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June 2, 2014 8:22 pm

UK Students Defeat Israel Boycott Motion With New Message, Including Quote From Chomsky

avatar by Joshua Levitt

A student campaign at the University of Sussex to defeat a BDS motion. Photo: Screenshot.

A student campaign at the University of Sussex to defeat a BDS motion. Photo: Screenshot.

Jewish students at Britain’s University of Sussex co-opted the narrative of their opponents to defeat a boycott motion on campus last week by acknowledging the injustice that their opponents sought to fight, while creating a message that could be embraced by the school’s left-leaning student body.

On Friday, the measure, “Should the Students’ Union endorse a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions?” was defeated in a 904 to 649 vote.

Their strategy, which they dubbed ‘Pro: Palestine, Israel, Peace,’ helped deliver a different narrative than some students use to counter anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns.

“For instance, if the vote was between a Palestinian solidarity campaign and the traditional defense of Israel that screams ‘anti-Semitism’ from the rooftops, Sussex students as a whole would want to show their support for the Palestinians,” student organizer Joshua Brill said.

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In an interview with The Algemeiner, Brill said, “We knew that most Sussex students would be inclined to vote in favor of a boycott,” not because they believe in the merits of a boycott on Israeli academic and cultural institutions changing anything in Israel, “but more because it’s a way in which students can exercise solidarity with the Palestinian cause.”

He said that references to ‘anti-Semitism,’ or ‘terrorist organisation Hamas,’ or ‘Israel’s security concerns,’ would be lost on their audience, and would have “lost the vote every single time – without fail.” He said, “Students want to show that they support the Palestinian cause, and we completely understand that.”

The strategy was “to provide an alternative pro-Palestinian campaign that students could align with and still exercise their support for Palestinians, without actually voting in favor of the motion.”

In discussing Israel with his classmates, Brill found that supporting the Palestinians was one of many causes in which students displayed broad ignorance and knee-jerk liberalism.

One boycott vote on the ballot that did pass, by a 9:1 margin, also took the temperature on campus. Following the second price increase in seven months to a daily ticket price of nearly $6 aboard the Brighton and Hove bus, the University of Sussex student body voted to boycott the buses in Brighton and Hove.

Brill said: “They don’t know much about the Israel/Palestine conflict, but because their politics swing to the left, they automatically align themselves with any motion that seeks to represent itself as pro-Palestinian, and they do so quite blindly, at times, without knowing all the facts.”

“Any motion that appears to be pro-Palestine in some sense tends to be blindly followed by a considerable number of people.”

The team included Miriam Steiner and Daniel Ben-Chorin, and all three are children of Israelis, and could say they shared empathy for the plight of the Palestinian Arab people living in the three-generation-long conflict.

“Having Israeli parents, we knew that the most pro-peace pro-Palestine progressive views come from these Israeli academics and professors, and that boycotting and silencing them would be detrimental to everyone.”

Brill said it was interesting for students to learn that in the 1960s, “supporting Israel was very left wing, and Sussex Uni was really supportive of Israel at that time.”

But more recently, University of Sussex has hosted a Hamas spokesman Azzam Tamimi, endures Professor Martin Shaw who accepts the analogy of likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs to the treatment of Jews by Nazis, and its student Islamic Society venerates terrorists and their supporters on their Facebook page.

The students turned to familiar voices on the left to frame the debate. They utilized published quotes from academics Noam Chomsky and Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, to actually wrest supporters away from the boycott campaign.

In a flyer, the group printed a Chomsky quote: “If you totally hate the Palestinians, a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is a good step because it’s only going to harm them.”

A flyer used to defeat a BDS motion at the University of Sussex. Photo: Screenshot.

A flyer used to defeat a BDS motion at the University of Sussex. Photo: Screenshot.

Brill said the quotes helped them to “back up their points” and “prove that what we were saying had weight.”

He said that “one of the crucial points” was tackling the accusations of “occupation” and “apartheid” directly.

“We couldn’t move forward in the discussion without laying that down first,” he said.

Their intention wasn’t just “to ‘trick’ people into siding with us through liberal leftist rhetoric so we could win the vote,” he said,  but to say, “We truly are pro-Palestine students who care about the plight of the Palestinians.”

“That instantly grabbed students’ attention; they admired us for being so candid and were now really intrigued to hear what our main arguments were, even though they were still slightly suspect,” he said. “But they could see that we were being honest and that we were coming from a Palestinian side, and were now willing to hear more.”

Framing the situation through the Palestinian Arab narrative of oppression, Brill showed it would still be illogical to boycott a school. He asked classmates that, “in the UK, if our own government was hurting and discriminating against black people, for instance, you wouldn’t then boycott Sussex University and its students, right?”

The team also “argued from an academic freedom perspective,” Brill said. “University research and education in general is such a virtue that we should never play around with it, especially not for symbolic solidarity with the Palestinians.”

Then he brought up Israeli science. One example was the story of Marta Weinstock-Rosin, who developed a drug that slows dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. “If Sussex University were to pass this vote, the Brighton & Sussex Medical School would not be able to gain access to this cutting edge research.” he said, adding that it was “very convincing with a lot of students.”

“Why stop important research in science and technology by way of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions when there are other ways to put pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation?”

“We acknowledged the Palestinians being unfairly treated,” he said, “but argued that there are other ways to change this without clumsily and carelessly hurting Israeli academia which breeds so many amazing benefits to the world.”

The eloquent students were matched with a favorable contest. The Sussex vote allowed each side to write a few short paragraphs to make their case.

Their precision afforded the team the opportunity to frame the argument in a way that the average student could quickly understand and agree with.

This differed from the University of Michigan, for example, where the argument favored hyberbole. In March, the climax came with a televised debate, raging for six hours at the student council chambers, including a fiery speech by anti-Israel writer Max Blumenthal, repeatedly pitching his new book. The boycott motion was then voted down by the student council in a secret ballot. Although the public debate format allowed passionate students on both sides to participate and share their emotions, the student body, as a while, didn’t get a chance to make and then codify their position, yay or nay.

At Sussex, the essence of the argument was posed by one student from each side in five or six paragraphs.

In their brief, supporters of the boycott argued that setting up study abroad program at one of seven Israeli universities, “would violate the call 171 Palestinian civil society organisations made in 2005 for people and institutions around the world to boycott Israel to pressure it to end its system of occupation, discrimination and colonialism that amounts to a form of apartheid.”

The boycott supporters claimed all of the schools “have ties to Israel’s military or illegal settlements, and are therefore complicit in helping to maintain Israel’s occupation & apartheid.”

They said their boycott would not be of individual Israeli academics, but “Israeli academic institutions, through choosing not to have joint research projects, funding, and student exchange ties as well as academics declining to attend conferences in Israel,” although all of those areas would be obviously prejudicial to Israeli academics.

They went on, “Likewise, the cultural boycott is not a boycott of individual Israeli artists and performers, but is a boycott of cultural products commissioned or funded by the Israeli state, as well as a call for artists not to perform in Israel,” which also amounts to a de-facto boycott of those same artists.

Their other charge was that of apartheid: “For Palestinians: military law, checkpoints & the wall, and no right to vote. For Jewish settlers: civilian law, freedom of movement, and political rights.”

On Gaza, controlled by Hamas, which, as the vote took place, was negotiating a new unity government with rival Fatah, announced on Monday, the supporters cited nameless UN officials who described “a ‘medieval siege’ cutting Gaza off from the rest of Palestine and leading to 80% of the population needing humanitarian aid.”

Within Israel, they saw “systematic discrimination in many areas of life such as land rights, education and employment.”

To conclude, they quoted South African Archbishop Desmond as saying there would be “no ‘business as usual’ with Israel while it continues to practice apartheid.”

For their turn, Brill’s group started by saying they recognized the injustices felt by the Palestinians, but then poked holes in their opponent’s arguments of classifying Israel as an apartheid state. On the specific question of boycotts against universities, they argued it was just another “collective punishment.”

Making a point to side with the left, they struck a quick jab to lambaste “chauvinistic right-wingers who will point to this boycott as an example of anti-Semitic prejudice.”

Their conclusion; that only through more cooperation, rather than less, could the plight of Palestinians improve. Meanwhile, a vote to boycott and isolate Israelis would be just as wrong.

Their argument, in full, is below.

No one can deny the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. For too long, they have been deprived of their sovereignty, as well as their basic civil and human rights, at the hands of a ruthless military occupation. At Sussex, we have a proud tradition of standing up for the victims of injustice and oppression. This cannot be an exception.

But this referendum is not about solidarity with the Palestinian people. Throughout the history of the conflict, Israeli academics have been known for their outspokenly left-wing and pro-peace views. According to Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian president of al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, ‘if you look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favour of seeing us as equals… If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.’

The academic boycott of South Africa was a result of the apartheid policy to restrict the black population’s access to higher education. Within the legal borders of the state of Israel, there is no such policy. A significant percentage of Israel’s students are Arab Palestinians. And while advocates of a boycott may point to the fact that the Israeli military restricts access to higher education within the occupied territories, this is a result of military rule and occupation, not the policies of Israeli universities themselves.

An academic boycott of Israeli universities would be a form of collective punishment. Israel’s entire academic establishment cannot be held responsible for the actions of its government, as just as in Britain, our students and lecturers often disagree entirely with our government’s actions.

We cannot afford to lose the moral high ground when it comes to our solidarity with the Palestinians – this only serves to strengthen the arguments of chauvinistic right-wingers who will point to this boycott as an example of anti-Semitic prejudice. Widely considered as one of the most prominent activists for the Palestinian cause, Noam Chomsky has stated in numerous interviews that an academic boycott ‘will only strengthen support for Israel’, and will seriously hurt Palestinians in the process.

Instead, we should be encouraging co-operation with critical and progressive elements within Israeli academia. Otherwise, we risk isolating Israeli students and lecturers solely by virtue of their nationality.

A flyer used to defeat a BDS motion at the University of Sussex. Photo: Screenshot.

A flyer used to defeat a BDS motion at the University of Sussex. Photo: Screenshot.

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