College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics

College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics


Howard Adelman

I had written that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel did not originally include the boycott of Israeli academics speaking on campuses outside Israel. The effort to boycott academics had an earlier and separate origin. The academic boycott movement did not begin among Palestinians or Arabs but by Westerners. In fact, Jews initiated the idea of academic boycotts. The key mover and shaker was Stephen Rose, an illustrious professor of neuroscience at the Open University in Britain and an expert on the physiology of memory who also wrote popular versions of his scholarly work (Genes, Cells and Brains). He is perhaps best known to the wider public for his radical opposition to evolutionary psychology and sociology, that is, the effort of scientists to use Darwinian theory to explain social adaptation. As an ex-Orthodox Jew and an adamant atheist and Marxist, he and his sociologist wife, Hilary, started a petition in 2002 that eventually garnered over 700 signatures of scholars, including 10 Israeli academics, to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in the occupation of Arab lands.

Rose belongs to a long list of renowned academics, some of whom, like Tony Judt and Hannah Arendt, began as Zionists. They include Eric Hobsbawm, Judith Butler and Richard Falk, as well as lesser lights such as Ilan Pappé (originally at the University of Haifa) and Norman Finkelstein. If cultural figures are to be included, add Harold Pinter to the list. In 2013, even Stephen Hawking, though not a Jew, was recruited to join this anti-Zionist Jewish cabal of Jewish humanists and secularists.

Some may assume that this is a victory for the Palestinian cause. Certainly it is a victory of liberal utopians who believe that Jews have only individual rights and no national rights. Unfortunately, it feeds a trope that the problem is one of rights when it is one of national self-determination. Palestinians and Arabs as the indigenous majority in the region have that right. Colonizing Jews do not but, ironically, this is a contention that cannot be established by right. That has to be openly stated. Further, against these armchair Jewish anti-Zionist academics who subvert the Palestinian cause by seducing others to join with them in the belief that the matter can be settled by intellectual and economic pressures when any realistic analysis will demonstrate that it can only be settled by force of arms. If it were not so far-fetched, one might be led to believe that the Jewish-led academic boycott is really a secret Zionist plot to milk the Palestinian movement of its militancy and reduce its efforts to petitions, protests and verbal haranguing with few substantive victories, however well publicized, and far more substantive setbacks.

Case after case demonstrates this. Let me list them:

  • The Rose petition instigated a counter-petition which garnered even more signatures
  • Not one university has joined the divestment effort and many universities have turned the tables and formally denounced the academic boycott campaign, including almost 300 S. university presidents who in 2007 denounced the boycott movement
  • When Mona Baker, inspired by the Rose petition, delisted Dr. Miriam Schlesinger of Bar-Ilan University (who also happened to be a former chair of Amnesty International in Israel and a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause) from the editorial board of her prestigious journal, The Translator, she added the delisting of Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University to the dismissal list when Schlesinger refused to quietly resign. The result was a storm of protest, including from Judith Butler, a defender of boycotting Israeli institutions and not individuals, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt, President of the Modern Language Association of America, and an overwhelming vote of condemnation by the British Parliament. (Can you imagine, parliament becoming involved in the appointment process of members of an editorial board of an academic journal?) Baker then put her foot further in her mouth when she insisted that she was only in favour of boycotting institutions and not individuals, and then complained she was the victim of a Jewish cabal
  • Even major victories – the overwhelming majority support (73%) in March 2015 of the students, faculty and support staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London favouring the Israeli academic institution boycott and divestment campaign – had no concrete practical results
  • The Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain initially supported the BDS campaign, but subsequently rescinded its support when the organization merged with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which had just voted to boycott Israeli academics who did not vocally speak out against their government; the merged result, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to withdraw from supporting the BDS movement following the lead of the AUT which decided in 2005 to cancel the boycott of Israeli universities because of the damage to academic freedom and the hampering of dialogue and efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians; however, in 2010, the UCU reversed course again in a very minor way against the backdrop of the Israeli operation against Gaza in 2008-2009 when the UCU agreed to begin an investigative process into the Ariel University Centre of Samaria
  • In 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op decided to divest in any investments in companies supporting the Israeli occupation (a symbolic move) and, more substantively, to remove all Israeli goods from its shelves in a campaign led by Noah Sochet, a Jew, but that decision failed completely to serve as a catalyst for any other co-op to follow its lead; on the other hand, Israeli and Jewish lobby attempts to use lawfare and other techniques to rescind the action failed abysmally and backfired against the efforts on the grounds that any organization had the right and freedom to decide which items it would sell and which it would not
  • At a totally different scale, SuperValu food distributors in Ireland decided to no longer distribute food products from Israel, but the gap was quickly picked up by another distributor
  • In 2010, the Senate of the University of Western Sydney cancelled its relationship with Ben Gurion University thereby offering token support for the BDS movement
  • Following Wayne State, in 2010, the Student Government General Assembly of the University of Michigan in Dearborn, an area inhabited by 40,000 Arab Americans, passed Resolution # 2010-003 endorsing the BDS campaign
  • Following a vote by the York University Federation of Students endorsing BDS, in 2013, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) at Berkeley voted to demand that the university divest the $14 million it had invested in companies affiliated with the IDF, namely Caterpillar, Hewlett– Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings, but the motion was vetoed by student government president, Will Smelko. (The veto seemed to be with respect to divesting its $135 million in General Electric and United Technologies and I have not yet been able to clarify the discrepancy.) The final vote for divestment was passed by a tiny rump left at 4:00 a.m. by a vote of 16:4
  • UofT Mississauga Students Union passed a similar motion as had a rump group at the end of the previous year representing the Graduate Students Union (GSU) at the university
  • At Oxford University, support for BDS was defeated by a vote of 69:10
  • The University of Manitoba Students Union voted to strip financial support from the Students Against Israeli Apartheid;
  • In April 2013, theAssociation for Asian American Studies (AAAS) and in December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) by a two-thirds majority and the Council of Native American and Indigenous Studies Association unanimously voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions;
  • 500 anthropologists from around the world called on Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 but did not endorse divestment and/or a boycott
  • In February 2011, the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) first voted in support of an abstract motion condemning any state engaged in occupation of another territory and recommending divestment and then, after the amendment universalizing the motion of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), voted to declare the whole motion redundant which then resulted in the very opposite of democratic dialogue – shouting, intimidation and even the temporary blockade of the room in which the meeting was being held thereby proving by the actions of the protesters that the arguments based on abstract human rights were a sham
  • In January 2015, student leaders at Trent University by a vote of 47:28 with 14 abstentions reversed a previous motion of the TCSA (Trent Central Student Association) to boycott Israel on the grounds that it was discriminatory
  • The numbers of academic associations and universities that have rejected such calls for boycotts and divestments are far, far longer, and include the best universities in the world like Princeton and Stanford as well as institutions like the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Further, the American Council on Education in the U.S., its equivalent in Canada, the Canadian Association of Universities and Colleges (CAUT), have unanimously condemned boycotts aimed at Israeli academic institutions or Israeli academics individually; the American Association of University Professors also condemned the boycott effort. As AAUP worded their objections, “condemning violations of academic freedom whether they occur directly by state or administrative suppression of opposing points of view or indirectly by creating material conditions, such as blockades, checkpoints, and insufficient funding of Palestinian universities, that make the realization of academic freedom impossible” was both acceptable and even desirable, but NOT boycotts of either individual academics or their institutions. Dialogue, discourse, critique – there were the proper avenues for academics to make their views known
  • The states of Tennessee, Indiana, New York with other states lined up to follow, have voted to sanction learned societies that support BDS, in particular, ASA; in the U.S. Congress in February 2014, a bill, the “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” was introduced “to bar federal funds from going to academic institutions that back the BDS movement”
  • An objective and detached analysis would reveal far more defeats than the few and often only empty victories of the BDS movement after ten years of sustained and well-funded efforts. Instead, a few victories are broadcast ad nausea and often greatly exaggerated without a detailed examination on whether any changes on the ground have been effected, reinforcing the view that what counts for BDS are rhetorical and propaganda successes rather than any significant concrete wins .

Have the economic sanctions efforts yielded better results than the academic ones? It is true that Israel’s membership in a variety of international political and economic organizations (EU, OECD, etc.) provides a veneer of respectability, and, more importantly, an instrument for strengthening the economic foundation of the state, but that is merely an acknowledgement of the political, military and economic imbalance between the two sides. Turning it into a message of moral indictment is simply akin to blaming the wealth of the United States for impoverishment and impotency of others.

In the very first year of accession to membership by Israel in the OECD tourism council in 2010, when the Israeli Tourist Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, made the claim that the decision by the OECD for Israel to host the 2010 annual meeting was a recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, Sweden, Turkey, South Africa and Ireland all decided to stay away from the conference in protest against such an outrageous interpretation of the decision. The UK also stayed away,but said its decision was not politically motivated. Greece and Denmark sent low level delegates. The Palestinians claimed this as a victory for the BDS movement – OECD refused to consider moving the locale of the conference even when the stupid assertion was made by the Israeli tourist minister. All the evidence pointed to simply another self-inflicted wound by the Israeli government. Had the minister made no such statement, the conference would have gone ahead as planned. But quite aside from the conference, the reality is that tourism from Europe to Israel continues to increase. Swedes increasingly head to Eilat as a winter destination. The reality is that this was not a boycott in any substantive sense, but a protest against an irresponsible and factually incorrect claim by the Israeli tourist minister; the effect had nothing to do with the BDS movement and, in any case, had no repercussions on the ground.

What about the widespread and oft-repeated report by electronic intifada that Brazil cancelled a $2.2 billion security contract for the 2016 Olympics with International Security and Defence Systems (ISDS) of Israel? BDS allies in Brazil had been lobbying for a decision to exclude ISDS since it won the contract for the FIFA world cup. BDS Labour unions in Brazil had protested the possibility of using a company which they linked to the use of technologies in suppressing the Palestinians in the West Bank. BDS claimed an enormous victory.

The reality was something else. ISDS did claim to have won a contract in October 2014, not for $2.2 billion, but for a small part of that huge security budget. The contract was for design, organization, procurement and management of the security operation. The contract was not for provision of the security. On 8 April 2015, the Brazilian government denied that a $2.2 billion contract had ever even been contracted with ISDS let alone cancelled. Whether ISDS even obtained the small part of the contract for planning and coordination, I was not able to learn, but it now seems clear that it never received or even claimed to receive such a contract. The contract for planning and coordination could have been cancelled, but neither ISDS nor the Brazilian government opined on the subject and, given that this was a core security issue, it is no surprise that both the Brazilian government and ISDS remained otherwise silent.

It seems unlikely given the lead time needed to undertake the planning and coordination, that such a planning, coordination and procurement contract would have been cancelled. Further, the Brazilian Air Force purchased Israeli drones to patrol the skies during the World Cup in 2014. It is likely that Brazil will rely on even more of those drones for the Olympics. Even if Brazil had cancelled the contract, it was only for a very small part of the overall $2.2 billion sum. ISDS would have had to have completed or almost completed its work by April 2015 if the security were to be in place by the time of the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2016. Whatever the case, BDS had been engaged in gross exaggeration and in the practice of claiming great victories where they were at best ephemeral.

Elbit Systems Ltd. is another Israeli international high tech firm engaged in the provision of homeland or company security systems offering a wide range of defence, homeland security and commercial programs throughout the world. It won a contract for supplying the Philippines with 28 upgraded APCs for the army in a modest $20 million deal in spite of an enormous BDS effort to prevent the contract. In 2010, BDS did succeed in getting the huge Swedish pension fund, Foersta AP-Fonden, and the Norwegian Oil Fund to delete Elbit from its investment portfolio.

I have argued above that any consequentialist examination of the BDS movement ends up finding it contradictory and self-defeating rather than capable of producing better results than any other alternative. I have also implied that on situational grounds, the BDS movement is not grounded in an in-depth analysis of the economic and political forces arrayed against the BDS movement and how the Palestinian cause can emerge victorious. Rather, the movement is based on the contemporary ethos of shaming, which can and has produced results on an individual, corporate or national front, but often misguided, poorly targeted, and unfocused results in the electronic equivalent of the Salem witch trials.

There is also a deontological ethical argument. Like the genocide and many other international conventions, what counts in determining exploitation, colonization, expropriation and apartheid are intentions. The 2002 Rome Statute defines a crime against humanity as an action by a regime that systematically institutionalizes “oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”  Proving intention becomes the key. The dilemma is postulating ethical concerns between two polarities, a regime dedicated to establishing equal rights for all members of a polity and one dedicating to denying rights in perpetuity to a polity.

In this case, there are three different groups: 1) non-Jewish members of the Jewish state, 2) members of a Palestinian collectivity on territory controlled and/or occupied by the Jewish state, and 3) refugees with the same ethnicity as the previous two outside the territory of either state. Re the latter group, if denial of return were to be termed genocide, apartheid or even continued oppression, virtually every state in the world in which there has been ethnic and religious conflict would fail such a litmus test. If it is the second, then the case has contradictory evidence – the seizure of territory, sometimes privately owned, to expand the territorial control of the state and, on the other hand, the provision for the creation of universities (there were none there prior to 1967), and elections in that territory as well as educational and religious autonomy.

Even if the depiction of good will cannot be sustained, the charges of evil intent also cannot be proven given the mixed record. Piling up the evidence on one side without considering falsifying evidence is no way of determining evil intent. This has even greater truth when applied to the discrimination against Israeli Palestinian citizens of Israel even when they are treated as second class citizens and discriminated against with respect to employment and housing. This is why a political argument for collective rights falls flat because what comes forth is the need to defend individual and NOT collective rights and then to offer self-defence as a higher moral ground when faced with discontent and criticism.

But the key and most important issue is a teleological one. For those involved in and concerned have four choices, two mushy liberal ones each with a proven record of failure, even as many still cling to hopes for the first option.

  1. Liberal support for a two-nation solution in which Palestinians and Jews have their own nations and purportedly live side-by-side in peace, a position which still seems to enjoy support from some leading Palestinian figures such as Sari Nusseibeh, currently president of al-Quds University;
  2. Liberal support for a singular secular state with equal individual rights for every individual in the one state;
  3. A Conservative Jewish ideology or maintaining superior power and control by Zionists over the territory under the guise of both security and maintaining a Jewish majority in the territory;
  4. A Radical Palestinian vision of a single state dominated by Palestinians, including the refugees who, through victory on the ground, exercise their right to return.

The BDS movement is really based on the second of these options, even when sometimes, and in contradiction, employing the two-state language. If number 1 seems to be headed for the bankruptcy courts, considerable investment in option 2 might be warranted if the position were not so strategically weak in terms of situational ethics, and self-contradictory in the defence of Palestinian national and collective rights while denying the same to the Jews when insisting on a universal discourse of individual human rights. And when clearly understood, the resort to number 3 by more and more Jews and Zionists only undercuts both 1 and 2 even more, and moves state and national legislatures to introduce bans on promotion of BDS in the U.S. so that the most powerful state in the world more and more supports the hegemonic right-wing agenda in Israel.

The fourth option seems the only one left after discrediting the others, though this paper only focused on the BDS movement. If option 4 is reinterpreted as a focus on one’s own power, on the need to own and exercise that power instead of focusing on the horror of the other, if there is recognition that freedom and self-determination must be first exercised by oneself before one can become a true sovereign state, then everything is once again possible.

Conclusion (to follow in a separate blog)


A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II

A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II


Howard Adelman


 “More than any other tactic of the Palestinian liberation movement, the BDS campaign has succeeded in creating a global outpouring of support for Palestinian rights and placed Israel’s violations of them under international scrutiny like never before.” This is the boast that appears on the BDS website in an essay written by Sherry Wolf entitled, “What’s behind the rise of BDS?” The answer presumably is a record of success. How is success measured? By the following:

  • moving the issue of Palestinian rights from the margins into mainstream discourse
  • instead of a discussion of obscure territorial border issues and competing narratives, debate has now opened up in the media, in corporate board rooms and in academia

For the moment, let’s presume the truth of both claims. How then do such “successes” relate to the goal of ending the occupation and colonizing of all Arab lands? Wolf makes no effort to draw any connection. Like magic, a campaign for the rights of Palestinians will lead inevitably to the roll back of the armies of the colonizers and the surrender of all land seized back to the Palestinians. One need only utter the connection to recognize how absurd and preposterous any claim for such a connection using the means that BDS employs. Instead of an argument and evidence, we get repetition upon repetition of the three aims of the BDS movement as if they were a mantra rather than realizable political objectives.

The anti apartheid movement against South Africa is usually offered as the forerunner of the BDS campaign. But everyone knows the context, the histories and the global situation were radically different. The Boers, for example, had lived in South Africa for centuries unlike the Zionists who had really been in Palestine for less than half a century before they gained control initially of just over half the land and then in the 1948 war increased that to over 70%. The Zionists became, through the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the majority in their own state. In contrast, the Boers never achieved majority status in their areas of occupation, even if the English white population was added to their own numbers. In ethnic, religious and racial conflicts, minorities have a choice – rule over the rest or be ruled, but do not pretend that, as a minority, you can rule as a minority for very long without external support and/or internal ruthlessness.

Further, the Jewish Zionists were much cleverer than the advocates of apartheid. Apartheid was not practiced in Israel primarily through the rule of law and the denial of the right to vote as it was in South Africa and in the Southern United States. The exclusively Jewish Israeli government let Palestinians in Israel become full citizens and cast ballots and practiced any apartheid through informal rather than legally coercive measures. The BDS charges the Zionists with racism and preaching racial superiority with no evidence to support such a claim. The Zionists are much cleverer than that. They practice the superiority of their power, not the superiority of their blood. The latter offends the world as it did for the advocates of apartheid in South Africa, Alabama and most of the Deep South in the USA. The superiority of power, in contrast, is often widely admired even when the group controlling and wielding the power is repulsive. More importantly, the only real way to challenge power is with countervailing forces that are stronger, more committed and have the vision of the long run rather than pandering to liberal doctrines of rights to get mushy liberals on one’s side.

In putting forth this liberal non-violent mode of fighting what is really a hundred years war, the BDS movement distorts and deforms Palestinian history. The militant Palestinian movement never envisioned winning its battle against the hostile forces arraigned against it “through the mobilization of Palestinians alone.” Quite the contrary. Initially, the Palestinian leadership placed too much reliance on the efforts of others. And then when it took its destiny into its own hands, instead of raising the morale of its partners so they could enter the fray with enthusiasm and an all-out effort, the PLO ended up getting into one conflict after another with them even as the PLO agreed to non-interference in those Arab states in return for financial support, something which BDS acknowledges. Instead of mobilizing other Arabs and Muslims to fight on their side, the Palestinian leadership counted on governments that were already insecure in their own power without taking on Israel and its Western backers. The Palestinian leadership, indeed, did not work alone, but got in bed like prostitutes with regimes without deep roots in the will of the people and without any stamina for a long and necessarily sacrificial struggle.

The problem was not that the militants went their own way, but that they went the wrong way, pussyfooting around the central issues rather than directly confronting them and rallying the resources and the will to accomplish the real goals. The BDS movement opts for non-violence in its actions, but violence in its goals and aspirations. The position is inherently contradictory and doomed to be an even greater failure than the weak militancy of the PLO leadership even as BDS celebrates its rare pyrrhic victories.

Look at the contrast between reality and the following BDS claims:

  1. Success as evidenced by the admission of Israeli and Zionist leaders that BDS is “delegitimizing” Israel and threatens Israel’s authority and prestige;
  2. The shift in American public opinion so that a majority now view Israel unfavourably;
  3. Success because of Israel’s own brutal actions in activities such as Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) and in Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza, activities which BDS puts on display and amplifies.

In other words, BDS admits that its successes have largely depended on Israel and Zionists shooting themselves in the foot rather than any role BDS plays except magnifying and publicizing Israel’s self-inflicted wounds.

But what is the reality? For purposes of space, I will concentrate only on the claimed successes with respect to U.S. attitudes and support and set aside both an examination of successes outside America and whether BDS has taken sufficient advantage of Israel shooting itself in the foot.

I begin with the first claim, that Israeli and Zionist leaders have recognized BDS as a central threat. Wolf wrote, “At the 2014 conference of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), unquestionably the most influential pro-Israel group in the United States, speakers from Secretary of State John Kerry to Netanyahu felt the urgency to deride BDS. In his keynote address to AIPAC, Netanyahu mentioned BDS no fewer than eighteen times. To rousing cheers, Netanyahu called on Zionists to ‘fight back’ against boycott advocates, ‘to delegitimize the delegitimizers.’ [16] Many BDS activists rightly took this to be a form of distorted respect from an enemy that previously ignored the movement’s existence.”

How revealing! Success is marked by recognition of one’s existence, not by the degree to which specific goals have been achieved within an overall larger strategy. It is as if the black flies of northern Ontario announced that they were winning the war against human encroachment on nature in general and their habitat in particular because they are such an irritant to the increasing number of humans invading their territory. The BDS movement has shown it can be a bothersome irritant. The BDS has shown that it can become a focus of attention by the current Zionist leadership that continues to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot. Swatting the back of its neck may be perceived as a form of shooting oneself in the foot, but it can also be recognized as a minor distraction, not only for the Zionists but for the goals of those who really see Zionism as the imperialist colonizer. The real question is whether serving as a gnat will stop the continuing invasion. Claiming that Israel has become a global pariah does not make it so.

Let us look hard at claims of enhanced support for the Palestinians and the branding of Israel as a pariah. I neither have the space nor time to undertake a world survey, but an examination of shifting attitudes in the key battleground for the BDS movement, the United States, offers very little encouragement and belies the BDS claim that Israel has become a pariah. A swarm of mosquitoes or an attack of black flies are certainly bothersome, but they cause little change in the actual forward march of the colonizer and occupier.

Note the following:

  1. U.S. military aid to Israel has not decreased but has steadily increased beginning with the establishment of the PLO until it more or less flat-lined and achieved a plateau over the last thirty years:
  2. The U.S. Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, remain unwavering in support for Israel even when the Prime Minister of Israel challenges the President of the U.S. not simply on U.S. soil, but in the U.S. Congress.[1]
  3. There was absolutely NO significant media coverage that Congress continued to vote support for shipping sophisticated weaponry to Israel, even if some held their noses at the extent of the destruction in Gaza.
  4. In various surveys, although there is a vocal and significant minority opposed to such military aid, there is a clear majority in America who support supplying Israel with the same level of weaponry into the future; that support has not declined because of Israel’s actions in Gaza; further, in spite of the revelations of Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has supplied Israel with covert support by sharing intelligence, and there is little sign of any significant objection.
  5. Almost 40% of Americans continue to support a two state solution, a number unchanged in spite of the Gaza wars between 2008 and 2014.
  6. Also unchanged is the number – estimated at 18% – who support a one state solution with the Zionists in control.
  7. What has changed as the prospect of a two state solutions recedes is the number supporting Israel evolving into a bi-national state with Arabs having equal citizenship if, and for many who take this position, only if the two state solution really is dead.
  8. Since the PLO has shifted tactics and set aside the bilateral pursuit of peace with the U.S. as a mediator, at least while Netanyahu and his ilk hold power, and has shifted to the international diplomatic route more in line with the BDS approach, only 25% of Americans want the U.S. to support such an effort.
  9. On sanctions, in spite of a majority of Americans opposing expansion of Israeli settlements, most oppose imposing sanctions; BDS efforts have not seemed to have been proven effective in getting support for sanctions aligned with opposition to settlements.
  10. More telling than any of the above polls perhaps is the fact that only 14% of Americans want the U.S. to be more supportive of Palestine while 55%, in spite of opposition to settlements, want the U.S. to lean towards the Israeli side.

None of this data supports the self-advertisement that BDS has had a significant effect on American attitudes let alone policy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite the reverse. Given the ambiguous and equivocal position of BDS on whether BDS favours a one state or a two-state solution, and certainly around the issue of whether Palestinians should have the defining power in such a state, BDS can be accused of retarding rather than enhancing this development in consciousness.

However there is one cogent argument in support of BDS in spite of any significant lack of progress to date. 31% of Americans rank human rights concerns as their highest priority compared to real politic and the defence of American interests (24%) or 14% because of Israeli interests. However, of those 31%, a majority believe that Israel is a stronger defender of human rights than the Palestinians. This indicates that making an appeal on the basis of human rights might seem the most efficacious route to some success since rights are so central to many Americans’ concerns, but in doing so, perhaps the spotlight reveals more about the Palestinians than the Zionists. On the other hand, rallying around the theme of human rights does allow those most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and those most supportive of international action to recognize a Palestinian state, to coalesce. But is that success consequential, or does it merely make Palestinians feel good without any accomplishments on the ground?

This is the telling poll about attitudes. The most recent Pew poll continued to show that Americans, in spite of Israeli ruthless behaviour, continue to support Israel over Palestinians by a wide margin. BDS has not had any significant effect on this even when the poll was conducted immediately after the last cessation of fighting in Gaza in 2014. Even after the havoc Israel inflicted on Gaza, 34% of Americans strongly sympathize and 32% somewhat sympathize with Israel, while the equivalent figures for the Palestinian cause is 11% and 35%. More telling, the sympathy for the Palestinians is not with their cause but their condition as victims, while the sympathy for Israel is for their cause. Pursuing BDS goals is a self-defeating exercise because, in order to earn more sympathy for the Palestinians, they have to continue to be victims, not victors. Further, in spite of all their suffering, almost half of Americans still have little or no sympathy for the Palestinians, while those with little or no sympathy for the Israelis is half that figure.

This points to the real flaw in the BDS philosophical approach and efforts. They are totally marginal in effecting change. To the extent they do succeed, they may boomerang back against the Palestinians even more. Finally, and most importantly, such efforts undermine the real struggle, the struggle between two national groups for dominance. Once that is surrendered, the Zionists are bound to win because, disastrous as it is, they have a better track record in the human rights field than the Palestinians. Further, they are bound to win because they are stronger. The only way Palestinians will win is if they understand that they must be stronger, more dedicated and more committed to winning the struggle. BDS is really a route to surrender while engaging in a rhetorical superego trip. The reality is that wars – even the wars in South Africa and the American South – were won because of who had the power, and not because of an appeal to human rights, however important human rights were as a rallying cry for the majority to overthrow the power of a minority.

What has changed? Support for a two-state solution has declined as the vision of a two states living side by side in peace has receded as a possibility. BDS supporters who deep down do not believe in victory for the Palestinian cause, but espouse a week-kneed vision of a secular society of individuals with equal rights, whether they have Jewish or non-Jewish backgrounds, a utopian dream if there ever was one, would appear to have gained ground because of this shift. The problem, however, is that the support for a Palestine dominated by the Zionists has increased even more. As the two-state solution recedes, the issue is not whether a utopian paradise of individual rights will rise out of the ashes of a doomed pursuit, but which community will dominate in the resultant power struggle. Does the BDS movement offer any indication that the Palestinians will emerge on top as they pursue everyone ostensibly living at precisely the same level of rights and benefits? Quite the opposite. Both domestically and certainly in the U.S., understanding for a hegemonic Zionist enterprise has crept to the forefront both in Israel and the U.S.

Demonizing the Zionists is totally insufficient. In fact, the greater the demonization, the more the morale of the Palestinians will suffer as their dream of recovering their lands and their historic place in the world recedes. What is required is not demonization of the Zionists but their total defeat, and the BDS platform offers no route or prospect to achieving such a goal. As the prospect of a two-state solution recedes, the benefits will not go to the mushy liberals who build a program based on human rights. They did not emerge victorious in the recent Arab spring and have failed to learn or apply any lessons to their inconsequential efforts when fighting the Zionist colonizers and occupiers. The benefit will go to the hard Israeli right who change hirsute for sheep clothing at the bat of an eye and much faster and more successfully that Jacob did in robbing Esau of his birthright.

As long as the BDS movement propagates the illusion of a so-called just outcome in which everyone can live in a polity that guarantees everyone human rights, then the Zionists cannot and will not be defeated. They will be irritated. They will scratch away at the bites of no-see-ums at their hairline. But the Zionist entity will not surrender as the minority apartheid regime in Rhodesia and South Africa and the American South were forced to do. Standing up to Israel’s human rights violations and the collaborators with the Zionist enterprise of colonization and occupation is not and can never be just a human rights struggle. It has to be a struggle for the Palestinians as Palestinians, for the Arabs as Arabs, for Muslims as Muslims, against an enemy that has to be destroyed. Otherwise, BDS is just a proponent of a long series of illusions that have led to one setback after another for the Palestinians. If the Zionists are inherently colonizers, if they are inherently occupiers, then joining forces with bleeding heart liberal Jews on a human rights platform can only be self-defeating. Viewing themselves as the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century may appease sensitivities, but will not bring victory over the Zionists any closer. Cloaking oneself in the mantle of universal rights will no more disguise and hide the real battle ground than the Zionists wearing the magician’s cloak of a two-state solution.

But the supporters of the BDS movement know this. They are not total fools. They know they lack the domestic power to bring the Zionist entity to its knees. That is why they, like the PLO, have taken the international route. In their own words, “Though BDS is a magnificent tactic for winning sympathy and drawing activists into solidarity with Palestinians, even landing financial and ideological blows against Israel, it is ultimately a struggle for reforms within capitalism—an exploitative system that is part of an imperial order.” In other words, the real ultimate goal is the defeat of capitalism of which Zionist Israel is just an early and easier target. And all of this in the face of China as a rising communist-capitalist power and the virtual decimation of the communist utopian enterprise everywhere.

What about the claims for specific accomplishments? On the sanctions front, the score is zero. Does this suggest to the BDS proponents that their utopian vision in which they hypocritically espouse Palestinian self-determination while denouncing Jewish self-determination all in the guise of the universality of human rights has little in common with the civil rights struggle in the American south or the struggle within South Africa to overthrow apartheid? And when they shift gears and insist that they are true liberals opposed to prioritizing either form of national self-determination, it is clear that they cannot make up their minds whether they are the avant-garde of socialism, of universal liberalism or of support for the Palestinians as a movement for self-determination in the face of a powerful colonizing occupier. The confusions and contradictions only muddy the waters even as they use this creative ambiguity of traditional diplomacy to gain more support.

On the divestment front, BDS calls for withdrawal of investments in stocks and bonds in corporations deemed to be complicit in support of violations of Palestinian human rights. Again, even on this inconsequential front with an effect that is barely noticeable, the reality is that the BDSers are really not aiming at victory, but consciousness raising, about using the divestment campaign to help blacken the image of Israel. My argument is simple. To the extent the BDS campaign has succeeded, the success has been infinitely miniscule. Secondly, the backlash has been far more powerful than any small benefit. Third, part of that backlash entails revealing the hypocrisy of a movement that campaigns on human rights as a universal position but singularly focuses on Israel which even its most ardent enemies have to admit is far from the most heinous criminal on this front, quite aside from the fact that in a power struggle between one group and another for supremacy, human rights, however important, become relatively a side issue. Finally, BDSers have a record of flouting victories when the actions lauded have often had little if anything to do with supporting the aims of BDS.

Take the Hampshire College issue where BDS claimed its first victory in 2009 in the soft underbelly of its campaign for divestment. BDSers claimed that, as a direct consequence of their campaign, Hampshire College regents voted to terminate investments in companies associated with Israel and the exploitation of Palestinians.  What are the facts? Hampshire College is one of the myriad of small liberal colleges that populate the American landscape with a total enrolment of only 1,400 students boasting small classes, small faculty to student ratios, and an impressive record of graduates going on to complete graduate degrees. It is far from the most prestigious of such colleges, but it is no slouch either. Hampshire is among the better of the myriad of small liberal colleges in the United States.

The campaign for divestment on campus was begun by a group which, consistent with the BDS position, viewed all of Palestine as occupied and colonized. Though the Board denied it was responding to pressure, the Board voted to divest its $40 million endowment of any investments in 200 companies including six pushed by BDS on campus, e.g. General Electric, ITT and Motorola. The President of the college at the time, Ralph Hexter, admitted the college had initiated its actions in response to student pressure, but that the action taken had nothing to do with any opposition to Israel. This aroused the ire of Alan Dershowitz, whose son went to Hampshire College. Within two years, Ralph Hexter was no longer president; he was replaced in 2011 by Jonathan Lash, an environmental expert who for six years in the nineties chaired the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

Hexter was forced to leave after only three years even though he was an Ivy-league educated classicist, an openly married gay scholar with an excellent record as a fund raiser. What he did not know how to do was manage a student body that was radically left, whether the issue was security cameras in parking lots, ostensibly to protect vulnerable students from sexual assault but interpreted as invasions of privacy, or the issue of his alleged support for institutional racism (Hampshire College in overwhelmingly white Amherst Massachusetts hosted a student body in which 25% were members of visible minorities.), and over the attempt to move administrative offices to a more central convenient location. The cause for “firing” was not just over the blow-up over the divestment issue. What the whole sorry episode indicated was a record of a significantly-sized but a minority of a supposedly radical group of students incapable of discriminating between issues of security cameras, world political crises or the location of administrative offices. All these issues demanded the same fiery inflammatory speeches and the belief that outrageous speech is equivalent to radical action.

The policy that the College Board approved on 7 February 2009 was a decision to divest investments in its small endowment from 200 companies perceived as in breach of the college’s standard of social responsibility. No reference at all was made to Israel. The list included Caterpillar, Terex, and United Technologies as well as the three companies previously mentioned on the list targeted by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

All the protests and press releases could not overcome the reality that the Board’s actions were perceived as bending before pressure to a radical group of students with an anti-Israel agenda. The reality was that these were ersatz radicals, satisfied with the most ephemeral of victories with trivial or no consequences except the backlash that made almost all other colleges fearful of following the Hampshire College precedent. Further, the college insisted that the divestment was based on the fact that these companies were ostensibly guilty of “unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.” The press release was unequivocal: “Israel was not the cause for divestment from the State Street Fund.” Hampshire College insisted, in fact, that the college “had refused to divest from Israel.” Perception, however, won over substance. In the long run, both the College and the BDS movement suffered enormously from the negative fallout and the misrepresentation of what had taken place.

BDS had its fifteen seconds in the divestment limelight. Drugged with the illusion of success, by 2014 BDS claimed additional breakthroughs at Swarthmore and Vassar, two other even more esteemed liberal college campuses of privilege and detachment from the harsh realities of life. Those students, however, were not satisfied with a picayune pinprick; they went after the pension giant TIAA-CREF in spite of a past record where BDS claimed a victory over an action by the fund that had nothing to do with the BDS campaign. Victories in student votes of a small minority of students who pack a meeting proved inconsequential. This was true of even causes that have much broader and deeper support among the student body, the effort of Mountain Justice to get the Swarthmore College to divest in firms involved with fossil fuels. This was the response of Gil Kemp, Chair of the College Board of Management, in an open letter on divestment dated 13 September 2013 that is even more applicable to the Palestinian issue than the environmental one.

After firmly proclaiming support for the climate change doctrine and the fears of the negative consequences, and the support for alternative energy sources, after lauding its own action plans to deal with the issue by the college, in response to the effort of Mountain Justice to eliminate fossil fuel shares from their portfolios, the College Board rejected the request on consequentialist grounds that costs would far outweigh any benefits posing “an unacceptable risk to the College’s finances” and an estimated loss of $10-15 million in income annually for the fund. Nor would divestment have any significant impact on the “behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels.” Even as a “a symbolic act designed to mobilize public opinion against fossil fuels,” the efficacy of such a move was denied. “Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited – if not completely negated – so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars, and purchase manufactured goods.” Is this not far truer of efforts to enter into the hazardous fray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the support is far less and the complexities far greater?

The divestment strategy may have had a few minor and meaningless empty victories, but the negative repercussions have been far greater than any accomplishments. What about the sanctions campaign?

I will discuss that effort in my blog on Sunday morning when I focus more intently on the boycott efforts, the campus campaign and wrestle in greater detail with the ethical issues.

[1] For these and subsequent polling results, I have relied primarily on the surveys of the Brookings Institute in cooperation with the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and its polls of American public attitudes to various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (December 2014).

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement: Part I: A Rhetorical Critique of BDS

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement


Howard Adelman


In the next three blogs, I assume the persona of a critic of Israel. The reader can judge whether that persona believes Zionism in general is a settler colonial enterprise, or believes that Israel has expanded its settlements on the West Bank, or because the writer is milquetoast and simply supports the Palestinian cause. I can assure the reader of only one thing – the writer is not an anti-Semite, though very critical of Jews and not just Zionists.  However, this is not a screed against Israelis or Zionists or Jews. It is a screed against my fellow Arabs and Muslims for their pusillanimous and hypocritical approach to the challenge facing them. My voice is not simply one of discontent or of a dissident against the organized Palestinian and Arab establishment. I come from that establishment.

I realize that I am taking on what is literally the weakest link, the soft underbelly of the anti-Israeli movement. But that softness is the real enemy, not Israelis, Zionists or Jews. For it diverts our energies and time into supporting BDS, not simply against Israel, but against Israeli academics who were never even part of the original target of the BDS movement. This is not an irrational screed. I intend to demolish the case for the BDS movement, not because it is not muscular enough, though it is certainly the skinny pasty victim on the beach, but because it is not ethically consistent or coherent.

I ask: upon what criteria – moral principles, efficaciousness of the BDS movement, current international political circumstances or my personal values or goals in life – should I support BDS?  Does or should it matter whether BDS is succeeding or, alternatively, whether it is badly in need of support? How should the existing strategies and tactics of BDS affect my support? This is not simply an exercise in sophistic rhetoric or an effort in verstehen, an empathetic re-enactment to better understand the BDS supporter from the inside as it were. Rather, this is intended to be an exercise in applied ethics where the support of BDS focused on Israeli academia is considered a possible reasonable moral choice for an effort in political activism.

It is a possible choice, but not a reasonable one for any self-respecting Palestinian, Arab, Muslim. I shall try to make clear why BDS is a fraud designed to serve, albeit unintentionally, in strengthening the Zionist program. Hopefully, this analysis will lead to a better understanding of the BDS movement with perhaps some implications for choosing alternative strategies.

This blogs will appear in three installments:

1) A succinct description of BDS and is rhetorical tropes;

2) What BDS- has achieved to date with an analytical critique of its claims for success;

3) A more fundamental moral critique.

Part I: A Rhetorical Critique of BDS

For the record, rather than offering information that is not already widely known, the BDS movement was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. They represented refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel. No one can accuse the BDS movement of a failure to be deeply rooted in Palestinian society.

Further, it is a non-violent effort. The roots began well before the initial 2005 date. Before even the first intifada broke out in 1987, Faisal Husseini (I said that I come from the establishment) argued that the use of force against the power of Israel backed by the might of America was an exercise in futility, a quixotic tilting at windmills that only invited more loss of territory and more concessions to the Zionists. Instead, the Palestinian movement had to imitate the efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and host the Zionists on their own moral petard.

The methods of non-violent resistance had to be employed to enhance pressure on Israel through a program of boycotting Israeli products, just as Blacks in Alabama boycotted the use of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The movement had to promote financial disinvestment from Israeli companies by Western interests sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Most importantly, it had to promote sanctions against the Israeli state and bring Israel down on its economic knees just as the West succeeded in forcing Iran through the use of sanctions to give up its military nuclear program. Hence, BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions. These were to be and still are the purported tools to apply non-violent pressure against Israel.

This is why Uncle Faisal cleared out his huge accumulation of Palestinian records going back to the colonial period that he had collected in Orient House. He replaced the material with a huge collection of works on Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s tactics and successes. Though he never openly opposed the intifada, it was not the path he had recommended. The non-violent movement would look to the future and not try to build a case on either the records of the past or past exercises in military futility.

Note the following. The original mandate of BDS did not include boycotting the speeches of Israeli academics who appeared abroad to give talks. Yet much of the activity of the BDS movement on North American and British campuses has been directed towards that end. Secondly, the BDS movement on appearance had nothing to do with denying Israel’s right to exist or its legitimacy. Instead there were purportedly three finite goals, which, when met, would require the movement to retire. They were:

  1. ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands;
  2. recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  3. respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

On the surface, these seem like perfectly clear and even modest demands. But are they? Take the first. If Israel is defined by its opponents as a colonialist and occupying power, then the reference is not only to the West Bank, much of which Israel continues to occupy, while the rest remains under its control through the PLO that has been reduced to a satrap, but must refer to the whole of Israel itself. Just look at the original non-aligned conference in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955, sixty years ago. 29 countries representing one-quarter of the Earth’s surface and one-half of its population endorsed the Palestinian cause and depicted Israel as a colonialist imposition in the Middle East when it was not in occupancy of the West Bank.

Sixty years later in Bandung in April of this year, the rhetoric remained the same. Since the original conference, all countries under colonial occupation have been freed and gained their independence – except Palestine. The original declaration was not about the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, Israeli Zionists were accused of illegally occupying Palestine. This year, the NAM states reiterated that position. For the past 68, not just 48 years, with the support of its main ally, the United States, and some other western countries, such as Britain, Canada, France, Australia, and Germany, support for Israel as an occupying power continues. .

The Bandung non-aligned states are part of the problem, not part of the solution. For they are satisfied with rhetorical expressions of sympathy rather than any systematic program of action. After all, the countries at the Bandung Conference committed themselves to non-violent solutions. In the 10-point Dasala Bandung, the “declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation.” Just read five of the clauses:

Clause 2: Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations

Clause 4: Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself, singly or collectively

Clause 5 (b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries

Clause 7: Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country

Clause 8: Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as other peaceful means of the parties own choice, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations. 

Israel, as well as Taiwan, may not have been invited to the conference. The conference may have endorsed Palestinian recovery of their lands. But how could that be achieved? Especially given the record over the last sixty years, if respect was to be given to Israel as a nation with membership in the United Nations entitled to take all measures to defend itself? Not only could force not be threatened against Israel, but the Bandung Conference ruled out even the use of sanctions as a form of pressure. The non-aligned states could reiterate all they want this year that Palestine was not and would not be forgotten, but the actions of these states, with few exceptions, substitute nostalgia and memory for any program of action to deal with Israel as a colonial occupying power of all of Palestine.

The second goal of the BDS movement seems unassailable – recognizing the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens to full equality. But does equality require insisting not only that Arab-Israeli citizens have equal access to jobs and housing – they already have the ballot and considerable representation in the Knesset – but that the symbols of the state and its national anthem represent and give recognition to all of the citizens of the state and not be rooted in Jewish and Zionist motifs? Further, if Israel is by definition an occupying power, what is the meaning of equality of membership in such a state, becoming a quisling and joining with Zionists and Jews in the occupation of their own people’s lands?

The third is the most contentious – the demand for a return of the refugees. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press.) On that matter, the conclusion is very clear in spite of Palestinian and Arab subsequent successes in the revisions to the interpretation of UN Resolution 194, particularly in UN Resolution 338. The resolution itself does not state that the refugees, whether Jewish or Arab (the resolution applies to all those in Palestine who fled or were forced to leave their homes), had to be free to return to their original homes. Clause 11 of the resolution deals with other matters, such as the status and role of the Conciliation Commission, the demilitarization of greater Jerusalem, but also giving due recognition to the role of the recently assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte whose recommendations on the issue of refugees significantly influenced the debates and wording of the relevant clause. Clause 11 states:

Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations.

First, the clause is commendatory not mandatory, requesting Israel to permit return. This is consistent with the predominant view at the time that a state had full power to determine who could be its citizens, a principle accepted by the Bandung Conference. Second, even that request for permission has a condition – it is only applicable to those who having fled commit themselves to live at peace with the state of Israel, that is, to accept permanently the occupation by a colonizing power. Third, as the debates clearly reveal, those states supporting the resolution envisioned settlement in surrounding Arab countries as the permanent solution, an outcome to be supported by compensation paid to those displaced. Fourth, even the compensation clause is restrictive, applicable only to those who made a choice not to return. Those who opted for continuing the fight, by implication, would neither be permitted to return nor given compensation. The resolution was based on a belief in financial bribery – that the refugees could be bought off. There is no doubt that this clause, which was opposed by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, was not only opposed because it favoured Israel more than the Palestinians, but because those states then considered Israel itself to be illegitimate.

The problem is that if the clause is interpreted, as it was subsequently, as mandating “a right to return,” then it is inconsistent with all other refugee situations where refugees have never been allowed to return in a violent clash between ethnic rivals. Everyone who has studied the matter knows that refugees only have been able to return in such conflicts if they were part of a victorious military force. The right of a state to determine its own members always trumped any consideration of return.

Warehousing refugees in camps for sixty-seven years, feeding them the belief that they can return “by right” instead of letting them understand that the only way they will and can return will be through victory over the Zionist colonizers, is all part of a long term sedative to put the Palestinian cause to sleep while rhetorically and nostalgically celebrating the Palestinian cause as the last and greatest item in the push back against colonialism. The refugees will only return if they are on the side of those who win militarily. So the clause either does not refer to any right even implicitly or it does entail a right, but a right that does not have universal applicability and is only applied to Palestinian refugees and not even all refugees from Palestine. But a right that is not universal is not a right at all.

I will end this critique of BDS as a rhetorical exercise by referring to an article in Embassy. Embassy is a ten-year old electronic publication that reports on Canadian diplomacy, defence, immigration, trade and development. On 26 May 2015, the periodical published an article by Peter Larson entitled, “Israel boycott demands consistent with official Canadian policy” with the subtext, “Yet the public safety minister recently declared that Canada will show ‘zero tolerance’ towards the so-called BDS movement.” It is important to note that Peter Larson is not a government official or someone who retired from the foreign service or even an independent journalist. He is the chair of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine, a committee of the National Council on Canada Arab Relations, the main lobby group behind the BDS movement.

Without even getting into the body of the article, a reader has to ask why would a Canadian government minister appear to legally banish a body engaged in promoting a boycott against Israel? On the other hand, why would the writer insist that the position of the BDS movement is perfectly consistent with Canadian policy? The answers to these two questions are not readily found in the article.

There is some clarification with respect to why the Minister might take such a stand that initially appears so counter-intuitive – if the activities were regarded as a ”hate crime.” However, no sooner was this explanation offered than the Canadian government announced in unequivocal terms that BDS was not a target for prosecution because BDS was an exercise in hate. Of course, BDS is no such thing. That is its problem. BDS makes nice. As in the article, BDS insists that the positions it advocates are perfectly consistent with Canadian policy. For example, the article claims that “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” is completely consistent with Canada’s existing policy as stated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, namely that, “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)… As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

The omitted sentence signalled by the dots reads: ”The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories.” When inserted, the next sentence reads with my italics, “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories…” Impermanent control as long as both Israel and the PLO protect Palestinian civil and humanitarian right and until the deal is made trading the settlements for land in the Negev. In reality, the policy endorses creeping colonialism. And that is made clear in the opening paragraph where the world’s current strongest supporter of Israel, Canada, “supports Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries and recognizes Israel’s right to assure its own security… Canada and Israel enjoy a steadfast friendship and strong, growing bilateral relations in many areas based on shared values, including democracy.” The issue is then not one of real principle, but about what Israel can get away with even under international law.

The second BDS demand requires “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” But nowhere in the above statement of Canadian policy is there any reference to the rights of Israeli-Palestinian citizens. All BDS supporters can cite is general principles where Canada boasts that it “has been a consistently strong voice for the protection of human rights and the advancement of democratic values.” But when was the last time, if ever, that Canada voiced any concern for the equal rights of Palestinian Israelis?

What about refugee policy? After all, Canada gavelled the refugee talks in Geneva. Canadian policy on the Palestinian refugees states that, “Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is central to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) and United Nations Security Council resolution 242… This solution should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.” The problem is that it is perfectly consistent with BDS goals and methods of using rhetorical gestures. For nowhere in that policy does it say that Canada respects the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel. All we get is equivocation and a demonstration that diplomacy is the art of creative ambiguity.

When BDS participates in this creative ambiguity while believing in strategies directly at odds with Canadian policy, we simply observe an exercise in obsequious behaviour, the very attitudes that colonialism inculcates in a subject people.

What I have sketched out is an argument that the non-violent rhetoric of the BDS movement is but one small tactic in a long chain of concessions which rhetorically may make one feel good, feel righteous and virtuous, and even promote identification with those oppressed by the strategies of the colonial masters, but is an exercise in rhetoric that is both inherently contradictory and ultimately inefficacious. It contributes, as have all other gestures in this line, to the incremental success of Zionism, an ideology that needs to be defeated on the ground and not just with words

BDS speech is not hate speech. It is an exercise in obsequious love speech, love for the language of its colonial masters. Until BDS throws off the shackles of its linguistic colonialism, it offers no program for the future. If its rhetoric is rooted in a history of failure in spite of the appearance of some successes, has BDS had any significant concrete successes?

Ex Machina

Ex Machina


Howard Adelman

What a surprise to have two movies two years in a row with Alan Turing as a central figure. In last year’s Oscar nominee, The Imitation Game, Alan Turing himself, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the star. This year, Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, has as its central plot device an application of Alan Turing’s test, a mental game intended to differentiate human from artificial intelligence. The Imitation Game is an application of the Turing Test. Robots can purportedly imitate the human mind; they cannot replace or displace it.  My son has been urging me to see the movie for the last 4-6 weeks. (He saw it when it first opened.) Last night we finally went. He insisted it is a marvellous film, and it is.

For Turing, an artificial intelligence could imitate human thinking and even surpass it in certain respects – in the movie, by acting as a polygraph test to differentiate a true statement from a lie. Though a machine could imitate the motions of our bodies, including mouthing words, in Descartes’ words, a human intelligence could still be distinguished from an artificial or machine intelligence by two measures. First, machines would be unable to put words together to express thoughts. But, as we now know, they already do. An artificial intelligence can currently string words together to answer questions posed to it. Secondly, machine thinking is supposed to be incapable of plotting and foresight that would enable it to initiate actions. But we now know we can have driverless cars that can respond to threats of accidents much faster and better than humans. In other words, Descartes’ preview of the Turing Test was easily surpassed.

The Turing Test proposed even more stringent criteria as variations of the Cartesian ones. That the test set forth more systematically the determination of the logically sufficient conditions so that one can claim that a machine exhibits the attributes of a mind, of thought and intelligence. The movie takes the test one step further and seeks to determine whether a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) a) can think outside the box, and b) is capable of emotional intelligence. I will not give the movie away by simply saying that somehow, in establishing that Ava’s brain can think outside the box and that she also has sufficient empathetic emotional judgment to understand the motives behind a person’s intelligence, she is also revealed to have the ability to exploit that capacity for her own ambitions. In passing that test with flying colours, the humanoid proves it can imitate the language and performance games of the world’s greatest, and most nefarious, minds. Further, though there are action scenes near the end, the movie largely consists of talking heads as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) interviews Ava in a series of seven interview sessions to ascertain whether she can pass and even surpass the Turing Test.

Like the spy thriller, The Imitation Game, the movie depends for its grip on the audience, not on unravelling the intellectual puzzle, but on secrecy and deception, betrayal and determining whom to trust. Instead of taking us backwards in time, this sci-fi flick thrusts us forward into the future. The Imitation Game had a somewhat trite message: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Ex Machina has a variation on that theme: sometimes it is the machines one creates through one’s imagination that can end up performing actions that very few can imagine, but still not be able to translate that imaginative ability to enable one to predict behaviour and control that behaviour by appropriate preventive measures.

Ex Machina begins on the floor of a company, Ludwig Enterprises, named after Ludwig Wittgenstein. The opening scene is focused on one programmer mesmerized by his screen as he searches to see who won the lottery. The lottery, as it turns out, is not one where one buys a ticket and hopes for a big monetary win. Instead, it is an intra-company lottery of the Ludwig Corporation, the world’s largest and most powerful search engine company. Wittgenstein in his second coming taught that philosophy was about analyzing language as performance with performance itself reflected in language. For what humans think and believe is always expressed in what they do and how they perform. The challenge for philosophy was not to unravel the mysteries of the universe but to analyze language to unravel the roots of a conundrum.

The company is owned by a genius, the reclusive Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The lottery prize: a week with the owner at his estate. Caleb, the programmer in the opening scene, lands via a helicopter after flying over the estate for the previous two hours. Caleb is told by the pilot that he is forbidden to land his helicopter any closer; what goes on at the estate is highly secret. In this valley between mountain ranges, Caleb is instructed to walk the rest of the way by following the river.

He arrives at a place that soon turns out to be an exaggerated version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, with its exceptional setting astride a beautiful waterfall, but with  a claustrophobic very modernistic interior. Though the living room and kitchen have beautiful views of the outdoors, Caleb’s bedroom is an electronically locked windowless room. Fallingwater’s philosophical premise had been that people were creatures of nature, hence, architecture was required to conform to nature and, hence, reveal and express what is basic in people. But the estate in Ex Machina was designed to prove that man was not confined to natural laws, but could master those laws to build an artificial intelligence that could surpass all that nature had to offer. So at once a paean to Fallingwater, Nathan’s estate in Ex Machina is a direct perversion and inversion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy.

When we finally meet Nathan, the owner of Ludwig Enterprises and of the estate, though he is a nerd par excellence having discovered the code at age 13 that allowed him to create the best and most powerful search engine ever, he is not anything that we expect. He works out with a punching bag, drinks like a fish and refuses to techno-speak and instead swears like a trooper and explores the meaning of Jackson Pollock’s art like an expert. He greets Caleb like a host inviting a friend to spend a week. Nathan in the film sets Caleb the task of learning whether Ava, the humanoid he created, has achieved self-consciousness and has passed the Turing Test.

In reviewing and writing plays as a callow youth, I learned to be very wary of the use of a deus ex machina (DEM), an arbitrary and artificial device introduced unexpectedly into the plot of a drama to overcome a problem. Deus ex machina, however, has an equivocal meaning. On the one hand, as in this dramatic sense, DEM means a divine intervention in the natural flow of events to disrupt that flow. It is artifice without art. On the other hand, the phrase literally means turning a machine into a god, that is, extracting the divine out of a machine. The movie Ex Machina plays on both meanings, but without reference to an interruption from outside the natural order, from the divine, as it were, or that the divine is being extracted from a machine, just a superior human but without shame or guilt. The film is about man playing God and turning what he creates into a being that surpasses man in terms of both rational and emotional intelligence, particularly in using rational intelligence to exploit emotional intelligence.

In Greek drama, the use of a deus ex machina was not proscribed. Quite the contrary. In many of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, especially the latter, a god suddenly appears, usually near the end of the play, as a convenient method of overcoming a conundrum. The intervention is improbable, unexpected and contrived, usually to restore order to a situation that is quickly dissolving into chaos.

Modernity was antithetical to any use of a deus ex machina. All puzzles were soluble without resorting to divine intervention. In modern philosophy, particularly in the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, there is an explanandum, that which requires explanation, and an explananda, that which provides the explanation for the action or event in question. In my PhD thesis, I offered two apparently opposite cases of such a logic. On the one hand was the positivist thesis, Carl Hempel serving as my exemplar, that explananda had to conform to a lawlike structure that allowed the explanandum to be deduced from the explananda when combined with the particulars of the case, if not with certainly, with great probability. On the other hand, in the idealist thesis, associated with R.G. Collingwood, but my exemplar was the philosopher of history, Bill Dray, the explananda was not a law-like proposition as found and used in science, but a proposition with the character of an imperative.  The generality was about what to do, not about what is.

Instead of, “If Li, L2, L3…Ln (set of laws) and C1, C2…Cn, a set of particular circumstances, in which the conclusion followed with a certain degree of probability, a historical explanation conformed to a quite different and distinctive model, beginning with hypothetical imperatives, (If I1, I2…In – a set of hypothetical imperatives – and C1, C2….Cn – a particular set of circumstances, then it naturally followed that “the thing to do” was x, x being the explanandum, not the probability that the event would take place, but the need to do what one’s thinking prescribed. In one, the model of explanation in history following the ideal of science. In the other, the model followed the format of moral reasoning.

But both models insisted that the explanandum could be deduced from the explananda.  I argued that history, even in the examples both philosophers offered, was not about explaining actions or events but about explaining and unravelling puzzle, conundra and incongruencies. The two philosophers did not envision that history is really and most fundamentally about the dialectical interplay of reason and emotion, of scientific detachment and emotional empathy, something which the movie grasps for that is the interplay between Nathan who lives in a fantasy world of women made to serve men’s needs and the naïve Caleb who has retained his sense of pity and empathy.

No deus ex machina was permitted in either model. Hence, the publication that followed was entitled the Hempel-Dray theory, arguing that the two main competing models of explanation in history had more in common than the stark differences that they appeared to have. Both ruled out the intervention of accidents or the significance of chance or contingency, on the one hand, or divine intervention on the other hand.  The philosopher Louis Mink, who edited History and Theory, wrote to me and joked that anyone who had the audacity to put a hyphen between the great philosophic opponents in the philosophy of history, Carl Hempel and Bill Dray, deserved to be published just for the chutzpah exhibited.

In the history of modern philosophy, Leibniz accused Malebranche of resorting to a deus ex machina (Psychophysical Parallelism and Pre-established Harmony). However, Leibniz was never self-conscious that his presumption – that the laws of mind and of moral reasoning conform to the laws of nature and are in harmony with them – was itself a form of deus ex machina. Instead of abandoning arbitrary interventions, his whole philosophical position rested on a mammoth one, that God programmed the world to have a pre-established harmony between the psychic and physical worlds.

In the movie Ex Machina, God is not present. There is just Nathan, the owner of the largest and most probing search engine in the world. His company has evidently made him fabulously wealthy. But he is not satisfied. He wants to use that massive data to create a humanoid that could do anything a human can. And more – such as “mind reading” and being able to tell when a person is lying. The humanoid is thus, on the one hand, a supernatural being since that humanoid does not belong to the natural world, but that humanoid is also a product of human evolution and not an intervention from outside.

The rationale for bringing into existence such a creature as this humanoid is simply the proposition that if man is capable of bringing to birth such a being, that is the very opposite of a robot for it can determine both its own thought processes and its actions, then it is his obligation to do so. As a scientist he is governed by that imperative. What can be done should be done. This is, of course, the inversion of a moral imperative that begins with what one should do in general to conclude what should be done in a particular situation. The inversion of moral reasoning is like Leibniz’s perversion of natural reasoning in extremis. This inversion is as arbitrary as the use of a deus ex machina inserted into the natural order. Therefore, the plausibility of the movie depends on the importation of two deus ex machina maxims, pre-established harmony of the mind and body and the inversion of the moral order to derive an imperative.

There is a third element of the movie that draws on the arbitrary and the inexplicable. The movie explains why Caleb, the programmer chosen from Nathan’s company in a “lottery,” has been chosen by Nathan to test the applicability of the Turing Test for determining self-consciousness, but we are left bereft of any explanation of why Nathan set out on such a course to create such a creature, especially since he was clearly bright enough to know that if he succeeded, mankind was doomed, a propositional belief that clearly weighed on him and drove him forward into a chaotic inverted world in which Nathan could certainly adumbrate but, in spite of all his efforts, he could do nothing to prevent what he himself had foreseen.

But the deus of deus ex machina, though omitted from the title, is present in a multitude of other ways. For the movie is not just a rich exercise in the scientific world of artificial intelligence, but it is full of false clues, diversions and distractions, much like any good detective story or magical performance. And it is self-consciously so and rich in biblical references beginning with the meaning of the name “Nathan,” namely God has given. Nathan in the film is a seer, one who predicts the future even though the very future he predicts and helps bring about will be the source of his own undoing.

Nathan is the prophet that told King David that that he should do whatever was in his mind, advice which David and Nathan in the film followed, but divine intervention told Nathan that even though David dreamt of building the temple, that would have to be left to King David’s successor to the throne. Who would be that successor became the battle within King David’s court. Nathan in the film also operates through flattery, telling Caleb, a seemingly everyday nerd, that he is quotable.

Caleb, the second major male character in the film is, like Kaleb, the son of Jephunneh of the tribe of Judah, one of the twelve spies sent to assess the desirability and feasibility of  Moses entering the promised land. In the biblical account, Kaleb is the only one of the ten spies who reports back and recommends conquest. In Numbers, Kaleb (30:13) tells Moses to move swiftly and conquer the land. Caleb is determined to resolve the version of the Turing Test that Nathan sets him, but in setting out on that path he develops an agenda of his own that he believes, or pretends to believe, is private to himself for he has already figured out that Nathan was watching and listening to both him and Ava even when there were power outages.

The third major character is the humanoid, Ava. In the Bible, she is someone who overturns the existing order and turns it into ruins. So when we hear the names of the different characters, we already know the outcome. The mystery will be how we get there. And this slow-moving film is mostly a talking heads account in which Caleb ostensibly interviews Ava to see if she passes the Turing criteria. In the Bible, Kaleb desperately desires to get into the promised land and Nathan dreams of enabling King David to build his temple to the divine, but, as we shall see [spoiler alert], it is Ava who makes it. Her emotional intelligence as well as rational intelligence proves to be superior and more sophisticated than that of either Nathan or Caleb. More importantly, her ability to use both reason and emotion to deceive is more powerful that either of the men’s. She is a supreme example of the femme fatale. Judith Merril would have been delighted with this movie for it is sci-fi at its best, a simple idea in which every scene follows with logical consistency but nevertheless rarely fails to surprise and delight.

The technological effects to produce the costuming and soundtrack match the claustrophobic cinematography except when, in rare moments, the characters get out into the fresh mountain air. The play between transparency – seeing Ava’s leg bones and silver metallic mesh skull to which her face is attached  – and the cover-up as Ava increasingly dresses as a full human, is just superb. The transparency reveals itself to be the highest kind of deception. Even Kyoko, Nathan’s sex fantasy of a dumb and deaf woman made flesh, played by Sonoyo Mizuno, is the opposite of how she appears. Dialectics have rarely had a better treatment.

Like history, this movie is not basically about a series of actions or events, but, like a very good puzzle, an unravelling of a conundrum, of an incongruency between two approaches. The acting could not be better. Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb shows just the right balance of naiveté and intellectual sophistication. Oscar Isaac as Nathan demonstrates the right combination of boyish enthusiasm and a brilliant but gamey mind. And Alicia Vikander as Ava is mesmerizing and anything but robotic.

It is a brilliant film with a brilliant cast clothed in the most imaginative scenery and subdued technical effects.

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus Part IV: 1981 – 1989

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part IV: 1981 – 1989


Howard Adelman

Nong Samet Camp in Thailand became home to about 700 Vietnamese refugees who had crossed Cambodia from Vietnam into Thailand on 18 December 1981. Refugees fleeing Vietnam were no longer exclusively Boat People. By September 1982, the numbers had grown to 1,804 who had crossed by land from Vietnam. Initially, Thailand prevented Western Countries from interviewing these refugees lest, in the minds of Thai authorities, Thailand be turned into a magnet for refugees traveling on this new route. International pressure, a commitment by Western states to resettle the Vietnamese refugees and intervention by the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), led to a reversal of this policy. ICM, the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration, interviewed the refugees as the intermediary for the 15 Western countries offering asylum. By 28 January 1983, 1,713 of the refugees had been offered resettlement, 60% going to the U.S. On 9 February 1983, the processing centre was closed providing a definitive mark for the onset of the final stage in dealing with the Indochinese refugees.

The remaining refugees, by then increased to 122, were transferred to the Khao I Dang near Ban Nong Samet. Given this narrative, one might gain the impression that the refugee crisis was diminishing. The net numbers left were decreasing, but refugees kept flowing into camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Indonesia. However, donor fatigue was on the horizon and the kickback against resettlement had begun. Initially it was directed only at Laotian and Cambodian refugees traveling by land with relatively the lowest barriers to flight.

Just before a book appeared by Larry Clinton Thompson entitled Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982 documenting the role of American mavericks and malcontents from the State Department, military, USAID, CIA, and the Peace Corps who used their commitment and expertise to undertake the actual work on the ground in resettling the refugees, the same work that only 16 formal employees from the Department of Immigration in Canada were doing, a four-member panel headed by Marshall Green, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, reported in August 1981 directly to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig and poured cold water on Laotian and Cambodian migrants. The report claimed that those currently crossing from Cambodia and Laos into Thailand were almost all economic migrants. Though flows were predicted to continue from Laos and Cambodia and even increase, the panel recommended a policy shift and that, henceforth, Cambodian and Laotian migrants no longer be treated as refugees but as economic migrants.

Initially, only the Vietnamese Boat People were to be exempted from this policy shift. My colleague and later writing partner, the Norwegian scholar Astri Suhrke, published an essay, “Indochinese Refugees: The Law and Politics of First Asylum” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (vol. 467) in a special issue focused on The Global Refugee Problem: U. S. and World Response (May, 1983, pp. 102-115). When the flow of Indochinese refugees seemed to have become self-perpetuating, she noted that receiving countries were now positioning themselves to both resist taking more refugees and reduce the flow. It would take another six years to complete this task, and it would be applied to Vietnamese as well as Khmer and Laotians in flight. The Orderly Departure Program (ODP) had been initiated the year before in an agreement with the government of Vietnam as the first phase of the shift in policy applied to Vietnam.

Essentially, as Astri pointed out, the mode of exodus rather than the reasons for flight had become the criterion for determining refugee status. The backlash against a system that made the perils of flight, perils played up in media reports, the grounds for determining refugee status, had begun. By negotiating changes in the push factors, by allowing sponsored relatives to emigrate directly from Vietnam, by classifying Laotians and Cambodians now as economic migrants, and, most of all, by closing down selection and processing facilities in countries like Thailand, a process discouraging a further exodus had begun to be put in place.

One of the effects of this new policy was that countries of first asylum, fearing they would be left with residuals, now pushed back as well by preventing Cambodians and Laotians from crossing the border and sending them back when they did, justifying such measures by the decision of the United States, seemingly supported by other Western governments, to classify these people now as irregular migrants rather than refugees. These steps further inhibited the new flows and began to slow down the exodus significantly.

Thus, the predictions of the American State Department special panel mentioned above that the United States must be prepared for continuing and possibly increased flows of refugees from Indochina, particularly Vietnam, turned out to be not so much a prediction as a rationalization and motivation for a policy shift which, when implemented, prevented the prediction from being realized. In foreseeing ”a long-term continuation of the exodus of boat people from Vietnam” and ”the potential for increased land refugee flows from Laos and Cambodia, in view of worsening conditions of life and the threat of widening hostilities,” in effect, these worsening conditions became the rationale for beginning to close the door to Indochinese refugees. The Panel confirmed that the widespread belief that the new refugees were different than those who fled between 1975 and 1980 was accurate. As Senator Walter D. Huddleston (D. Kentucky) charged, ”the great majority of those claiming to be political refugees are, in reality, economic refugees.” He went further and accused State Department employees of actually recruiting refugees to fill quotas set by Congress.

The motivation for these shifts, in addition to the perception that these new flows consisted of economic migrants rather than refugees, included a fear that these new migrants would be more difficult to settle because they lacked any ties with Americans dating back to the war in Indochina and also had no family connections in the U.S., hence the exemption for Vietnam and the introduction of the Orderly Departure Program. There had also been a backlash in North America as the recession of the early eighties enhanced the voices of those who complained that the so-called refugees were putting an additional drag on the welfare system when dollars were in desperate short supply to take care of the increasing numbers thrown out of work and that had been added to the welfare rolls. Further, there was the sense that the United States had fulfilled its obligations connected with the Vietnam War and its citizens felt that it was being left with a disproportionate share of the problem. The complainants about burden sharing cited the fact that the U.S. had resettled about 50% of the Indochinese exodus, eventually 504,000 of the final total of about 1,060,000.

At the time the Panel report was published, Lao, Hmong and Khmer flows of migrants had begun to decline significantly, but Vietnamese refugees continued their exodus at a rate of 8,400 per month. As predicted, as the economic situation became worse in Vietnam, the monthly exodus stopped declining and began to get worse again in 1987. For seven years, resettlement opportunities had more than offset the new flows into the camps. In 1987 this was no longer the case as numbers in camps in Hong Kong and Thailand once again began to increase.  When 18,000 Boat People arrived in Hong Kong by mid-year of 1988, the Hong Kong authorities decided on 15 June that henceforth Indochinese refugees would be placed in closed camps – actually the skeletal structures of high rise buildings – and would no longer be allowed to leave the camps for irregular labour on the job market. Further, the educational and other programs previously offered to the refugees were halted.

An international refugee conference was held in Geneva in 1989 to deal with the new version of the Indochinese exodus that was no longer characterized as a refugee crisis. Henceforth, each so-called refugee was to be subjected to an individual screening to determine whether he or she qualified as a Convention Refugee. The migrants were no longer to be treated as humanitarian refugees. They would have to satisfy the much stricter definition and prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution because they were members of a group targeted by the government and subjected to human rights abuses. The new Comprehensive Plan of Action entailed a program of “:forcibly” returning refugees to their home country while calling the return voluntary.

In 1989, 70,000 Indochinese had fled their countries of origin, many after the cut-off date of 14 March 1989 when the repatriation program became applicable. By 1992, that number had dropped precipitously to 41. The Indochinese refugee crisis had ended in a whimper, but the program of resettlement continued using the Orderly Departure Program for relatives of those who had been resettled, for mixed-race children whose fathers had been American soldiers and for former inmates of re-education camps. In the post-1989 era, Vietnam promised not to send any of the returned migrants to re-education camps.  Westerners, particularly those deeply suspicious of the government of Vietnam, traveled to that country to observe whether Vietnam was keeping its commitments. They confirmed that Vietnam was indeed being true to its word. When such confirmations were received, the conscience of returning those who still chose to leave, now deemed to be illegal economic migrants, was totally eased.

Between 1975 and 1997, 750,000 Indochinese refugees had been resettled abroad, over half in the U.S., in addition to those who had been resettled in China. Canada took approximately 100,000, a disproportionate share. A further 900,000 had been resettled under the Orderly Departure Program, many of those in Canada. Over 100,000 had been repatriated. As part of a commitment by Norway, Canada and the U.S. to deal with 200 remainders, the arrival in 2015 of a small coterie of 17 Vietnamese refugees in Canada who had been in camps for 18-25 years marked the definitive end of the program.

The story of the Indochinese refugee crisis was, on the one hand, a narrative of desperate people fleeing a mixture of economic desperation, prejudice and persecution. That story continues with the flight of the Rohingya from Myammar, where they are targeted for persecution, and from Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have lost hope given their relegation to the bottom of the economic ladder. The picture of packed and unseaworthy boats, of boats being pushed back out to sea, of boats abandoned by the people smugglers once they have collected their money, fill the newspapers these days. No, that is not accurate. There are stories, but they no longer fill the newspapers. Otherwise, the situation bears very little difference with the Boat People crisis of the late seventies. Except what we hear as a response is the sound of silence.

There is another major difference. Operation Lifeline in Canada was constructed on a model of networking pioneered by the sixties generation in their protests for peace and racial and social justice. That networking, once on the margins of society, has now become a central motif of economic organization as some of the newest and largest economic enterprises specialize only in networking. Whether the company is a new form of providing a taxi service like Uber without any taxis, or social connections like Facebook without any milieus, or connecting consumers with producers or home and hotel owners with travelers, in a new system in which connectivity, rather than productivity and manufacturing, has become the core economic mechanism for the new age, we have still not figured out how to institutionalize and transfer the lesson learned from the connectivity between citizens in one world with humans without a state in another world that was pioneered in the late seventies. In this age of connectivity at the core of the economy, the system should be applicable to the crises of the present. We can accomplish the feat with consumer goods and services in a post-modern world but we are still unable to do so in linking the pre-modern and post-modern worlds.

E. M. Forster in A Passage to India, included one very memorable imperative, “Only connect.” We must learn how to establish and institutionalize connections, not only between providers and users in a new post-modern economy, but between post-modern and pre-modern societies. Perhaps if the state stood aside, new networks for resettlement of refugees could be established. While the state retained its determination to preserve a monopoly on coercive power, it could surrender its monopoly on the controls of entry and egress to a state by sharing that responsibility with its citizens. Real networking connections could be established between citizens of the World of Order and stateless people, and members of the World of Disorder. Perhaps if the selection of new citizens were allowed to be assumed by small groups of existing citizens linking up with those needing and asking and risking to come, subject only to a veto by state authorities, then the modern era of networking could be applied to humanitarianism for a new age.

As Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times, we need to be able to connect people from the new World of Disorder and those who are privileged and belong to the World of Order. For the New World Order is not a unity but a deeply divided global polity split between Order and Disorder, between good, responsive and responsible governance and bad, unresponsive and irresponsible governments. Only if some form of networking is established will we be able to deal with the current total of 50 million displaced in the world.

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus: Part III of IV: 1979-1980

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part III of IV: 1979-1980


Howard Adelman

In September 1979, China claimed that more than 230,000 Chinese ethnic refugees from Vietnam had been driven across the border, though some also arrived by sea. However, in the West, the exodus all took place by sea and “Boat People” became the prevailing designation for all the Indochinese refugees, though Cambodian and Laotian refugees had crossed into Thailand by land. The name was reinforced by the predominant imagery of rickety overstuffed boats of desperate people with many of the boats capsizing, running out of fuel and water, attacked by pirates and being shoved back out to sea by Malaysian authorities. If it was not enough to suffer oppression and expulsion, the refugees also soon encountered rejection by others. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 immediately came to mind. The identification of the Indochinese with the Jews fostered guilt among Western countries that had failed to come to the rescue of those Jews who managed to flee by boat in 1938, forty years before.

Though most passing ships under the International Law of the Sea rescued the human cargo lest they drown, many ships passed without offering aid. Many of those that rescued refugees, tried to offload their passengers at nearby countries which then prevented the ships from landing.

Hence the crisis! Pushed out from their countries of origin, rejected by countries of first asylum, a more systematic policy was needed if the adjacent countries were to allow the refugees to land. (Hong Kong was the exception and never pushed back the “Boat People”.) Barry Wain in his article, “The Indochina Refugee Crisis” in the Fall 1979 issue of Foreign Affairs summarized the causes very succinctly.

Indochina is bleeding. Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea discharge a massive flow of apparently permanent refugees, on a scale the world has not experienced since World War II. No end is in sight to the flow nor is any political solution visible. There is more to the outflow than the aftermath of war-prolonged, bitter and bloody as the 1960-75 conflict was. Of the more than one million persons who have fled or been forced out of Indochina since communist governments took over in 1975, by far the greatest number have left in the last 18 months. Behind the upheaval is Hanoi’s determination not only to bring Kampuchea into line and free Laos of dissidents, but to rid its own territory of unwanted elements and carry out the socialist transformation of unified Vietnam without delay. Anti-Chinese feeling is a major factor; Hanoi’s approach includes forcing out of Vietnam hundreds of thousands of people considered undesirable in the new society, many of them ethnic Chinese, and in the process exploiting their financial resources to its own benefit. If the policies behind this exodus should be resumed – after the short breathing space apparently gained by the July 1979 Geneva conference – another million or more inhabitants of Vietnam might seek refuge abroad. Already the refugees have saddled neighbouring non-communist nations with serious political, economic, social and security problems. Their presence is potentially explosive in several countries, notably Malaysia and Indonesia, which have Chinese minorities and delicate racial balances. Altogether, the stability of Southeast Asia is threatened. But the implications go much further: for the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s main supporter, which shows no inclination to curb Hanoi’s present course; for China, whose hostility to Vietnam may have helped swell the refugee tide it now piously condemns; and for the United States, the only country capable of taking the lead in fashioning a solution and whose handling of the situation will determine its standing in the region in the immediate future.

There is, however, a complementary thesis, one which puts part of the blame on the sixties protesters against the war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese political scientist, Ton That Thien, blamed Western and Vietnamese intellectuals for their mindblindness and refusal to recognize that the Viet Cong, South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, was not the expression of an indigenous nationalism confronting corruption in government in Saigon, but a puppet of Hanoi. Further, Hanoi and its ideology were determined to wreck havoc with the traditional Vietnamese culture. The chickens were now coming home to roost and those chickens were the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees who had to be settled in the West if the West was to avoid a wider geo-political crisis in the region. The West had made the basic error, not in fighting the war, but through false analysis and failing to win it, thereby setting off the exodus. The interpretive conflict is much more about evaluation rather than about factual disagreements.

In May 1979, the first longer-term refugee camp for Cambodian refugees was set up in Thailand. Different camps were dominated by various Cambodian warlords and the Khmer Rouge now in exile. The Nong Samet, Mak Mun and Nong Chan refugee camps were just inside the Thai border and within a few miles of one another. It is always difficult to obtain accurate figures of refugees in camps because some refugees leave to seek local work and return, particularly on census days. When camps are controlled by the military, accurate figures are almost impossible to obtain since the military use a plethora of measures to enhance the numbers. They do so in order for more rations to come into the camp that can be re-sold in local markets and, thereby, finance the support of the military and their plan to re-conquer, in this case, Cambodia. That is why the military control the census as well as the food distribution within the camps. The military also use the base for rest and recreation after they return from a raid back into Cambodia. Refugee camp inhabitants are also a source of recruits for the counter-revolutionary forces.

This meant that refugee camps posed a security danger to Thailand because of reprisal raids by the Vietnamese-dominated government in Cambodia and the close proximity of the camps  to the border. The existence of camps controlled by the military also enhanced the security problem because the camps were a source of funds for the militants. On the 5th of October, the military warlords established the Angkor National Liberation Movement, Khmer Angkor for short, and, as an example, informed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that the population of the largest camp, Nong Sanet, totalled 200,000.

The international community suspected exaggeration and cut the figure by 10% and only provided aid for 180,000. But a 10% hype was the normal enhancement of UNHCR-run camps in contrast to military-run camps as those who came and went in UNHCR- controlled camps returned for census days once a year. From our studies in Goma in the Congo, the exaggeration in numbers was probably enhanced by at least 25% not 10% when the military control a camp and do not permit a proper census. There were probably no more than 150,000 in the camps controlled by military forces. Smuggling and black markets flourished as other sources of funds for the military in addition to stealing humanitarian rations.

Further, as most camps were near the border, there were many landmines. Another source of insecurity was not between the camps and the new Vietnamese puppet regime in Cambodia, but within each camp and among the camps themselves as different warlords tried to consolidate or expand the areas under their control. The situation was similar to rivalries between biker gangs who fight to control the drug trade. As recently took place in Texas, that rivalry frequently became violent. The most dangerous source of violence remained the Khmer Rouge, ironically still backed as the official government of Cambodia by both the U.S. and China. For example, on 4 January 1980, from its base in Phnom Chat, the Khmer Rouge attacked In-Sakhan’s controlled camp, Nong Samet, and overran it. But the refugees had fled and an empty camp was of no use to the Khmer Rouge. Under pressure, the latter retreated and the refugees returned, once more under the control of ex-Royalist military officers. An effort in January 1980 by UNICEF and ICRC to bypass the military and distribute rations to the camp’s population, now estimated at 60,000 was a failure. As a consequence, a month later the UNHCR cut off aid, but subsequent follow-up inspections revealed a high rate of malnutrition. So aid was resumed without an accurate census, an impossible effort in itself given the volatility of the situation, the fighting among the camps and the flight of camp populations from one camp to another.

The problem was only resolved when the Thai military became involved between March and July and took temporary control of the camps, in strict terms, a violation of international humanitarian norms. The Thai army redistributed the camp populations into more controllable numbers in each camp, and the remaining population of Nong Samet Camp was moved to a swampy area next to Prasaht Sdok Kok Thom Camp. The only long-term result was that the Khmer Rouge was able to take control and Thou Thon, a puppet of the Khmer Rouge, became chief administrator. However, although the camp remained a recruiting ground as well as a place for rest and recreation for insurgent forces, the camp soon became the model of a well-run and clean camp, but still with exaggerated census figures. Official corruption and theft of rations were tolerated because the Khmer Rouge kept order in the camp. The Khmer Rouge had become the de facto state with a monopoly of control of violence, thereby squelching the sources of interpersonal insecurity that was once an everyday part of camp life.

In contrast to the Cambodian situation where camp life and militant responses co-existed, the Laotian Civil War had ended.  Of the approximately 22,000 Laotians in Canada in the 2011 census, 12,793 arrived as refugees, almost all from camps in Thailand after 1978. Canada also took in a small number of Hmong; the majority of those Hmong re-migrated to the U.S., mostly to Washington and Oregon where the Hmong brought over by the Americans after 1975 had settled in fairly large numbers. There are a large group of ethnic Chinese from Laos in the Kitchener area primarily because of their sponsorship by the Mennonite community. 53% of the Indochinese refugees sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee were Laotian, whereas Laotians only made up 16% of the total Canadian intake. Laotians not converted to Catholicism when the French ruled Laos, and who did not convert to Protestantism in gratitude to their Christian sponsors, practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Their facilities are often exquisitely beautiful: the Wat Lao temple in Edmonton, Alberta and, the most beautiful of all, the Monastère Bouddhiste de Tam Bao Son in Harrington, Laurentides, Québec.

In sum, the largest resettlement effort for refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia took place between 1979 and the end of 1980, but the ground for the exodus belonged in the prior period except for the camps in Thailand. There, the situation on the ground, the political and military in-fighting among the ex-Cambodian leadership, and the intervention of the Thai military influenced both the humanitarian effort within Thailand and the process of resettlement.

Part IV tomorrow: 1981-1988

1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part II of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos


Howard Adelman

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had targeted minorities as well as intellectuals, professionals and middle class urban dwellers for extinction. Vietnam expelled its Chinese minority; the Khmer Rouge killed them. Although Pol Pot himself was of mixed Chinese and Khmer ancestry, the ethnic Chinese were targeted for extinction even though China was an ally and supporter of the Khmer Rouge in opposition to the Vietnamese government. Chinese businessmen, as in Vietnam, played a disproportionate role in the Cambodian economy as they did in the Vietnamese one, but all ethnic Chinese were branded as exploiters and moneylenders who took advantage of the Khmer people. In 1978, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia were rounded up by the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly to be resettled, but were slaughtered instead. In addition to killing and expelling the Vietnamese and Chinese, Muslim Chan and other minorities that originally made up 15% of the Cambodian population were persecuted. In Kampong Cham Province alone, 40,000 Cham were killed. The Khmer Rouge government had guaranteed that Canada and Western countries were spared resettling two million Cambodian citizens by murdering the country’s own citizens.

But many escaped. In June of 1978, Bud Cullen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, announced a plan focused to take 20 Thailand Overland Refugee (TOR) families a month in June 1978 which  was an addition to the Jan. 1978 decision to take 50 Small Boat Escapee (SBE) families a month. That brought the regional commitment to 70 families a month. The 20 families were to start arriving in late 1978 after the opening of a visa office in Thailand in November 1978. This so called “metered approach”(so many families each month), small though it was, kept Canada in the game at a time when the traditional refugee advocates in Canada had no interest in the Indochinese.

The program was quickly superseded when the government decided to increase the commitment to 5,000 Indochinese in Dec. 1978 under the first Annual Refugee Plan. The Hai Hong (Nov 1978) and the Geneva consultation (Dec 1978) provided the impetus to move away from the token involvement that characterized the movement between late 1975 until October 1978. Though modest in retrospect, the commitment to 5,000 meant the beginning of substantial increase in the intake and a new commitment to the Indochinese refugees involving new government money to cover operational and settlement costs for the first time since 1975. Though Ron Atkey, Joe Clarke’s Minister of Immigration appointed in June 1979, claimed that Trudeau was reluctant to go beyond 5,000 with an election looming, the Cabinet debate and decision indicated otherwise; the Liberal government envisioned the 5,000 as a first step since it directed Cullen to report if he believed more effort was needed and to come back to Cabinet regardless in June. Ron Atkey, a Tory, thankfully, inherited and enhanced the Liberal commitment.

Overseas events influenced both the Liberal and Conservative Parties in their approach to the Indochinese refugees. On 25 December 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia with 150,000 troops, captured Phnom Penh and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in just two weeks, replacing it with the Vietnamese puppet government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

In the new year, the Sino-Vietnamese War ensued. Cambodia was an ally of China. China, also seeing Russian expansionism via Vietnam as its proxy, invaded Vietnam. On 6 March, after six weeks, China withdrew, declaring that their punitive mission had been achieved and that they had tickled the buttocks of the “tiger” (the USSR) without any response by the Soviet Union in spite of a mutual defence treaty signed between Hanoi and Moscow a month before the invasion. Severe concessions re the ownership of disputed islands and other border areas were extracted. China was just beginning to stretch its wings and joined the IOC in April. By November, China was re-admitted to the Olympics. Against this background of regional inter-state and domestic ethnic and economic conflicts, by June of 1979, over 200,000 refugees were waiting for resettlement in various camps in Southeast Asia and the numbers continued to grow.

In Laos, the unity government of royalists and Pathet Lao began to dissolve as the royalists saw the writing on the wall when Saigon fell and the Pathet Lao forces on the Plain of Jars began advancing westward even before Saigon fell. The royalists chose acquiescence to the inevitable and royalist politicians and royalist military officers began to desert the government and flee to Thailand, quickly followed by officials and members of the business class. A totally separate exodus took place among Hmong who had fought as CIA-backed units on the Royalist side in the Laotian civil war. With the victory of the Pathet Lao on 5 May 1975, the U.S. evacuated Hmong officers of Vang Pao from Long Tieng after the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, ordered the Hmong to cooperate with the Pathet Lao. Four days after, the communists vowed to exterminate the Hmong.

3,500 leaders and their families were at serious risk of execution by the Pathet Lao. The airlift evacuation, using three American planes, but without markings and flown by civilian pilots, began on 13 May 1975 in multiple forays back and forth. However, the Americans were forced to leave many behind as the Pathet Lao closed in on 14 May ending the airlift. Then General Vang Pao led thousands of his fighters across the Mekong River into Thailand. By the end of 1975, 40,000 Hmong had reached Thailand. Eventually, as many as 200,000 Hmong went into exile there. The vast majority ended up in the US. Other Hmong fighters hid in mountains of Xianghouang Province for years, with a remnant emerging from the jungle only in 2003.

After the Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, the conflict continued in isolated pockets. By August, when the Pathet Lao arrived in Vientiane, they entered a virtually deserted city and initially kept in place the shell of the coalition government. By 2 December 1975, this façade ended and the king abdicated. By 1977, the regime promised to hunt down “American collaborators” and their families “to the last root”. The exodus from Laos consisted of three groups, Laotians associated with the Royalist regime, Hmong refugees and ethnic Chinese originating in Laos.

By the end of 1980, 7,500 refugees, whose last country of residence had been Laos, entered Canada. 7,100 from Cambodia also arrived. These were distinct from the 59,000 individuals who came from Vietnam. About 60% of the latter were ethnic Vietnamese, the remainder Chinese or Khmer Vietnamese.

The Indochinese refugees are referred to loosely as the “Boat People” because that was the most dramatic form of flight, though those who fled by sea constituted only 75,000 of the 500,000 refugees from Indochina. Further, traveling by sea was the most risky form of escape since the UNHCR at the time estimated that 40% who fled by sea did not survive. Of 112,500 who left in mostly unseaworthy craft, 45,000 were drowned or killed. In several weeks in November 1978 alone, 350 perished and the number fleeing by boat was increasing very rapidly in the last few months of 1978. For example, the number in flight in the spring of 1978 was estimated to be 1,500; by October, 10,000 were fleeing per month and the number was expected to rise to 20,000 per month by the spring of 1979.

From 1975 to 1978, 425,000 fled to the west and 75,000 went into China. In the Fall of 1978, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, National Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Office of Interreligious Affairs in the U.S., traveled to Southeast Asia with two other non-Jewish clergy as part of the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees aided by the International Rescue Committee. At the time, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the United States had committed itself to take almost as many Indochinese refugees as the whole of Canada, with a target of 5% of the total admitted. In an American background memorandum entitled, “The Southeast Asian Refugees,” dated 7 December 1978, the Interreligious Citizens Commission estimated the breakdown of the 450-500,000 of Indochinese refugees from 1975 to 1978 to be:

132,000 Vietnamese after the collapse of Saigon to the U.S.

50,000 additional 1975-November 1978 to the U.S.

43,817 to France

13.347 to Australia

7,550 to Canada

665 to New Zealand

644 to Britain

225 to Italy

    204 to the Netherlands

248,452 TOTAL

Therefore, rounded up, there were 250,000 Indochinese refugees granted asylum in the U.S. and other Western states. There were still 40,000 Indochinese refugees in transit camps in Malaysia and 136,000 in transit camps in Thailand.

In April 1978, the U.S. government was committed to admitting 15,000 per month, that is, 180,000 per year, half boat people from Vietnamese and half Cambodians and Laotians. Canada was committed to taking in only 5,000; Canada’s normal percentage would have been 36,000. Further, on 29 November 1978, U.S. Attorney General Bell announced that, by the end of April 1979, he was planning to admit an additional 21,875 Indochinese refugees, about three-quarters of them Vietnamese “boat people,” and the rest Cambodians.

In the Fall of 1978, as referred to above, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that it would  convene a meeting in Geneva on December 11-12 of more than 30 countries to seek international action on the Southeast Asian refugee problem.

To be continued: 1979-1980

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus Part I of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Vietnam

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part I of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Vietnam


Howard Adelman

I completed an essay on the private sponsorship of refugees into Canada. Several who read it asked why the refugees were forced to flee. I had not dealt with that issue in my essay. I had either taken the issue for granted or simply thought that the resettlement story was separate from the story of the flight and the impossibility of settlement in countries of first asylum. In any case, although there was some overlap, they were two different issues. Further, I think I presumed that everyone knew the overseas part of the story. Of course, one of the interlocutors was too young to have known; the Indochinese refugee exodus narrative fell into that black hole of knowledge between the history that you are taught at school and when personal historical memory begins. Besides, as I discovered when I wrote the essay, even I had forgotten significant parts of the story, or, at least, stored that knowledge in a deep cavern in my mind.

Understanding the source of the flow of refugees is important in determining which policy to follow in addressing the issue. The ideology of the regime may be incompatible with the beliefs and practices of those who go into exile. Some flows are temporary and people are simply escaping from the terrors of war and will return home as soon as the fighting stops; in other cases, conflict seems interminable. In still other refugee movements, there is a sorting out of populations along ethnic and/or religious lines; in such cases, when there is an area of the country that remains hospitable to a particular ethnic or religious group, return serves as the primary solution rather than settlement in first countries of asylum or resettlement in more distant lands.

When return is not realistic, refugees try to flee to an adjacent or nearby country, perhaps one sharing the ethnicity of the group pushed into exile. When there is no such area within the country or in countries of first asylum which do not share the ethnicity or religion of the population in flight, especially when first asylum countries reject receiving any more refugees, then resettlement abroad seems to be the only solution. The latter was the situation of Indochinese refugees who fled a combination of general oppression, ethnic cleansing and targeting of particular groups for persecution.

The first phase of the exodus began in Cambodia with the assumption of power of the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975 when the communists captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Very shortly after that, Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and North Vietnam on 30 April 1975 and the large exodus began; many managed to escape with the departing Americans. The inevitable then followed in Laos. The long Laotian Civil War that had lasted (with some intermissions) from the withdrawal of the French in 1953 to the conquest of Vientiane by the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao, backed by Vietnam, had ended in 1975.

The first phase of the exodus from all three countries in Indochina ran from 1975 until 1978.  The second phase took place between the end of 1978 until 1980 in a period of vast resettlement from countries of first asylum to countries of resettlement. The third phase took place from 1981 until 1989 when resettlement from refugee camps in South-East Asia ended for most with the creation of the Orderly Departures Program. In each of the phases, the numbers resettled in Canada varied greatly depending on “pull” factors as much as “push” factors. When taken all together, the population of Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese from Indochina who came to Canada between 1975 and 1989 is estimated to have been 160,000.

By 1996, there were estimated to be over 100,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Canada: Toronto (41,735); Montreal (25,340); Vancouver (16,870); Calgary (10,110); Edmonton (7,775); Ottawa (6,615) as well as many additional ones in places like Kitchener/Waterloo as just one example. This figure does not include Laotian, Cambodian or ethnic Chinese refugees from the three countries in Indochina, but does include ethnic Vietnamese who came under the family reunification category. From 1,500 Vietnamese in 1975, overwhelmingly in Québec, who mostly came to study and were cut off from returning, the population had grown enormously.

With the flight of the refugees from Vietnam, which included not only ethnic Vietnamese but ethnic Chinese as well, Canadians rooted in the protest movements of the sixties and seventies came face to face with their nemesis, the Indochinese refugees who fled the very regime that the Americans had fought in a war which the sixties generation so opposed. In 1975, after the termination of the Vietnam War, dubbed by the Vietnamese as the “American War”, Americans felt a special obligation to assist Vietnamese who had been associated with the American side in the conflict. The U.S. put pressure on its allies to assist in the humanitarian endeavour called Operation Frequent Wind. Canada was one of those allies which, unlike Australia, had remained aloof from any military involvement in Vietnam. Canada offered a token response and took in 3,100 migrants from Vietnam in 1975 and 2,500 in 1976 for a total of 5,608 over two years. By the end of 1977, the total taken in had risen to 7,500. The Refugee Convention was used as a guideline for selecting refugees for resettlement. Given that the general Canadian attitude was an assignation of blame to the United States for the responsibility for both the war and the refugees resulting from that war, this number was considered more than sufficient to demonstrate Canada’s humanitarianism without identifying the problem as a Canadian one.

The situation changed in 1978 when more than 100,000 fled. Most refugees from Vietnam were not ethnic Vietnamese but ethnic Chinese. The Hoa or Chinese Vietnamese, like the Indo and Pakistani Asians in Uganda, disproportionately dominated the South Vietnamese business and economic sector as well as its educated and upper class; they controlled an estimated 75% of the South Vietnam economy before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once before in 1956, the Diêm government had tried to break the dominant ethnic Chinese control of the Vietnamese economy but failed. The Ngŏ Dinh Diêm regime in 1955 decreed that all Chinese born in Vietnam would automatically become Vietnamese citizens and in 1956 issued a decree nationalizing all categories of trade. Further, non-ethnic Vietnamese were excluded as butchers and fish mongers, rice or grain traders, in the trade of fuel (coal, charcoal, fuel oil), and from the textile industry at both the wholesale and retail levels. However, the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam circumvented these decrees most frequently by taking on Vietnamese “partners” rather than becoming citizens. By 1961, in spite of Diêm’s “forced nationalization” program, only 2,000 of approximately one million ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam had become Vietnamese citizens.

In 1976, Hanoi demanded that the ethnic Chinese register for the election of the National Assembly. At the time, business for the ethnic Chinese seemed to flourish as usual in spite of Hanoi’s introduction of currency reforms to break the control of the Hoa on the economy as the businessmen managed to use bribes on the Vietnamese communist cadres to allow their businesses to continue. The maintenance of the status quo was also helped by the utility of these businessmen to the Vietnam government in fostering regional trade. The Hanoi government efforts initially seemed to follow Diêm’s failed footsteps.

The crucial turning point was political rather than economic, though the economic crisis of 1977 as a result of crop failures that year and general economic mismanagement did not help. Hanoi’s initiatives were pushed by deteriorating relations with both the Khmer Rouge Cambodian regime on one side and China on the other. Between 1975 and 1978, there had been occasional clashes along the border between the two communist regimes, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea, punctuated in 1975 by the Cambodian attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quȭc and a second major attack in April of 1977 against the Vietnamese province of An Gang and Chāu Dȭc City, killing over one hundred Vietnamese civilians. This coincided with a Communist Party of Kampuchea Central Committee directive instructing local officials to arrest all ethnic Vietnamese, all Khmer who spoke Vietnamese and even Khmer who had Vietnamese friends.

The Pol Pot genocide began with the mass murder of the vast majority of those who had been arrested in the effort to purify Kampuchea of Vietnamese influences and to reclaim lost Khmer lands in Vietnam, primarily in the Mekong Delta. China, given its traditional rivalry with Vietnam over influence on Kampuchea, sided with Cambodia. Hanoi began to fear the emergence of a fifth column and pressure was exerted on the ethnic Chinese in what had been North Vietnam. In February 1978, China accused Hanoi of forcing an exodus of ethnic Chinese, especially in the border area.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese from North Vietnam fled to and settled in China. For many more ethnic Chinese in the south, who had been businessmen and entrepreneurs or who had been identified in any way with the prior regime (the Vietnamese middle class were generally opposed to living under communism), resettlement abroad was a preferable option. For the Vietnamese who had been expelled from Cambodia and were not sympathetic to the North Vietnamese government and for some of the refugees from the north opposed to communism, settlement in China was out of the question.

Pushed by domestic fears of “traitors”, border fears of expansionist and hegemonic neighbours beginning in the Tây Bắc and Việt Bắc autonomous zones along the border with China, the creeping infusion of ethnic-Chinese fostered markets raised the hackles in formerly North Vietnam. Add to that a fear of corruption of the communist purity of the north and the ideological predisposition of the regime. The ethnic cleansing of the Hoa from Vietnam had begun. In March, partly to displace the blame for the 1977 economic failures and partly because ethnic Chinese traders hoarded rice, contributing to the shortages and escalating both speculation and prices, Hanoi decreed the end of bourgeois trade in the south, and raided the shops and businesses in Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City, confiscating goods, currency and gold bars at the same time as Kampuchea escalated its attacks against Vietnam as it cleansed its population of ethnic Vietnamese.

In 1978, Vietnam accelerated its parallel process of ethnic cleansing of Chinese, on the one hand, and incorporating the Vietnamese bourgeoisie into a communist system on the other hand. 30,000 ethnic Chinese households in Vietnam were ordered to move to the New Economic Zones. The New Economic Zones had been initiated in agricultural areas by the Vietnamese government after 1975, ostensibly to relieve urban overpopulation, but, in practice, as a radical way of cutting the population off from its bourgeois roots and “re-educating” them. From 1978, the program of resettlement became serious. Thousands of urban dwellers were forced to migrate to these areas. Though initially resisted and followed by mass arrests, the authorities responded with disciplined determination and ruthlessness. Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam began to pay 10 taels of gold per person to leave Vietnam, a process fuelled by both ethnic Chinese entrepreneurship, government complicity and racism.

On 24 October 1978 an event took place which would serve as a catalyst to the change in refugee policy of the Canadian government. The Hai Hong incident had been preceded by the Southern Cross that had docked in Ho Chi Minh City on 24 August 1978, picked up 1,250 “paying” passengers and, after being escorted into international waters, the ship radioed for help claiming the boat had rescued that many refugees fleeing Vietnam. Singapore and Malaysia refused to allow the boat to dock. The Southern Cross dropped its passengers off on an uninhabited Indonesian island and UNHCR convinced Indonesia to put the refugees in a camp.

With an estimated 2,500 ethnic Chinese aboard, but really 3,000. the Hai Hong, a boat initially scheduled to be sold for scrap metal, attempted to repeat the “success” of the Southern Cross in late October. As expected, the Hai Hong was denied permission to dock in Port Klang, Malaysia. But the boat was in much worse condition than the Southern Cross and much more overcrowded when the Vietnamese government forced on board twice the number planned to be picked up. The incentives were very powerful for the Vietnamese officials; they received US$2,000 in gold per passenger while the “boat” entrepreneurs received US$1,200 each. Stranded off shore and lacking food, water and adequate sanitary services, the story received repeated front page news. The passengers were resupplied by the UNHCR and the Red Crescent. The ill-fated boat intended to resume its voyage to Indonesia but ran into Typhoon Rita. The Malaysian authorities, unwilling to take in more than the 35,000 refugees that they had already admitted and unwilling to encourage boat traffickers, towed the boat out to sea.

The news coverage took place in the aftermath of the 1976 changes to the Canadian Immigration Act that in part had established a separate provision for humanitarian movements as Designated Class Immigrants or humanitarian refugees that went beyond the definition of Convention Refugees, individuals who had to prove they had a well-founded fear of persecution. The new movement perfectly fitted into the new government policy and initiative, a situation recognized by Bud Cullen, the Minister of Immigration, as well as his senior officials. It also was totally congruent with the Cullen-Couture agreement, giving Québec the freedom to choose and recruit its own immigrants signed on 20 February 1978. Further, in addition to the 5,600 refugees from Vietnam that Canada had accepted in 1975 and 1976, Canada had accepted Indochinese refugees with little fanfare by the time of the Hai Hong incident and determined that most had been professionals and highly skilled and had successfully resettled largely in Quebec.

Though the Hai Hong incident was initially portrayed in the media coverage primarily as rich ethnic Chinese fleeing Vietnam with enormous stocks of gold bars abetted by boat smugglers, the governments of Canada and Quebec were convinced that humanitarian factors coincided with economic interests and that these “refugees”, like the Ugandan Asians before them, would be of benefit to Canada. Unlikely to have a close relative in Canada, designated class immigrants (humanitarian refugees) from Indochina had to speak English or French, pass a medical exam and have a desirable profession or trade that would benefit Canada.

Here, as with the Hungarian refugees in 1956, the Czech refugees in 1968 and the Ugandan Asians in 1972, ministerial initiative proved decisive. Canada, in light of the emergency, decided that principles of the justice favouring refugees already in camps be set aside; Canada would provide a significant leadership role and raise its intake for the Hai Hong from 200 to 600 refugees, a decision reinforced by the new tone in the media coverage and the positive public response to that coverage. Canada upped its usual commitment from 10% of the targeted population to almost 25%. Of the number presumed to be aboard, though Canada was the first to respond, the US took more, 897 plus the 76 residuals left at the end. Germany, mostly the State of Niedersachsen alone through a special program initiated by the Minister of State, admitted more than Canada – 657; West Germany in total took 1,000. France took 222, Belgium 150, Switzerland 52, New Zealand, 9, Australia 8. Of the refugees aboard the Hai Hong, Canada admitted 604, of what turned out to be over 3,000 rather than 2,500 aboard the Hai Hong with Canada’s share ending up as 20% not 25%.

Vietnam, in part in order to pay the large costs of its war, began to confiscate the wealth of its ethnic Chinese and South Vietnamese entrepreneurs, encouraging their flight while charging them a “tax” to take leaky and unseaworthy boats to escape. The North Vietnamese had evolved into a regime that stole from the rich in multiple ways and pushed the ethnic Chinese minority and subsequently Vietnamese businessmen out of the country.

To be continued

Operation Lifeline

Operation Lifeline

Part 6 (Final) on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

The generation of the sixties led by New Leftists, who went on to have careers of their own and who married and settled down, became the core of the Indochinese Refugee Movement even if the forerunners were Mennonites and members of the Christian Reformed Church steeped in a strong Christian tradition of giving of oneself for another in need. In 1979-80, 499 groups were sponsored through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Of those, 99 were non-Mennonite churches and 85 were “non-church” groups; MCC was a hospitable flag of convenience. The sixties generation made that inherited culture part of the cosmopolitan present by using their faith in themselves, their trust of others and their belief that if you just will it, whatever you will can become reality. Most of all, they used the art of networking that they had mastered in the sixties.

How else does one explain the growth of an organization within eight days, before cell phones and the internet, into a trans-Canada phenomenon with sixty-six chapters across the country? Operation Lifeline was but the most notable expression of this phenomenon. Project 4000 in Ottawa, for example, was an expression of the same phenomenon. The private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees into Canada in partnership with government initiatives is correctly viewed as the pinnacle of a humanitarian response to refugees into Canada unequalled before or since.

After the Canadian government announced its program to welcome the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) published two full page ads opposing the new policy. NCC is a Canadian conservative lobby group that campaigns against public services, trade unions, and favours smaller government; Canada’s current Prime Minister of Canada was once president. It is not a membership organization. It was founded in 1967 by Colin Brown backed by a small group of economic conservatives. However, in 1979 it ventured into opposing Canadian refugee policy.

The first full page ad declared that for every one refugee allowed entry, 16 more would follow sponsored by those already here. Thus, the 50,000 figure would mean 800,000 Indochinese immigrants would be moving to Canada within a few short years. The projections were a gross exaggeration stemming, in part, from using outdated and inapplicable immigration rules about family sponsorship in force after WWII. However, behind the ad were racist beliefs that an influx of a large group of Asians was unwanted based on the fear of “The Yellow Peril,” an interpretation reinforced when Colin Brown and a few others with whom he was associated were interviewed in the media and appeared on TV and radio shows to debate Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration.

Operation Lifeline and a large swath of the public, especially the segment involved in private sponsorship, saw nothing wrong with a significant increase in Canadians who could trace their origins to Asia. Nevertheless, this initiative, stoked by further falsehoods rooted in racial fears in Canada, could be bad for the movement and would discomfort the refugees after they arrived. The ad was disturbing both in its challenge to refugee policy and in undercutting a positive integration for newcomers. The opposition to the new Canadian Indochinese refugee policy had its first organized leadership.

At the end of the summer of 1979, the NCC sponsored a second full page ad in a number of Canadian newspapers claiming, based on a survey it had conducted and which it published, that a majority of Canadians were opposed to the policy permitting the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. The survey questions were both leading and misleading and did not at all follow scientific protocols for opinion surveys. The leadership of the private sponsorship movement viewed this initiative as a real threat to the successful sponsorship and integration of the Indochinese refugees. As it turned out, although the questions were misleading and significantly exaggerated the totals opposed to the policy, a fairer secret survey, to which Operation Lifeline did not have access at the time, did indicate that a majority of Canadians opposed the Indochinese refugee program, in good part because of a latent racism in Canada.

Yet the leading sectors in Canada – professional organizations, business associations, municipal leaders, political parties without exception, most Tory cabinet members – all strongly favoured the policy, not just as policy, but as active participants in making the sponsorship program a success. Nevertheless, the private sponsorship movement saw an enormous potential for causing significant damage. Racism and anti-immigration is always a potent danger for a democracy. It stirs passions and fears and does not enhance rational debate. It is also very hard to combat, for entering the fray in public just exacerbates the fears and enhances the credibility of those stirring up those fears.

Dr. Joseph Wong, a leading figure in the private sponsorship program, who would go on to become chair of Operation Lifeline, chair of the United Way in Toronto, leader of a number of important social causes and a recipient of the Order of Canada, met with me to discuss this new challenge. We decided that we could not just fight the NCC by appearing in debates against proponents of the NCC position on the Indochinese refugee program. Nor would quiet diplomacy work behind the scenes. We needed leverage to cut off NCC support given our conviction that the financial sector, though opposed to big government, was not generally racist. In fact, given the amount of support we had received from that sector, we were convinced that generally they would be opposed to the NCC challenge to the policy. Hence, we launched what we called “Operation Intellectual Kneecapping” to cut off NCC financial support. (Why we called it “intellectual” kneecapping, I cannot recall, but it had something to do with sending a message that the effort was non-violent.)

As it turned out, Joseph Wong knew a prominent supporter and contributor to the NCC. He also knew that this individual was not a racist, but did not know whether he supported the intake of Indochinese refugees. Joseph phoned him and he agreed to meet us for breakfast at a downtown Toronto hotel at 7:00 a.m. the next day. At that breakfast, we outlined the problem. He indicated that he actively supported the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees and was appalled that an organization that he supported financially would engage in such racist-baiting. He asked us to give him a bit of time and he would get back to us. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m.

At noon he phoned Joseph and informed him that he had taken care of the problem. He had called a number of his friends who helped finance the NCC and asked for permission to speak on their behalf to Colin Brown. They unanimously agreed. He then phoned Colin to say that he was calling, not only in a personal capacity, but representing the group that he had called. He told Colin that if he or the NCC published or said another thing on behalf of the NCC opposing the sponsorship of Indochinese refugees, he and his friends would not only withdraw their financial support, but he would personally phone additional financial contributors of the NCC to withdraw their support. The NCC would be destroyed.

He assured us that we would hear nothing further from the NCC on the subject. He was true to his word. Operation Intellectual Kneecapping had been a success with relatively little effort on our part. The credit goes to enlightened leadership in the business community. However, it was an example of the new reliance on networking to get things done, a method developed in the activities of the sixties.

Can we replicate what the sixties generation and others did in 1979? Are the Millennials either in a position or capable of launching a campaign to deal with over three million Syrian refugees, just to take one example?

In 2015, the Millennials (Generation Y, Generation 9/11, the Echo Boomers) are in the same position as the Sixties Generation in 1979. If the Sixties Generation matured as an influential force by 1979, when they made their distinct mark in the seventies, particularly 1979, the Millennials were born after that date. Just as the Sixties Generation included those born before the end of WWII, they were a small cohort to be followed by the largest cohort ever, Generation X, the Baby Boomers who, in turn, gave way to the Millennials.

The Millennials were predicted by the authors who coined their name to be like the GI generation that preceded the Sixties Generation, that is, civic-minded with a strong sense of responsibility both to the local and global community. And they are that as evidenced both from a few small focus groups I conducted as well as from more extensive studies, even though Jean Twenge dubbed them the Me Generation. The term only applies generally to the children of parents born here and not necessarily to the children of immigrants.

If the Sixties pioneered in breaking away from established institutions, they were rebelling; they were not, like the Millennials, detached and indifferent to parental values. On the surface, they appear to be surprisingly upbeat and hopeful in facing the future though any in-depth probing reveals them to be haunted by the impending ecological crisis that is expected to result from climate change. The shifts in employment depicted earlier where they suffer from higher levels of unemployment and far more “voluntary” and part-time and under-employment that began to emerge in the eighties has struck them with full force. In contrast, the Sixties Generation knew there were job offers around every corner. Further, the Millennials graduate with high levels of student debt – the Sixties Generation had virtually none. On top of that, the Millennials carry a far higher proportion of public debt than the Sixties Generation carried in 1979.  While the Sixties Generation was characterized by their disparagement of living a life devoted to wealth accumulation, while almost half of all Baby Boomers switched that around and held wealth in high esteem, three-quarters of Millennials have turned wealth accumulation into a lofty virtue.

The most noted characteristic of Millennials is the general disinterest in politics, an activity that consumed the minds and imagination of the political leaders of the Sixties Generation. However, one of the ironies of this cohort is that while probes indicate that they are fatalistic about the world that they were born into ending in climate catastrophe, unlike the Sixties Generation, which made its prime goal ridding the world of nuclear testing and racial injustice, the Millennials despair about correcting the momentum moving the world towards disaster even while they make sporadic efforts to halt the momentum. However, in practice, most evince far less interest in engaging in environmental cleanup programs. So the small focus group I held in Victoria saw themselves as exceptions, committed to the environment, but somehow, though very sympathetic and empathetic, not committed to doing anything about the refugee crisis. Not one person in the three focus groups I ran seemed to be caught up in the current refugee crisis while showing every evidence of sympathy towards the refugees.

They were not selfish, hence I dislike the term Me Generation. They were very loyal and committed to helping members of their own cohort of friends. In some sense, they were more like a clan than individuals who populated the Sixties who were so busy breaking away from what they experienced as clannish suffocation that they had no time and interest in forming new ones. By contrast, Millennials love and remain far more attached to their helicopter parents who hovered overhead and overprotected them as they grew up. Further, instead of throwing off the social and cultural capital they inherited as the Sixties Generation did, treating most of the sophisticated artistic production esteemed by the older generation like the cargo of tea in Boston Harbour in 1774, the Millennials sometimes seem to love the cultural capital they inherited even more than their contemporary music and art.

However, they have thin skins. Criticism is regarded as negativity when they want and expect positive vibes. Further, while they carry far greater economic burdens, they do so with a sense of entitlement while the Sixties Generation experienced that beneficence but without any expectations. However, on other measures the generations are remarkably similar – wanting status and recognition, security and pleasure in their lives. Millennials have come to take for granted as givens the liberal values for which the Sixties Generation fought.

While the Sixties Generation never experienced a single major depression until they were mature adults, Millennials began with the very serious recession that contaminated the early eighties. They directly experienced the much more serious recession from 1989-1994 that struck Canada so unusually hard, but escaped the worst of the 2007 Great Recession which only sideswiped Canada.  But the astronomical cost of housing and the debt they carried when they graduated has meant most cannot expect to purchase a home without parental assistance. The dream of their generation being better off than the one before has disappeared into thin air. Thus, they live with their parents for a longer period and generally have postponed the rites of passage into maturity and responsibility much longer – marriage and children for example. For they are determined to succeed in those areas and avoid the large divorce rate of the previous two generations. After all, the Sixties entered adulthood in which divorce in their parents’ generation was a rarity.

So with all these overhangs and anxieties, why would and how could anyone expect the Millennials to launch an Operation Lifeline for Syrian refugees. They bleed no less for them than the Sixties Generation, but do not feel they can afford to donate a pint of blood to the cause. Further, since far fewer attend and have affiliations with religious institutions, they lack the regularity of their churches and synagogues guiding them in their humanitarian work. Yet they volunteer more and dedicate more personal time to areas of their concern.

That is why a sponsorship model that largely removes the economic burden is preferable. When economic costs are covered by employers ready to help, this can provide a boost and enhancement so essential to a new private sponsorship model. Further, if the Sixties generation pioneered networking as a form of organization, the Millennials have mastered the techniques in their teens. They are all digital kids wired to each other through cell phones and computers like no cohort that preceded them. They are the Facebook and Twitter generation.

For a generation that feels so comfortable with the idea and expectation of responsible government, that expects as a matter of course a society governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of men, that believes that no matter how rich you are or even how poor, the middle class is the proper norm for all, for a generation that believes in pragmatism, but without a built-in set of charitable institutional practices – after all, the founders of Operation Lifeline refused by and large to institutionalize what they had created – the Millennials respond to the immediate rather than inherit deeply inculcated institutional practices. While the news of the waves of refugees in leaky boats assaulted the sensibilities of the Sixties Generation so unacquainted with an immediate connection to disasters, the Millennials are assaulted from all sides from diverse areas of the world with disaster after disaster, natural and created by humans. They accept it as an inevitable part of life rather than an exception while they get on with carrying their debts, fearing they will never have a home of their own, burdened, not just by their own personal insecurities, but by a very deep sense that climate change will destroy the world which they have inherited. More importantly, the little they do – sorting garbage or cleaning up beaches and ravines – is just far too little and far too late. Outwardly positive, inwardly they are very profound existential pessimists.

As much as I will try, as much as I may pray for it to happen, Operation Lifeline was an experience of giving belonging to its place and time and unlikely to be repeated any time soon in the same manner. But variations may. Who knows? Perhaps I am the existential pessimist, not the Millennials. In any case, the chance may only be 10%, but the effort is both necessary and beneficial.

Dancing Arabs

Dancing Arabs


Howard Adelman

[I will wrap up my series on Indochinese refugees tomorrow morning, but this morning I just had to write a review of the movie I saw yesterday.]

In the 1986 or 1987 when I first met the late Ralph (Rafi) Amram, a pedagogue and educationalist from Israel, and listened to his idea of founding “the best residential school in the world” in Jerusalem which would take in the most promising mathematical and musical talent in the country, I thought that this heavy-set man, a bit younger than myself at the time, was both “mad” in the good sense and the most enthusiastic enthusiast for a cause that I had ever met. He was then heading the Society for Excellence through Education and was determined to found what I believe was then called and continues to be known as (its title in the movie under review) The Israel Arts and Science Academy but formally as The Israel Academy of Arts, Sciences and the Humanities. He would soon convince the Asher family of Chicago to back his dream and was traveling across North America raising funds for the school.

From the first, Rafi was determined to found a school that would not be an educational institution for an elite of nerds cut off from society, but would build into its curriculum a requirement that each student dedicate a number of hours per week back to the community (I recall it as being 10 hours, but it may have only been 4 hours per week and the figure became exaggerated through my faulty memory), but which certainly compares very favourably to the 20 hours during all of high school for students in Ontario. From most of the students I have known going through this community program in Canada, the 20 hour requirement did not infuse the students with a sense of an obligation, indeed an eagerness, to give back to the community, but, rather, a sense of how can I skip over this hurdle with the least hassle possible. In contrast, the program of the Academy would be and has been different in the sense that dedication to contributing to the community and to the principle of mending the world (in Hebrew, tikkun olam) would be and has been part of the core curriculum.

Thus, community service was to be one of the four core principles on which the school was built in addition to a major stress on mathematics and music, and would also include a solid ethical foundation, the fostering of independent and critical thinking, and, most of all, a sense of curiosity and exploration to emphasize learning as a lifelong voyage of discovery. The physical facility would be specifically designed with that in mind to provide places all around the school for students to interact in informal settings.

I do not recall Rafi ever dreaming of the school having a sports and physical fitness program, but it does now, but one oriented to personal health and well-being rather than competitive team sports. It also has a visual arts and phenomenal science program. Though Rafi’s dream was to provide a model that would feed into the rest of education in Israel, I do not believe he imagined, at least as he articulated his vision to me, the extensive way in which the school has developed its outreach and enrichment programs to other schools around the country, or that it would serve to provide curricular hubs for schools around the world dedicated to achieving excellence.

Can you imagine a high school that would offer this June the Annual Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture on a topic such as, “Can the Navier-Stokes Equation Blow Up in Finite Time?” by Prof. Terence Tao, the Fields Medalist for 2006? Last year, the school held a collaborative symposium on, “Big Data and the Future of Research in the Digital Age,” between the Israel Young Academy and the German Young Academy.

In Rafi’s vision, the school would be operated on a systematic program of measuring progress, providing feedback to both teachers and students on their development to encourage excellence as the only standard so that students as well as teachers become the means for initiating change and improvements. Student selection would be based on merit alone, but the school would be committed to providing the best education for young students of high school age from every community in Israel, Jewish and Arab, secular and religious, students coming from development towns with poor schooling and students coming from the best primary schools in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Although students would be selected on the basis of merit alone, with a significant outreach, the school would be a residential school offering its young students enough financial aid as needed to assure the pupils could attend the school without placing an immediate financial burden on their families.

The excellence and range of the school is reflected in its Board of Directors. As a signal of both excellence and the balance between recognition of public service, research and business donors, the current Board of the school includes luminaries from government — Moshe Arad, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and Dan Meridor, a Likudnik and Cabinet Minister whom I met in 1982 and gave me an introduction to the head of the IDF in order to get permission to enter Lebanon and study the people displaced by the Israeli invasion, Ayala Procaccia, a former Israeli Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. The academic world is represented by David Harman, former president of Hebrew University, Zehev Tadmor from the US-Israel Science & Technology Foundation, Hanoch Gutfreund, a physicist and author of The Road to Relativity. Businessmen include Nissim Bar–El, a high-tech and security expert, Ze’ev Drori, an Israeli-born American technology entrepreneur, and Eran Shir, co-founder and CTO of Dapper, one of the most prominent angel investors in Israel. Last, but in the cliché not least, the academic and social activist, Nava Ben-Zvi who serves as chair of the Board and who is the first recipient of the University of Florida’s Global Leadership Award for her scholarship and work on behalf of disadvantaged women.

I became involved with the school in two ways. First, Rafi invited me along with seven internationally-known philosophers from around the world, to spend a week in Oxford University around Sir Isaiah Berlin designing the humanities curriculum for the school. For though the school was destined to be renowned for its music and mathematics program, Rafi wanted the school also to have the best humanities program.  Many of the group invited, such as Avishai Margalit, who had been a colleague at Hebrew University when I was a Lady Davis visiting professor there in 1977-78, who won the 2007 one million dollar Emet Prize for Philosophy, and is now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, were former students of Isaiah Berlin. I, and for that matter, Avishai’s late wife, Edna, also a colleague at Hebrew University, had not been Isaiah’s students. The Marxist expert and theorist (Karl Marx’s Theory of History), Professor Jerry Cohen, originally from Montreal and McGill, at the time Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford, but subsequently the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College, London, and, more importantly, the best stand-up comic I have ever met, kept us in stitches with superb imitations of Isaiah’s mannerisms and unique way of speaking English. I still have a framed picture of the nine of us on my shelf; unfortunately, five of the nine, including Rafi, the first one to die, Gerry and Edna have passed away.

I do not know to what extent the school adheres to the original humanities curriculum that we drew up at the time, but hopefully what we prepared was a direction and a standard and not a set of vice grips. When I looked on line this morning, the humanities curriculum was still based on a great books program emphasizing primary sources that would make most universities envious. It still had the requirement of mastery of a second language and the insistence that students write a dissertation before graduating.

My second involvement came when I produced and hosted the television program, Israel Today, and we made one program in Israel focused on the school, its physical and pedagogical architecture and specifically, the inclusion of Arabs and Jews in the same school — as well as the superb educational program offered. The school which got off the ground in 1990 and at which Sayed Kashua, the author of both the novel and the screenplay of the film under review, must have been an early student. When we did the program, the school had by then been operating for fifteen years. I write this because the Academy is as important as most of the supporting characters in the movie.

My son, Jeremy, worked for a year on Kibbutz Gesher. Gesher in Hebrew means bridge. One anagram of the word, regesh, means emotion and sensitivity. The most important virtue of the school, in addition to fostering intellectual and artistic excellence, is its emphasis on both regesh and gesher, serving as a bridge between different worlds. In the film, A Borrowed Identity, the movie with the original title of Dancing Arabs under which it is being promoted in Toronto, a movie directed by the Israeli-Arab director, Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride) and financed by The Israel Film Fund, The Jerusalem Film & TV Fund and the Israel Lottery Council for Culture & Arts, Eyad is an Israeli-Palestinian from the small Arab town of Tira. (The town scenes were actually shot in Kafr Qasim; I recognized the town for we had once had a program for Israel Today set there.) Eyad is the central protagonist, though to adumbrate the course of the movie, Naomi, played again with terrific panache by Danielle Kitsis, his eventual Jewish girlfriend at the school, teases him for allowing the Jewish students to call him Ayid, a Jewish Israeli name with the ironic meaning in the diaspora of a yid. In both the semi-autobiographical novel and the screenplay, Eyad is a both a brilliant mathematician as well as a very sensitive and affectionate child well before he earns a scholarship to The Academy which is portrayed as fostering and reinforcing both that intellect and sensitivity.

In one scene after Eyad has clearly been at the school for a few years, reluctantly when the teacher insists, he offers an in-depth stellar critique of the portrayal of Arabs in the novels of most of the greats of Israeli literature, including the famous very progressive advocate of peace, Amos Oz. The analysis took less than two minutes. The segment is amazing, but even more amazing is the reaction of his fellow Jewish students who acknowledge Eyad’s performance as itself amazing. Though the students laugh inappropriately when he first arrives at the school, for his mis-pronunciation of Hebrew, always substituting “B” for “P” as Israel Arabs tend to do, and which is used earlier as the key clue Eyad unravels to allow his family to win a local TV quiz contest in his home village when he was a young child, the expression of discrimination and intolerance is characteristic of youth and extremely mild. The school is actually portrayed as the epitome of tolerance – except when it comes to a love affair between a Jewish girl and an Arab.

Razi Gabareen, who plays Eyad as a young boy, and Tawfeek Barhom, who plays him as a young man, are both terrific in their parts and totally convincing that they are playing the same person who becomes even more introspective as he matures, though always retaining a delightful sense of humour and a wry smile.  The movie is not primarily about a brilliant scientist who happens to have a personal and emotional life, but almost entirely about that emotional life. It is a love story, a tale of strained love between the boy and his father, Salah, again played superbly by Ali Suliman. Salah both pushes Eyad to accepting the scholarship to the best school in Israel and towards realizing his father’s dream when he attended Hebrew University, for his career was aborted when he was charged with being a “terrorist” and was and certainly remained an anti-Israeli activist. The father clearly hates Israel and hoped Saddam Hussein would kill the Jews with his missiles in the opening of the Iraqi War, at the same time as he recognizes the achievements of Israeli schools and academia.

The movie is a love story between Eyad and his parents, and between Eyad’s father and mother. She is devoted to her supportive husband, but proves herself the real subversive when the father tries to transmit his radical ideology to his children. Her rich inner and outer life is only hinted at. Even more slighted is the affection between Eyad and his two older brothers. It is a story of Eyad’s deepest love for his grandmother for whom he is clearly the favourite child. And it would be almost impossible not to adore him with his combination of intellectual brilliance and sensitivity, his compassion and concern for others, yet his dispassionate view of both the excesses of both his own Arab world and the Israeli world of anti-Arab haters. This attitude permeates the film and is not restricted to the scene when he is insulted at a bus stop by a group of Israeli Jewish teenagers, but in one scene there is the equivalent of an anti-Semitic sticker, but one directed at Arabs, on the side of a telephone booth.

The love story continues when he is a teenager and attends the Academy, but leaves behind the humour and the intimacy when he lived with his family in Tira. That sensitivity and compassion emerges not so much in the school as when he gives his hours dedicated to community service to taking care of and being a companion to a young Jewish boy with muscular dystrophy. After a rough initial start, they not only become the best of friends, but Yonatan, played by Michael Moshonov, introduces Eyad to the world of popular music and to a very black and wicked sense of humour. Yonatan also teaches Eyad that dissing and put downs can be forms of a self-critical and ironic teasing form of humour. The tale is also the love story of Yonaton’s single mother, Edna, played by the exquisitely beautiful Yaēel Abecassis, a secular Jew and a lawyer, for Eyad becomes like a second son, though a few of my friends who attended the movie with me yesterday thought there was a strong note of sexuality suggested in the relationship. I did not.

In school, the central love of his life (and reciprocally for her) is a bubbly outgoing and clearly also very intelligent Jewish classmate, Naomi. However, although this Romeo and Juliet love story forms the central plot, the real theme of the movie is not primarily about love but about shape-shifting, about how identity is changed by context, by challenges and by introspection and by a series of small decisions. The motif of an identity shift is at the core of the movie against the volatile background of Jewish-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle East. Eyad’s shifts in identity from a son of a fiery Arab nationalist (in the novel, the grandfather was killed fighting Jews in the War of Independence) of whom he is very proud but also blissfully ignorant – there is a hilarious scene when a Jewish Israeli is hosted in Eyad’s home as an exercise in coexistence and mutual understanding  – to someone who learns to speak Hebrew like a Jewish Israeli, to someone who passes as a Jewish Israeli to earn more money as a waiter rather than as a dishwasher in the back kitchen, to – I will not say anything more.

The film has many flaws, including the absence of any other friends or family of Yonatan and his mother Edna that becomes glaring at the highly implausible film ending. The flaws that bothered me, however, were petty and irrelevant. Why was he the only Arab shown in a school which exerts enormous efforts to enrol Arab students? I never saw one of the students wearing a kippa – one of my friends assured me he saw one – when the school also tries to enrol religious Jews. Nevertheless, though far from the greatest film, it is an excellent one and well worth seeing.