With its misplaced rhetoric about apartheid, the motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel is fatally flawed.
In the days when there was a white supremacist regime in South Africa, those of us who were opponents of apartheid came together in a concerted campaign to isolate the state from the rest of the international community. This included cutting ties with South African universities.
The policy was clear, the rationale unambiguous, and support was broadly based. Although there was some disagreement about strategy, on the whole it was a united front. A line in the sand was drawn, and you knew where you stood. On the one side were those who opposed apartheid, and consequently supported an academic boycott; on the other side was everyone else.
Nowadays, the spotlight is falling on Israel. The most recent instance is the resolution adopted on May 29 at the annual national conference of Natfhe, the largest academic staff union in Britain. Resolutions of this kind appear to be based on an analogy with the boycott campaign against South Africa, but the analogy is mistaken.
The Natfhe motion is fatally flawed in two ways. First, it is unclear what it calls for. Here is the punch line: "Conference invites members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals, and to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies."
Is this a call for action or is it an invitation to quietly think things over? Does "Israeli educational institutions or individuals" include all sectors - even schools - or just colleges and universities? Does "individuals" mean staff alone or does it include students (such as Israeli applicants to UK graduate programmes)? And if a political test is going to be applied, who will administer it, how, and with what criteria?
Second, the underlying rationale, given in the opening paragraph of the motion, is both vague and paradoxical: "Conference notes continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices. It recalls its motion of solidarity last year for the AUT resolution to exercise moral and professional responsibility."
Presumably, the second sentence refers to the AUT decision in April 2005 to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities. But this decision was overwhelmingly overturned a month later. Natfhe thus finds itself in the odd position of affirming its solidarity with a position that the AUT has emphatically rejected.
Which leaves the first sentence to carry the burden of explaining the reasoning behind the motion. But other than the "exclusion wall", it is unclear what exactly the motion is aimed against. Is the rationale opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank per se? Or is it merely opposition to the way the territory is administered? Or is it opposition to institutionalised inequalities within Israel proper? Possibly (given the rhetoric of the word "apartheid") there is a subtext: opposition to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. And without knowing which of these policies and practices are meant, how is it possible to judge whether an institution or individual should dissociate from them?
In short, the intention of the Natfhe motion - what it seeks and why - is obscure. But even if the policy and rationale were clear and unambiguous, there is a deeper problem with motions of this sort that prevents them from attracting a broad base of support: they rely on the false (or limited) analogy implied by the word "apartheid". This is not to say that there are no points of comparison, for there are - just as there are in a host of other countries where minority ethnic and national groups are oppressed. Nor is it even to say that the suffering experienced by Palestinians is less than that endured by "non-whites" in South Africa: it may or may not be (although I am not sure how to do the sums). But as I have argued elsewhere: "The validity of the analogy does not depend on a catalogue of atrocities, however appalling".
In terms of history and motivation, the differences between the two situations are greater than the similarities. And in the end, any political action that is aimed at ameliorating the conditions of the Palestinians must be based on an analysis - not an analogy.
We need a line in the sand. But the analogy with South Africa leads people of goodwill to draw the line in the wrong place, dividing people who share the same goals and turning them against each other.
Moreover, the ubiquitous boycott debate tends to divert attention away from other alternatives. Various groups, such as the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace - UK, are proposing initiatives that give practical support to those Palestinians and Israelis on the ground - in and out of academia - who are on the frontline.
Perhaps the new University and College Union, which comes into existence later this week (with the merger of Natfhe and AUT), will take a new look and draw a line that separates the sheep from the goats.
A man accused of buying fertiliser for an alleged bombing campaign tells the Old Bailey of his pleasure at the September 11 attacks....
Police investigate why man killed one woman and wounded 19 others....
Business: Britain's biggest insurer, Aviva, is to cut 4,000 jobs at Norwich Union to save £250m a year from 2008....
Afghanistan: Poles pledge 900 more troops to bolster Nato force....
UK: Clare Short condemns Blair as she confirms she will step down as an MP at the next election....
Lebanon: Hizbullah fighters patrol hills while Israeli forces commit daily violations....