by Jon Haber
In a way, yesterday’s vote by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to reject a boycott of their Israeli counterparts at Ben –Gurion University is pure BDS: a high-profile boycott call at a prominent institution followed by rancorous debate followed by a “No” vote with enough posing built around the final decision to allow BDS advocates to characterize their latest loss as a victory. But the venue of this week’s BDS battle makes it more worthy of exploration than other routine BDS defeats.
By “venue,” I’m not talking about academia, although it is worth noting that academic boycotts are probably the least popular of all BDS variants flying as they do in the face of academic freedom. Academic BDSers have offered various explanations over the years why Israeli scholars and only Israeli scholars (although just the Jewish ones - with folks like Tel Aviv University graduate student Omar Barghouti clearly exempted) should be excluded from the world of scholarly inquiry because of their nationality. But outside of the BDS community itself, no one seems to buy the argument that one champions academic freedom by assaulting it.
And this vast majority of boycott haters has a voice. When academic boycott was all the rage within the British academic union, BDS champions had to contend with the global scholarly community’s unprecedented solidarity with their beleaguered Israeli colleagues. While this month’s boycotters were interested in nothing more than the headlines they could grab by getting a boycott passed at a prominent South Africa institution, less ideologically blinkered academic decision makers at UJ likely didn’t relish being told by some of the world’s greatest scholars and universities that, for purposes of a Israel boycott they too should be considered “Israeli academics” and boycotted.
So academia is not the topic here, South Africa is.
Why South Africa? To start with the obvious, the entire BDS enterprise is part of what BDSers themselves refer to as their “Apartheid Strategy,” a long-term propaganda campaign to “brand” Israel as the inheritor of South Africa’s Apartheid legacy. Just as Jews are giving a prominent place within the boycott and divestment “movement” (to support a fanciful claim that BDS has widespread Jewish support), so too South Africans willing to leverage their own experience to attack the Jewish state have become anchors for boycott and divestment champions everywhere.
Just try to edit a Wikipedia entry on any Israel-related boycott subject to point out that BDS began with someone other than Desmond Tutu (who was actually a relative latecomer to the divestment parade) and watch how fast it will be reverted to ensure Tutu’s name gets placed front and center of the BDS origin myth. This is not a simple academic/political Wikipedia squabble but a highlight to the criticality of prominent South African voices to the cornerstone BDS message that Israel is the new Apartheid, worthy of the same fate that befell the last one.
Entering a debate on South Africa’s role in BDS requires navigating some well-laid traps by Israel’s critics similar to ones encountered when Rachel Corrie is the subject of discussion.
In any Corrie debate, Israel’s foes demand to use her death to highlight a series of political charges against the Jewish state (notably that it’s guilty of deliberate murder and cover up). But if anyone responds to those political attacks on a political level (assigning some level of responsibility for Corrie’s death to her International Solidarity Movement enablers, to Palestinian weapon’s smugglers or to Corrie herself) and out come the Corrie baby photos and high-school yearbook pictures accompanied by charges that anything Israel’s defenders say represents gross insensitivity to the death of a young girl.
In a similar way, BDSers lie in wait hoping someone will make even a glancing criticism of people like Desmond Tutu, at which point they can pounce and insist that friends of Israel be bunched up with the Bohrs of pre-Mandela SA on one side of a political spectrum they self-servingly construct, while the BDSers and Tutu are on the other side representing all that is good and virtuous.
The fact that such rhetorical traps lie in wait is no reason to avoid discussion of the important issue of South Africa’s role in the BDS movement altogether. So with that as a somewhat-longish segue, tune in tomorrow (or at least sometime this weekend, parenting schedule allowing) for thoughts on this critical aspect of the boycott, divestment and sanction debate.
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