Middle East studies in the News
The British Academic Boycott of Israel: How the fear of Islamist terrorism contributed to its revocation
by William D. Rubinstein
The Association of University Teachers passed - and then revoked - a boycott of two Israeli universities. Prof. William D. Rubinstein - a historian at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - argues that these boycotts made no sense: "boycotting Israel's universities is very much like opponents of President Bush's Iraq war policies boycotting, not the Pentagon or some military contractor, but Columbia and Berkeley Universities. Israel's universities - at least in its Arts and Social Sciences departments - have, as virtually anywhere else in the Western world, a majority of academic leftists, who almost without exception oppose the West Bank policies of the Sharon government."
What, however, at first surprised Prof. Rubinstein - considering the make-up of the AUT and who attends its conferences - was not the initial boycott but its subsequent revocation. Prof. Rubinstein argues that the most important reason for this revocation has been the growing association by very many people - whether they care to admit it or not - of Arab extremism with attacks on non-Jewish targets in the West.
Recently, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), the trade union of Britain's university academics, passed and then revoked two anti-Israel motions. These moves attracted worldwide press coverage and almost unanimous condemnation. The issues involved are worth exploring.
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Western left has become sharply critical of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians, to the extent that many observers have described it as the "new anti-semitism", at times indistinguishable from the old. Israel, the Jewish state, is singled out for condemnation, usually obsessive and extreme, which is applied by the anti-Zionist left to no other country or society. Israel's supporters are vilified; Zionism - Jewish nationalism - alone of nationalisms is regarded as illegitimate. As a general rule in the contemporary Western world, the further left one moves along the spectrum, the more venomous the attacks on Israel and its supporters become. Left-wing newspapers and broadcasters - in Britain, The Guardian and Independent and (of course) the BBC - are invariably hostile to Israel and its policies.
The AUT is a peculiar organisation. About one-half of Britain's university academics belong to it; about half (including most professors) do not. Its professional infrastructure appears to consist not of academics doing part-time work as quasi-trade unionists, but of full-time activists, most of whom are not employed as university teachers, but who are invariably on the left in their ideological orientation on a range of issues, attitudes which are crystal clear in the newsletters the AUT produces. Most academics, even those who belong to the AUT, pay almost no attention to it, the great majority having neither the time nor desire to play any role in its affairs.
As the union officially responsible for negotiating benefits and pay for Britain's academics, the AUT is simply hopeless, with a track record of achieving pay increases markedly worse than in virtually any comparable profession, as its own published statistics (somewhat surprisingly) prove. Many junior lecturers receive poverty level incomes, while professors are generally paid about half to two-thirds of what their university colleagues in the United States earn. Obviously, there are compensations, including lifetime tenure and a reasonable pension fund, but the record of the AUT in delivering benefits to its members hardly shines.
In this atmosphere and in these circumstances, it was reasonably easy this April for a tiny group of anti-Israel fanatics - led by Dr Sue Blackwell of Birmingham University, a supporter of the most extreme Palestinian position and a member of the AUT's Council - to push through, by a narrow majority, two anti-Israel measures.
The first of these measures called upon Britain's universities to boycott Israel's Haifa University for allegedly persecuting Professor Ilan Pappe, an extreme pro-Palestinian historian (who is Jewish and Israeli) on its faculty; the second called for a boycott of Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University for allegedly helping to establish a new tertiary college for Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Everything about the AUT's passage of these resolutions appeared to be rooted in deep hostility to Israel, its supporters, and, indeed, to Jews. In particular, although proponents of these boycott measures were allowed to speak, opponents - believe it or not - were specifically not allowed to speak by the AUT's executive, claiming that it had run out of time. The vote was held on the day before the Jewish holiday of Passover, thus debarring Orthodox Jews from attending. All attempts to get the AUT to change the date of its meeting in order to accommodate its Jewish members were denied. The AUT's tactics were those of what Paul Johnson once termed the "fascist left". This may sound like something from a German university in 1933, and it struck a great many people as such.
Probably to its own amazement, the AUT vote set off an extraordinary wave of international criticism. A petition to convene a special meeting to revoke the boycott resolutions, signed by the twenty-five members of the AUT Council, the number necessary to convene a special meeting, was quickly drawn up, the meeting to be held on 26th May, a month after the original measures were passed. Around the world, dozens of academic organisations denounced the AUT boycott, among them a petition signed by twenty-one Nobel Prize winners.
Perhaps the biggest shock to the system received by the AUT's leaders, however, was an extremely serious threat by Haifa University to sue it for defamation, since the AUT's website contained allegations concerning its alleged persecution of Professor Pappe which were, according to it and according to everything I have been able to read about it, flatly untrue, mendacious, and libellous. This threatened lawsuit was instituted in England by Mishcon De Reya, the renowned firm of London solicitors which specializes among other things in libel law, and which successfully defended Professor Deborah Lipstadt when she was sued by David Irving in 2000. I have seen estimates that the AUT would have had to spend one million pounds defending this lawsuit. By the time of the May vote, the AUT executive was apparently more than happy to revoke its original boycott measures. In fact, to almost universal relief, the May meeting revoked the boycott motions by a reported 2-1 vote.
It should be pointed out that the AUT, a union of sorts, has no authority to enforce boycotts by academic staff, and no means of penalizing anyone who refuses to comply with them. The very notion of an academic boycott of an Israeli (or any other) university is highly problematical in any case: as one observer put it, if a cure for cancer were discovered at Haifa University, does that mean that the AUT would boycott London's University College Hospital for giving it to patients?
The fact remains, however, that for a month Britain's academic trade union had an official policy of legalized anti-semitism, for that is precisely what its boycott measures amounted to. These were directed at Israel, the only Jewish state, and at it alone, by standards which were applied to no one else: not to Saudi Arabia (where non-Muslims may not live, let alone attend university); not Libya; not Syria; not Iran; not North Korea; not Burma; not China vis-à-vis Tibet; and (needless to say) not Cuba. Singling out Israel, and Israel alone, while ignoring worse anywhere else, is anti-semitism in the nastiest, ugliest, most bigoted sense of the term. It is, moreover, egregious, since Israel's universities - at least in its Arts and Social Sciences departments - have, as virtually anywhere else in the Western world, a majority of academic leftists, who almost without exception oppose the West Bank policies of the Sharon government. Boycotting Israel's universities is very much like opponents of President Bush's Iraq war policies boycotting, not the Pentagon or some military contractor, but Columbia and Berkeley Universities. It simply makes no sense - not that this should be remotely surprising. What was surprising, however, was the majority which quickly emerged against the boycott and which successfully revoked it. Used as I am to the hegemony of campus leftist views, this was at least mildly surprising. I have been monitoring left-wing anti-Zionism for thirty years or more, and it might be worth assessing the forces which brought about both the boycott motions and their revocations, compared with the situation say twenty-five years ago. What has changed?
Certainly, not everything has changed for the worse. On the contrary, one might point to a number of areas in which the position of Israel seems sounder than in the 1970s. The disappearance of the Soviet Union and of Soviet Communism has been a most important factor. Throughout most of the post-war period, the Soviet Union acted as the main progenitor of hostility towards Israel outside of the Arab world, a product of the inherent anti-semitism of the regime, its desire to curry favour with the Arabs, and its perceptions that undermining Israel was a cheap and easy way of embarrassing the United States.
During the past quarter-century, it has also certainly been the case that the Holocaust has become almost universally internalized in the West as the central modern symbol of evil. This process was underway in the 1970s, but has obviously proceeded apace since then. A media venue like Sky Television, with its ninety channels, now received by about one-third of the British public, literally appears to be never without a programme on the History Channel or its like on the Nazis and the horrors of Hitler. University students appear to be interested in nothing else. Few would argue that this does not represent overkill, but one outcome has been a near-universal understanding of the reasons for the creation of the State of Israel.
While there are other positive factors as well - Israel is unquestionably much stronger than in the 1970s, and now has diplomatic relations with almost every country - by far the most important reason why the left has been thwarted in this case is, of course, because of the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalism and the association between Arab extremists and attacks on the West. Arab-associated terrorism was certainly already a stock-in-trade in the 1970s - witness the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, among innumerable such attacks - but in recent years it has broadened into a much more generalized war against the West, including targets which have no Israeli or Jewish component. Obviously September 11th is the supreme example of Islamic terrorism against the West, but it is notable that the two other most destructive attacks against the West - in Spain and in Bali - were also against targets which had nothing whatever to do with Israel. Such attacks have been a source of considerable disquiet about Islamic extremism for very many people in the West, whether they are willing to publicly admit it or not.
On the other hand, so long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved - with its resolution necessarily entailing the creation of an independent Palestinian state - this festering sore will unquestionably lead to more attempts by the Western left, lacking in other international issues and assisted by the growing Muslim population of the West, to ostracise and marginalise Israel and its supporters. Reason has prevailed in this case but there are many holes in the dyke.
William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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