At last week’s annual conference of the main faculty union in Britain, leaders of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to support a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academics and universities. On a practical level the resolution will not do much to actually impose an effective boycott. Individual faculty members will make up their own minds about what to do, and plenty will continue their ties with Israel, although for a minority seeking to kick Israelis off of panels or journal boards, this resolution will provide the cover they seek. Regardless of the impact, by voting to adopt the resolution, the union has given a substantial political victory to a small group of extreme activists dedicated to the marginalization of Israel, if not for its outright demise. All scholars -- and especially American academics who consider themselves part of a worldwide community of people committed to free expression of ideas – need to take note of exactly what is going on. This is not about protesting some policy of Israel’s government, which occurs intensely in Israel’s vibrant university setting and free press, but something much more invidious.
With a vote of only 158 to 99, the UCU which boasts a membership of approximately 120,000 members may have actually made history by setting the stage for some of the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era. With a fraction of less then 1 percent of its membership participating in the vote, the UCU has set an example for other unions and professional associations to follow suit. It must be understood that the architects of the UCU boycott campaign are not merely concerned with promoting a two- state solution with both Israel and a Palestine state living in peace side by side, thus ending the occupation of the territories seized by Israel in 1967. Rather, its intent is to support a radical marginal movement to begin the process of dismantling Israel.
Subsequently, it is critical that the British academic community understand what is being said in their name, and that the American academic community be aware of what is going on at universities that have close ties to our institutions. This is especially true since scholarship is intended to be based on an honest search for truth which examines all sides of a given issue and context. The fact that the UCU voted to reject this basic premise and boycott Israeli scholars and academic institutions goes against the very nature of real scholarship. The UCU decision is based on a one-sided view of the Middle East conflict. It undermines academic freedom and sets different standards for people based on their origin rather than on their scholarship or ideas. All Israeli professors are being punished by British scholars, regardless of their views. Not only does the boycott single out Israelis, it also raises concern about the implications this resolution will have on Jewish students and faculty at universities throughout Britain. How will the campus atmosphere be affected, an issue identified by the All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism commissioned by the Blair Government in 2006, as an area of concern.
Why are the architects of the UCU boycott movement focused so determinedly only on Israel? Why was there no UCU resolution on the manner in which the British military is conducting itself in Basra, Iraq? Why was there never a resolution on Srebrenica where more Muslims were massacred in a given week then has been killed during the 40 years of the Arab-Israel conflict? How about Chechnya, where Russia carpet bombed civilian areas and massacred tens of thousands if not more? How about Darfur, where there is agreement that there is an on going genocide at this very moment, in which hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and the killing reportedly appears to be accelerating. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the estimates are that three to four million have been killed. Why single out Israel? Why has Israel become the incarnation of evil, of colonialism and even apartheid? Why are there not calls for the boycotting of the Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon or Saudi Arabia where the levels of the repression of woman boggles the mind. How about issues of human rights violations by China and Syria? What about questions of citizenship of migrants to Europe? Do these issues not warrant any UCU consideration? I dare not even question why the deliberate and regular shelling of Sapir College in Sderot, well inside the green line, from Gaza which Israel withdrew and no longer occupies has not been condemned by the UCU? My point is not to suggest that British professors or others broaden boycotts to colleges all over the world. Rather, one has to consider if standards are applied in any sort of consistent way – and when they are not, as is evident in this case, one can not avoid questioning what the real motives are.
Many in the anti-Israel campaign compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, where boycotts helped to bring about change. However, it is important to remember that apartheid was a legal system designed to exclude the vast majority of its inhabitants from basic rights, citizenship, membership and participation in institutions of its society based on racial categories. The purpose of the anti-apartheid movement was to enfranchise its citizens based on a Freedom Charter which guaranteed equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, not to destroy or dismantle South Africa. Israel is a democracy under the rule of law, all of its citizens vote and enjoy enfranchisement, while the Knesset has representation for all sectors of society, including all of its minorities. I do not remember any individual member, let alone organization, of the mainstream anti-apartheid movement calling for genocide or advocating the recruitment to massacre as many civilians as possible, an accepted and advocated principle of the leading member of the Palestinian Authority Government Hamas, and other organizations within the Palestinian political spectrum, in which the UCU resolution becomes an enabler of sorts. None of this is to say that the Palestinians do not have real grievances, however, there ought to be a more nuanced view of the conflict.
It is particularly incredible that some are attempting to de-legitimize Israel, the only democracy in the region, while a significant radical social movement, Hamas, gains strength that is anti-Enlightenment, genocidal in its anti-Semitism, not to mention anti-democratic, sexist and homophobic, and in fact governs Israel’s neighboring Palestinian Authority. Can one imagine an academic group in any other circumstance lending support to those who would send basic human rights backwards in the support of reactionary forces? Those who call for the marginalization of the State of Israel or for its demise are also enablers for those reactionary forces that not only threaten liberal democratic forces in the Middle East, women and minority rights, but all that the UCU perceive itself to support and stand for.
It is becoming evident that those engaged in the attempt to marginalized and criminalize Israel do so in a manner that defies their own logic and values. For the first time in Europe’s post-World War Two era, the rhetoric of what was once on the fridges of the political spectrum has now entered into the mainstream of political and academic discourse. It is incumbent upon all members of the UCU and the academic community generally, to stand up to the resurgence of this oldest of hatred. The passing of the UCU resolution could mark the beginning of a new era of virulent anti-Semitism. We ought to be mindful that under the Nazi regime, also elected, that the universities were the first institutions in society to discriminate against Jewish people. If we learned anything from this tragic history we know that double standards and the deligitimitzation of an entire group must be confronted -- even at the level of resolutions and boycotts -- and is contrary to notions of education.
Charles Small is director of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Previously, he has taught at universities in both Britain and Israel.