In the past fortnight two very different joint letters appeared in the Guardian.
In the first, 150 cultural figures declared their opposition to cultural boycotts. Household names like Dame Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling, Sir Anthony Seldon, Fay Weldon and Lord (Melvyn) Bragg came together to state that boycotts only build barriers.
The new group said it was “seeking to inform and encourage dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians in the wider cultural and creative community,” and stressed:
“Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory, and will not further peace. Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict.”
The letter, launching a new organisation called Culture for Coexistence, was a message of hope, of positivity and of a commitment to engage constructively in trying to build peace despite the efforts of the boycotters.
What a contrast with a letter a few days later, placed (and paid for) as a full-page advertisement rather than a simple letter to the editor. That letter, by 343 academics, called once again for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
For more than a decade, a minority of British academics have been trying to convince their colleagues to boycott Israel. They formed the group BRICUP and passed motions through academic trade unions from 2005 onwards demanding boycotts of Israeli academics, specific Israeli universities, ALL Israeli universities and more. The motions were usually ruled as illegal to implement but they just kept on passing them. Sometimes they’d also sign joint letters like this one.
In all this time, though, there’s been little real progress towards an actual academic boycott of Israel. No university in the UK supports a boycott. The Government opposes it. Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, opposes it. Even Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, opposes it.
So the same old people — BRICUP activists and other anti-Israel campaigners — decided to re-brand their boycott as the “Commitment for Palestine” and water it down to make it more palatable: instead of applying to any academic who works at an Israeli university, they said they’d only boycott the universities themselves. As almost none of them had any links to Israeli universities anyway, the change meant people could sign up to ‘boycott’ Israel without the need to actually do any boycotting.
So the same people as usual made the same ‘commitment’ as usual (or even a weaker one) to break off links they probably don’t have to try and somehow pressure the Israeli government.
The commitment letter was a perfect example of the lazy and destructive approach of the Israel boycott, with nothing new or positive to say. The example set by Culture for Coexistence offers a way forward, a message of hope and peace and a chance for a better future.