Mail&Guardian: 'Why I support the boycott of Israel'

'Why I support the boycott of Israel'
By Vijay Prashad
Mail&Guardian- Johannesburg -[16_03_11]

So much of my college time in the 1980s in California went toward the distant struggles of South Africans for freedom. My textbook was Ann Seidman's Why US Corporations Should Get Out of South Africa (1979) given to his students by my teacher Sid Lemelle. We organised a tent city outside our college president's house, and after what seemed to us to be protracted struggle, we got our college to divest from banks (such as Bank of America) that held South African assets or that invested in South Africa.

Inside "Students Against Apartheid" we debated the merits of boycotts and disinvestment. The main argument against us was that capital-starved South Africa would only hurt the very poor. Wasn't there a better way to go forward? Why boycott cricketers and intellectuals, who would after all create the basis for people-to-people interaction across communities?

The answers were easy then. The all-white cricket team should have itself refused to play abroad till it could welcome clack and coloured players in its ranks. So too should intellectuals have demurred from promoting their colleges that participated in the maintenance of the apartheid regime. When Congressman Dick Cheney told the US Congress that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, we put that sentence on flyers and handed it out. Until Mandela was free, and South African apartheid dismantled, we argued, we should not allow South Africa to pretend that it is a civilised state and society.

My South African experience has had a marked impact on my own life and imagination. My political anchor would not be so heavy if not for the gravity of that fight, even far away from the dangers of struggle inside South Africa itself. It is why I am now so intimately involved in the campaign to liberate Palestinians from the yoke of the Israeli state.

But why be part of a boycott of intellectuals and artistic workers?

First, those of us who are involved in this movement come to it not as a principle, but as a strategy. I do not oppose Israel, but I do oppose the policies of the Israeli state. When the occupation ends, I will be the first to say let us remove the boycott. The impetus for the boycott comes from activists within the Occupied Territories and Israel -- just as we took the lead from the South African freedom movement in the 1980s, so too the freedom movement in Israel and the Occupied Territories now guides us.

Second, as my friend Neve Gordon says, the need for the boycott is precisely because the Israeli left is weak. If there were a strong opposition inside Israel that had the capability to generate a politics against the occupation, the boycott strategy would not be necessary. We would then spend our energy providing solidarity to that left. But the left is absent, and Ehud Barak's egotistical politics has even destroyed what used to be Israel's social democratic force (the Labour Party). Neve, who teaches in the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, writes, "I am extremely anxious about the extent that the space for public debate in Israel is shrinking." Our boycott campaign is intended to provide pressure to increase the space for dissent within Israel: we would like to send a message to the Israeli academy that those who dissent must not be treated as disloyal Israelis and chastised for their political alignments. Our campaign is, therefore, as much about the desiccated political space inside Israel as it is to end the occupation. The occupation has, of course, devastated the capacity of the Palestinians to maintain a civil society in which a politics could develop.

It is a standing rebuke to Israel's pretence that it is a democracy to watch its disregard for the will of the Palestinians to express their political views.

A boycott strategy is always contradictory. We are in favour of a boycott of the institutions, not of individual academics or cultural worker. If an intellectual or cultural worker comes to promote a pro-occupation institution, then we recommend the boycott. If they come with sincerity as individuals who oppose the racist and colonial policies of the government, we welcome them. It is precisely because the boycott is a strategy and not a principle that such contradictions are inevitable and welcomed. I would close my door to an Israeli institution that does not make a forthright criticism, as an institution, of the occupation. I would always open my door to the critical judgement of Neve Gordon, for instance, but I would shut the door to any intellectual or cultural worker who makes it their purpose to talk about an untarnished Brand Israel, with the occupation swept under the rug. That would be like welcoming a South African intellectual in the early 1980s who wanted to talk about the dynamism in the diamond sector, but who pretended that apartheid did not exist.

The insincerity would have been sufficient to paralyse anyone's sense of ethics.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, professor and director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2008), which won the Muzaffar Ahmad Prize of 2009.