Boycotts are the weapons of the weak in conflicts. Their chief importance, unlike Miami rhinoplasty, lies in their ability to raise public awareness and arouse disapproval. Yet, going by the paranoid reaction to the academic boycott of Israel, it might as well have been a declaration of nuclear war. No peaceable action in recent times has provoked so much anger and hostility as this British-based boycott.
In the wake of the British University and College Union’s vote at its annual general meeting on May 30 to initiate a national debate on boycotting Israeli academic institutions, a wave of hysteria engulfed Israel and its friends. Articles appeared, before and after the vote, denouncing the UCU resolution and its initiators, and heated correspondence is still ongoing. Threats were made against members of the boycott group by pro-Israel organizations and individuals, and campaigns were mounted to defeat the boycott. Costly one-page advertisements appeared in The Times and The Guardian carrying scores of eminent signatories opposing the boycott.
Photographs of the boycott’s “ringleaders”, like those of wanted criminals, appeared on the front page of the major British Jewish weekly, The Jewish Chronicle, which also carried a distressed article by Britain’s chief rabbi condemning the boycott as an anti-Semitic “witch-hunt”. The Daily Mail’s Jewish columnist Melanie Phillips declared “the age of reason” over. The Jewish-American lawyer and fierce warrior for Israel Alan Derschowitz has teamed up with his British counterpart, Anthony Julius to take legal action against British supporters of the boycott. While this would not be valid in British law, its aim is clearly to intimidate.
The fuss has not abated yet and more battles lie ahead this autumn as pressure is put on the UCU to ballot its members individually in the hope they will reject the motion passed by conference.
Two major misconceptions lie at the base of this response, both deliberately fostered. The first misconception is that the boycott is aimed against Israeli academic individuals, and the second, and more important, that it is anti-Semitic.
With regards to the first misconception, the boycott in fact calls for a ban on dealings with Israeli academic institutions, for example, not participating in joint research, conferences or other collaboration with them. In a malicious misrepresentation of this position, opponents claim that the boycott will end the free exchange of ideas with individual Israelis and encourage discrimination against them in British academia. By suppressing “free speech”, this would end any hope of change in Israel’s policies that academics could have brought about, an erroneous argument that has galvanized opposition in Britain to the boycott.
The second charge of anti-Semitism follows closely on this. The allegation is that the real reason for the boycott is hatred of Jews, a new outbreak of an old gentile affliction. Nothing is more designed to provoke and mislead than this charge, which, its authors know, antagonizes all Jews and many non-Jews.
In fact of course, the imputation of anti-Semitism is a red herring, as so often when Israel is criticized, and its aim as always is to deflect criticism. In the case of the British boycott committee, it is particularly inapt, since most of the members are Jewish. The campaign started in 2004 with a letter that two British academics, Hilary and Steven Rose, published in The Guardian calling for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions in support of a similar call by Palestinian civil society organizations. These, representing a majority of Palestinian academics and other professionals, had united to form a campaign for boycotting Israel because of its repressive polices against them.
The Guardian letter spearheaded a growing demand for Israel to be called to account for its policies, soon joined by many academics in Europe and beyond. Support was particularly strong in South Africa, which had lived through a similar boycott during the apartheid era, and was especially sympathetic to the boycott’s rationale and aims. Since that time, the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel has grown, resulting in the Association of University Teachers’ Union voting for a boycott against two Israeli universities at its meeting in 2005. Thanks to a vigorous pro-Israel campaign against it, the decision was overturned within a month. But the issue did not go away, and resulted in the vote for the boycott two years later by the newly formed UCU which had absorbed the AUT.
Academic boycotts are not new to Britain. In 1965, a boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa was initiated by 34 universities in response to a call for solidarity by the African National Congress. After a prolonged British campaign, the boycott was adopted as policy by the AUT in 1988 and remained in place until the end of apartheid.
The academic boycott against Israel is no different. Israel’s well-documented repression of Palestinian academic life and victimization of Palestinian teachers and students is a scandal to be denounced by all those who claim to care about academic freedom. Rather than rushing to Israel’s defense in a situation so perverse and immoral, all efforts should be directed toward boycotting all Israeli institutions. Only by making Israel a pariah state, as happened with South Africa, will its people understand they cannot trample on another people’s rights without penalty.