Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Clare College and the Palestine Question

It's fair to say that the choir's planned tour of Israel was not exactly a hot topic of conversation in Clare College during last term. There was a meeting, which I am ashamed to say I missed, organised by members of Cambridge Gaza Solidarity, the group which came about as a result of January's occupation against the Gaza War. From what I've heard, the choir didn't take up invitations to attend. By now the story has achieved national notoriety.

Generally I oppose the sort of blanket 'Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions' (BDS) campaign such as that now in place at University of Sussex Students' Union. There are political problems with these campaigns. A boycott can have the effect of hitting the working class of the target country more than the rulers, or of making it easier for workers to be rallied round their government by a nationalist sentiment.

Positive solidarity could be something like the Greek dockers' refusal to load ammunitions on to a ship bound for Israel. Of course, by the time the invasion of Gaza was already launched, there was a sense of too-little-too-late about this action. So in the meantime, the temptation to call for an all out boycott is strong. It can, if taken as the be-all and end-all, be a substitute for more positive solidarity action.

I don't know much about apartheid South Africa, but I've always found the opinion expressed by many supporters of BDS that the regime was brought down by boycotts to be a bit suspect. I'm sure the mass movement within South African society, with the ANC and others employing a multitude of tactics and strategies, had something to do with it. This is not to deny that boycotts have an economic effect, if enough people rally to the call.

A boycott of Israeli goods would have to be primarily international. Palestinians themselves cannot afford to boycott Israeli industry, because their economy is dependent on it. Acceptance of this by many Palestinians has spurred recent attempts by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to push the boycott more strongly in their own territories. But surely the PA know the economic reality and are just sharpening their rhetoric.

Groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) are all for extending the boycott out from just Israeli goods, to encompass cultural institutions. The latter, which is itself a group made up of intellectuals, argue that the university system is ideologically tied to the state in Israel, and is therefore complicit in Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

Liberal Bullshit

The liberal argument against any sort of boycott is, essentially, that it is unfair. Why single out Israel when loads of governments behave in similar ways? Why tar all Israeli academics and workers with a Zionist brush? How would you like it if people assumed that you agreed with everything your government did just because you were British, American, Iranian, etc?

This article in The Cambridge Student
is a fairly standard interpretation of this liberal line. Aside from its ridiculously simplistic portrayal of Israel as a model democracy, it misrepresents the arguments of those opposed to the choir tour. Anyone who voices concern about such a political foolhardy action is branded as an illiberal idiot, their views not only 'tragic' but 'shocking.' Perhaps, though, they are merely trying to find effective ways of fighting something much more 'tragic and shocking' – a forty year old land-grab in the West Bank and a vicious form of collective punishment that has Gaza dying on its feet.

Those of us who occupied university rooms in January faced the same arguments. Why not occupy over Sri Lanka, for example? Behind this lies the spurious logic that, because the world contains so many injustices, attempting to do something about one of them is somehow unfair on those suffering from the others. Of course, those of us with a socialist outlook do not just campaign on Palestine. We point out that wars are an inevitable and recurring product of an imperialist system and a rampant and unchecked arms trade.

People 'single out' Israel because of the amount of media attention the conflict gets, the length of time it has been going on for, the one-sidedness of it all, and the historical role in the Middle East of Britain and the United States. Right or wrong, it's as simple as that.

Let's be clear. Singing a few songs on either side of the Security Wall, while ignoring the existence of the Wall itself, is not a commendable act of inter-faith peacemaking. Pretending that this was ever anything more than a free holiday for members of the choir is disingenuous. If it was the case that the choir ever had any intention of coming out publicly against the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, or even of publicly acknowledging the realities of the situation, it might be a different matter. They were only ever going there to sing.

The choir and democracy
Where does this devil-may-care attitude to political reality come from? This has largely to do with the nature of Cambridge academia. Cambridge colleges have not yet been completely dragged out of the Middle Ages, and so, for some reason, a Christian choir is universally regarded as an ambassador for Clare College and no-one bats an eyelid. I have been inside the chapel once, for the matriculation service. It was quite nice. Berate my lack of college spirit if you like, but the prestige of the choir was not one of the factors I considered when looking at universities. Choral scholarships? Organ scholarships? What century are we in?

Unfortunately, the college's refusal to open its books at all means that I'll never know just how much of my tuition fee money is being spent jetting the choir around the world. So to my next point. This medieval prestige means that a choir tour is political. A choir tour to Israel is doubly political. A choir tour to Israel on the exact one year anniversary of the invasion of Gaza is crass and insensitive at best.

The prevailing ivory tower mentality in the University means that decisions like this can be taken with scant regard for the consequences. In the end I suppose I oppose the choir tour on the – probably unconvincing – grounds that It's Just Fucking Stupid, and because no-one had an opportunity to discuss or vote on it before it was arranged. The absence of campus democracy strikes again.

I haven't by any means been won over to a BDS position, but talking to Palestinians, I can well understand why they don't want something like this going ahead, and in particular why it appears to legitimise the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A privileged choir from a privileged university wading into a political shitstorm that it appears to know or care little about has strong imperialist undertones.

Unless decision-making processes are changed, maybe we can look forward to Clare Choir: Live from Tiananmen Square, 2010.


  1. Nice article. No one ever explained to me why the college pays for choir tour, Christian or not.

  2. You mention the apartheid boycotts: Back in the 80s we had a campaign at Clare to get the college to disinvest from Rio Tinto Zinc - whose mining operations were heavily implicated with the SA regime.

    Ultimately the campaign petered out - but arguably it raised the issue more effectively that the liberal 'lifestyle' boycotts of Barclays Bank and SA oranges.

  3. There are still disinvestment campaigns alive in Cambridge, mostly to do with the arms trade. They are definitely better than encouraging lifestyle boycotts because they raise the idea of bringing our collective influence to bear on university authorities, while also exposing how the university is financially bound up with the dirtier parts of international capitalism.

    This in turn raises all sorts of questions about democracy within the university, which is basically non-existent.

  4. Absolutely none of your tuition money goes towards 'Jetting the Choir around the world'; while this may be the case in some colleges in the university, Clare choir receives absolutely no money from the college and funds its own tours through CD recordings and concerts throughout the year. If anything, the choir works very hard as the 'figurehead' of the College, for no monetary reward. The musical reputation of the college is a large attraction point for many, both choral scholars and more generally artistic people. The college benefits hugely from this in terms of applications to the college, while the choir receives nothing back in return.
    As such, the 'holiday' for which you are berating the choir has no direct effect on the finances of you or the college.
    To suggest that the tour was indeed a holiday shows a lack of understanding. It was originally meant to be an educational trip to both Israel and occupied Palestine. Unfortunately the 'wisdom' of Palestinian support groups saw fit to ban the choir from officially crossing through the boundary and performances were confined to Israel.
    The choir was lucky enough to have an open meeting in Tel Aviv with a Jewish Israeli academic, who is strongly against the occupation of Palestine and is also a great champion of the arts. He pointed out that the majority of people who would have attended the Christmas Oratorio were unlikely to be staunch Zionists who saw the tour as a statement of Israeli support by Clare College, and were mostly educated and civilised Israelis who feel politically powerless in the face of terrorism and atrocities taking place on both sides of the dividing wall.
    Perhaps the timing of the tour was not best advised, although it was intended as a Christmas Tour to bring the beauty and joy of Bach's music to BOTH sides of the equation. Unfortunately, the decision to 'support' Palestine as well as Israel with the tour was taken out of the choir's hands by those who are supposedly championing Palestine.
    You admit that you missed the arranged meeting in December. Perhaps this explains the hugely one-sided nature of your argument, which fails to acknowledge the original intention of the tour;
    Medieval indeed...