott is “holding Israeli universities and academics responsible for this wrong [of the occupation]”. On another occasion, Fine says the boycott is “on the basis of nationality”.

Unsurprisingly, Fine also throws in baseless smears, weakly cushioned by caveats. There’s the “fear” that the boycott “encourages antisemitism” because it “exclude[s] Jews and only Jews”, with Fine also adding that “it seems” there is “some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past”.

But the boycott is not about “hold[ing] academic institutions and academics responsible for the actions of the Israeli state” – it is about holding Israeli institutions accountable for their own actions, and for complicity in the crimes of the state. That Fine can declare an “absence of good reasons to boycott Israeli academic institutions” is only because he has completely ignored them.

The rationale of the academic boycott call is no mystery – it can be found on the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The call is for “a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, based on the premise that these institutions are complicit in the system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law.”

The boycott means, for example, refraining from “collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions”. It has nothing to do with an individual’s views. PACBI even specifically notes that “mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy” is “not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott.”

There are numerous examples of the institutional complicity of Israeli universities: Technion developed a remote-controlled bulldozer used by the Israeli military in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and offers tailored programmes for the military; the Hebrew University has a joint program with Israel’s Ministry of Defense for science students later integrated into the army’s R&D units; Tel Aviv University boasts of “defense-related research throughout the TAU campus” and over 50 Ministry of Defense-funded projects; and Israel’s newest university, Ariel, is actually situated in an illegal West Bank settlement.

Despite Fine’s apparent commitment to “international solidarity” with “civil society”, when it comes to the Palestinians, he has a problem. He first questions the extent of Palestinian support for an academic boycott, but his only evidence is comments made by Mahmoud Abbas. Fine also suggests that to cite the boycott call from Palestinians is “to deny plurality within the Palestinian people”.

So on the one hand Fine seeks to downplay a call for solidarity from Palestinian trade unions, federations and civil society associations – while on the other hand, going out of his way to “offer our solidarity” to “165 Israeli academics who support a boycott of Ariel University”. That’s 165 academics, from thousands.

This is not the first time that Fine has embarrassed himself with a disingenuous anti-boycott argument. In the Winter 2012 issue of the European Sociologist, the newsletter of the European Sociological Association (ESA), Fine repeated the same misrepresentations and omissions.

When I approached the editors about contributing a response piece, the offer was welcomed with open arms. My finalised, editor-approved piece was sent to Fine to give him the opportunity to comment -and then, silence. Months later, the editor informed me that “the editorial committee have chosen not to publish your contribution as it does not meet the standards accepted by our organisation”. The co-chair of the ESA’s Committee for Publications? Robert Fine.

Robert Fine’s defeat at the Leeds debate is indicative of a wider trend. Fine has been involved with Engage, an anti-boycott campaign group allegedly set up with funding from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Engage’s most prominent founding-member is David Hirsh, whose track record includes participating in a 2009 conference on “antisemitism” organised by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where he took part in an anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions working group.

In 2012, Hirsh spoke at an event organised by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Asked by an audience member how successful he and his colleagues had been in opposing the boycott, Hirsh admitted that they had changed “very few people’s minds”.

We’re fighting, but I believe that the atmosphere is going away from us, gently, slowly, not catastrophically, just gets a little wee bit worse every year.

The only ‘success’ of substance Hirsh could point to was that the University and College Union “refuses to implement any boycott because they know that they would be sued by some of our friends”. Summarising Hirsh’s answer – Israel’s apologists are losing the argument, and dependent on legal threats.

This is an emerging pattern – from King’s College London to the American Studies Association, support for pro-BDS arguments is met by lawfare attacks by Israel’s supporters. This shouldn’t be a surprise. More people are being persuaded by the need to respond positively to the Palestinian call for BDS because of an increased awareness of Israeli crimes – which are getting worse not better – and a growing reluctance to tolerate Israeli impunity. Combine that with the slow-motion death of the peace process, and things are only going to get worse for the anti-boycott brigade.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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