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Exclusion wall

Boycotters on the fence

The largest university lecturers’ union in Britain, NATFHE, voted on Monday to recommend a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions that do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from “Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall”.

It is, of course, a sad spectacle to see a crowd of witless self-publicizing minor academics purporting sincerely to think that problems may be solved if we stop talking to people. Curious, also, that cheerleaders of the motion among Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of “collective punishments” and yet encourage a boycott that is itself exactly a form of collective punishment.

Let us instead focus on this odd nugget of language, “exclusion wall”. Unexpectedly, it appears to be self-defeating . . .

The barrier in question runs through the West Bank and consists, at various parts along its length, of roads, trenches, guard-towers, thermal-imaging cameras, a steel-and-barbed-wire electrified fence, and an eight-metre-high concrete wall. What to call it? A section in Chapter Four of Unspeak narrates the rhetorical contests over the structure during the past four years: “security fence”, “security wall”, “Apartheid wall”, “separation fence”, “separation barrier”, and my personal favourite, from an Agence France Presse photo caption: “concrete fence”.

The clash of Unspeaks is most apparent in “security fence” vs “Apartheid wall”. The thing is not always a fence, and its motivation is not just security. On the other hand, the thing is not always a wall, and its motivation is not just “Apartheid”, whatever exact meaning the importing of this term from South African history is supposed to convey in the new context, besides a merely emotional evocation of outrage.

Perhaps someone at NATFHE, in a fit of self-awareness, noticed that to shout about an “Apartheid wall” is counterproductive in its deliberately loaded associations, even though they still talk in more general terms about “apartheid policies”. So we are offered the apparently more reasonable term “exclusion wall”. It is still loaded, of course, in that the thing is not always a wall. What’s stranger is that the rhetoric works against a reasonable critique of Israel’s policy.

Is the barrier really in the business of “exclusion”? Well, it depends whom you ask. Someone who takes the view that the route of the barrier aims permanently to annex certain areas of the occupied West Bank to Israeli territory might instead want to say that the thing’s purpose is, on the contrary, inclusion – inclusion of more land under the aegis of Israel proper. By contrast, to say that the thing’s aim is “exclusion” seems rather closer to the Israeli government’s own emphasis on the barrier’s aim (which is certainly one of the aims, but not the only one) to stop suicide bombers from crossing into Israel – ie, to exclude them. In British educational politics, meanwhile, “exclusion” has for a long time been a euphemism for “expulsion”, the long-term ejection of pupils from schools. We can agree that exclusion is sad, and that in an ideal world it wouldn’t be necessary, but at least it lacks the abrupt violence of “expulsion”. So an “exclusion wall” certainly sounds cold and unfriendly, but then we can all agree that we should be unfriendly to suicide bombers.

Ingeniously, the prime minister of Israel is now selling the idea of making the barrier a permanent border as “the convergence plan” – a generous offer to retreat behind the lines drawn, not at random, by the thing that is alternately wall and fence. The Unspeak of “convergence”, of course, encourages us to imagine a peaceable coming-to-agreement of two sides, moving closer together from their initially distanced positions. The “convergence plan”, on the other hand, is unilateral, indeed explicitly predicated on the supposed non-existence of a negotiating partner.

So NAFTHE’s imbecilic boycott, bizarrely, is couched in language that mitigates the seriousness of the very political issues it claims to care about. Luckily, tomorrow NAFTHE will merge with Britain’s other major university teachers’ union, the AUT, which has already expressed its displeasure at the boycott and noted that it will not consider it binding. Is it too optimistic to hope that a super-union of British academics might one day see its way to avoiding the expression of opinions in shabby Unspeak, of whatever stripe, altogether?

  1. 1  SW  May 31, 2006, 8:58 pm 

    Your insertion of “minor” in the phrase “a crowd of witless self-publicizing minor academics” seems pejorative, especially considering the company that word is keeping. What exactly is a “minor academic”? One who has not solved one of the world’s Great Problems? One who is not a flamboyant media whore (or, who is not a successful flamboyant media whore)?

    And yet, the work of “minor” academics is often crucial, however laughable it may seem that they tend to devote their careers to nitty-gritty particulars about agrarian reform in the seventeenth century that don’t hit the front page of the newspapers. “Minor” academics are teachers and scholars and mentors, and indeed, most “major” academics owe their careers to a host of “minor” ones.

    The use of “minor” seems to suggest that neither they nor their academic contributions are important, even that they are really not that valuable. Would it change your argument – a convincing one, to be sure – about their word choice if they were all “major” academics like Terry Eagleton or Stephen Hawking? “Minor” has the same ring as “elite” (e.g. “media elites”): it is a way of unspeaking the contribution, their capacity to contribute, how they can be engaged in dialogue.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  June 1, 2006, 12:14 am 

    If they were all major academics like Terry Eagleton or Stephen Hawking, then I would call them a crowd of witless self-publicizing major academics.

  3. 3  Binnsy  June 3, 2006, 2:46 am 

    …to think that problems may be solved if we stop talking to people…

    Is your point that we need all-neutral language rather than Unspeak-based monologue? If people keep talking in Unspeak (as you define it) then the problem perpetuates… does subjective individual dialogue help or hinder the problem?

  4. 4  abb1  June 3, 2006, 3:01 pm 

    Curious, also, that cheerleaders of the motion among Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of “collective punishments” and yet encourage a boycott that is itself exactly a form of collective punishment.

    What a way to use quotation marks.

    So, Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of “collective punishments” – as in dropping bombs on densely populated areas.

    Yes, while a boycott is itself exactly a form of collective punishment – as in refusing to cooperate with people working for the benefit of an outlaw regime.

    Nice. Talk about linguistic intricacies…

  5. 5  Steven Poole  June 3, 2006, 4:55 pm 

    Dear abb1,

    I used quotation marks to enclose a direct quote from the article linked.

    How would you prefer me to use them?


  6. 6  abb1  June 3, 2006, 6:40 pm 

    Excuse me, so, you wrote Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of “collective punishments” because in the attached article Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of collective punishments – is this what you’re saying? You, in fact, don’t doubt that such policy does exist, correct? Like bulldozing buildings, bombing cities, building 30-foot-tall walls around villages with one gate that’s open 30 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening (unless they ‘forget’) – correct?

    And then you are saying that if someone is against bombing cities ‘n stuff (“collective punishment”) but for a boycott of Israel’s academics (also “collective punishment”) then this person is a hypocrite – did I get that right?

    And then you start complaining about people abusing language?

    Well, you’ve got chutzpah, I’ll give you that.

  7. 7  Steven Poole  June 3, 2006, 7:46 pm 

    Dear abb1,

    1.) Correct.

    2.) Incorrect, I did not use the word “hypocrite”.

    You, on the other hand, appear to think that any Israeli academic who does not on Nafthe’s demand submit a statement criticising his or her government’s actions is thereby “working for the benefit of an outlaw regime”.

    Well, I know who I think is using inflammatory and inaccurate language out of the two of us.

    Just out of interest, did you ever read beyond the first two paragraphs of my post?



  8. 8  abb1  June 3, 2006, 8:21 pm 

    Well, of course they are working for the benefit of the regime, otherwise there would be no reason to boycott.

    I agree that it doesn’t seem relevant whether individual academics criticize their government or not, it’s not the point. Boycott is a way to pressure the government to change its policies, that’s all there is to it. Or maybe these NATFHE people feel that if Israeli academics begin condemning the policies, it may produce some results, I don’t know.

    …did you ever read beyond the first two paragraphs…

    I skimmed. I don’t have any problem with “apartheid wall” or whatever. I don’t see any reason to treat the occupation/wall situation as a “there are two sides to the story”; just like I wouldn’t want to hear the other side of, say, the Crystal Night story. A lot of people feel this way, that’s why they use this kind of language.

  9. 9  Just Intruding  June 4, 2006, 1:03 am 

    in that the thing is not always a wall.

    Ah, the good old days of the Berlin fence.

    The largest part wasn’t a wall but a fence, so why call it a wall? Those obfuscating unspeakers. And equating support for the German Democratic Republic with support for human rights abuses, how dare all those anti-communists. And why single out the Berlin fence? There are lots of fences. Maybe even one between you and your neighbour. Fences make good neighbours, you know.

    Oh, and can we please show some indignation about american “scientists”, who happen to be boycotting their Cuban brethren? (As their are obliged to by law)

    Since that is about the definition of an imbecilic boycott! Having your government impose a boycott on you. A boycott that is bizarrely couched in language that mitigates the seriousness of the very political issues it claims to care about.

    Luckily there will be elections shortly where Americans will make sure that that boycott is repealed. They are, are they? I mean we’re all opposed to these acedemic boycotts are we? So this Cuban boycott will end soon?

    Duh. Unspeak.

  10. 10  SillyDude  June 4, 2006, 1:30 am 

    Ah, don’t mention that again! The imbecilic academic and cultural boycott of Cuba. Wanting the Cubans to have more freedoms by restricting their freedom. That must about as ironic as rain on a wedding day, eh?

  11. 11  abb1  June 4, 2006, 8:12 am 

    Well, in the ol’ good US of A not only you’re required by law to boycott Cuba, but you’re also required by law NOT to boycott Israel. Let Freedom Ring indeed.

  12. 12  Steven Poole  June 4, 2006, 11:25 am 

    Dear Just Intruding,

    The question at hand is whether every single Israeli academic who does not on demand issue a statement criticising his or her government is, in fact, working in “support” of the Israeli government’s policies. I don’t happen to think, as Natfhe does, that the answer is obviously yes.

    I am no admirer of any general academic and cultural boycott, whether mandated by law or not.



  13. 13  Intruding again  June 4, 2006, 3:43 pm 

    Who’s question at hand? Someone focussed on language and words. And unless you deal with the real issue, the reason the boycott was initiated, you can make all the fun you want with words, and change all these things from good to bad and back to good again, but to what purpose? After all, fences make good neighbours don’t they?

  14. 14  Steven Poole  June 4, 2006, 3:51 pm 

    The question at hand is that of boycotts and this boycott in particular, and whether this boycott is justified. If you think arguing about that is merely an issue of words then I cannot help you further.

    Had you bothered to read to the end of the post, however, you might have noticed that I am actually dealing with “the real issue” in a way that the boycotters aren’t.

  15. 15  Sohail  June 8, 2006, 10:28 pm 

    Hello Steven

    Apartheid wall is not emotive and is fairly accurate (perhaps even understated) in the sense that it is designed effectively to create a series of what amount to bantustans in the West Bank. This reference to Bantustans is well-documented in the literature. See for instance Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle.

    In fact, it has been convincingly argued that the West Bank situation is even worse than the darkest days of South African aparthied – not my words, the words of Chomsky – a man not given to hyperbole.

    So apartheid wall is far from being emotive.


  16. 16  Steven Poole  June 8, 2006, 11:01 pm 

    Hi Sohail,

    We’ll have to disagree on whether Chomsky is given to hyperbole or not. I fear he sometimes is.

    Apartheid was a very specific set of legal and political issues in South Africa. The West Bank situation is just not the same. That doesn’t mean I think it isn’t very bad. I do think it’s very bad. The issue of “bantustans” is a real issue, and that comparison has merit. But it clearly serves a particular propaganda purpose to describe the situation in general with the inaccurate term “apartheid”.


  17. 17  Sohail  June 8, 2006, 11:49 pm 

    Leaving aside Chomsky, no propaganda is being served here. Propaganda implies an effort to deceive. No deception here at all. The Palestinians are effectively living in series of Apartheid style bantustans. The use of apartheid is illustrative and faily accurate in terms of parrallel policies of exclusivity. Nothing controversial about it all. Look, there are (as I see it) very powerful similarities and we could discuss this till the cows come home on this one. So before getting drawn into an endless discussion of the legal political context of the SA apartheid era, here is a link to the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa. It’s a website comprised of people who lived under the apartheid era and who draw powerful similarities and thereby endorse the notion of an Israeli apartheid:

    There’s a nice cartoon pic on the page too. I wonder if it will come out here:

  18. 18  Sohail  June 9, 2006, 12:02 am 

    And BTW, when you say “particular” propaganda purpose, what specifically do you mean? It sounds like the “particular purpose” (whatever that is) is being left deliberately vague.


  19. 19  dsquared  June 9, 2006, 9:17 am 

    morning Steven. Front cover of the FT has “Allies hope that Zarqawi’s death will be a turning point”.

  20. 20  Steven Poole  June 9, 2006, 9:54 am 

    Hi Sohail,

    In my view that link mixes some facts with some extremely inflammatory language. I don’t think it helps anyone. Plus, I am interested to know what it means when it calls for “The establishment of a secular democratic state in historic Palestine”: is this code for the erasure of the state of Israel?

    I am using the word “propaganda” not to mean exactly deception but the promotion of one point of view. The particular propaganda purpose of using the term “Apartheid wall” is clearly to evoke greater international sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. This is an aim with which I am sympathetic. Unfortunately I think the term is counter-productive as well as inaccurate. The issue of the “Apartheid wall” is not one of apartheid but of permanently annexing territory beyond the Green Line, which of course has the effect of the “inclusion” (not “exclusion”) of more Palestinians under the control of Israel proper.


  21. 21  Steven Poole  June 9, 2006, 9:55 am 

    Hi dsquared,

    That’s marvellous. No doubt it will be another one. ;)


  22. 22  Sohail  June 14, 2006, 8:33 pm 

    Look, with all due respect, I’m not sure you understand the politics of the area when you talk about “inclusion”. Roadblocks, separate Israeli roads, guarded settlements are ALL concrete exmaples of exclusion. No offence but I’m kind of used to ignorance on these matters so much so that I don’t see the point in carrying on this specific discussion any further.

    Just for the record, ALL Palestinians in West Bank (and Gaza) and “Israel” are effectively under Israeli control.

    A binational state (which would be a great idea) is real inclusion. That’s NOT what the Israelis want. Israeli Arabs do NOT have the same inclusionary right as Israeli Jews. They are excluded from a whole series of issues in public life. Most importantly, their families cannot apply for Israeli citizenship, they cannot buy property from Jews…

  23. 23  Steven Poole  June 14, 2006, 9:03 pm 

    Just for the record, ALL Palestinians in West Bank (and Gaza) and “Israel” are effectively under Israeli control.

    I didn’t say they weren’t, Sohail. I said that more Palestinians will come under the control of Israel “proper”, ie in territory newly defined as being part of the state of Israel itself because of the annexation of land by the wall/fence/barrier.

    If you can’t be bothered to read what I write with any care, and then accuse me of ignorance, then I agree there’s no point carrying on this discussion.

  24. 24  Sohail  June 14, 2006, 9:22 pm 


    Please re-read (with extreme care) your last sentence in your penultimate response to me!

    Look, “apartheid” simply means separateness. The situation in Palestine is comparable and in fact in many ways worse. If someone had said “Nazi” Israeli policies I would have totally agreed with the thrust of your argument. But not in this case.

    Basically, it’s a judgement call and NOT some sort of issue which can be resolved by the “careful” use of some bogus neutral, non-emotive empirically perfect language. You see I really don’t see what is being sneaked in here. The whole Palestinaian issue is one which has been grotesquely marginalized from any sort of fair and rational discusssion. To say that the wall is far removed from the experience of South African apartheid in the current political context is to add insult to injury.

  25. 25  Steven Poole  June 14, 2006, 11:03 pm 


    My re-reading confirms that I did indeed say “the control of Israel proper”.

    You ridicule the notion of “some bogus neutral, non-emotive empirically perfect language”, and yet you complain about the difficulty of having a “fair and rational discusssion” about Palestine. So you would like to have this fair and rational discussion using biased, emotive language, would you? Good luck.

    It remains my view that the aim, which we share, of having a fair and rational discussion is not helped by labelling the wall/fence/barrier with the name of a different legal and political situation in another country.

    You think that this means I am ignorant of all the other ways in which Palestinians are oppressed and, yes, excluded, by Israel. Well, I am not. You even think that refusing to call it an Apartheid wall is an “insult”. That is just silly.

  26. 26  Sohail  June 15, 2006, 5:47 pm 

    Look, I’m simply asking you to acknowledge that calling it an Apartheid wall is NOT as inppropriate as you think it is. That’s pretty much it.

  27. 27  Steven Poole  June 15, 2006, 9:49 pm 

    If you are waiting for me to acknowledge that I don’t think what in fact I do think, you’ll be waiting a while. ;)

    I agree with you that it is by no means as inappropriate as some reference to the Nazis etc would be, but I still consider it inappropriate.

  28. 28  Sohail  June 15, 2006, 11:03 pm 

    You know I get the feeling that because you’ve put a lot of thought into this, put together the website, and now you’ve published the book you’re not about to grant anything not least in a blog response. You know there’s a curious vanguard element to all this.

    In any case, let me just try to say where I think there is a glaring weakness in this particular exchange that you need to ponder:

    When the wool has already pulled over your eyes on the whole Palestinian issue (in particular Israel’s direct violation of 242 – pre-1967 borders) then it seems to me fair that something needs to be done to redress that balance. Now that does not of course mean fabricating untruths – but drawing powerful analogies, parallels, and illustrations in the interest of

    a real commitment to TRUTH. The notion of an apartheid wall is a powerful analogy – an attempt at illustration through an event/era that the white liberal west knows fairly well. This is not deception – it is instructive. Anybody who has even the scantest experience of the region can tell you the Palestinian situation is so miserable that there is absolutely no need to fabricate, twist, or deceive. That said a crucial need to raise awareness arises out of a culture utter distortion about the realities on the ground. This why I argue that your literalist approach to the linguistic dimension in all this is not only totally bogus but totally insensitive too.

    Bestest best wishes


  29. 29  Steven Poole  June 15, 2006, 11:48 pm 

    Hello again Sohail,

    the wool has already pulled over your eyes on the whole Palestinian issue (in particular Israel’s direct violation of 242 – pre-1967 borders)

    If you check what I have already written, you will of course notice that I have already stated that the wall/fence/barrier is being used to permanently annex territory beyond the Green Line, ie the 1967 border. I have never said that Israel does not already militarily (and with “settlements”) occupy the West Bank. (If you read my book you will find material on this.) I am quite aware that the territory post-1967 is occupied and not, as some would say in Unspeak, “disputed”. So what exactly, pray, do you think I am blinded to? Or are you just continuing blithely to assume that I must be ignorant because I don’t agree with everything you say?


  30. 30  Sohail  June 16, 2006, 10:31 am 

    Please re-read my responses carefully before you make emotive charges like “I must be ignorant because I don’t agree with everything you say”. :) If you are wilfuly ignorant, I can’t help it.

    What are you blinded to? The political context! And if you read my last response, you’ll not that I formulated a point about analogies and illustrations that you stealthily (and may I see deftly)avoided. So let’s at least begin with that part of the post that you have wilfully chosen to be blind about.

    Bestest my friend


    PS: Have you ever been to Gaza or lived anywhere in the Middle East other than what sounds likt the cosiness of a Parisian flat/house somewhere? Have you ever had to live in forced separation purely because of your ethnicity, creed or race?

  31. 31  Sohail  June 16, 2006, 10:58 am 

    Before responding, please keep in in mind the thrust of my argument:

    The purpose of any wall is separation, demarcation, or shutting off. The garden wall in my back garden shuts off my land from my neighbour’s. It separates my land from his/her land. It demarcates.

    The separation wall in the Palestinian territories is NOT about separating “Israeli land” from the Palestinian territories. That’s bogus position. The Israelis don’t need a wall for that. It’s about encircling the best Palestinian lands by creating a series of disjointed/fragmented territories enforced by Israeli roads, roadblocks, tanks, troops and so on and then at some stage offering the Palestinians a bantustan style “peace” settlement.



  32. 32  Steven Poole  June 16, 2006, 11:49 am 

    The separation wall in the Palestinian territories is NOT about separating “Israeli land” from the Palestinian territories. […] It’s about encircling the best Palestinian lands by creating a series of disjointed/fragmented territories enforced by Israeli roads, roadblocks, tanks, troops and so on […]

    The statements are not incompatible.

    Please re-read my responses carefully before you make emotive charges like “I must be ignorant because I don’t agree with everything you say”. If you are wilfuly ignorant, I can’t help it.

    On re-reading, I notice that you did indeed complain about “ignorance” and said that I “had the wool pulled over my eyes” etc, without ever telling me any specific facts that I did not know, except by drawing my attention to the website that not very subtly refuses to acknowledge the right to Israel to exist at all. And yet you have also said that whether or not to call it an “Apartheid Wall” is a “judgement call”. So I am ignorant because I disagree with your judgement. Fine. Let’s stop there, shall we?

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