Some British Jews believe that London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies is a den of anti-Semitic iniquity. Some British Trotskyites believe that it is the center of the Zionist conspiracy. Both caricatures exist at one and the same time. Both are false.
SOAS, however, is unusual in London colleges in that its first-class academic programs rightly attract many students from the Arab, Islamic and developing worlds who are often more predisposed towards the cause of the Palestinians on arrival in the UK. Yet this built-in structural situation has also instigated an interest in the expanding field of Israel Studies. SOAS is one of the leaders in Israel Studies in the UK and is the headquarters of the European Association of Israel Studies.
Yet the study of modern Hebrew and the Holy Land reach back into the 19th century. The founding of SOAS in 1916 coincided with the Foreign Office’s desire in developing a cadre of experts which would help it understand and indeed control the Middle East. As history records, a year later Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild whereby the British promised “a national home for the Jewish people.”
The smooth governance of the British Empire required trained administrators who understood the language, history and culture of the governed. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Libya, there was a need for experts to assist in the making of policy and in the training of bureaucrats. The need for speakers of modern Hebrew was no different. Thus, in one sense, the advent of the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate for Palestine, and the development of the Yishuv brought the precursor of Israel Studies to Western Europe.
Today many students wish to explore all aspects of Israel as an academic subject and to make up their own minds about the Israel-Palestine conflict – to go beyond the sound-bites, the clichés and the banal utterances of politicians. Any honest lecturer will strive for objectivity while giving his own interpretation of a specific event such as the exodus of Palestinian Arabs in 1948.
In equilibrium with this, there has been an ongoing campaign to promote BDS at SOAS and other British colleges – often by those who view the conflict in a simplistic and monolithic fashion, often those who have never taken academic courses on the conflict.
The recent nonbinding student-led referendum on BDS at SOAS was another building block in the annual Israel Apartheid Week ritual. It was designed as both a public relations exercise and as a trial run for other colleges worldwide. Given SOAS’s structural composition and egged on by the lecturers’ union, the results of the referendum were a foregone conclusion – a tremendous victory for BDS. However, both Arab and Jewish media erroneously interpreted the exercise as if SOAS, the institution, had voted. The Qatari-owned website Al-Araby proudly proclaimed that “SOAS becomes the first UK University to boycott Israel.”
Yet it was not the governing body, not the administration, not even formally the lecturers’ union, but an invented “SOAS community” that participated. Anyone could vote who wanted to – including the SOAS cleaners, catering staff and security guards.
A total of 1,283 students supported the BDS motion – three-quarters of all students who voted. Yet there are some 5,000 students at SOAS plus another 3,600 engaged in distance-learning. Some 86 percent did not vote for BDS. Despite all the self-congratulatory self-deception, this was not exactly a resounding success for a weeklong referendum.
The results mask the inability of the BDS movement, now in its bar-mitzva year, to make a concerted breakthrough in changing the political reality in Israel. Governments are elected. Conflicts with the Islamists take place. The advocates of BDS continue to preach the same mantra.
The BDS movement originated with those rejectionists who opposed any kind of normalization of relations with Israel. It commenced with the agreement between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1979 and was fortified by the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. From being a marginalized movement, this anti-peace process camp moved into the mainstream with the onset of the al-Aksa Intifada in 2000. The far Left in Britain jumped into the vacuum left by the collapse of the peace process and expanded due to public disaffection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Socialist Workers Party in particular was prominent at this period and dominant both in the national lecturers’ union, both nationally and at SOAS.
The SWP ironically has its origins in Mandatory Palestine.
Its founder, Yigael Gluckstein, known as Tony Cliff in Britain, came from a prominent Zionist family in Zichron Ya’acov. He moved from labor Zionism to Trotskyism in the 1930s and opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyite line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other. In 1946, as Jews in DP camps were trying to reach the Land of Israel, Cliff was sailing in the opposite direction, heading for the British Isles.
SWP thinking has been characterized in many of its political activities by selective outrage. Many human rights abuses are passed over in silence, but Israel is always a permanent feature. It is therefore not surprising that the unions at SOAS could not bring themselves to mention the Charlie Hebdo killings.
SOAS students can opt for a year at the Hebrew University to improve their Hebrew and take relevant courses. In part, BDS wishes to break this link. It promotes guilt by association primarily because they are Israeli universities integrated into Israeli society. It would prefer to isolate the disproportionate number of Israeli academics who are actually opposed to the West Bank settlements. The raison d’etre of the BDS movement appears to be more anti-normalization than anti-occupation.
The BDS movement feels intellectually comforted in laying down ground rules about who can and who cannot be spoken to. It tries to separate institutional boycotts from personal ones, but all too often there is a blurring of the lines. Even Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein – not exactly breast-beating Zionists – have little time for BDS.
Academic institutions worldwide including the SOAS administration do not take a stand on the Israel-Palestine question, but they do strongly defend the right to a different narrative. When there were calls to ban a series of lectures by Tel Aviv University academics, organized by the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the administration steadfastedly refused to capitulate. Similarly when one of the originators of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, registered to study at Tel Aviv University, the university authorities resisted calls to expel him.
This then is the redline that BDS indirectly tries to cross, sometimes around it, other times beneath it. The right of freedom of expression is a sacred principle, upheld by all academic institutions. Governing bodies in most cases stand up to lobby groups from all quarters. The BDS movement will continue to looks for chinks in their intellectual armor. Embedded in a rarefied environment of discourse and theory, the BDS movement will continue to enthusiastically practice the politics of stalemate.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor in Israel Studies at SOAS. His new book, The Rise of the Israeli Right, will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.