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Boycotting the Academy

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 2 July 2007


[The frightened man] believes himself to be, much more than the rest of his kind, the target of hostile events.
E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay (1990).

It all had to come to a head. The University and College Union, one of Britain’s largest academic bodies, backed a motion at its annual conference in early June condemning “the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation [of Palestinian land]”. A decision was made to punish the detractors by severing ties with Israeli institutions of higher learning. The motion, yet to be acted upon by members, sparked a huge reaction from pro-Israeli groups within Britain and the United States.

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, immediately urged action. He swore to lobby the passage of legislation “imposing sanctions that will devastate and bankrupt those who seek to impose bankruptcy on Israeli academics”. Boycotts against the Israeli academy were nothing less than “immoral”. It had “nothing to do with protecting academic freedom or scientific freedom” but was instead a measure of “anti-Israel bigotry” (Huffington Post, June 7, 2007).

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Do critics have a point? Not so much on the charge of anti-Semitism. Dershowitz obsesses about a “check list” on what constitutes anti-Semitism (his article in the Huffington Post, July 1, 2005 outlines some of them). Some are hard to disagree with, if only because they are obvious. (“Invoking anti-Jewish religious symbols or caricaturing Jewish religious symbols” or trivialising the Holocaust evidently qualifies.)

He appends a list of legitimate “grievances” against Israel which he finds permissible: argument must have comparative context; the criticism must be aimed at a constructive change of Israeli policy; criticism is not ethnic and religious, but directed at political, military and economic factors.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times would first say that criticising Israel was not on its own accord “anti-Semitic” yet “singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction - out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East - is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest” (October 16, 2002).

Naturally, the guardians of what constitute proportionate or appropriate criticism remain, as ever, vigilant of Israeli interests. Dershowitz uses the Holocaust as clarion and cudgel in arguments against opponents of Israeli policies. The injustice of the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israeli occupation vanishes, for the argument against such an occupation becomes “anti-Israeli”.

As Dershowitz insists in the Huffington Post, Israel should be flattered, being more democratic than any other state in the Middle East; intensely self-critical; and academically advanced (for we are told that Israeli scientists give the kiss of life to civilisation, “developing, on a per capita basis, more life-saving medical technologies than any other nation in the world”) (June 7, 2007).

Such actions bring to mind an observation made by sociologist Zygmunt Baumann - the Holocaust is a shadow that casts an asphyxiating weight over modern cultural and political debates, where Jews see a world “suspect to the core; no worldly event is truly neutral - each event is burdened by sinister undertones”.

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Will the debate on Israeli policies ever escape the orbit of existential threat? Probably not. The survivor, claims Elias Canetti in his magisterial Crowds and Power, kills others in order to live.

The issue of the boycott itself is, however, another matter. As a scholar D.A. Baldwin remarked in 1985, why do politicians still insist on employing sanctions “when ‘everybody knows’ that it does not work?” This applies across the board. Academics have also joined the fray. Colin Green, professor of surgical science at the University of London, sees Israel as little different from apartheid South Africa. He supported boycotts then; he will do so now (The Guardian, June 11, 2007).

Like all sanctions, its punitive scope often targets the wrong people. We do not need Dershowitz to remind us about how good the Israeli academy may be. The point is far better made by realising that such cures are inevitably worse than the disease.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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