Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Two sides of the story

Today the Guardian did something very rare in a newspaper – it published two articles about the same issue, each giving a different opinion.

Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain wrote an article entitled ‘Both Palestinians and Israelis will benefit from a boycott’. This was the usual anti-Israeli diatribe, with liberal references to South African apartheid. The article by David Newman and Benjamin Pogrund, on the other hand (‘A boycott will only strengthen the Israeli right’), is a well-considered argument that, while acknowledging the seriousness of the situation, quite rightly points out the flaws in the way the AUT are attempting to deal with it. It is comforting to know that not every academic who chooses to write about this issue has been swept up in the tide of blind prejudice that seems to have affected some of our most well-respected academics.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Double standards and the AUT

Over the past few weeks I have been vaguely aware of the furore surrounding the AUT’s decision to boycott Israeli universities, but with exams looming it’s taken a while to register. Today I finally got round to reading an article from the Washington Post that really made me sit up and pay attention.

The article was “Is This Any Way for Scholars to Behave?” by Hasdai Westbrook, published Sunday, May 15, 2005. You can read the whole thing here (free registration on the Washington Post website is required first).

I freely admit to being pro-Israel. I have visited Israel and loved it, and I consider its existence to be vitally important in a world where the universal attitude towards Jews continues to be at best ambivalent, and at worst downright hostile. But that is not to say that I consider Israel to be infallible – to a certain extent, I can see both sides of the story, so to speak.

I think the British made a serious mess of their last few years of occupation, and an even bigger mess when it came to their withdrawal and the creation of Israel. I think that the Palestinians were and are justifiably angry that a land they have occupied for millennia was taken from them and given to a people most of whom had not lived there for around 2000 years. I would agree that today, no matter what the official policies may be, in practice Palestinians are often treated as second-class citizens. I find the actions of the IDF soldiers guarding the Occupied Territories disturbingly reminiscent of a very different army 60 or 70 years ago that I would imagine no Jew would want to be identified with. I disagree with the government’s way of dealing with conscientious objectors who refuse to do National Service as a protest against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (one of several websites related to this is at I do not believe that the Israeli government is doing anywhere near as much as it could to try to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the clock cannot be turned back. Several generations of native-born Israelis cannot and should not be suddenly displaced – two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right. 50 years of history cannot be erased. I maintain that the existence of a Jewish state is essential, and I defend the right of Jews and Muslims alike to have access to and control over their holiest sites. While I don’t think such stringent security measures are a good idea in the long term, I can entirely understand the need for them in the light of constant deadly terror attacks – much as I hate to admit it, I felt safer when having my bag checked for the fifth time in a day, even if I did also find it slightly unnerving. Hamas continues to carry out attacks because the perception is that Israel will not listen to words. This may be true, but it is a vicious circle – every attack makes Israel less inclined to stop and listen.

Neither ‘side’ in the Israel/Palestine conflict is completely to blame, and neither is completely blameless. The situation provokes the deepest emotions of many millions of people, and so there is no easy solution. If a resolution is to be found it will take far more work and many more compromises from both sides than either is currently prepared to give, and it is unlikely that some wounds will ever heal completely. The ball is in Israel’s court at the moment, but there is plenty that the Palestinians can do to encourage them to throw it back and get the game moving again towards the ultimate goal of peace.

In this complicated and emotionally fraught socio-political mess, the AUT’s action is misguided and unhelpful. Aside from the question of academic freedom, there is no black and white in the Middle Eastern conflict; the new trend towards comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa is simply wrong. Apartheid was born of pure racism – the belief of one race that it was superior to another, and the translation of that belief into political oppression. In Israel, two nations with opposing ideals are fighting for their right to exist on the same small piece of land, each using the weapons available to them to retain a precarious foothold until they are ready and able to find a way to peacefully co-exist. Many pro-Palestinian groups would dearly like to see Israel and its citizens erased from the face of the Earth, and will happily proclaim that wish to the world; few, if any, pro-Israelis advocate such a drastic ‘solution’.

The world’s academics have a duty to be politically aware and to use their influence to encourage changes where it is objectively considered to be useful and appropriate; to see them taking sides in this situation is deeply disappointing. The AUT should choose its battles more carefully.

With plenty of US and European interest in the Middle East, Israel is a fashionable issue to adopt. But what of the conflicts and human rights breaches that are less well-publicised? Clearly the AUT’s influence could be put to better use by highlighting problems previously ignored.

One country increasingly hitting the headlines is Uzbekistan, where the deaths being publicised over the last few days are simply the latest in a series of alarm bells that have been ringing for several years. The UN has reported the “systematic” use of torture in the country, and a 2003 World Bank report found economic growth and living standards to be among the lowest in the former Soviet Union (BBC Country Profile: Uzbekistan), yet the US continued to give massive levels of financial aid to Uzbekistan, to the tune of some $220 million in 2002 alone.

In 2002/03, Craig Murray, then British Ambassador in Tashkent, blew the whistle on Uzbekistan’s torture regime. He was recalled to London, subjected to intense pressure and several disciplinary proceedings, and finally resigned in 2004 after suffering a breakdown and various other serious health problems – for a fuller account, see Nick Paton Walsh’s article ‘The envoy who said too much’ (The Guardian, Thursday July 15, 2004).

And what is it that has made Uzbekistan seemingly immune to anything but the most gentle of rebukes from the international community? Quite simply this: The Uzbek government agreed to let the US army set up a base in the south of the country, thereby granting them easy access to Afghanistan.

A country where the concept of freedom of speech and press is completely foreign would surely be worthy of attention from our latest self-appointed arbiters of political justice. It is a shame that their attention is otherwise engaged as they jump onto the anti-Zionist bandwagon.

Sign the petition to rescind the AUT boycott of Israeli universities.

HTML - scary stuff!

I find it interesting that although the internet plays such a huge role in our lives now, so many of us have very little clue as to how it’s all put together. Most people have realised the need for basic word processing skills, but there seems to be a lack of widespread general knowledge about simple programming and web design. Of course, I could just be showing my age – maybe kids in school these days do learn those things, and I just missed it by a couple of years.

This evening I made my first foray into the strange new (for me) world of HTML in order to add a links list to my blog. I have to admit that most of the credit needs to go to Gatsby, who patiently talked me through the process using ever smaller words until I finally caught on. He also has the dubious honour of being the person who got me hooked on blogging in the first place AND has a great blog of his own (here), so he definitely qualifies as Blogger Guru of the moment.

I’ll stop embarrassing him now…

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Torture regime

Today the Guardian ran an article (here) about a Briton who was imprisoned and tortured for 32 months in Saudi Arabia for a murder he could not have committed. His experiences are shocking, and his survival is a near-miracle. The tone of the article is justifiably outraged.

I have two words with which to counter the indignation that these atrocities will arouse: Guantánamo Bay.

British politics

It’s just occurred to me that anyone reading this who isn’t British may not have a clue what I’m talking about when I mention our different political parties. After all, I have to think hard to remember which is which between Republican and Democrat, and we pay quite a lot of attention to US politics over here. So to clarify matters (and possibly just to prove to myself that I do at least know who’s who in British politics), here’s a quick guide:

Labour: The more left-wing of the two main parties. Currently in power with Tony Blair at the helm (for the time being, at least).
Conservative (aka Tory): The more right-wing of the two main parties. Hate immigration and Tony Blair, and want to privatise everything. The last leader, Michael Howard, quit just after the election, so watch this space (or better still, just keep an eye on the BBC website!)
Liberal Democrat: A very definite third after Labour and the Conservatives, but they refuse to go away. Headed by Charles Kennedy, who has very little charisma and an even littler baby called Donald (born a couple of weeks ago). They try to be all things to all men, but essentially they’re left of Labour.
UKIP: The respectable version of the National Front, which suddenly emerged into the limelight last year when a popular chat-show host, Robert Kilroy-Silk, was fired by the BBC for publishing a racist article, and decided to join UKIP. A few months later, he fell out with them and ‘jumped before he was pushed’, but his brief stint with the party ensured them a worrying level of popularity across Britain.
Veritas: A newly-formed party headed by…guess who…Robert Kilroy-Silk. Very few real policies, just a lot of anti-immigration and anti-Europe diatribe, which earned him a suitably lousy result in the election. Sighs of relief all round.
BNP (British National Party): The National Front. Everyone is keeping a very close eye on them as they managed to achieve a slight increase in votes, though fortunately didn’t gain any seats.
Green Party: Very keen on the environment. All very nice and lovely and (sadly) completely harmless.

This is where I admit defeat, but those are the most visible parties in England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own additional parties, but I’m a bit hazy on them, so I’ll call it a night.

On Friday the BBC website had a photo diary by Anna Pickard of the best pictures from the election, complete with hilarious captions that could only have been written by an inebriated student. Unfortunately, it seems to have disappeared from the site, so I’m working a way on linking the copy I saved in Word to this blog. In the meantime, if anyone’s interested let me know and I’ll email it to you!

Election post-mortem

After an interminable month of listening to our political parties bitching about one another, the election is finally over and done with. Labour is back in, albeit very bruised and battered; the Conservatives have slunk off into a corner to lick their wounds; and the Liberal Democrats are celebrating a small but significant increase in their number of seats.

I am pleased with the result. Although I voted Liberal Democrat (along with what I suspect was a sizeable proportion of the student population), I never expected them to get in. I picked them partly because my conscience would not allow me to vote for either Labour or Conservative, and partly because I feel very strongly that we need to encourage anyone willing to stand up as an alternative to the two main parties. For the sake of real democracy, we have to maintain that third option.

I may be showing my naïvité, but I am optimistic that Labour will learn from their narrow scrape to victory and will do something worthwhile in their third term. I think they have it in them to make a decent hash of it (something I seriously doubt of the Tories), and to go some way towards making up for the harm they have done in the last 4 years.

On a local level, this was a far more exciting election than I or many of my fellow students had expected. My new constituency had a Liberal Democrat MP, and still does – just. The Lib Dem candidate came in ahead of the Conservatives by a whopping 0.2%, which in real terms is only 125 votes. I can safely say that this is the first time I’ve genuinely felt that my vote made a difference – especially as Labour got a measley 8.8% here, so a tactical vote for them would effectively have been one for the Tories.

For some reason, I was under the impression that our General Election would attract very little international interest. Whilst the US presidential election always creates a stir right across the globe, somehow I assumed that we would go virtually unnoticed. I realised I was wrong yesterday when I passed a foreign language newspaper stand, and nearly every single one that I could read (about 8 different languages) had the news of Blair’s victory splashed across the front page. I find it slightly disturbing that I see my country as having so little international importance.

On the up-side, UKIP only got 2.1% here, which is both encouraging and a relief.