The student newspaper of Edinburgh University (The Student, Tuesday 3 November 2015) recently carried a report on the public pledge signed by UK academics to boycott Israeli universities. The piece offered reasonably balanced student and academic opinion about the matter, and included comment from both the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
The pledge of the UK academics doubtless brought enthusiastic applause across Edinburgh campuses, not least among local supporters of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC). However, let us get this all into perspective. Based on the number of academics and universities reported on, a mere 6-7 academics in each of the 72 universities appear to have actually signed the public pledge, according to the report. Since there are something like 109 university institutions across the UK, with 90-odd in England alone, and since the returns of the Higher Education Statistics Agency tell us that there were 194,245 UK academic staff in 2013-2014, the level of response must surely be read as a dismal failure of the much-lauded ‘latest salvo in the broader Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign’.
It is always possible that the intentions of those 400 out of 190,000 or so academics are positive ones and completely devoid of bigotry, and simply the expression of a desire to ‘help’ Palestinians against particular Israeli policy, perceived policy, or set of Israeli behaviours. However, when there are no comparable boycott campaigns to exclude any other states based on this or that – when Israel is regarded almost as ‘the’ singular evil – then alarm bells ought to start ringing.
Why the focus on Israel? Why no criticism of Egypt for its demolition of houses in Gaza to make way for a barrier? Why is there not even a whimper, not a petition, not a protest, when Palestinians suffer in their thousands in Syria? Why no boycott of China (a country that ‘disappears’ dissenting Tibetans) or Russia for human rights abuses? Or of Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya community? Why no focus on the many states where freedom of the press and freedom of speech are lacking? Or of those where there is no functioning legal system? Why no focus on those countries where trade unions and political parties are illegal? Why no focus on countries where there is no democracy? Why no pressure on Palestinian leaderships to dump ‘rejectionism’ and become the actors in a conflict it is within their power to resolve?
Exclusive focus on Jewish Israel for boycott, will normalise Jews across the world as suitable targets for exclusion and punishment. If we can anthropomorphise things a bit, and look at Israel as a student playing in a playground of countries; if we then witnessed a teaching assistant look out the window to watch bullying students terrorising their classmates, and then yank inside for detention the Jewish kid trying to defend him or herself, then we’d want to start asking questions. We’d smell a vague whiff of bigotry.
The piece in The Student noted that the move by academics was ‘hailed by Palestinian rights groups’ and that their pledge ‘was lauded by Palestinian advocacy organisations’. Qatari-born Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and founding member of the BDS movement, and who has attended Tel Aviv University (can anyone else see the irony of that one) will doubtless have hailed and lauded the academics. But, what about the Palestinian Government? Has it hailed and lauded the UK academic boycott? Isn’t it the case that the Palestinian Government is disparaging of the BDS movement, and doesn’t believe that it serves the interests of the Palestinian people?
Though skilled at offering one view to Arab audiences and another to non-Arabic-speaking audiences, even Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the boycotting of Israel. Indeed, Palestinian infrastructural decision-making also tells a story far from supportive of BDS. For example, the first buyer of natural gas from Israel’s largest gas field in the Mediterranean will be the Palestine Power Generation Company (PPGC) which supplies power to Palestinian areas in the West Bank. PPGC will buy around $1.2-billion worth of gas over 20-years. The Israeli Leviathan Group will sell the PPGC as much as 4.75-billion cubic metres of gas when the Leviathan product begins to flow in 2016 or 2017. The Palestinian company aims to build a $300-million power plant in the West bank city of Jenin to produce electricity from the gas.
It would seem that local Palestinian economic policy is at odds with the shrill calls from distant Europe. Indeed, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead of the London School of Economics has made himself heard through the clamour. He tells The Student that if Israel continues with its policies ‘there are consequences’ and ‘Israel in the end will feel some of the disadvantages which Palestinians already have’. Really?
Isn’t it the case that BDS actions also have consequences, and add to Palestinian disadvantage? Didn’t the movement recently wreck Palestinian job opportunities? Didn’t the successful Israeli Sodastream business leave the West Bank for a new and larger plant at Rahat in the Negev Desert as a result of BDS activity? This action had the consequence of offering more jobs for Israelis and losing 500 Palestinians their employment in the West Bank. Sodastream had been paying them at Israeli wage levels, and had provided private health insurance. The producer of the Bagel-Bagel snack and a global producer of locks – Abloy – also left the West Bank for Israel proper once BDS got stuck in. More jobs for Israelis. Nice one BDS! Always doing something to help Palestine!
While BDS loses Palestinians their jobs, Jordanians are flocking to neighbouring Israel for employment (again, can anyone see the irony of that). This year, just like last year, some 1,500 Jordanian workers are being recruited in three groups of 500 to work in the busy Eilat hotel industry. Israeli Eilat lies adjacent to Jordanian Aqaba in the southern Negev at the top of the Gulf of Eilat, the same stretch of water that laps the beaches of Sharm El-Sheikh. Imagine what a peace treaty like the one between Israel and Jordan could do for Palestinians? Over to you Mr. Abbas.
As the BDS movement continues to show gross failure and incompetence, it is the 189,600 or so UK academics not signing the public pledge to boycott Israeli universities who will be seen to have stood on the right side of history.