The fact that students at Sussex have voted for a boycott against Israeli goods on campus during a strongly contested referendum shows that the complicated political situation in the Middle East continues to be a highly emotional issue shaped by strongly differing views and interpretations of the roots, the history and the political reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the first glance, there seems to be an abundance of convincing reasons for such a boycott, particularly since it has been prominently supported by Jewish and Israeli groups who are critical of the decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory, of Israeli human-right violations, of Israeli society’s move towards the right after the last elections and the ongoing settlement policies, and who despair of the prospects of a peaceful path towards a Palestinian state in the near future. The attitude of these groups owes much to a strong tradition of Jewish and Israeli dissent and self-criticism, rooted in the political visions of the Israeli left, that is in itself an expression of an open, democratic culture and a strong ethical and political conviction.
In view of the moral strength of this tradition, it might seem difficult to contradict the legitimacy of the boycott, even if its political effect can be doubted. Whether a global economic and cultural boycott against Israel would actually bring about change in the Middle East, or rather radicalize the hardliners and prevent any progress in the difficult political negotiations, is clearly a question that has to be discussed. But this is not what my brief comment is about.
Such a boycott on a university campus, the first in the UK, raises other important questions. No doubt, the referendum in favour of the boycott is a great success for those who think that time has come for a symbolic protest against what they see as a politically intolerable situation, no longer to be solved by dialogue, by diplomacy or by strengthening the Israeli peace movement. It is a great success for those who wish to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people and make its voice heard.
The price of this success, however, seems to be extremely high: the frustration of those Jewish and non-Jewish students who are hoping for a peaceful development in the Middle East as well but who are not convinced that it would be helpful to single out Israel as the ongoing conflict’s only or main cause; the concerns of students who feel offended, excluded and sometimes threatened by an atmosphere of one-sided moral condemnation in which other factors contributing to the painful dilemma in the Middle East are overlooked or concealed; and not least truth itself is compromised by the distorting image of Israel as an Apartheid-state – an image that is not likely to do justice to the diversity and plurality of conflicting political views and practice in Israeli society.
Would not particularly the university – as a space of intellectual debate – be the place for a different, more differentiated approach? A place where self-critical Jewish and Israeli voices would be matched by equally self-critical Palestinian voices? A place characterised by an ethos of open, critical debate in which the complexities of the conflict are being analysed and the differing perspectives are being heard? A place where academic discourse, despite the unavoidable emotions involved, is devoted to a patient, sober and mutually respectful discussion of the historical, political and social origins and causes that led to the current situation and the potential solutions? This would necessarily be a difficult discussion involving harsh judgments and a passionate intellectual struggle between opposing views, but if would still be a dialogue.
The great risk inherent in the boycott movement is that a culture of debate and dialogue, however difficult, is replaced by mistrust, stereotyping, resentment, fear and silence. It could be argued that the good thing about the referendum is that so many students participated in it and discussed their conflicting views. In the end, the boycott is a symbolic act that expresses solidarity, gives visibility to the Palestinian cause and even creates a dialogue between Palestinian students and Jewish critics of Israel’s politics.
The price, however, is over-simplification, exclusion of dissenting views and an atmosphere of fear among those opposed to and emotionally affected by the boycott. It would be sad if this was the only outcome. What is needed after the boycott decision is a continuing dialogue and debate that overcomes the silence that could now follow. An alternative would be an effort made by the university, students and tutors alike, to transcend the boundaries of the usual polemics by bringing different groups together, by offering events devoted to critical and differentiated debate, by creating an atmosphere which allows students to voice their conflicting narratives and experiences and to learn about the others’ narratives. Otherwise, the boycott would be just a dead end.