Nathalie Rothschild says the demand by British university unions for a boycott of Israeli academia is censorship disguised as radical activism.
Delegates at the first conference of the new University and College Union in Bournemouth, England, have voted to support a call by Palestinian trade unions for a boycott of Israeli academe. The motion was passed by 158 votes to 99. The full text of the boycott call will be sent to all branches of the union for information and discussion.
Does this give you a sense of déjà vu? If so, it’s not surprising. Barely a term passes without someone in Britain calling for a boycott of Israeli academics, or Israeli goods and Israeli films. Old-fashioned boycotts of products, such as oranges from South Africa or tea from China, have always been problematic: they encourage a passive form of solidarity, and it is ridiculous to believe that our shopping choices can really impact on people’s struggles for democracy elsewhere. But boycotts of academia are especially problematic. They are about slapping an embargo on ideas and arguments. Academic boycotts are an insult to academic freedom and free speech, and they negate the idea of the university as a space for open debate.
Academic boycotts of Israel have been debated at previous annual conferences of Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which merged to form the UCU last year. In 2005, the AUT backed an academic Israeli boycott, but the boycott was later rejected at a special meeting that was convened after the motion caused widespread controversy. Last year Natfhe agreed to continue with the boycott of Israeli academe, but the policy was dissolved when the union merged with the AUT to form the UCU.
So even though calls for academic boycotts of Israel have been repeatedly rejected in the past, the self-appointed saviours of Palestine in the UCU now hope that the new ‘hook’ of the fortieth anniversary of the Six Day War will generate some more enthusiasm for blanking out Israeli academics. The UCU assumes some of its legitimacy for the boycott from the fact that Palestinian trade unions have offered their endorsement. Yet the ‘authentic voice’ of those organisations is not beyond reproach. Some Palestinian universities, like Bir Zeit, refuse to co-operate with Israelis or even to let Israelis on their campuses. However, other Palestinian academics feel that cutting off ties with Israelis will only lead to further isolation and believe that important links can be made with those within Israeli academia who oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories. In Israel, some of the strongest voices of dissent against Israeli policy come from academics and public intellectuals.
In the British union demands for a boycott of Israeli academia, the very people who are supposed to guard and cherish our universities as bastions of no-holds-barred debate and boundary-less inquiries are selling academic freedom short. By shutting down links between universities they are strangling the free flow of ideas and knowledge that is the mainstay of university life. And if academics are clamping down on their own freedom to pursue the advancement of human knowledge, they are also denying the rest of society the right to learn about and benefit from social, cultural and scientific research. What if the rest of us want to hear what Israeli academics think about world affairs, literature or science?
Some in the UCU are taking a stand against the demands for a boycott. Sally Hunt, the general secretary, said: ‘I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of (the 120,000) UCU members; nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union.’ (1) Union members at the Bournemouth conference also voted to reject a government plan to tackle Islamic extremism in universities, which would mean increasing surveillance of Muslim and other students and using academic staff to police their own students – which suggests that many of them still care for academic freedom on their own campuses at least.
At a time when the British government is trying to impose such illiberal measures on universities, infringing on the freedom of lecturers to teach and students to learn, it is sad that some academics seem unable to recognise that boycotting colleagues in Israel is part of a similar censorious approach. Enforcing a boycott of Israeli academics would mean universities having to police who is collaborating and communicating with whom, and also keeping a check on what books their libraries buy in and which lecturers get invited to speak on campus. Do we really want such censorious monitoring of the movement of academics and ideas?
The UCU conference motion stated that ‘congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students’ (2). The situation is indeed deplorable. But how will cutting off academic co-operation bring an end to any of this? Apparently the aim of the boycott is to challenge the ‘complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation’ (3). But why should academic institutions and individuals in Israel have to conduct their work, their politics and their relations to their government in a way that a few hundred members of the British UCU deem fit?
British academics claim to be driven by their consciences, claiming that they cannot ‘stand idly by’ while residents in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip stand in long queues at checkpoints or have their houses raided by the Israel Defense Forces. Yet by boycotting Israeli academe that is exactly what they are doing: standing by, doing nothing except raising their hands to vote or sign petitions. The constant demands for boycotts has now degenerated into farce. In a predictable, childish act of revenge, the Israeli Knesset is now debating a proposed Bill to boycott British goods. Some want to cancel the British Abba-based musical Mama Mia!, which is due to open in Tel Aviv this month. It has become a game of boycott one-upmanship.
The latest call for a boycott on Israeli academe is yet another assault on free speech; it is censorship disguised as radical politics. It may make those who voted for the boycott feel good about themselves, but it takes more to bring justice to the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East than raising your hand to vote for a motion. The only thing we should boycott is boycotts.
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