British academics’ vote to consider moral implications of links with Israeli academic institutions causes backlash. Charges of anti-Semitism and crushing of free speech

Experienced human rights activists hold a range of views on the wisdom of economic sanctions as a way to pressure Israel to end its 40 year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. While differences may fall along tactical or moral lines, no one can argue that the vast majority of proponents of boycotts and sanctions are motivated by the profound sense that nothing else has worked to pressure Israel to end human rights abuses. (Certainly, there are those who support these efforts like David Duke who are anti-Semites, but that does not make the motions inherently anti-Semitic.)

Yet, these efforts have been universally attacked from some quarters as the cutting sword of a global rise in anti-Semitism. There is no small irony in the fact that the amount of moral outrage summoned by US Congress and other groups against economic sanctions campaigns against Israel completely dwarfs the moral outrage about the systematic destruction of the Palestinian fabric of society including the demolition of homes, killing of innocents and more.

On Wednesday, July 11, Agence France Press reported

US lawmakers Wednesday slammed a boycott of Israeli universities promoted by pro-Palestinian British academics as an anti-Semitic step that would undermine Middle East peace efforts.

In a unanimous voice vote, the House of Representatives passed a resolution attacking the boycott call from the leadership of the University and College Union (UCU), Britain’s largest trade union for academics.

“When Israel comes under attack from hatemongers, it is American values that are also under attack,” said Democratic member Patrick Murphy, the resolution’s main sponsor.

“Limiting academic exchanges and shrinking the marketplace of ideas only limits our ability to bring peace to the Middle East and to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

Putting aside the fact that Murphy completely misses the point that the occupation denies the rights of Palestinians to access education, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the level of denial required for critics to truly believe the root of boycotts campaigns are Jew-hatred (even as many are led by Jews) rather than their real root, Israel’s 40-year illegal occupation.

That said, as long as the occupation of Iraq continues, an occupation in which the UK and US play leading roles, it does seem a bit hypocritical to focus exclusively on the Israeli occupation. Defenders may respond that the proposed academic boycotts focus on Israeli universities because they are specifically part of the structure of occupation. At Muzzlewatch, we are concerned about tactics that serve to crush open dialogue rather than encourage it. So we went beyond the headlines to the actual text of the motion that passed:

30Composite: Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (University of Brighton, Grand Parade; University of East London, Docklands)

Congress notes that Israel’s 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.

Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.

Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.

Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.

Congress instructs the NEC to

  • circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
  • encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
  • organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
  • issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.

The excellent Institute for Middle East Understanding features Ghada Karmi’s article about both the backlash, and the misconceptions about the votes on boycott:

In the wake of the British University and College Union’s vote at its annual general meeting on May 30 to initiate a national debate on boycotting Israeli academic institutions, a wave of hysteria engulfed Israel and its friends. Articles appeared, before and after the vote, denouncing the UCU resolution and its initiators, and heated correspondence is still ongoing. Threats were made against members of the boycott group by pro-Israel organizations and individuals, and campaigns were mounted to defeat the boycott. Costly one-page advertisements appeared in The Times and The Guardian carrying scores of eminent signatories opposing the boycott.

Photographs of the boycott’s “ringleaders”, like those of wanted criminals, appeared on the front page of the major British Jewish weekly, The Jewish Chronicle, which also carried a distressed article by Britain’s chief rabbi condemning the boycott as an anti-Semitic “witch-hunt”. The Daily Mail’s Jewish columnist Melanie Phillips declared “the age of reason” over. The Jewish-American lawyer and fierce warrior for Israel Alan Derschowitz has teamed up with his British counterpart, Anthony Julius to take legal action against British supporters of the boycott. While this would not be valid in British law, its aim is clearly to intimidate.

The fuss has not abated yet and more battles lie ahead this autumn as pressure is put on the UCU to ballot its members individually in the hope they will reject the motion passed by conference.

Two major misconceptions lie at the base of this response, both deliberately fostered. The first misconception is that the boycott is aimed against Israeli academic individuals, and the second, and more important, that it is anti-Semitic.

With regards to the first misconception, the boycott in fact calls for a ban on dealings with Israeli academic institutions, for example, not participating in joint research, conferences or other collaboration with them. In a malicious misrepresentation of this position, opponents claim that the boycott will end the free exchange of ideas with individual Israelis and encourage discrimination against them in British academia. By suppressing “free speech”, this would end any hope of change in Israel’s policies that academics could have brought about, an erroneous argument that has galvanized opposition in Britain to the boycott.

The second charge of anti-Semitism follows closely on this. The allegation is that the real reason for the boycott is hatred of Jews, a new outbreak of an old gentile affliction. Nothing is more designed to provoke and mislead than this charge, which, its authors know, antagonizes all Jews and many non-Jews.

In fact of course, the imputation of anti-Semitism is a red herring, as so often when Israel is criticized, and its aim as always is to deflect criticism. In the case of the British boycott committee, it is particularly inapt, since most of the members are Jewish.

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