Mention boycott in a discussion of Israel, and chances are you'll find yourself the butt of vicious attacks. Israeli professor Neve Gordon elicited just such denunciations when he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday in support of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS (read Naomi Klein's January Nation column supporting BDS here). After Gordon's op-ed was published, several Members of the Israeli Knesset demanded his firing. The president of Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, where he teaches, said he should seek employment, and a home, elsewhere. And he's received death threats.
Nation readers, particularly those who follow the Israel-Palestine conflict, will recognize Gordon as a longtime contributor to this magazine (disclosure: I've worked with Neve for years as his editor and am a friend as well). He didn't come by this position lightly. As he explains in the op-ed,
It is indeed not a simple matter for me as an Israeli citizen to call on foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel. But today, as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.
I say this because Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures. I say this as a Jew who has chosen to raise his children in Israel, who has been a member of the Israeli peace camp for almost 30 years and who is deeply anxious about the country's future.
Gordon then drops another word, apartheid, that seems to function as a red cape before the enraged bulls of the right-wing, ultra-Zionist camp:
The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state. For more than 42 years, Israel has controlled the land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. Within this region about 6 million Jews and close to 5 million Palestinians reside. Out of this population, 3.5 million Palestinians and almost half a million Jews live in the areas Israel occupied in 1967, and yet while these two groups live in the same area, they are subjected to totally different legal systems. The Palestinians are stateless and lack many of the most basic human rights. By sharp contrast, all Jews -- whether they live in the occupied territories or in Israel -- are citizens of the state of Israel.
Gordon gets to the heart of the matter: "The question that keeps me up at night, both as a parent and as a citizen, is how to ensure that my two children as well as the children of my Palestinian neighbors do not grow up in an apartheid regime." After weighing the one-state versus two-state solution to the conflict and concluding that for now the latter is the more feasible, he argues that there is only one way to reach that goal:
I am convinced that outside pressure is the only answer. Over the last three decades, Jewish settlers in the occupied territories have dramatically increased their numbers. The myth of the united Jerusalem has led to the creation of an apartheid city where Palestinians aren't citizens and lack basic services. The Israeli peace camp has gradually dwindled so that today it is almost nonexistent, and Israeli politics are moving more and more to the extreme right.
It is therefore clear to me that the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel is through massive international pressure. The words and condemnations from the Obama administration and the European Union have yielded no results, not even a settlement freeze, let alone a decision to withdraw from the occupied territories.
I consequently have decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that was launched by Palestinian activists in July 2005 and has since garnered widespread support around the globe. The objective is to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are granted the right to self-determination.
In Bilbao, Spain, in 2008, a coalition of organizations from all over the world formulated the 10-point Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign meant to pressure Israel in a "gradual, sustainable manner that is sensitive to context and capacity." For example, the effort begins with sanctions on and divestment from Israeli firms operating in the occupied territories, followed by actions against those that help sustain and reinforce the occupation in a visible manner. Along similar lines, artists who come to Israel in order to draw attention to the occupation are welcome, while those who just want to perform are not.
The firestorm wasn't long in coming. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar called Gordon's article "repugnant and deplorable," and several other MKs, along with one far-right political party (National Union), demanded that Gordon be fired; never mind that he's a tenured professor voicing a carefully reasoned opinion on an issue directly relevant to his specialty. Even worse, the president of BGU, Rivka Carmi--instead of standing by a member of her faculty and defending a fundamental tenet of academic freedom--joined in the attack. "We are shocked and outraged by [Gordon's] remarks, which are irresponsible and morally reprehensible," she said, adding, "Academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home."
What's truly shocking is for a university president to call, essentially, for the exile of one of her own faculty members and to turn the principles of academia, and reality, on their head by claiming Gordon's views are an "abuse [of] the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU." No doubt Carmi was shaken by a letter she'd received from the Israeli consul-general in LA, Yaakov Dayan, who said some BGU benefactors were threatening to withhold donations.
Fortunately, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has condemned BGU and is standing by Gordon. You should too, by writing a letter to the president of BGU and the education minister backing him--and you don't have to support his position on the boycott question to do so. Read Stephen Walt's wise comments in Foreign Policy; Walt is against BDS but stands by Gordon's right to express his opinion and warns against the chilling effect the attacks on him will have.
I'll give the last word to Gordon, who was quoted Sunday in Ynetnews:
From the responses to the article it seems most people don't have the courage to discuss the main issues: Is Israel an apartheid state? How can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved? Is the settlement project good for Israel or will it cause the state's destruction? It's easy to criticize me while evading the tough and important questions.