Academics For Palestine, in conjunction with the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, will today host a conference in Trinity College Dublin. The stated aim of the conference is to promote academic freedom and to make the case for an academic boycott of the state of Israel. Although anti-Israel in scope, it is unclear what the specific demands or concerns of the speakers of today´s conference are. Academics For Palestine (AFP) have been active since 2014 and enjoy the support of many prominent voices in Irish academia. Unlike the myriad of academic conferences held in TCD, the most prestigious third level institution in the country, this one is unique in that very few of its speakers are experts in the topic that will be discussed; namely the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A scantily edited wordpress site is the only official source of information for today´s event. Very little information is offered about the event itself or even its organisers´ reasons for advocating a boycott of the Jewish state. Only recently did a post announcing its keynote speaker, Steven Salaita, appear. Other speakers are lecturers and full professors from departments of English Literature, Media Studies, Celtic Studies, sociology and various other disciplines within the humanities. Shoring up these speakers is a written pledge, signed by 221 Irish academics, to boycott Israel. Notable by their absence are lecturers and professors from disciplines which would suggest some expertise on the conflict in the Middle East, e.g. history, politics, political science. With the exception of Mr. Salaita, I will not be addressing any of the signatories or speakers directly in this article. The nature of academia and funding applications is that one runs the risk of irreparable career sabotage by running afoul of potential future research council members. Therefore, in the interest of my own career as an academic, I will not address speakers or specific signatories.
The obscurantism of these signatories is particularly evident in their primary concern that “neoliberalism” represents the greatest threat to academic freedom, particularly its role in stifling “dissenting and controversial views”. It is unclear why neoliberalism is relevant to a discussion on Israeli policies in the occupied territories, however it does not seem to ´stifle´ the views of on-campus BDS chapters in Irish universities who regularly deny pro-Israel speakers the right to freedom of expression, this was most notably the case in Galway in 2014, where a group of roaring NUIG students disgraced themselves and their institution by shutting down a speech by the pro-Israel political theorist, Professor Alan Johnson (see video).
This ambiguity aside, a pamphlet issued by Academics for Palestine does go on to explain its concerns for Academic Freedom in Gaza and the West Bank. A cursory glance at these claims by anyone who is the least bit versed in recent Middle-East history explains why this event is not endorsed by the TCD department of political science or history. Not only is it inconsistent with the situation in Palestine but it is an affront to the genuine efforts made by Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace. It should first be stated that the pamphlet with the stated goals of AFP was incredibly difficult to find on the website. This may be a case of poor content editing on the part of AFP, but also perhaps because of the weakness of their arguments and entirely baseless attempts at defaming the state of Israel. Were this document more widely available, the Irish public would see that its bile is based on lazy Marxist rhetoric and sinister apologies for terrorism.
AFP´s claims shouldn´t be necessary to debunk but for those who mistakenly take the speakers at today´s event as informed thinkers, please consider the following counterpoints. In line with the typical BDS narrative, AFP make the traditional claim that Israel is an apartheid state and as such should be the subject of an academic boycott. In a previous response to this easily deflated BDS claim, I highlighted how anyone who has conducted the briefest of investigations into the realities of Apartheid South Africa, would not dream of belittling the suffering of black South Africans in this way. In Israel proper, Palestinian-Israelis enjoy the same rights as Jews and occupy some of the highest positions of power in Israeli society.
The pamphlet, unauthored by any individual, further insists that a boycott “is the only moral and proportionate way to advance peace in Israel/Palestine”
“Just as the anti-apartheid movement focused on the sporting boycott as a key element of the overall boycott campaign, a campaign which was central in promoting the peaceful transformation of South Africa into a democratic country, so too does the international Palestine solidarity campaign, including Academics for Palestine (AFP), see the academic and cultural boycott as a key way of pushing Israel to transform itself into a state that will grant Palestinians their civil, human and national rights.”
This claim above all highlights the redundancy of the AFP demand for an academic boycott. If the organisers of this event truly believe that a boycott is the only moral way to achieve peace, they exhibit a frightening lack of basic knowledge of the conflict´s history. A far more “moral and proportionate” path to peace would be the establishment of a Palestinian state, conditioned by a Palestinian acceptance of the state of Israel, and a cessation of all terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. This very offer with varying adjustments has been made to Palestinian governments 5 times! As recently as 2008, the now autocratic president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, rejected a peace offer by then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, with Olmert offering to withdraw militarily from the West Bank. Will anyone ever forgive Yaser Arafat for rejecting Ehud Barak´s offer at Camp David in 2001 to form a contiguous state with 95% of Palestinian territorial demands, a state capital in East Jerusalem, and a $30 billion aid package for so-called refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War? Certainly not Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia (not a friend of Israel), a negotiator on the side of the Palestinians in 2001 who, after Yaser Arafat walked out of the Camp David-Taba Peace accord, famously stated Arafat had committed “crimes against the Palestinian people” and “crimes against all the people of the region”.
Why, when it is so demonstrably true that Israel favours peace before conflict, does AFP ignore these events? The pamphlet´s reference to Israeli incursions into Gaza in Operations Cast Lead, Grapes of Wrath and Defensive Shield offer some possible explanations. It states:
“Taking just one operation as example: the Israeli military assault on Gaza of December 2008 /January 2009 (‘Operation Cast Lead’). During this assault, ten schools and eight kindergartens were destroyed and at least 262 other schools and kindergartens were damaged or severely damaged. Six university buildings were completely destroyed and 16 were damaged. An Israeli air strike also destroyed the American International School in Gaza. According to a UNESCO report 250 students and 15 teachers were killed in the assault, and 656 students and 19 teachers were injured.”
Any assessment of Palestinian casualties during IDF operations which does not factor in the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas is untrustworthy. Not only does AFP ignore this fact or the shelling of Israeli population centres, such as Sderot, by Hamas, they have managed to write an entire pamphlet about the suffering of Palestinians without one single mention of the terrorist organisation which rules Gaza with an iron fist, murders dissidents, and has implemented a state of bona fide apartheid against women, Christians, Jews and gays.
At today´s talk, author Steven Salaita will speak about why Palestine is the world´s most pressing moral issue. Steven Salaita is an international pariah in the academic world. In 2014, he was fired from the University of Illinois for inciting anti-Semitism during the Israel-Gaza conflict. He explicitly refuses to condemn Hamas, compares Zionism to Nazism, while at the same time advocating for genocide against Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Steven Salaita is an anti-Semite who, for very legitimate reasons, is persona non-grata in academia. He should not be granted entry to the country, let alone be allowed to speak at our most prestigious third level institution. One could write for an age about the disgusting nature of his comments, however for the sake of congruity, I will allow Mr. Salaita´s twitter timeline speak for itself:
The fact that this alleged intellectual’s proven record of anti-Semitism did not dissuade AFP from inviting him is to their shame.
If AFP´s love for academic freedom is so unwaivering, it is curious that the state of Israel is so deserving of their ire. Israel is by a country mile the most free, tolerant and ethnically diverse country in the Middle-East. It is the only country in the region where Jews, Christians, Muslims, women and gays enjoy the same equality of access to education. Israel´s direct neighbour, Egypt, has instituted severe crack-downs on religious minorities and political dissenters in recent years. When the mullocracy of Iran is not busy denying the first Holocaust while gleefully advertising its determination to carry out the next one, it routinely hangs homosexuals in public for violating the laws of Islam. The house of Saud recently arrested a teenage girl for wearing a skirt in public, and a teenage boy for dancing the Macarena in a car park. In an era when the Middle-East is under threat from genuine dictatorship and genocide, AFP are curiously concerned with its sole thriving democracy.
Of the 221 academic signatories to the pledge to boycott Israel, not one voiced their concern about President Michael D. Higgins´ visit to the communist dictatorship of Cuba in February of this year. The fact that Raul Castro continues to imprison, torture and murder political dissidents right to the present day was not enough to upset the signatories. Similarly, the forging of links between Irish universities, such as UCD and UCC, and the Chinese government did not prompt calls for a boycott. This despite the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government continues to curtail political dissent and peaceful expressions of ethnic and religious identity.
Sadly, it appears the primary motivation for some of our enlightened academics to become signatories to AFP´s pledge is the age-old marriage of far-left activists with Islamists. This dangerous arrangement is best embodied in the massive surge in popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, a not-so-closet Marxist who openly supports Hamas and Hezbollah, among university students. Many of the signatories to the AFP pledge are open Marxists, activists with People Before Profit, contributors to Electronic Intifada and the New Left Review. If my hypothesis is correct, this does not bode well for the future of political discourse in Ireland. If far-left views are this mainstream, what then can we conclude about the calibre of lecturers and professors of humanities in Irish universities? The narrative of the persecuted Palestinian is such an easy sell to children, undergraduate students and Irish Labour supporters because, like many leftist views, it offers a simple solution to a complex political reality. Namely, that if Israel withdrew from its occupied territories in the morning the result would be immediate peace. Those of us who understand the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict accept that, as much as we may want peace, it cannot be achieved until Palestinians desire statehood more than they do the destruction of Israel.
The Irish and Israelis are a kindred people. Both societies have made massive bilateral contributions to each other politically, culturally and in terms of research in medicine, science and engineering. When the Middle East faces grave existential threats from those who would benight it in the name of religion or threaten its very existence through nuclear war, Ireland and Irish people have a duty to reject utterly the bigotry of Academics for Palestine.