January 06, 2011 The nuances of BDS, How can Israelis boycott themselves?

Because most Israelis are opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement, I am very interested in hearing from Kobi Snitz, a thin, intense man active with Boycott from Within and Anarchists Against the Wall. Meeting with the delegation in Tel Aviv, he states that the Palestinian BDS guidelines are clear in principle, refined and legalistic, but the applications are subtle. For a supportive Israeli, what can he do? Quit his job? Stop eating? Obviously not, but there are many nuanced decisions to be made, for instance in the world of universities. Kobi outlines some of the intricacies:

International academics can work with Israeli academics but not build institutional cooperation.

If an Israeli academic wants to publish in an international journal, this always includes his or her institutional affiliation which then lends prestige for the institution, but this is OK if the article is more about the academic than the institution.

Internationals can hire individual Israelis but not build cooperative alliances between two institutions.

Giving a scholarship to an individual Israeli is OK, but allocating a general fund for Israeli students is not advised.

The Boycott from Within group also turned its attention to the cultural boycott, writing letters to individual artists urging them not to perform in Israel. This turned out to be much more successful than expected. Sometimes artists highlight why they refuse to perform, although usually artists make various excuses to cancel their tours. Like the Pixies, the Tindersticks and Elvis Costello, we only hear of the artists who have already advertised their tours and then cancel. Although the reaction to cancellations is often to call the performers anti-Semites, the political connection (ie, this show was cancelled due to the attack on Gaza) is being made more often. While he expected the cultural boycott to be much harder as artists are not usually particularly politically brave and are concerned with their reputations, this aspect of BDS has become a leading edge. Kobi claims that every artist now knows that coming to Israel is a political decision and it might just be easier not to come.

A handful of academics employed by universities have signed the BDS call. Kobi explains that there is now a letter in the Israeli Higher Education Council addressing this issue. The letter talks of the sanctity of intellectual freedom but states that the call for academic boycott goes beyond the limits and institutions should act appropriately (ie get rid of those faculty). Kobi notes that no one who supports BDS can get tenure and tenured faculty find their lives made unpleasant, do not get promotions, are given the worst courses, cannot get to conferences, (a kind of passive transfer for Jews I wonder). In general, universities are proud of their contributions to the security industry. He explains that the Technion is really an extension of Rafael, a big security company outside of Haifa. Tel Aviv University has a Shabak headquarters (otherwise known as Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI) on the edge of campus. The Middle East department is actually an extension of Shabak, doing political research and intelligence.

The group Who Profits? does economic research into the involvement of Israeli companies in profiting from the occupation. Kobi notes that not only is this easier to do, but this gets to the heart of the Israeli economy as practically every company has some involvement, especially the big high tech and construction companies.

The Knesset has recently formed a committee of inquiry into the sources of funding for leftist organizations, so “things will be interesting.” The Boycott from Within is mostly interested in letter writing campaigns and research, they don’t expect to convince most Israelis, and are looked at very negatively. He finds the media hostile but interested. He has learned to approve all written interviews prior to publication and to do only live radio and TV interviews, in order not to have his opinions misrepresented. They are now approaching Zionist groups, moving into the world of socially responsible investing, hoping to add Israeli settlement companies to the non-kosher screen along with tobacco and guns. He argues that the settlement economy is the same as the economy of the occupation and wants letters of support from organizations like Peace Now that publically want to end the settlements. If 60% of Israelis support evacuating the settlements for peace, will they be willing to support a socially responsible investing screen that includes settlement products?

I wonder about Tobi’s personal life as he is a mathematician who works at the Weizmann Institute in neurobiology. His family is supportive and his colleagues are not hostile. The Weizmann Institute was involved in security in the 1950s with the nuclear program, but now does not have that focus. He is excited by the growing BDS movement and finds his work dynamic and hopeful, a refreshing comment from someone on the often discouraged Israeli left.

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