Saturday, April 09, 2005

Melanie Phillips, the AUT & Israeli Academics

My fellow St. Anne's alumn(us/a) Melanie Phillips is somebody about whom I find it hard to make up my mind. I have an instinctive dislike for almost everything she says, but I think it's often because, being an entertaining polemicist, she makes her arguments in a sufficiently antagonistic way as to rile people from different political positions. However, while the way in which she justifies and expounds her views almost never fails to outrage me, she's certainly an intelligent woman, and is in a completely different league of rightist commentators to the mornonic Richard Littlejohn.

Anyway, she recently produced a blog post on the attempts of the AUT to exclude Israeli lecturers. This raises an incident in Oxford a few years ago when the irrepressably likeable Tom Paulin refused to take on an Israeli graduate student, because the man had served in the Israeli Defense Forces.

I completely disagree with many of her assumptions regarding the Israelis' position and, for reasons I'll expand on below, I think she is as bad as the AUT in the way she approaches the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I also have no sympathy with her conspiratorially-minded blanket attack on university teachers, a classic target of conservative commentators. But I do think she's right to question the AUT's action here.

I've regularly had fierce debates with Jewish friends who are enthusiastic supporters of the pre-2004 (for he was a different beast then) Ariel Sharon (often with liberal Jews on my side, I may add). The thing that matters is that they're still my friends at the end of the argument. They have a completely different perception of the situation in Palestine, and they support a course of action I found practically and morally regrettable, but I couldn't take it against them personally-- in contrast with those people who seem overtly racist, sexist or homophobic. I don't buy Melanie's argument that we are asking Israeli's to betray their country-- the fact she characterises dissenters from occupation of Palestine as being anti-Israeli reveals her own prejudices, in confusing Israeli citizenship with particular political beliefs --but I worry that excluding Israeli academics is a bad idea. My friends weren't essentially bigotted people, just blinkered-- and blinkered in no worse way than members of the Arab world who enthusiastically support suicide bombers. If I can understand suicide bombers' mentality (and note the use of 'understand' rather than 'support' there, folks), as I believe I can, then I don't think it is unreasonable to hold intellectual communion with Israeli academics who I disagree with.

I did have a twinge of concern when I wondered if Melanie Phillips would have resisted sanctions against apartheid South African universities, but I feel that was a much more clear-cut situation, where some exclusion tactics could be justified. The reason that the AUT and Melanie Phillips are both wrong in the way they talk about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, is that they seek to take sides in what we can surely admit has been a process of escalation of violence and emotions. Many outside Israel and Palestine have sought to take sides in the debate, rather than act as honest brokers in search of a genuine peace-- the kind of peace that cannot, by its definition, have winners and losers, but a retreat from the precipice of destruction for all involved. In trying to take sides, the AUT are acting with their hearts but not their minds; the plight of the Palestinians is under-valued by much (but not all) media reporting and yet we shouldn't be seeking to address that imbalance by excluding academics associated with the Israeli state. I know I've been guilty of this myself, being caught out by friends using the first person plural to refer to the Palestinians.

A bi-lateral peace process requires understanding and compromise from all sides (and, ideally, the AUT and Melanie Phillips would not be taking sides anyway). In Northern Ireland, this has meant releasing IRA terrorists, and in Israel it will mean many such painful steps for each side. The AUT had better realise that they need to burden themselves with intellectual communion with Israeli academics if they are actually interested in helping oppressed Palestinians, rather than further escalating and strengthening the divisions that will need to be breached in search of peace. If we are really to reach a situation where Israel seems to deserve sanctions, I would also suggest that these are best formed from economic sanctions, command by government, rather than from severing intellectual ties as the first stage. While there are (unashamedly) limits to tolerance of different ideas even in an intellectual comunity, it seems to me that academic communion must be one that can sustain differences of vision longer than any other.

So, let Israeli academics come to British universities. The free commerce of ideas must be the basic principle of academia, and I shall enjoy debating the Palestinian situation with them in the commonroom, rather than seeking to ban them from it.