Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Israel boycott: update

Here is my Boston Globe column on the move by British educators and Canadian public employees to boycott Israeli institutions.

IN THE 1980s, there was a concerted movement to make South Africa a pariah state because of its policy of racial apartheid. Today, a similar effort is directed at the state of Israel. A week ago, the anti-Israel campaign achieved two significant victories. Britain's National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, one of the country's two leading educators' associations, voted for a boycott of Israeli academics and colleges unless they take a stand against Israel's "apartheid policy." On the same day, the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the largest labor union in Canada, voted for a boycott of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

The British Foreign Office condemned the teachers' boycott as "counterproductive and retrograde." The reaction from Israel was even stronger. The chairman of the Knesset Committee for Science and Technology, Zevulun Orlev, asked the British parliament to "decry the anti-Semitic and racist decision."

Anti-Semitic or not, the movement to boycott Israel is hypocritical, sanctimonious, and quite simply wrong. It is a shocking example of selective outrage. Yes, Israeli policies are a legitimate target for criticism, and even most of Israel's supporters will admit there has been ill-treatment of Palestinians. Yet no one is demanding a boycott of Russian academics over Russia's occupation of Chechnya, and the accompanying atrocities (which dwarf Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories). No one wants to boycott China because of the occupation of Tibet, the persecution of religious minorities, and other abuses by the Chinese regime. No one wants to boycott Saudi Arabia because of its misogyny and religious intolerance.

Partly, this double standard is rooted in the familiar leftist mentality that strenuously condemns bad behavior by Western or pro-Western governments while turning a blind eye to the far worse misdeeds of communist and Third World regimes. But the movement to boycott Israel is especially repulsive for several reasons.

Apartheid-era South Africa, whose pariah status also reflected a double standard, was at least a truly repugnant regime intent on preserving white supremacy. Israel is a flawed democracy intent on preserving itself in the face of forces intent on its destruction.

What's more, the anti-Israel boycott combines this anti-Western, anti-democracy bias with an element of "picking on the little guy." The British professors and the Canadian public employees are not boycotting American institutions because of the occupation of Iraq. Obviously, such a boycott would cripple any institution's ability to function. But lashing out at Israel as a proxy for America is something that can be done with minimal inconvenience.

Nor should anti-Semitism be discounted. British scholar Mona Baker, a leading champion of the boycott, has written that while other countries are guilty of abuses, singling out Israel is appropriate because "Zionist influence [that is, Israeli influence] spreads far beyond its own immediate areas of dominion, and now widely influences many key domestic agendas in the West. . . This is particularly obvious in the case of the United States, where Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media." An international Jewish conspiracy: a sadly familiar tune.

Maybe American institutions should consider responding to such anti-Israel boycotts with their own boycotts. So far, the American Federation of Teachers has sent a letter to Britain's National Association of Teachers strongly condemning the move. The American Association of University Professors, which has generally taken a stand against academic boycotts, has remained quiet. * see clarification below

Jonathan Knight, who directs the American Association's program in academic freedom and tenure, told me that the issue is moot because the British group no longer exists as an independent body. On June 1, it merged with the British Association of University Teachers into a single group, the University and College Union, which is still deciding which policies of the two original organizations it will follow. The British Association of University Teachers previously approved a resolution to boycott Israel's academic institutions, but then rescinded it after an outcry.

Right now, while the decision is being pondered, would be a good time for the American Association to make a strong statement against this boycott. But this raises the issue of just how strongly the US group is committed to the anti-boycott cause. Its planned conference on academic boycotts came under fire for giving eight of the 22 speaking slots to strong supporters of the Israeli boycott -- and then collapsed after the revelation that the conference packet inadvertently included an anti-Semitic article from a Holocaust-denying magazine.

The American Association should now stand up and be counted. A boycott of Israel would be the shame of academe.

Not much to add to this at the moment; but for more of the history of the AAUP conference fiasco, see this article at Inside Higher Ed. See, also, this earlier article, and particularly the comments section for the posts by Joan C. Scott, chair of the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and one of the conference organizers. Scott blames

a carefully orchestrated campaign to abort the conference by a lobby of people (pro-Israel occupation)who believe that any representation of a point of view other than theirs is ananthema (sic)

Here come the tentacles of that Zionist conspiracy again! As one of the other commenters point out:

Joan Scott should say whether she is for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel or not; she should say whether she thinks that Israel has the right to exist within the 1967 borders or not. It shouldn’t be necessary to ask, but these days, it is.

After this fiasco, the AAUP's silence on the British vote becomes more significant, and more depressing.

More: Having re-read my column, I realized that I did not make it clear that the AAUP did issue a statement last year criticizing the AUT's vote endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

However, as I said, the AAUP's subsequent behavior (the handling of the conference on the boycott and the silence on the latest NATFHE vote) does call into question the strength of its commitment to the anti-boycott cause.


Anonymous said...

i will confidently bet the aaup will not formally come out against an academic boycott of israel...why? not because the group is anti-semitic, anti-israel or cowardly but simply because the group doesn't care enough to institutionally confront the issue...

...as we have seen throughout campuses nationwide, the principle of 'academic freedom' has devolved into self-indulgent 'self interest' rather than an interest and concern of academe in general...
this principle of self-interest uber alles is what governs faculty, administrators and regents alike...and since it is difficult to imagine how an israel boycott by british academics will undermine american academic self interest (as they perceive it), it is thus equally difficult to imagine why the aaup will bother to intervene....aaup's attitude will be 'wait & see'...

Duke of DeLand said...

Is there any significance to the fact that the AAUP's initials, when spoken, seem to sound like the proverbial Southern "Aye-Yup"?

The comparison, unfair to true Southerners as a quite undeserved slap, can give quiet substantiation to the apparent single-minded determination by these elitist educators to pursue the liberal/socialist agenda while successfully ignoring facts.


goesh said...

You make some excellant points. How utterly safe and mundane to pick on Israel. Oh the rot of the Left....

Cousin said...

Some Israel critics here have attacked the "hypocricy" claim (i.e., that nobody is boycotting the Arab League for Sudan, Russia, etc.) by arguing that two wrongs don't make a right and these other nations sins don't excuse Israel's.

I realized why that's so offensive. If policemen only ticketed African-American speeders while allowing white drunk drivers to swerve down the highway, that's by far the bigger societal problem. It's offensive to say that taking immediate corrective action against the police is supporting speeding.

Anonymous said...

We have the same problem in the Presbyterian Church USA where our leadership started a divestment process in 2004.

What you wrote, "Anti-Semitic or not, the movement to boycott Israel is hypocritical, sanctimonious, and quite simply wrong. It is a shocking example of selective outrage." also applies to the PCUSA.

There are groups in the PCUSA fighting against the leadership who is pushing the anti-Israel agenda.

Our website is

Daniel in Brookline said...

Cousin's comment is astute. Just as in that example, the perceived human-rights abuses of Israel are insignificant, in severity and in number, to human-rights abuses elsewhere.

(They're also easily debatable, where others are not. We can argue, if you like, about whether long lines at Israeli checkpoints constitute human-rights abuses; but Iraqi mass graves, Sudanese machete-wielding mobs, and widespread starvation in North Korea don't leave much room for argument.)

If someone ignores a hundred large indisputable tragedies per day in one part of the world, but zeroes in on a handful of small debatable misfortunes per day in another, what does that say about a person's priorities?

In re the AAUP: Jews have long been the canaries in the coal mine for Western civilization, and Israel plays a similar role among the nations. If today we can boycott Israeli academics for the policies of their government, tomorrow we can boycott British academics -- or American academics -- who did not speak out strongly enough against the Iraq War.

This is no time for moral cowardice; this is not the time for standing on the sidelines. Academics can support the boycott of Israel or protest it, as they please; but they must not pretend that it won't affect them. It does, and it will.

Daniel in Brookline

Revenant said...

It is times like this when I'm thankful that the academic establishment has little influence on public sentiment or government policy.

Anonymous said...

I'd be tempted to pass an anti-anti-semitism law denying non-U.S. citizens entry into the U.S. if they are members of "Nazi parties, neo-Nazi organizations, or any organization engaged in collective punishment targetted at Jews", with an explanatory clause in the law specifying that these Israel boycotts count as Jew-targetting collective punishments.

It's a bit of a blunt hammer, and would certainly provoke howls of outrage. But then, it would be intended to provoke outrage.

Revenant said...

I'd be tempted to pass an anti-anti-semitism law denying non-U.S. citizens entry into the U.S

I think that would be a horrible idea, both because it would show contempt for freedom of speech and because it would be counterproductive to US interests.

Anonymous said...

As noted by commenter "gr" over on the Volokh blog, the AAUP issued a rejection of the boycott over a year ago:


Anonymous said...

...thus furthering my thesis that any university professor possessing a "degree" in any fuzzy studies does not deserve to be regarded with any more respect that we would give a pimp. Oops, the pimp actually provides a service. Sorry, all you pimps out there. No sorry at all to the jokesters possessing wimpy, mushy, "degrees" in the non-sciences. Babble on...nobody cares except your fellow wimipy, mushy students...and journalists.

Cathy Young said...

Just to clarify:

The AAUP has issued a statement against the boycott a year ago, and has taken a stance against academic boycotts in general. However, it has yet to speak out against this vote.

Anonymous said...

Revenant --

I said I was tempted. Temptations are impulses for resisting, not indulging; they go against your better judgment. That is why they are called temptations, not inspirations.

So, yes, I already said it was a horrible idea.

However, note a boycott is not speech, but an unenumerated right, and membership in a body is not speech, but another unenumerated right. The tendency to name certain unenumerated rights improperly as enumerated rights tends to assist in the denial and disparagment of other unenumerated rights not so easily associated. The result puts the house of liberty in greater peril, as solid timbers are shifted from portions of the roof that are already weakly supported to where the roof already has strong beams.

Anonymous said...

I oppose the Israeli boycott. Israel's human rights violations are nowhere close to severe enought o justify it. Punishing Israeli academics, many or whom have worked hard to minimize the destructive policies of the Israeli gov (settlements, etc.) is especially egregious. Academics from any country should be the last people boycotted, because the free exchange of information is so important to preventing human rights abuses.

Having been in academia for several years, however, I find the charge that there are large numbers of anti-semites laughable, particularly since their are many Jewish academics representing all of the various hues of political opinion.

Finally, one reason that western nations are boycotted is because boycotts might actually have some effect on them because they are in some sense accountable to their citizens who suffer from the boycotts. Castro or the Saudi royal family does not care and cannot be made to care by their subjects.

Bill said...

"The AAUP has issued a statement against the boycott a year ago, and has taken a stance against academic boycotts in general. However, it has yet to speak out against this vote."

Yes they have


As far as AAUP not crying it from the mountaintop now (despite the ADL letter exchange which was pretty darned explict), they may be waiting for UCU to rule on it. The AUT (which slapped it down the last time) along with its "sister" union NATFHE (which pulled the lasted stunt) have just merged to make the UCU and the leadership sees this as a major liability to the new union. The current call for a boycott is also being condemned by many NATFHE/AUT/UCU members who oppose the boycott as it was pushed through by a rather undemocratic method and, like the AUT stunt, did not represent the rank-and-file membership. Only the most fanatic of the true believers are considering it to be binding. Everyone against the boycott is telling them to get stuffed.

In short, the people pushing the boycott, though they are getting "good press," are burning through their karma, the patience of their fellow union members, and their bridges at an astounding rate.

Revenant said...


A few points:

(1): "I'm tempted to do X" does not imply that you think X is a bad idea. In English usage, it implies you're considering X but haven't decided yet.

(2): The boycott is protected under the rights of speech (choosing not to talk to or quote Israelis), press (choosing not to publish their results or cite their results), and assembly (choosing not to associate with them). All of these rights are enumerated (in the same amendment, even).

(3): It is ironic that you express concern about unenumerated rights but have no problem suggesting the government use unenumerated *powers*. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the right to screen who may enter the country.

Anonymous said...

i'm getting an impression that many of you believe that this is an act by every single Briton, otherwise just what would an 'anti-anti semitism law' mean.

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