Edited excerpts from the conversation with McCarthy:
TRT World: We know you are a founder-member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign and of Academics for Palestine. You were also part of the letter published in the Irish Times, calling for an academic boycott against Israel. Why do you think academic boycotts are important to put pressure on Israel?
Conor McCarthy: When you are colonising a land in a conflict like this, it is, in fact, an act of war. One of the interesting things about BDS or boycotts is that it is coming from the ground up, not from the top down. It’s not coming from presidents and prime ministers. It’s coming from ordinary people, students, workers, people in the trades unions, teachers… And that is where it came from in Palestine as well. In every country, leaders are always much more conservative than the people.
The value of a boycott, whether academic or cultural, lies in its way of showing a society that what it thinks is normal is not normal. Boycott is a technique, not a principle. It is not a philosophy.
After Russia invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine, there have been all sorts of boycotts imposed on Russia, be it economic or political, implicit cultural boycotts, people not reading Dostoevsky anymore, people not performing Tchaikovsky anymore, people not showing Russian films anymore, all sorts of things going on. Why is it that Russia can be boycotted and not Israel? I think a boycott is actually a fairly gentle thing to do as a way of protest. And boycott is in many ways kind of related to democracy. This is a way of exerting nonviolent pressure.
Have you faced negative feedback while defending the academic boycott against Israel or signing the letter?
CM: I will tell you one story which may seem a little obscure. When the big letter was being assembled a week ago by colleagues of mine, one signature was sent in by somebody called Garrett Deasy. It turned out that this was a kind of a pretend name, a spoof name, because in James Joyce’s great novel about Dublin, Ulysses, the hero of which is a Jewish man, Mr. Bloom.
In that novel, there is a very anti-Semitic character called Mr Garrett Deasy. So, somebody gave this name to the letter as a way of mocking the petition. Then there’s the reply letter. So, some people are hostile to the boycott, or they are afraid of the boycott.
But when the (first) letter went to the Irish Times, it had about 630 signatures. When the Academics for Palestine added the letter to their website, it added more signatures and now has nearly 1,000 academics. That’s quite something in a little country.
There will always be people who are nervous about adding their name to such a thing. Anybody who tries to speak out about Palestine, and not just now, someone will say you’re an anti-Semite. So you have to be ready for this kind of argument.
What do you think about the criticism in the counter-letter – that universities must remain a kind of dialogue channel and the argument that there are dissenting voices among academics in Israeli universities?
CM: The problem is that universities, having a variety of opinions, can also have institutional links. If you look at Trinity College – like Ireland’s Harvard or Oxford – it has documented links with defence industries in Israel. MIT, too, is deeply involved with the defence industry. Universities are run like businesses. They’re run in a manner to increasingly make money in the West. So, the universities want to find all sorts of ways of making money, and collaborating with the defence industry is one way to do it.
Secondly, I think the counter-boycott letter is a bit naive in its sense of the level of dissent in Israeli universities. I don’t think there is as much protest in Israeli universities as people would think.
For instance, a recent letter quoted Israeli doctors as saying that hospitals in Gaza should be bombed. So if doctors, who are meant to care for people and keep people alive, are saying that hospitals should be bombed, then they are following the same extreme ideology.
Why do you think European countries must suspend ties with Israeli academic institutions urgently?
CM: The European Union has a funding programme for university research called Horizon 2020. Israel is not an EU member but has a special trading status in relation to the Union. Israel has also been made a member of the Horizon programme. Israeli academics can look for funds for a research project from this European programme. If a participating country in the trade agreement or a participating country in the university funding agreement has a poor human rights record, its membership can be suspended.
The state and the economy benefit by exporting defence technology to other parts of the world. The Irish army is very small. When they bought drones for surveillance, they bought Israeli drones. Many of these technologies are developed, planned, or worked out in conjunction with universities.