Monday, June 13, 2005

Reason and action

Well, following this advert I went along to this debate on the failed AUT Israel boycott proposal. Largely, I have to say, for the star quality of the Blogosphere's own Norman Geras.

The quality of the debate was quite high - but there were only 19 people in the audience.

The pro-boycott team put forward, more or less these points.

1) Israel is a racist state.

2) Racism is a particular ill, requiring particular treatment.

3) Israeli academe is complicit, passively and actively in the racist activities of that state

4) Israeli academics are relatively privileged.

5) Because of their relative freedom they are more culpable and susceptable to pressure from without.

6) That 'we' should at the least avoid complicity in legitimising Israel's activities.

I didn't have a pencil with me to make notes, so that's an impressionistic review of how I remember their arguments. The anti-camp were:

1) This is a blacklist, contrary to academic freedom.

2) The pro-arguments are hopelessly impractical.

3) The boycott case is not analgous to solidarity in a strike (a la London Met.)

4) The pro-case is arbitrarily selective, and other - perhaps worse regimes - are not targeted thus.

5) Where does it end? Should UK academics with misliked opinions, e.g. Norm's over Iraq, be subject to similar blacklisting.

6) The pro argument rests on appeals to aurthority, by analogy with South Africa.

The debate was principled, lucid, a marked difference with the usual fare of professional politicians in the media. The pro camp disliked the term blacklist, but did own to their boycott operating a whitelist (as the antis said, everyone not on the whitelist is thus implicitly blacklisted).

Norm was good, understated, didn't get into the minutia of the argument, but rested on general, universal opinions, and the assumption of certain academic values such as freedom of thought and universalism. He also delivered a few well aimed kickings towards the pro side's ad populum argumentations by listing the crimes of Israel at great length.

I made three points from the floor:

1) As a librarian I find the idea impractical - we buy lots of stock from Israel and it would harm Archaeology and Jewish studies to perform such a boycott. (I forgot to mention, also, that we grant the privilege of overseas academics free reference acess to our library, would we be called upon to boycott Israeli academics from Haifa?).

2) That the latter of those two subjects is important. If the essence of the university is truth (as the first pro speaker said) then it seems to be incompatable with silencing truth, and discourse, and examination - and only through studying the culture and history of the area can criticism and assistance be acheived. (This was taken up by another contributor who asked if the pro-boycotters felt their arguments were so weak they couldn't persuade Israeli academics of their moral case).

3) That the nation state is inherently racist, all states (to my knowledge) are based on some sort of ethnic cleansing - should British universities be condemned for the annihilation of the Cornish culture?

As you can see, I remember my own arguments best.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who won the debate?

11:49 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Erm, well, anon, there wasn't a vote - or anything - so you'll have to judge based on the arguments I remembered.

Obviously, I think the Anti's won - on two counts, that the proposed boycott was ill thought out, and that the case for targetting Israel was weak.

But, then, I thought that before the discussion.

8:08 AM  

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