CAMPUS POLITICS

Is This Any Way for Scholars to Behave?

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By Hasdai Westbrook
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Still a little jet-lagged, I sat in my parents' London living room three weeks ago, flipping between BBC channels and taking in the strange news of pre-election Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair was being branded a liar for misinforming the public about his reasons for joining the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; George Galloway -- a Labor Party outcast best known for having cozied up to Saddam Hussein's regime and for his outspoken anti-Zionism -- looked set to unseat Oona King, a black Jewish member of Parliament who had supported the war in Iraq.

Even the lingering effects of jet lag could not prevent me from being startled by the surreal news I soon heard. A group of academics, many of them members of Galloway's year-old Respect Party, had gotten the Association of University Teachers (AUT) -- Britain's main higher education union -- to adopt a boycott against the Israeli universities of Haifa and Bar-Ilan and to circulate a petition promoting a boycott of all Israeli universities for their alleged complicity in the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Even if the AUT boycott proves to be a largely symbolic act, a call that will be ignored by most British academics who are generally more interested in their research than the machinations of a radical fringe, it is very troubling. Not only is it dangerous to underestimate the power of symbolism, but I also worry that this destructive kind of anti-Zionist thinking may be creeping into leftist rhetoric in America, too, particularly in academia.

By seeking to bar Israeli academics from publication, funding, conferences and other basic elements of intellectual exchange with their British colleagues, the AUT's boycott represents a gross violation of academic freedom. But I shouldn't have been surprised by it. My cousin, who was visiting for our family Seder, had talked as I tapped at the TV remote -- about how the likes of Galloway get so much more traction in Britain than in America, and about how, on his Leeds University campus, it has become terribly chic to be anti-American and even more so to be anti-Israel. I knew what he meant. After years of shuttling back and forth between my native England and study and work in America, and of listening to my parents' colleagues at Oxford or the University of London casually announce their "pro-Arab" sympathies, I can see that Britain's radical left wouldn't let the question of academic freedom spoil a chance to slap Israel down.

Still, perhaps all those years of being the youngest child at the Passover table make me ask what it is about Israel that inspires such unique contempt. For many Jews, the answer is anti-Semitism. But I doubt that the explanation is either that simple or that surreptitious. Why dig for a hidden prejudice when an obvious one lurks in plain sight? Linguist Sue Blackwell, the leader of the AUT boycott campaign, and her fellow activists are explicit in their contention that Israel is an "illegitimate," "racist," "colonial" and "apartheid" state. They do not believe that Jews have a right to self-determination anywhere within the bounds of their ancestral homeland.

The boycott campaign represents a strain of anti-Zionism that has always been stronger in Britain and other Western European nations than in the United States, not because of America's pro-Israel lobby, but because of the European legacy of colonialism. Horrified by their country's imperial past, some British academics have made Israel a scapegoat for Britain's colonial sins. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza intensifies their perception of colonial oppression.

And since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, British anti-Zionist academics have taken every opportunity to isolate Israelis. In July 2002, in support of a boycott against Israel, Mona Baker, a linguist at the University of Manchester, fired two Israeli colleagues from the board of an academic journal she edited. The following June, Andrew Wilkie, a professor of pathology at Oxford, rejected an Israeli PhD application, saying that, because of Israel's violation of Palestinian human rights, he would never accept anyone who had served in its army. And the recent AUT decision follows an unsuccessful effort in 2003 by Blackwell and others to have the union adopt a boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.

This time, the activists opted for a gradual approach. Rather than pushing for a blanket boycott, they secured a resolution to circulate a boycott petition generated by the Right to Education campaign of Birzeit University (a Palestinian institution in the West Bank) to all of the more than 100 AUT chapters. In addition, they succeeded in getting the AUT council to adopt a boycott of Bar-Ilan University for supervising degree programs at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, and of the University of Haifa for allegedly violating the academic freedom of one of its professors, Ilan Pappe.

Three years ago, Pappe, who has long campaigned for an international boycott of his own employer, became embroiled in a controversy over a student's thesis, which alleged that Israeli soldiers had massacred Arab civilians in the town of Tantura in 1948. The scholarship of that thesis has since been questioned, and Pappe claims that he has become the victim of a harassment campaign from administrators and colleagues, though whether or not his academic freedom has been infringed is unclear. But for the AUT to respond with a more massive violation of academic freedom is puzzling -- unless one sees the charge for the pretext that it is. "This is a call for ending the occupation," Pappe told me by e-mail -- an "anti-colonialist and anti-apartheid struggle" against Israel, which "became a state at the expense of the indigenous population of Palestine."

How pervasive that sentiment is among members of the AUT is a matter of controversy. Although the AUT says it represents more than 48,700 higher education professionals, Chris Bertram, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Bristol, argues that the boycott resolutions represent the work of a few activists who managed to exploit the council's procedural rules to win passage. The AUT's decision has sparked outrage and condemnation from many British academics, and opponents have secured enough support to force a special AUT council meeting on May 26, at which the resolutions will be reconsidered. Whatever the result of that meeting, most of the Israeli academics I spoke with believe that the majority of their British colleagues will simply ignore the boycott. What's more on Friday, a longtime critic of Israeli policies, MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, issued a statement opposing the boycott. With reactions like this, the boycott's effect will indeed be largely symbolic.

The trouble is that, for both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the cause of academic freedom, symbolism is all. As Jeffrey Weintraub, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose online petition against the boycott has collected thousands of signatures from academics around the world, says, "Blacklisting other academics because of their nationality attacks a key foundation of academic freedom. If academics make it clear that they don't take the principle of academic freedom seriously, then why should anyone else take it seriously?"

Blackwell and her allies insist that they exclude from the boycott any "conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies." But this only exacerbates the erosion of intellectual freedom. It blacklists Israeli academics unless they pass an ideological test, but who, one wonders, would be the arbiter of acceptable opposition to Israel's alleged colonialism and racism?


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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