A week ago a story broke – RMS would not be talking at Israeli universities while in Israel, since the sponsors of his visit in the West Bank (soon to be a democratic Palestine inshallah) are adamant about this boycott. The odd thing is that the University of Haifa is the Alma Mater of many Arabs, some told me that maybe most of the students currently enrolled are non-Jews. It's also a pretty petty demand that he is allowed to speak in Israel but not in a university building. It made absolutely no sense to me.
Some people offered to share the costs of take on the sponsorship altogether, but as this idea didn't come from RMS, there were many on HaMakor's mailing list who preferred to interpret his original reply as a hint of support of the BDS movement, who asks people not only to boycott Israel financially, but also academically.
I have written RMS to get his unfiltered remarks on the uproar:
"What I said in my message is the story. There is nothing else except some details. Palestinians invited me and offered to buy my tickets. When they saw I had offered to give talks at Israeli universities, they said they would not support it."
When you refer to your Palestinian hosts who dictated this ban on talks in Israel, is this an independent group, or part of the PA?
"I didn't ask. They asked me to come and give some talks about free software at universities in the West Bank, and I was glad to accept. I also looked forward to the opportunity to see friends and relatives in Israel and to give talks there. So I set up several tasks, not realising that universities as venues would create a conflict.
The Palestinians did not convince me it is wrong to give a speech about freedom issues in a hall of an Israeli university, but I see no reason to go to the wire to do talks in Israel in universities. I have one planned talk in Israel which is not at a university, and we could set up more."
Israelis produce many (if not the most) patches for right-to-left support in FS projects, and have been known to happily collaborate with developers in Iran and Arab countries. Could you and would you use this to build a narrative for the aid of para-political collaborations?
"I would love to do that. I tried to encourage such cooperation in my previous visit too, but I don't think it got very far."
Could you help the readers understand what led to this decision? Is is that your Palestinian hosts "were there first" or are the subjects of your talks there more important for your agendas? In a other words, what caused the sudden attack of pragmatism in the man who quipped that ideology is the best tool to achieve change?
"That contrast is only apparent. The free software movement is a campaign for freedom and community. That's a goal based on principle.
I wouldn't normally call that "ideology", since that word carries negative spin, and tends to imply a broad stand that applies to all aspects of life rather than a specific stand on a specific issue.
I've always been pragmatic about achieving this goal. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/pragmatic.html, which I wrote at least 20 years ago. Part of being pragmatic about achieving a goal of social change is talking about the goal so we don't forget it.
I personally had hoped that your talks in Israel would have some political edge to them. I have heard too many times people calling your views Anti-Israeli where I correct them each time that you are, like most of us on the Israeli left, fighting against the oppression and denial of liberty.The Palestinians are oppressed both by the Hammas and by Israel, and the PA is far from being clean of corruption.
"That is true, but of these oppressions the occupation is clearly the worst. The PA is corrupt, but it held an honest election which handed power to a different party, and that's the first milestone of a democracy. I would hate to live in a country ruled by Hamas, but the Republican Party is pushing hard to rival it and the Democratic Party follows behind on the same route. If we let Palestinian democracy develop, I think it would adopt democratic and liberal ideals from the Egyptians."
I must admit though, that my defence of your choices has been severely discredited once this item was published:
I don't advocate a blanket boycott of Israeli universities. (If I did, I would not have offered in the first place to give speeches in them.) But I am not going to campaign against it either.
I myself haven't picked sides on the economic boycott actions of BDS, I can see why it's actually legitimate and maybe even effective, but an academic boycott goes against my beliefs, and frankly I was quite disappointed you took such an ambiguous stand on the matter.
"I am surprised it had that effect, since I said I do not advocate the boycott. But what can you do?"
Well, be unambiguous. Take a clear stand against academic boycotts and refusal to communicate between thinking people. This boycott on the University of Haifa is especially odd since a lot of the students there, possibly even the majority, are Arabs.
"That is not what my views are. As I've said, I do not advocate the boycott but I am not going to campaign against it either. I decided to follow the policy of the organisers of the trip.
I hope to give a talk at another venue in Haifa and speak to the same people."
I can not really see a perfect way out of this at the moment. If your first response would have been to go against the boycott and ask the Israelis to try and fund the trip instead (and still visit the west bank), it would have been the perfect course of action – win-win for all but the perpetrators of the boycott. But now I'm not sure if it is not too late. Since the idea for asking for unconditional funding did not come from you on that first letter to Mr. Aronovich, people interpreted it for the worse and decided you have chosen to take a side in favour of the boycott, which was in turn seen as breaking away from your principles, etc.
"Quite the contrary. I am doing my best to act on my various principles in a complex situation. I think that they may have taken some of my real principles and reinterpreted them in a way that doesn't come from me."
After this email exchange, RMS' latest letter to Eddie had reached the paper, the original Email read thus:
I don't advocate a blanket boycott of Israeli universities, but I am not going to campaign against it either. I see where they are coming from: Israel's occupation policies are horrible. Non-violent protests are crushed with persistent brutality. (See http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=221897.)
Palestinians who are against violence are looking desperately for some method of non-violent resistance. I can't blame them for it even if I don't agree entirely with the details. Thus, I decided to follow their policies in the trip they organised.
I wish I had discussed the issue in advance and avoided having to cancel a plan I had agreed to.
I will give at least one talk in Israel, at a non-university venue, and I am hoping more can be arranged.
To me, it is clear that RMS has indeed attempted to make the best of a very problematic situation. He decided to circumvent the boycott without supporting it nor strongly opposing it, because coming here and talking about what's important to him is more important than taking sides on the academic boycott issue. I must confess I am not entirely happy with that myself, and I have advocated the community not to cancel the bookings, but use them instead to invite Palestinians and talk about keeping academic communications free from boycotts and gags, or there really will be no civilised way of keeping open channels of hope for peace and collaboration. I hope this does happen after all. The idea of Freedom of expression and information, including that of knowledge exchange in the shape of free content and software, are in my eyes all facets of the same set of tools and goals.
If people are still disappointed with RMS I can't say I don't understand them. Just remember that the ideas are more important than this persona or the other. The man is not the issue, keep the ideals alive though, if you agree with them.