Boycotting universities is not the same as anti-Semitism

The simplistic charge of anti-Semitism and the failure to engage with the real issues pushes the silent majority and the waverers into the corner of the pro-boycotters.

Hebrew university 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hebrew university 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It didn't receive huge coverage in the local press, but last week the British academic trade union, the UCU, approved its annual motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel. The motion was then shelved by the union chiefs who, regardless of their own political feelings towards Israel/Palestine, have become increasingly uncomfortable with the hijacking of the union convention by a relatively small group of vocal political activists who appear to have little else on their agenda but the annual condemnation and delegitimization of Israel. The attempts to impose an academic boycott have long ceased to be a simple condemnation of Israel's policies concerning the West Bank and the Palestinians. Were this the case, there would be many, even in the Israeli and Jewish world, who would be sympathetic to such a critique. But the UCU boycott debates have transformed into Israel-bashing sessions, with unbalanced debates that question its existential legitimacy. After the UCU motions in 2008 were withdrawn in the face of the threat of anti-discrimination legal action, it was thought that the boycott fervor had died down. The university vice chancellors and principals had all expressed their opposition to any form of boycott, making it impossible to implement at any institutional level, while even the few individual boycotters attempting to implement their own silent boycott could only speak on behalf of themselves, not the institutions for which they worked. But the Gaza war proved to be an excuse for raising the boycott issue again, not just in the academic union but in other more significant trade unions, and not just in the UK but also in other Western liberal democracies, such as Canada and most recently Australia. THERE IS NOTHING like a good boycott or perceived anti-Semitism to bring a Diaspora Jewish community into action. In the UK, where there is no lack of community institutions, the boycott attempts have spawned the establishment of a well-funded Stop the Boycott Campaign, the Fair Play Group and the reincarnation of the pro-Israel lobby, BICOM. It has also renewed the fighting spirit of academic organizations such as the Academic Friends of Israel, left-of-center Engage, or the right-of-center SPME - a North American consortium of scholars which has now established branches among UK academics to try to ensure a more balanced debate on campuses. Within Israel itself, the boycott attempts may have raised the ire of the university faculty, but it has largely been pushed aside as meaningless and irrelevant. When the boycott was first placed on the agenda some years ago, there was criticism of the Israeli universities for not taking a stand and not becoming actively involved in the counterboycott activities. But once they did become involved, they found that community organizations were not really interested in listening to their Israeli colleagues. They certainly did not want to hear from Israeli academics who were also critical of government policies. It was always much easier just to join forces with the right-wing lobbies and simply equate any criticism of Israel with structural anti-Semitism. In doing so, the community organizations completely lost control of the debate. MOST ISRAELI ACADEMICS have preferred to operate independently of Jewish community institutions abroad, if only because their agendas are different. Most Israeli faculty enjoy good working relationships with their academic peers, including in the UK, and find that the majority of UK university faculty are either simply not interested in Israel and the machinations of their trade union and/or are genuinely interested in getting a more balanced picture of what is actually happening in the Middle East through firsthand contact and dialogue, rather than through the narrow and polemical political messages of the pro- and anti-boycott campaigners. Israeli academics have long realized that the ability to implement a boycott is close to zero, and they continue to enjoy excellent research and scientific collaboration with their British colleagues on a daily and weekly basis - participating in seminars, conferences and workshops and putting forward joint research proposals, many of which are successful in achieving international funding. It is ironic that the boycott attempts have brought about an increase in Israeli-British academic collaboration, not least through the establishment of the bilateral BIRAX scientific program, precisely at a time when European governments are cutting down their bilateral projects in favor of pan-European projects funded from Brussels. Moreover, many Israeli academics simply do not buy into the simplistic notions of collective anti-Semitism as the main argument used by many of the community groups. No, my colleagues are not naive. We are well aware that there is a growth of anti-Semitism in the UK, some of it on campuses. Nor are we unaware that what has been termed the "new anti-Semitism" is rooted in the radical left and within sections of the Islamic community, as contrasted with the more traditional anti-Semitism of fascist and racist right-wing groups. We constantly tell our colleagues on UK campuses that unless they control the debate about Israel and introduce a level of balance that is sorely missing, they will be responsible for having opened the back door to the real anti-Semites, for whom Israel is an irrelevance and who are intent on making British campuses uncomfortable places for Jewish students and faculty. But to simply regurgitate the argument of collective anti-Semitism in response to every criticism of Israel and its policies is as self-defeating as it is helpful. In continuous and ongoing discussions with our academic colleagues in the UK, it is this simplistic charge of anti-Semitism and the failure to engage with the real issues which pushes the silent majority and the waverers into the corner of the pro-boycotters. We will never change the opinions of the activists and the ideologically committed, but the vast majority of British academics, intelligent and rational people, are waiting to be convinced through serious and hard hitting exchange of views and information. It is often argued that Diaspora communities, especially in Europe, have no common denominator or glue other than the battle against anti-Semitism and a potential threat to their existence. The academic boycott campaign has moved in this direction, providing a raison d'etre for the establishment and funding of even more self-defense and advocacy organizations. While they are to be congratulated for winning the technical and the legal battles against the largely irrelevant UCU, it is by no means clear that they have won the battle for minds or rational thought. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. For the past two years he has represented Israel's universities on matters related to the academic boycott.