“The boycott campaign is not really about what happens in the Middle East but about what happens in our unions, on our campuses and in our public discourse. The damage that it does in the UK is that it disables political work in solidarity with those who fight for peace in the Middle East by polarising opinion around an artificial and destructive issue.”
So writes David Hirsh on Comment is free, on the vote next Wednesday at a conference held by the University and College Union (UCU), arguing against what he calls “the boycott movement”.
So the boycott movement allegedly “disables political work in solidarity with those who fight for peace in the Middle East” does it? Is that the same political work that is so highly effective that the only major change since the 1970s, when I regularly reported from the region, is of a profound deterioration in all aspects of life for ordinary Palestinians?
In contributing his blog, David Hirsh ironically illustrates precisely why the boycott movement has an impact. It clears a space in the public arena which, in the UK and the USA, is normally hopelessly biased in favour of Israel – not least because Zionist supporters of Israel in both countries have money and political clout on a scale the Palestinians cannot hope to match.
While we frequently see and hear about the lives of ordinary Israelis, whether illegally settled on the West Bank or endeavouring to live under harrowing rocket bombardment or simply “being” Israelis – when was the last time the reality of day-to-day life in the refugee camps was regularly portrayed?
Back in the 1970s, long before the war on terror was launched, we tried to do precisely that for the now defunct current affairs series Weekend World. John Birt, its editor, fought furiously to have the film screened, but the battle with his superiors at LWT was lost. The film was shelved, deemed, “propaganda”.
Regardless of the rhetoric of some of those advocating a boycott, one hopes that the majority of us are not so naive or so daft as to think that the issue of the Middle East, as Hirsh suggests, splits into a simplistic polarisation of Israel – bad; Palestine – good. Or that excluding Israeli Jewish academics from UK campuses, journals and conferences is anything more than an attack on the right to freedom of speech.
However, a double standard pertains. The Israeli treatment of Palestinians shows a total disregard for human rights. Apartheid doesn’t seem to me to be too strong a word – and its consequence, as many have pointed out, is a recruitment drive for Islamic fundamentalists.
In this month’s New Internationalist, psychiatrist Samah Jabr, describes his work in Ramallah and Jericho and the “mental health emergency” under way. For a population of 3.8 million, there are 15 psychiatrists and disastrously too few nurses, psychologists and support staff. He points out that 53% of the population is under 17 – especially vulnerable to family deaths, absent fathers and constant warfare.
Add poverty, affecting 67% of the population, unemployment at 40%, 20% of the population are prisoners and ex-prisoners, many suffering the psychiatric after-effects of isolation, and the daily violence does the rest.
Palestinian factionalism and Israel’s brutal retaliation, plus its pre-emptive strikes and demolition of homes hits the Palestinian people with a savagery that destroys any semblance of normal living. (The ordinary Palestinians in the Lebanon are again paying the heaviest price.) Of course, ordinary Israelis are affected too – but their community remains robust, well cared-for, with needs met. Psychological trauma, for many Israelis, is at best held at bay and at worst given help. Hundreds of Israeli political prisoners are not rotting in Palestinian jails.
A boycott is neither self-indulgent gesture politics nor an indicator of powerlessness, as Hirsh suggests. It is an international protest against the way in which Israel behaves on a daily basis in an area that will, in all probability, never see peace.
June 9 sees the Global Day of Action on Palestine. Throw a pebble at Goliath – don’t spend your pennies on Israeli produce.
Yvonne Roberts has been an award winning journalist, writer and broadcaster for over 30 years.