March 6, 2014

GUEST ROOM: On Israel, Hypocrisy and Double Standards

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By JULIUS KAIREY

The lengths to which boycott supporters will go to defame the State of Israel are indefensible. The narrative they put forward is always relatively simple: In a series of wars after World War II, Israel systematically threw Palestinians off of their land. Israel then took several steps to divide the country between Jews and Palestinians through apartheid policies. Palestinians, largely innocent in the grand scheme of the conflict, have been helpless victims of Israeli brutality.

The problem with this narrative: It isn’t true.

But before I get to attacks on Israel, I want to return to the issue of academic freedom as it relates to the boycott. How can boycotters claim that telling institutions which schools they can collaborate with will not limit the academic freedom of the people who work for those institutions? In response to my column in this newspaper, a number of authors gave the following answer: Because the boycott targets institutions, and not individuals, academic freedom is not impinged.

This would be a sensible argument if institutions did not consist of individuals. The fact that the members of the Cornell government department would be prohibited from having an academic conference with the government department of an Israeli university does tell individuals who they may and may not interact with. By the boycotters’ reasoning, banning Students for Justice in Palestine from campus would not limit the freedom of those individual students to advocate for their cause, because individual students would not be the targets of such a ban. It is illogical to be basing an argument for the boycott of an entire nation upon that premise.

Now let’s get back to the accuracy of the boycotters’ attack on Israel’s character. Is Israel really the twenty-first century’s South Africa? As a matter of fact, Israel is a Western-style democracy quite unlike the repressive regimes of the West Bank and Gaza (try peacefully dissenting against Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank). Let me ask the boycotters something: Why, or indeed how, could an “apartheid state” grant Palestinians living within Israel full citizenship rights? More than 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians. They exercise their right to vote, and some of them are members of the Israeli Parliament. Anti-discrimination laws in Israel prevent, rather than foster, unequal treatment. How many other countries in the Middle East foster such democratic diversity?

Another thing boycotters like to discuss is the construction of the security wall that physically separates many Palestinians from Israel. But there is a reason why boycott supporters never tell you the reason why Israel built it. The intent was to stop the killing of its citizens. Before the construction of that barrier, dozens of Palestinians would strap bombs to themselves, cross into Israel, and blow up civilians. More than 100 Israelis were killed by such attacks in both 2002 and 2003. In a world where Hamas continues to launch missiles into Israel, causing casualties and forcing their citizens to run in fear to the nearest bomb shelter, Israel must be afforded the ability to defend its citizens’ right to life. Or do the human rights of Israelis not matter because Palestinian acts of terror are to be either justified or ignored?

The hypocrisy of boycott supporters would be comical if it weren’t so manifestly obvious. If partnering with an Israeli university, as Cornell is doing, constitutes participation in genocidal Israeli policies, then every student on this campus, through their tuition, is investing in the “genocidal” Israeli state. Are they serious about divestment when they seem so willing to hand over large sums of money to an apartheid-supporting university?

I am not asking that social activists be perfect people. But I am asking that they not tell others to “divest from death” when they — if we accept their argument — invest in it every day by attending this university. If these activists feel so passionately about their cause, why are they not willing to make the same sacrifices they ask from others? They seem like boycotters who do not want to boycott.

As dozens of nations around the world deny human rights in brutal ways, we hear the loudest calls for the boycott of one country’s institutions: Israel. What explains this application of a double standard that would be unacceptable in nearly any other context? Why is Israel singled out over the worst human rights abusers? What explains why boycott activists ignore real “open air prisons” like China, Cuba and North Korea?  Do they not deserve their attention? I suppose academics and students who constantly call for “symbolic action” against Israel fall silent when it come to countries that are either too hard to bully or where people do not have the luxury of being able to form civil institutions to call for boycotts.

But regardless of the motivations of its supporters, this boycott does not deserve the support of any community devoted to truth and fairness.

Julius Kairey is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkairey@cornellsun.com.  Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.