Studying student protest

Christopher Boyd examines the protests against Israel that recently took place in Scottish universities and examines how this activism fits with left politics

Why is Israel is so important to the Scottish Left? Its relationship with Palestine is not simply based in class or the politics of socio-economic disparity, though these are involved. It is a relationship steeped in conflicts between and about religion, race and nationality which pre-date the creation of the state itself. Nonetheless, the cause of the Palestinians has been taken up by the Left and it is important to explore the rationale for its support; the Left can never afford to be uncritical, especially of itself.

Though a full evaluation of the issues could fill innumerable volumes, I feel that – with the current prominence of student demonstrations and university occupations – a brief look at the recent occurrence of both of these phenomena at the University of Strathclyde may provide useful insight. These were publicised by, and to a great extent organised by, the Strathclyde Socialist Workers Student Society (SWSS) though they also involved the Strathclyde Stop the War Society, Action Palestine and others. There are two aspects to any protest – its form and substance. I don’t think there is any problem with wholesale support of the protest’s form since the Left has a long history of resorting to direct democratic action alongside, or in preference to, the channels of representative democracy either because the immediacy of the cause demands it or because the bureaucracy and systematic biases of representation are stifling the will of the people.

The substance was, however, more problematic. The demonstrators demanded that Strathclyde University:

  1. Cancel their contract with Eden Springs,
  2. Disinvest from BAE Systems and thus investigate alternative funding for the university’s engineering department,
  3. Condemn Israel’s bombing of Gaza,
  4. Create fifty scholarships to the university for Palestinian students
  5. Show solidarity with the Islamic University of Gaza: write of a letter of support, twin the university with Strathclyde and send funds to assist in its rebuilding,
  6. Condemn the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal, show the appeal in lecture theatres, and hold of a fundraising day on the campus,
  7. Oppose Israeli academics who promote military research at Strathclyde.

The concessions actually achieved, while fascinating in their own right, have little bearing on the compatibility of these demands, and similar ones being made throughout the country, with the politics of the Scottish Left and organisations such as the SWSS which claim to embody it. I would argue that some of the above demands are consistent with left-wing politics but, perhaps more importantly in terms of self-critique, others are not. As well as identifying which are which, it is vital to understand the why of the situation: why it is that some don’t fit, and why the Left still appear to support them.

To the extent that Eden Springs is indeed involved in commercial exploitation of the resources of Palestine, and thus the Palestinian people themselves, opposing the company would appear to be the epitome of left-wing politics: a dual blow at the dispossession of the masses and the appropriation of the means of subsistence and production by capitalist interests. So too with the call for the university to distance itself from a company accused of developing and supplying military hardware used in the systematic killing of the already multiply-dispossessed, and the a call for a condemnation of such killing. Although opposition to BAE Systems solely for its links to Israel would be open to charges of hypocrisy as the company supplies other governments with which the Left disagrees, using the recent Israeli offensive to catalyse public support for action is a legitimate tactic. Indeed, I would argue that even entirely separated from the issue of Israel, academic disinvestment from BAE fits with the left-wing agenda insofar as it recognises that companies inherently lack ethical judgement and are motivated by profits alone. It is up to people – whether as academics, students or citizens – to exercise ethical control over companies and prevent companies exercising financial control over our educational institutions. While the condemnation of the BBC is very issue-specific it raises old questions familiar to the Left, particularly in Scotland, about the existence and extent of systemic bias on the part of the Corporation. The remaining demands, however, are more problematic – though they are, for that, perhaps the most interesting ones.

Even reduced to a realistic number, the creation of scholarships specifically for Palestinian students runs the risk of appearing to privilege the suffering and claims of this particular conflict’s victims over those of others around the world. This is particularly harmful to the Left’s ability and credibility in attempting to aid these other victims, where such other conflicts are rooted more in more straightforward socio-economic disparities. Additionally, though perhaps a milder criticism, this demand fails to follow the Left’s traditionally radical stance; it is targeted at an effect not a cause, ameliorating rather than combating the destruction of civilian buildings by Israel. A demand more logical for the Left to make would be for more scholarships for the underprivileged and oppressed, unrestricted by national boundaries. Also, too close a focus on the Palestinian situation risks detracting attention from genuinely left-wing movements active in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin America where even socialist leaders are continually critiqued by their deeply politically-conscious people.

Next, we come to the demand for the university publicly to show solidarity with the Islamic University of Gaza. At first this seems perfectly sound call for the Scottish Left to make; after all, ‘solidarity’ is a feature of left-wing discourse and its application to the Palestinian situation would therefore appear natural. However, it is important to be clear exactly with whom this solidarity is being expressed: while to the protesters the emphasis is on it being the Islamic *University* of Gaza, it nonetheless remains also the *Islamic* University of Gaza. Of course this doesn’t mean the institution is some extremist hive as the more paranoid or reactionary media sources might suggest, but the co-existence of religion and academia, even if only titular, is an issue which could bear a lot deeper enquiry than it appears to have been given. Also, it raises questions of religion’s role in the conflict on both sides – a role of which the Scottish Left ought to be wary. Even if the Left see religion as merely incidental to the conflict, enough of those directly involved claim religious motivation to give pause for thought: does the Left do violence to those people’s self-understanding when it seeks to impose its view on the causes? After all, religion – and particularly organised religious institutions – and the Left have often had reservations about each other’s existence and influence. The understandable temptation to swell unquestioningly the ranks of political protests with religious organisations must also be resisted. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend: any support from, or to, Islamic movements must – if the Left’s position is to remain tenable – be carefully scrutinised to ensure that the protesters are making points which are compatible with those of the political Left. If a lack of critical examination allows any groups which advocate violence upon Israeli civilians or indeed Jewish people of whatever origin, to be associated with the Scottish Left, this will harm not only the chances of a just peace but also the credibility of left-wing politics in Scotland. While it may be Eurocentric to label elected governments such as Hamas illegitimate because the West condemns their politics and methods, I would still argue that there is an important distinction between simple recognition and active support – while the Left may do the former, it should not do the latter.

too close a focus on the Palestinian situation risks detracting attention from genuinely left-wing movements active in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin America where even socialist leaders are continually critiqued by their deeply politically-conscious people.

It is here that a serious issue need be addressed; the charge of anti-Semitism. It is commonly understood within the Left that being anti-Semitic is conceptually distinct from being anti-Israel (Israel being a modern political state distinct from the Jewish people who simply form a majority of its citizens) and, crucially, being anti-Israeli policies with regard to Palestine is not being anti-Israel. Elision of these different positions is dangerous because the political disagreements the Scottish Left has with Israel should be kept separate from racial bigotry so that the latter does not taint the former. On top of that, those who are anti-Semitic should not be given the chance to steal legitimacy from movements and protests which happen to share their opposition to Israel’s actions but for benign reasons. Again, a show of solidarity is more rightly given to all universities in all zones of deprivation and conflict – with a condemnation of attacks, whether military or otherwise, upon academic freedom.

The final demand to oppose Israeli academics is essentially an academic boycott, and as such is particularly difficult. Although – as Mark Neocleous outlines in his recent book Critique of Security – academics are often either consciously or unconsciously co-opted by oppressive institutions, the Left has traditionally been fiercely defensive of absolute academic freedom (perhaps out of a recognition that as freedom decreases it is always the radicals, and usually the Left, who suffer first when unpopular speech or work is silenced). Of course, academic boycotts are nothing new. The most famous example, the anti-Apartheid boycott, was not only against the regime, but the violations of academic freedom such as the banning orders it imposed on two progressive, communist, South African academics. Its justification was that academics cannot be detached from their socio-political context, especially if universities become complicit in government action. However its opponents within the Left argued that boycotts harm academia as a whole and thus not only the oppressors but also the oppressed. Indeed, it is important not to view history through distorted lenses; even the boycott of South African academics and institutions (which had none of the national, religious or other complications of the Palestinian situation) had its controversies within the Left, and anti-Apartheid activists sat on both sides of the pro- and anti-boycott debate. The current demand in fact mirrors a third possibility proposed within these anti-Apartheid debates: the selective boycott or support of academics and institutions based on their position regarding the regime. This was rejected then on the basis that political views are not valid determinants of academic merit and freedom, and should arguably be rejected again – particularly considering that the voice of the radical Left is often unpopular and thus open to being silenced by such measures in the future). Moreover many South African scholars felt isolated and unjustly discriminated against – particularly since:

“…boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection,
have their controversies and injustices.” (Andrew Beckett, The Guardian, Thurs 12 Dec 2002)

The solution which would therefore seem to remain is to attack the colonisation of academia by state/military influences from within academia itself, rather than imposing a higher-order restriction on Israeli academics.

How the Scottish Left is viewed for the position it takes is not nor should be, of course, the determinative factor in the decision whether to hold that position. However, it is important not to lose perspective and get caught up in a cause which is more problematic than it first appears without continually critiquing the conflict, the resistance and the solidarity. What the Scottish Left needs is to “see oursels as ithers see us”.