The Culture for Coexistence letter published in the Guardian on 23rd October, sparked a furious and constructive debate about the demerits of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). JK Rowling, a frequent target of ‘hate-tweets’ and other diatribes for her opposition to Scottish independence and her support of the Labour party, has issued two defences of her position. The first was a poignant tweet that highlighted the necessity of building bridges and encouraging dialogue instead of demonising ‘the other’. Her second defence was perhaps more damaging to the BDS cause as it coincided with the announcement of an academic boycott of Israel by 343 academics and highlighted the shortcomings of their argument. In her rebuttal, Rowling references several cultural projects that encourage dialogue and engagement, as well as ground breaking medical research that would be stifled if the BDS movement had their way. Although her criticism of the present government and Israel generally is strong, her articulate refutation of the arguments presented by the BDS movement was to be admired.
The letter sent to the Guardian by Culture for Coexistence was written in response to a letter by Artists for Palestine published in February of this year, and while its focus was on cultural engagement, the sentiment extends to the realm of academia. Just as limiting cultural engagement is counter-productive to the overall peace effort, the cutting off of academic ties to Israeli universities undermines the path to peaceful coexistence. The Culture for Coexistence letter calls for a two-state solution with the ‘State of Israel and a Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security’, it is plain for all to see that no such solution can be reached unless both sides are able to engage with one another and understand each other. The severing of links both cultural and academic is deeply damaging in this regard as it deepens resentment and strengthens the position of absolutists.
It is somewhat surprising that those seeking to make a difference have chosen to back divisiveness and discrimination instead of promoting cooperation and understanding. However, as Iain Dale pointed out on his LBC programme, there is a narcissistic quality to the BDS backers. Expressing outrage is fashionable and makes one seem more grounded (celebrities especially) and thus more connected to the ‘real world’. However the vanity of BDS supporters only takes the movement so far, at its core there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the history, culture and people of Israel. Some proponents of BDS cite their visits to Gaza and the West Bank; but how many of them went to Tel Aviv or Haifa? Did they speak to Jews grateful to live in a state in which they were confronted by anti-Semitism at school or faced persecution by their government? Did they speak to the Arab students at Technion University who constitute 50 per cent of the medical students and 22 per cent of the overall student body (Arabs comprise 20.7 per cent of the population of Israel). The answer to all these questions is probably not, and given their commitment to boycotting Israeli academic institutions, they won’t be allowed to engage with those Arab students and their scholarship will be poorer for it. Amid the turmoil of the Middle East, Israeli universities remain a beacon for progressive attitudes and are committed to creating opportunities for all.
The 343 academics who have decided to boycott Israel have inadvertently undermined the foundation of their own profession. Their refusal to engage with Israel limits their own ability to understand the dynamics of the situation but more crucially it silences the voices of those who disagree with government policy. This attitude stems from a lack of understanding of Israel itself, and an inability to distinguish between Israeli citizens and the Israeli government. Just as there is opposition to the elected governments of any western democracy, there is opposition to Netanyahu in Israel; in the media, the Knesset and in the academic community. Being ignorant of the situation is inexcusable for anyone who adopts a strong stance on the issue of Israel-Palestine but for academics who purport to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and furthering understanding, it is unforgiveable.
The message promoted by Culture for Coexistence is entirely positive. It transcends political partisanship and seeks to help those who suffer most, the ordinary people of both Israel and Palestine. This stands in sharp relief to the hateful screed of the BDS movement that won’t condemn violence unless it is perpetrated by Israelis. Ultimately a positive message promoting cultural and academic engagement between the two sides is far more likely to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.