Boycott only opponents of freedom

September 20, 2002

Nelson Mandela's solidarity with a Palestinian 'terrorist' provokes comparison between the Israeli government and the apartheid regime. John Higgins argues that South Africa's past also teaches that selective academic boycotts served to accelerate moves to peaceful dialogue

Everyone knows Nelson Mandela, and exactly what he stands for. His prestige, in a global politics dominated by smug self-interest and callous disregard for the common good, is truly extraordinary. Mandela is a living symbol of the power that political dialogue has to quell and dissipate violence.

So it is that his recent decision to observe the trial of Palestinian "terrorist" Marwan Barghouti may mark a turning point in the tide of world opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mandela's very presence is likely to put Israel as much in the dock as Barghouti himself, particularly if his reported comment about his participation is taken seriously. "What is happening to Barghouti is exactly the same as happened to me," he noted. "The government tried to delegitimise the African National Congress and its armed struggle by putting me on trial."

Evident in Mandela's remark, and his identification with Barghouti's plight, is the sense that there are deep and damaging parallels between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa.

All parallels seek to draw attention to unexpectedly common elements in otherwise different historical circumstances. In the parallel between Israel and apartheid South Africa, it is the casual brutality and callousness of the Israelis' daily treatment of Palestinians, combined with the barbarous tactics of political murder and assassination, that recall the worst excesses of apartheid. The common element is the use of political power and military violence to avoid coming to terms with the difficult reality of shared existence in a common geographical territory.

A sure sign of this avoidance or disavowal of reality is when you get the sense that language is drifting into perpetual scare quotes. What exactly are the "occupied territories" or the "disputed territories"? Is "settlement" really the right term for an act of aggressive colonisation? What is the difference between an "incursion" and an invasion? Something is wrong when reality is referred to in terms that seem to demand inverted commas whether they are given them or not. Facing this can take more political courage than sending in troops or suicide bombers.

At the sore, ugly centre of the two conflicts lies a common reality, one that, today, many Israelis would like to forget but Palestinians insist on remembering: the bitter reality of dispossession.

While 1948 in South Africa saw the advent of the total political and territorial dispossession of black South Africans that became apartheid (separated-ness, forced-apartness), in Israel it saw the still largely unacknowledged and highly disputed fact of the removal of two-thirds of the Palestinian people from their homeland. It is this dispossession and its negation that forms the centre of the current conflict. Nothing can be resolved until that much-denied reality is fully faced, and faced in the spirit of truth and justice that drives reconciliation in South Africa.

In the light of such comparisons, peace initiatives seem to amount to little more than a renewed attempt to make the Palestinian Authority act - in a parody of statehood - as a puppet government over a disconnected series of Bantustan-like entities. To break this impasse and to seek to produce a language adequate to the complex reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, progressive opinion is turning to the tactics of academic boycott. Is there anything to be learnt, in this, from South Africa's experience?

Most academics share a gut instinct that a boycott can never be a good thing, and that the ideal of academic freedom can always be invoked decisively against boycott. But the South African experience tended to show that proper respect for an ideal demands careful attention to circumstances.

Given that academic freedom had not existed in South Africa since at least 1959, the moment when open racial access to university education had been prohibited, an academic boycott aimed at restoring academic and other democratic freedoms could not realistically be conceived as a threat to any existing academic freedoms. Opposition to the boycott couched in terms of academic freedom looked dangerously threadbare on close examination and tended to suggest that this appeal to the ideal was being used, consciously or not, as a means of evading the uncomfortable realities of apartheid society and education. Many South Africans found that the best defence of the ideal of academic freedom was one that attended to the grain and grit of worldly circumstance.

In the end, South Africa found that the practice of a selective boycott was the best means of making individuals and institutions face the facts and assume the broader moral and intellectual responsibilities that link academic freedom to larger human freedoms. The demand for a total academic boycott - which emanated from anti-apartheid organisations overseas - undoubtedly served as a dramatic and radicalising call for progressive academics and played its part in raising public consciousness worldwide about the anti-apartheid struggle. Somewhat paradoxically, it also worked to marginalise the very activist academic groups within South Africa it was meant to encourage and support.

At first, such self-consciously progressive groups operated only at a local level, as pressure points for change within their individual universities. They worked, for instance, to enable university admission for under-prepared students from black communities. At the same time, they gave public and physical support to students in their increasingly vociferous opposition to government policy, marching in the front line at peaceful demonstrations and at the mass funerals that also served as vehicles of protest.

Progressive academics finally came together to form a national body - UDUSA, the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations - in 1987. At this point, it became possible to regularise what in practice was already becoming a selective boycott. The national organisation became the clearing-house for applications, for example, from South African academics to attend overseas conferences or work in other ways with overseas institutions.

To be in good standing with a local or international progressive organisation was sufficient grounds for boycott exemption. Thus, Edward Said was able to speak presciently on what academic freedom might come to mean in a free society.

The political importance of such a radicalisation can be gauged by the ways in which, by the late 1980s, many South African universities had become sites of active public opposition to apartheid policy, with the government trying to bring them to heel in 1987 through the de Klerk regulations. These sought to forbid any staff or student participation in anti-apartheid protest on pain of subsidy cut. Unwittingly, the regulations demonstrated the success of the boycott tactic, and how it can work, counter-intuitively, to promote the core values of peaceful dialogue and the search for truth that stand at the heart of the academic enterprise.

There is no reason to believe that similar arrangements for selective boycott could not be reached in Israel, perhaps best through the agency of a joint committee of Palestinian and Israeli academics. A selective boycott, properly administered, can have the necessary effect of radicalising opinion within and beyond the ivory towers around the basic issues of justice and truth that will have to be faced by both communities. However, though not surprisingly, the criteria for applying a selective boycott are likely to be contentious, at one and the same time logically simple but politically complex.

Simple, in the sense that at least one of the grounds for exemption from boycott might be relatively easy to formulate. "Individual academics or institutions that demonstrate support for an end to acts of violence and terror, and the promotion of peaceful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, are exempt from boycott restrictions." Politically complex in that a major intellectual effort might be necessary to get beyond many of the received ideas, for instance with regard to just what constitutes acts of terror. Acts of state terrorism, as well as those of individual terrorists, deserve equal condemnation.

To grasp the reality beyond the scare quotes, it is necessary to accept that all military action against civilians, as well as Israel's explicit policy of targeted assassination, counts just as much as terrorism as sniping or suicide bombing do.

Similarly, a key feature of selective boycott is the recognition that academic freedom is ideally indivisible. Israeli academics and institutions need to demonstrate their support for academic freedom by defending that of their Palestinian peers, and protesting, for example, against the recent forced closure of the administration of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and the harassment of staff and students at the West Bank's Birzeit University. In practice, in this context, not to do so implies that you risk renouncing your own right to academic freedom.

Difficult and complex judgements. But, as Mandela's stance implies, it is high time that both sides in this conflict started to face the facts. Dispossession and military repression breed discontent and resistance and fuel the cycle of vengeful violence that we see in operation. The South African experience shows that only dialogue, and not force of arms, can finally prevail in the search for peace.

For the moment, it looks as if only the pressure of opinion - generated locally and globally and intensified by such things as academic boycott and disinvestment campaigns - is likely to lead politicians away from the short-sighted and self-perpetuating views of the current conflict to the longer term ethical standpoints that will be necessary to resolve it.

John Higgins is professor of English at the University of Cape Town and a long-standing member of its Academic Freedom Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity. He is completing a study of Karl Marx for Routledge's Critical Thinkers series.

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