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Before moving into higher education and teaching Israeli studies, I taught chemistry for 20 years in an inner-London college and was a loyal member of my union, NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). Lecturers in further education like myself were treated extremely badly by successive British governments and we went out on strike on numerous occasions to express our exasperation at poor conditions and inadequate salary.
NATFHE also attracted far-Left fantasists who attempted to exploit the desperation of dedicated staff. The attempt at the current academic boycott of Israel is mired in this mind-set, inspired by the Socialist Workers Party and prompted by the defeated side in last year's initiative of the AUT (Association of University Teachers).
Unlike the AUT, virtually no NATFHE members have contacts with Israeli institutions and academics. Yet the proposed resolution at the forthcoming NATFHE conference "invites members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals and to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies."
Truly a subterranean boycott. Next month NATFHE will join with the AUT to form a new amalgamated union and even if the resolution fails this time around, it is certain to be raised in next year's conference.
AS AN academic teaching Israeli studies, the implication for me now is that any research that I carry out must be predicated on Israeli institutions and individuals providing the "correct" answers to me. Moreover, since my area of expertise is the Israeli Right and its origins, I believe that I would have a good case in arguing that the union would be deliberately impeding me in my legitimate work as an academic.
This new McCarthyism clearly challenges the very basis of freedom of expression and imposes limits on academic discourse. The Open University's Dr. Jon Pike, who was responsible for overturning last year's AUT motion, is far blunter: "Let's be stone cold clear about this: what the proposers of this resolution want is union endorsement for actions that are, in effect, anti-Semiticâ€¦ the gutlessness is extraordinary. We know that the proposers of the resolution want a full-on official boycott of all Israeli institutions, and we know that they daren't subject their argument for this to democratic or legal scrutiny. These bold advocates of united collective action retreat to advocacy of covert individual discriminatory acts."
Significantly, there is no hint of a boycott of academics and institutions in the US because of the Iraqi quagmire. Probably the damage done would threaten the self-interests of too many British academics.
IS THIS campaign designed to weaken Israeli government determination to carry out their policies? Or is it aimed at delegitimizing the state? Many academics who oppose the boycott believe that it is the latter.
To make the Jews of Israel an abnormal, polluted people outside the normal code of civilized behavior. And what begins with the delegitimization of the state ends with the delegitimization of the people.
This is why many on the rational Left in Britain have concluded that the boycott is the first step on a road paved with malevolent intentions.
Prof. Richard Seaford of Exeter University believes that his gesture in refusing to review a book in an Israeli academic journal will raise awareness about the Palestinians' plight. A worthy cause, but it will have the opposite effect and merely strengthen the Israeli Right in the righteousness of their policies. Since most Israeli academics tilt towards the Left, in which way will this gesture help the peace camp?
Seaford sees the conflict as between Israel and Palestine. The progressive position would be to argue that it is instead between the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine against their rejectionists. Mahmoud Abbas privately condemned the intifada as futile when it was at its height. The British boycotters were ideologically deaf to this because it sullied the clarity of their polarized vision. Seaford today has followed this herd and become another automated voice in the megaphone war between the two sides. Signing up to the boycott is not an act of moral courage, but one of political comfort which takes the easy way out. Academics in the Palestinian peace camp such as Sari Nusseibeh who have opposed the boycott are the real heroes.
Prof. Stephen Rose, the boycott movement's soothsayer, similarly exudes ideological blindness when it comes to Israel and Zionism. No condemnation of the Islamists. No acceptance of the right of the Jews to national self-determination. One side is completely right and the other side completely wrong. Yet while he advocates "Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions" he is obviously quite content that all the major bookshops in Israel carry his books and to receive royalties from the "Zionist entity."
The boycott-Israel movement is symptomatic of a broader turmoil within the British Left. There are double standards when it comes to human rights. There is no embrace of a doctrine of anti-totalitarianism. They are enthusiastic at jumping into bed with the Islamists such as the Muslim Association of Britain. As history records, the Islamists and the Iranian Marxists joined forces to overthrow the shah in 1979. Khomeini then turned on the Iranian Left with an unforgiving cruelty. Paul Berman remarks in his latest book Power and the Idealists: "Totalitarianism is an ideal, an impossibility towards which the totalitarian militants strive - a mythology which the militants are never able to enact. That is why the totalitarians end up by slaughtering masses of people - out of frustration at the human race's stubbornness to be anything other but the human race."
In London, the rational Left seems to be making a determined effort to define itself through a new initiative, known as the Euston Manifesto. This denounces authoritarian tendencies and a reactionary anti-imperialism where America is deemed the root of all evil. Although a minor part of its stand, it condemns anti-Semitism on the Left and embraces the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A disproportionate number of Jews have signed the Euston Manifesto. Why? Because Jews have a long memory of what happens when no space is left for the other. It stands at the opposite pole to the mindless NATFHE motion movers and the unthinking boycotters. It is a small but important step for those, Jews and non-Jews, who defiantly still adhere to the biblical maxim "Justice, justice shall you follow."
The writer lectures in Israeli Studies at the University of London.