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Regarding the proposed academic boycott of Israeli universities and academic staff by UCT

This is intended for a general readership and will eventually be submitted to Politicsweb. I understand that many of the readers of Solar Plexus will have a much deeper more nuanced understanding. Your comments, critical and otherwise can only enhance the final product…

“This initiative, like all such politically inspired projects, comes with a history, a meta-narrative and a context. The pros and cons cannot be fully assessed without considering these dimensions with regard to the legitimacy of the underlying assumptions, their supporting arguments, the motivations of their proponents and the likely consequences. What follows is a condensed and much simplified version of my personal views.

Israel is both an imperfect country and at the same time the most remarkable example of national reconstruction in modern times, and possibly all of history. It certainly does not represent a colonial or imperialist enterprise in any sensible historical meaning of those terms. Least of all does it represent an Apartheid construct other than fulfilling its original purpose, to create a National Homeland for the Jewish people, necessarily implies a workable Jewish majority and an official recognition of Jewish national symbols and cultural-ethnic references.

I can understand that non-Jewish citizens of that country can find this subtly disturbing and I would cautiously support symbolic recognition of Arab, Muslim and Christian associations with a land which is significant to many peoples and beliefs. Having said that I am wholly satisfied with the primacy of the Jewish claim to territory within what was the cradle of the Jewish entry into history and all that implies.

I would also not deny that injustices were perpetrated in the course of this complex historical process but they were not all from one side. In any case they pale into insignificance when set against the background of conquest, exploitation, expulsion, cultural appropriation and marginalisation suffered by peoples throughout history. This, in particular, includes the Jewish experience.

In brief, small, impoverished and decidedly motley bands of Jews both before and after the Holocaust returned to the cradle of their emergence as a people to pursue their national aspirations in a Jewish homeland. This was in line with a widespread realisation of national identies within the 19th and 20th centuries. To grossly understate reality, circumstances were far from auspicious. But through a remarkable blend of sheer tenacity, creativity, hard-edged realism and a modicum of good fortune, including desperately needed support from well-wishers, they succeeded in putting down roots. The present day Israel is the result.

I have recounted this briefest of histories to remind readers of the flawed but heroic story behind decades of fake news, deliberate ahistorical distortions and systematic stigmatisation.  This program in its Western dimensions was given special impetus by the BDS project which underlies the present initiative and which embarked on a sophisticated programme of public relations warfare against the Jewish state between 10 to 20 years ago.

This has included all the tricks in the propaganda handbook perfected over decades of revolutionary activity. It has had a profoundly negative effect on public perceptions in the democratic West though there is some evidence that it is losing its effectiveness as reality bites home in populations awakening to the threats posed by the import of incompatible cultures, by the sheer scale of the human residues of failed states and by the proponents of extremist ideologies.

But the incitement  continues unabated in the Arab and Muslim world and in vulnerable States like South Africa whose experiences, circumstances and dominant narratives provides fertile soil for the politics of identity accompanied by envy, blame and hatred.

In the closed, clannish and violently conflicted milieu of much of the Middle East, false  stories about Israeli sadism and motivations are circulated endlessly via important Imams, social and official media and other channels like schools. Such propaganda is often accompanied by genocidal anti-Jewish sentiments and incitement. Expurgated versions of this propaganda reach the West in forms designed to tap into the ruling norms and narratives of target groups.

Despite its location in the eye of this violently chaotic milieu and its own multitude of internal faultlines Israel flourishes as an example of a culturally diverse, technologically advanced and open democratic society. Specifically, I am happy to assure the Zionophobes of the West, that Israel possesses world-class universities, a highly innovative technology sector, flourishing agriculture despite its aridity, a powerful citizen-based military and a flourishing, multi-faceted cultural scene.

On all indices which measure human welfare, innovation and economic achievement Israel punches well  above its weight. And I’m not simply referring to the Jewish population alone, ethnically and racially diverse as it is. The Arabs, despite the fraught political space, largely share in these benefits and freedoms. This is particularly true for the much smaller Christian Arab community which is less inhibited by cultural factors such as female exclusion from the economic sphere.

Israel is in great demand in the West for its technological products, its intelligence expertise and experience in combating terrorism and its position as a bastion of the West values . Even more significantly, countries in Africa and elsewhere, despite enormous efforts to shut down any recognition of Israel, are beginning to embrace the advantages that diplomatic and trade relationships with Israel can bring their own people. Intelligent pragmatism usually wins out over ideology when the chips are down, to the benefit of ordinary citizens.

What of the Palestinians? Briefly, they’re in an unenviable position. Following the failure of the Arab world to destroy Israel by the preferred military, and frankly genocidal, military route in the second half of the 20th century, the creation and manipulation of Arab-Palestinian refugees as a dagger directed at the heart of Israel, seemed like an excellent idea. They were maintained in limbo in teeming refugee camps, fed a sustained diet of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and provided with the entirely fictional status of an independent people who had been deprived of their rightful inheritance by Jewish imperialism and malevolence.

This ploy worked, in part, only too well. The Palestinians by now indeed have many of the attributes of peoplehood.  A considerable majority believe in the fictional narrative of their origins and fate, regularly updated by what is widely known as Pallywood – the misleadingly humorous name given to the steady diet of vicious falsehoods concerning Israeli behaviour and motivations.

This strategy has indeed caused Israel many headaches, has poisoned its relationships with the West as intended and has provided reactionary and extremist elements within the Arab-Muslim world with a convenient rationale for their terrorist activities. But it has failed in its primary intent which was to weaken and destroy Israel.

Indeed it has become a unifying force since, despite real ideological differences within Israel, the sheer enormity and dishonesty of this genocidal campaign has provided the glue to maintain the cohesion of a powerful national identity. It is also failing in both the more enlightened quarters  within the West and in the Arab-Muslim world, which are shedding the politics of intractability and extremism in favour of pragmatic self-interest.

Such trends are driving the forces of reactions to step up their para-military PR activities.  The proposed academic boycott is part of a much wider war being conducted by leftwing anti-Zionist activists in the West together with frankly reactionary elements in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, in sub-Saharan Africa (including especially South Africa) and wherever grievances and divisions can be exploited.

For reasons of self-interest, personal psychology and ideological preferences, BDS activists, tigether with members of the Fallist movement and what is euphemistically called the ‘traditional’ camp in the ANC, are wedded to an intersectional perspective which stitches together disparate issues to create an amorphous global enemy around the nexus of corporate capitalism, white racism and privilege, patriarchy and Western (and Jewish) guilt. Israel is a small part of this tapestry but drawing on anti-Semitism and other fashionable tropes it can serve as a powerful rallying cry amongst the identity warriors.

This binary division of the world into righteous activists on the one hand and evil reactionary forces on the other is simply a throwback to tribalist ideation and obscures real issues and potential pragmatic solutions. Indeed such ‘compromise politics’ are anathema to tribal warriors.

In conclusion a few things can be stated with considerable confidence. One is  that the Palestinians themselves serve simply as disposable stage-props in a revolutionary production directed at Israel specifically. To be blunt, the greater the Palestinian suffering, the more effective is the narrative of grievance and dispossession. Nothing would be more firmly resisted than a ‘solution’ which did not include the disappearance of Israel, the sooner the better. Alleviation of Palestinian ‘suffering’ is not the point since it would only delay the desired showdown in which the unbearable ‘offence’ of a Jewish state in the Middle East is reversed.

The second conclusion is that this initiative strikes directly at the Western idea of a University as a space for the free expression (and clash) of ideas. Implied in this norm is the presumption that such ideas will be backed by evidence and argument and not accompanied by the threat of force. It also implies that the clash of ideas cannot be advanced by the inclusion of one’s friends and the exclusion of one’s enemies, which is precisely what this boycott proposes.

Whatever one’s position on limits, or their absence, on the expression of views which offend others or run counter to certain cultural norms, this issue is not in question here. The proposed boycott is purely a political action attempting to recruit UCT into the political act of stigmatising and boycotting another nation as part of an ongoing diplomatic war of attrition.  That is not a question of ideas but of politics. What’s to debate within the University?

So long as such ideological warfare is the preferred mode of engagement so long will the necessary terrian for dialogue elude us. If UCT is real about the University being involved in a political conflict far removed from local issues and so fraught with emotion then it should sponsor dialogue within a safe space proivided by University norms.  Within  the confines of academe, we need new paradigms of political engagement which go beyond binary tribal ideation to include realist understanding of constraints and possibilities and insight into mechanisms of pragmatic problem solving at the collective level.

The world is too interconnected and too dangerous to persist in stone age political maneuvers.”

PS. I wish all readers, family and friends Shana Tova, a happy and contented New Years and good health.

Mike  Berger