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Boycott and a War of Position in Palestine

Despite myriad successes the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and its academic counterpart ‘PACBI’, the case for boycott against Israel’s occupation is under attack once again. This time because of blunder that saw a journalist kicked out of a conference at a Palestinian University, apparently because she is a Jewish Israeli.

At the end of last month, an incident at Birzeit University led to the ejection of Amira Hass – one of the most influential and principled journalists and a strong critic of Israel’s occupation ­– from a conference, apparently because of a rule that bans Jewish Israeli’s from the campus. This was, obviously, a very stupid thing to do and, yes – if the rationale was that Israeli Jews are not allowed – it was racist.

But this kind of debacle should not define boycott as a method. There are several different boycott campaigns, each of which approaches the issue in a slightly different way. And indeed BDS movement itself is certainly a firmly anti-racist campaign.

Indeed, as a method, boycott remains a critically important part of the struggle for Palestinian rights. It might help, though, if the strategy through which it is prosecuted is slightly rethought.

According to Hass’ own write up of the events at Birzeit, she was there to attend a conference on “Alternatives to Neo-Liberal Development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – Critical Perspectives”. However, she was asked to leave based on the existence of a University law that bans Jewish Israelis from the campus:

“During the first presentation on Tuesday, two lecturers from the [Center for Development Studies] approached me within ten minutes of each other, asking me to step outside, saying that they needed to talk to me … For the past two decades, the lecturer said, there has been a law at Birzeit stipulating that Israelis (Jewish Israelis, that is) are not allowed on the university grounds … [the] two lecturers demanded that I leave. So I left.”

Hass’ account goes on to say that “one of the lecturers explained that it is important for students to have a safe space where (Jewish) Israelis are not entitled to enter”, and that a they cited the example when Professor Ilan Pappé had was invited to promote his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” at Birzeit, he gave his lecture off site in compliance with the law.

In response, Dr. Katja Hermann, the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – which co-organised the conference – said that the organisation was “strongly rejecting any kind of discrimination based on ethnic, religious, national or other criteria,” and that the Foundation “expresses its solidarity with Amira Hass and calls for a critical evaluation and debate of the occurrence.” Moreover,

Ghassan Khatib, Vice-President of Birzeit University and a former Minister in the Palestinian Authority, apparently told the Associated Press that no such rule banning Jewish Israelis exists and that he plans to invite Amira Hass back to the campus.

The right wing reaction to the Amira Hass incident has manifest in a variety of outbursts. The standard faire include accusations of anti-Semitism, creating the impression that Birzeit fails it’s students through ‘intellectually straightjacketing‘ them and (the classic) evidence of ‘radicalisation of some young Palestinians’ on campus (all of this written without irony of course, despite Israel’s record of flagrant anti-education actions, the radicalisation of some of Israel’s far right and the deep racism inherent in the occupation itself).

Nonetheless, the issue of boycotting Israel, and Israeli institutions is a practice that may be critiqued without such hysteria.

Sober Critique

There is no doubt that myriad dangers abound when it comes to the deliberate exclusion of any group of people. For instance the rule being abused, high-jacked or being interpreted in such a way that it harms those who do not deserve it or damages ones own side. One element is absolutely critical therefore, to ensure that the basis for boycott is strategically sound and directed towards ending Israel’s occupation as its sole objective.

It is clearly stated on both the BDS and PACBI websites – and has been clarified on numerous occasions by advocates of the boycott movement – that it is not in fact Israel-Jews that are to be excluded but, rather, the boycott targets only Israeli institutions that are not avowedly anti-Zionist. In other words, it would be more than acceptable for any Israeli to speak/attend an academic conference that was run in line with BDS/PACBI but they would not be welcome to speak/attend under the banner of an Israeli university (moreover, the same would apply to a non-Israeli academic at an Israeli university).

Yet even this technical clarification may not have saved Amira Hass at the Birzeit conference. As she noted in her own account, she wrote that the institution she was associated with is Haaretz, a liberal, but still very much a Zionist newspaper. So how to avoid the kind of moment in the future?

This particular incident is obviously a calamity, demonstrated not least by the fact that there seems to be uncertainty over whether such ‘a law’ exists or not. If it does turn out that there is such a rule at Birzeit University then certainly it should be scrapped. But, perhaps more importantly, it would be better to stop thinking of the boycott in terms of laws or rules anyway; at least in as much as the particular rules of the movement can be interpreted as an end in themselves.

Rather, in a similar vein as Hass herself as argued in 2011 – “don’t make it a religion” – I contend that the best way to extract the maximum value of boycott as a strategy that may be effective in ending the occupation, is through understanding it as a method of confronting and challenging Israeli domination in a broader, ultimately fluid context. Or – as the early 20th Century Italian Marxist leader, Antonio Gramsci, would have put it – as a tool in a broader ‘war of position’.

War of manoeuvre, war of position

Gramsci coined two terms to help understand the difference between what he saw as the historical examples of social change from below. He called the first form a ‘war of manoeuvre’, which was characterised its a frontal assault on the existing regime in order to overthrow – such as 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia – it and a ‘war of position’ which was more suitable to transforming modern capitalist societies.

The latter term can be understood to mean a much longer-term strategy of challenging the existing structures power in forums – such as educational institutions, the media or in civil society – where they exercise their power to influence and coerce. This contrasts with challenging the more coercive mechanisms of the state, such as the police and military.

The important thing to note is that – if viewed through the lens of ‘a war of position’ – boycott is an ideal example and, moreover, it is working very well. Evidence of this is found both in the material successes of the movement of the particular campaigns (such as BDS) and the reality of Israel’s panicked and scrambling reaction to the movement.

In recent times the Israeli Knesset has passed law to outlaw support for boycott, Israeli ministers have referred to an EU boycott on goods produced in illegal settlements as a form of ‘economic terrorism‘ and the concern of ‘de-legitimization‘ has been described as a threat to Israel’s national security.

The fact that Israel has been motivated to use such hyperbole, rather than simply dismiss the movement as irrelevant or a mere nuisance, is evidence that boycott is effectively disrupting the dominant narrative at its weakest point; demonstrating the flaws in how the Israeli mainstream attempts to justify the status quo.

Targeting the occupation

The key to maintaining this success and avoiding damaging setbacks in the future is good leadership and strategic decision-making. It is not blind adherence to rules.

If the boycott were treated and understood as a strategy in a ‘war of position’ by all concerned, dealing with the case at Birzeit would have been as simple as deciding between which option better serves the larger goal of undermining the occupation – in other words, to allow a prominent and influential critic of the occupation to attend, or not – regardless of questions such as an individual’s ethnic/religious identity.

In short, as a method, boycott remains a key tool in Palestine’s ‘war of position’ but it is not – should never be considered – a doctrine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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