Ronald R. Stockton
Then there was a Web site to "watch" named professors and to solicit reports about them from students. Finally, there was a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education using the word anti-Semitic to describe one of our colleagues who favors a university boycott of Israeli investments. I do not favor either an academic boycott or university divestment from companies that operate in Israel, but reflecting upon the fact that honorable people suggesting such things are being described in the harshest ad hominem terms, I couldn't help but think back to my days as a terrorist, by definition.
It was in the early 1980s when I violated the academic boycott of South Africa by spending part of my sabbatical in that beautiful but troubled land. I mostly interviewed professors and government officials, but even in a place where the opposition was in exile or under arrest, it was common to encounter opponents of the regime. One revealing conversation was with a civil rights attorney whose client was in prison for organizing a neighborhood protest. The issue was a zoning change that would have forced Black people to move. The protest was non-violent but the regime was not about to allow several hundred Black people to hold such an event.
While there is not much that a Xhosa factory worker and an American professor have in common, that incident touched me personally. As the president of my neighborhood association I once led 100 of my neighbors in an appearance before our Zoning Board. We were not being displaced, but we thought our property values would go down if a proposed change went through. I was the voice of reason at that meeting, but I have to admit that a few folks in the back row were somewhat intemperate in what they shouted at the commissioners. One even made a hostile ethnic comment, much to the embarrassment of the others.
In Johannesburg, talking to that attorney, I realized that if I were a Black South African, peaceful or not, I would have been arrested for organizing my neighborhood protest. Never mind that back home the chair of the Zoning Board thanked us for our good citizenship or that the board ruled in our favor. After all, my neighbors and I were white. Under the ethnic regime that governed South Africa, protests by Black people were not permissible, and their leader had been arrested and given a long sentence.
Since it is governments that define terrorism, he was a terrorist by definition, which under the laws of the apartheid state included those who created tension between the races. In the quirky logic of that day, creating tension between the races included pointing out that government policy was discriminatory. To the South African security forces, those protestors might as well have been throwing bombs. It all came down to the same thing. As I spoke to that attorney, I was no more than a white professor on sabbatical who happened to head his neighborhood association, but psychologically and legally I was well on the road to what South African law saw as terrorism.
When I got back home, I linked up with an organization called the International Defense and Aid Fund (IDAF). It was a London-based group of white liberals and Black activists with three primary goals: to provide legal advice to those caught up in the apartheid-era security apparatus, to provide assistance for the families of those in exile or in prison, and to provide accurate information on the South African situation. What I did not realize until a decade later was that the IDAF's mother organization, the Defense and Aid Fund, had been banned under South Africa's Terrorism Laws. The overseas affiliate had survived and now I was not only a member but also on the Detroit-area governing board. I am not sure if being on that board made me a terrorist kingpin, but by definition it made me a member of a terrorist-support organization. In South Africa I would have been arrested and labeled as such in the announcement of my detention. Words are more than words when the security forces of a state are involved.
Over the next decade, my role in the South African struggle was marginal at best. As someone with a strong aversion to violence and an equally strong commitment to negotiated settlements of ethnic wars, I saw my role as an outgrowth of my professional training. I taught a class on South African politics, delivered public talks, was interviewed from time to time by the media, and once spoke to our regents in favor of divestment (at the time they were opposed; later they changed their minds).
When people asked why I was doing these things, I had a quick answer: I was doing what a good citizen should do. I was speaking up for social justice, for non-racial government, for majority rule and for the integrity of my University, which I thought was entangling itself in a system whose policies were antithetical to its values. Our most outspoken regents challenged me on this, saying that our investments were changing the system from within and were preventing the rise of a communist government.
I didn't buy it. I remembered too well a meeting with a prominent Christian leader in Johannesburg, whom I expected to greet me as an ally. He told me the Americans were propping up the South African regime, that even being in South Africa on my sabbatical was an embrace of the system and that being affiliated with a major university made me a part of the problem. It was a very disturbing conversation, one that shattered some illusions.
But back to the goals of the IDAF. Let's be honest. We knew what we wanted: We wanted Nelson Mandela released from prison; a free, majority-rule election in South Africa; and the replacement of that ethnic regime with a new political system. The white Afrikaner government of South Africa was correct to view us as people who wanted to sweep them from the pages of history. We believedperhaps naivelythat there would be no end to violence in that land and no peace for either whites or Blacks until there was a change in regime.
Most Afrikaners believed equally firmly that if there were majority rule, their time in their homeland would be limited. They shuddered at the thought that someday their statetheir shield from barbarism and murdermight be weakened or even gone. Their most charitable interpretation of people like us was that we were dangerously ill-informed fellow travelers who functioned as apologists for extremist groups that cleverly concealed their true motives. After all, no one could deny that African National Congress guerrillas had engaged in acts of violence against innocent individuals. If terrorism is an action that strikes fear in the heart of a population (a standard part of U.S. government definitions), then I was a terrorist, in effect if not intent, and the IDAF was a part of an international terrorist infrastructure.
Today, almost everyone agrees, at least in public, on what the IDAF supported. But in those dayswhen the American government and other powerful groups were playing footsie with the South African regimeit was not quite so obvious that everyone was secretly behind Nelson Mandela, and it was not quite so easy to take the positions we took. We knew that elements of the media and at least one of our regents were linked to that regime in various ways, and we knew that some of us were being monitored. (The detailsnames and organizations, including the owner of a local Michigan newspaper chainwere later made public during Pretoria's so-called Muldergate Scandal). As a young, just-tenured professor I was very grateful for the words of my chancellor, who told me I was free to take whatever position I wanted on these issues, even if he did not agree with me, and that he would support my right to speak.
To me, the cases of South Africa and Israel are quite different. As I said earlier, I do not support either academic boycotts or divestment in the Israeli case. Nor do I deny that among those who do there are surely individuals whose views are what Summers describes as "profoundly anti-Israeli." But if someone in a crowd shouts a racist epithet, there is no reason to discredit the whole crowd or to respond in kind with a different epithet. When I encounter the promiscuous and inflammatory use of words like terrorist and anti-Semite, especially when targeted at those who oppose Israeli policy, I have a very disturbing sense of déjà vu. And I remember my days as a terrorist, by definition.