More than academic

Who can win if British academia boycotts its Israeli counterparts?

By
June 11, 2007 13:59

 
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I'm not boycotting Britain or British products. London-born and-raised, I can't promise to never again eat Cadbury's chocolate, quote Monty Python, or sing along with the Beatles. I can't be expected to put down John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener in the suspenseful middle; turn off Israel Television when it screens the BBC's Planet Earth documentary or stop praising The Queen, the film for which Helen Mirren truly deserved the royal round of applause she got along with the Oscar. The reason I don't expect to be going to England anytime soon is the cost of the airfare and the outrageous expense of travel in London once you arrive. In short, prosaic not political reasons. The reason I'm not sorry that I'm not going to England, however, has everything to do with politics. After nearly 28 years in Israel, it's not surprising that I don't feel at home in Britain any more. But the May 30 decision by the British University and College Union (UCU) to consider imposing a boycott on Israeli academics the latest in British-based anti-Israel divestment and embargo initiatives and the possible harbinger of more to come means I don't even feel like a welcome guest. And this is not the England I remember. To be sure I often felt an undercurrent of anti-Semitism and in 1979, shortly before I emigrated, I was with a crowd of friends who got beaten up simply because the boys were wearing skullcaps. We used to call it kid-glove anti-Semitism: the type that spelled out its relationship to the Likud's first prime minister by rhyming Menachem Begin with Fagin. But it has progressed from Cockney-style rhyming slang matches and now comes with boxing gloves. Even were I to travel to the British capital and purchase an Underground ticket, I doubt I would feel comfortable. Since the 7/7 attacks, I'd rather take my chances on Jerusalem's No. 18 bus. While friends and relatives worry about our well-being in Israel, we feel equally concerned for their welfare in the country they are still proud to call their homeland. Visitors from England report a high level of violence that affects the whole country, not just the very obvious targets of Jews wearing head coverings. All travelers on the London Underground are familiar with the taped warning "Mind the gap!" Today, there seems to be a new gap to be careful of the growing divide between communities. It is no longer rare to find British Jews wandering around my Jerusalem neighborhood looking for property to buy not as a holiday home or a place to retire to but as, in their own words, "a bolthole," somewhere to run to when they no longer feel safe in the UK. They are competing with French Jews and you can't say "vive la diff×™rence" in this case. The boycott motion on its own is not going to lead to a mass emigration from England to Israel. But it could push a few good people into leaving what poet William Blake called "England's green and pleasant land" for safer if not greener pastures. One proud Jew I know is debating the advisability of including on his CV his voluntary work with Jewish organizations. Any benefit from showing he was a public-spirited person could be canceled out by revealing his ethnicity, he fears. And this should truly disturb the British public. They might find themselves not only losing the battle against home-grown terrorism, they might also lose just that sort of person who has so much to contribute to keep the country going. It is not easy being a minority in Britain. It never was. That's why I decided to leave for Israel. I swear on the Bible (Old Testament only, please) that I did not for one second consider blowing up a London Transport train or bus. Yet, chillingly, the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks have been blamed however indirectly on us. The bon ton seems to be blame the Jews, or that "shitty country" as the French ambassador in London so infamously put it at a high-class cocktail party. Giving a new definition to hutzpa, even BBC journalist Alan Johnston, being held captive by a Palestinian group in Gaza, blames Israel. And in a wondrous conspiracy theory, it turns out that the British government believed the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) might have been involved in the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane that resulted in what is known as Operation Entebbe. Make no mistake about it: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by another name. The way the pro-boycotters like to point out that their ranks include Israeli academics reminds me of the anti-Semite's tendency to claim "some of my best friends are Jewish." British Prime Minister Tony Blair on June 6 called Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert to reassure him that the boycott is not representative of the British public (not that he himself could be considered representative any more, as one wag quickly pointed out. His willingness to stand by Israel could even be a factor in his upcoming departure from Downing Street.) But even Blair has linked the London bombings and the war in Iraq to unresolved "critical issues" in the Middle East. The British academics in favor of the anti-Israel boycott as a gesture of support for the Palestinians were not heard when a Palestinian bomb ripped through the cafeteria of the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in July 2002, killing nine people. The boycott motion is a study in hypocrisy. In the name of human rights, the boycotters are willing to trample on the principle of academic freedom and attempt to undermine the only democratic country in the Middle East. Nobody has anything to gain by this. And all too many people have something to lose. Will Britain find itself off the map for Israel's Nobel Prize winners? Can the Palestinians, and the rest of the world, benefit by forgoing the fruits of Israel's considerable scientific studies? The Hebrew University, a target of both terrorism and the mooted British boycott, this week held its 70th annual Board of Governors meeting yes, it was founded when Jews in this part of the world were still called "Palestinians." To mark the event, it presented three researchers with the Kaye Innovation Award. The winners were cited for their work on preventing obesity, improving neuro-surgery and helping provide natural protection to prevent further deterioration in Alzheimer's sufferers. The Hebrew University founded by, among others, Albert Einstein has always espoused the values of pluralism and tolerance. The researchers, faculty and students are anxious to leave their mark in this world by making it a better place. Unfortunately, the debate on whether they will be allowed to do so is no longer academic.

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