Seemingly giving proof to Orwell’s observation that some ideas are so stupid they could only have been thought of by intellectuals, yet another group of academics — this time in the United States — has followed Britain and Canada by ignobly launching another academic boycott of Israel. What is called The U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel seeks to enjoin “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions that do not vocally oppose Israeli state policies against Palestine” and “promot[e] divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions.”
Parroting the international bleating about Israel’s supposed excesses in defending itself, the boycotters have decided to apply “non-violent external pressure on Israel” that “can help bring an end to the ongoing massacres of civilians and an end the occupation of Gaza and Palestine,” making no mention, of course, of Hamas’ continuing genocidal assault with some 6000 rocket attacks against Israel’s civilian population, or the inconvenient detail that Israel has not “occupied” Gaza since 2005 and that no state named “Palestine” ever existed that the Jewish state could now be said to be occupying.
But facts and history are not the concern of the morally-elevated professoriate. Based on this politically-charged, biased language, the boycotters expose that they have, with the breathtaking certainty that only the very sanctimonious and intellectually-elite can do, framed the 60 year-old Israeli/Palestinian conflict in such a way that they have determined precisely which side is worthy of opprobrium and which, by virtue of its perennial victimhood, is worthy of complete moral support.
Then, in a perverse moral inversion in which academics are forced to assume personal responsibility for a state’s politics and diplomacy, all Israeli scholars are made culpable for the perceived sins of the Jewish state. “Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state-controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying [these] forms of oppression,” the boycott mission statement reads, “or have been complicit in them through their silence,” the effort seeks to contribute to a “struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.”
Reciting this list of Israel’s continuing abuses and political excesses is, of course, a favorite pastime of the academic Left, both in American and Britain (not to mention, ironically, inside of Israel’s own universities), so it is no surprise that the litany of Marxist-tainted protests against the oppressive Zionist regime show themselves here as justification for the shunning of Israel scholars from campuses worldwide. The problem, however, is that this view of Israel is the result of a long campaign of historical distortion, outright lies, and propaganda on the part of the Arab world and their apologists and fellow travelers in the West.
That academics so carelessly throw about politically-loaded and inaccurate terms when discussing Israel and sanctifying the Palestinians — words like “apartheid,” “colonization,” “occupation,” “right of return,” and something imaginatively labeled as “Israel’s ongoing scholasticide” — indicates exactly why a boycott that seeks to make absolute moral judgments is bound to be perilous, especially for academics who give the pretense of standing for values of academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, a respect for history and law, and open debate over a complex geopolitical problem.
A boycott barring all Israeli academics from participating in U.S. academic endeavors is also defective because it necessarily must assume that all Israeli scholars — regardless of their political orientation and social values — are painted with the same moral brush and deserve to be condemned and excluded merely because of the perceived sins of the nation in which they live. Even more insidious is the aspect of the boycott initiated recently by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) which would require a visiting Israeli scholar to specifically and publicly denounce his or her government’s recent actions in Gaza, exactly the type of perverse political “litmus test” that would ordinarily draw howls of indignant protests from the Left-leaning professoriate on campuses everywhere.
And if the boycotters are comfortable expressing their disapproval with the moral character of Israel’s scholars and pledge unwavering support for “Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly,” should not they also look at the values and educational missions of Palestinian campuses in Gaza and the West Bank they purport to champion? The would-be boycotters may be frustrated that Israeli academics have not distanced themselves from their own government’s military actions, but the same cannot be said of students at Al-Najah University, for example, who fondly remembered the outbreak of the Intifada by constructing a macabre attraction called "The Sbarro Cafe Exhibition," named for the location of a 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizza parlor where 15 Jews were murdered and dozens more wounded. Created not as a memorial but as an inspiration for further terror-laden savagery, the diorama included scattered pizza slices amid Israeli body parts, splattered blood, calls to martyrdom with Koran and Kalashnikovs close by.
Even the tranquility of a university setting, where this ideological stew can normally boil unmolested, was shattered with the 2007 internecine violence in Gaza between factions of Hamas and Fatah. Though the boycotters excoriate Israel because, as one of their complaints goes, Palestinian educational institutions have been weakened by Israeli oppression, the normally insulated college setting was shattered when Palestinian Authority forces, believing it was being used as a staging area for Hamas rocket launches, stormed the 17,000-student Islamic University in Gaza, setting the entire campus ablaze, destroying books in its library, and gutting offices, classrooms, and the student center and causing $10,000,000 in damages.
The notion that universities ought to facilitate a range of opinions and ways of thinking about complex issues should be at the core of academic freedom and a university’s overall mission. It requires, though, that campuses allow many different views and perspectives and do not try to exclude unpopular thought from being heard in the proverbial marketplace of ideas. Concern for the long-suffering Palestinians may be a commendable effort, but the isolation and demonization of Israeli scholars as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour,” observes commentator Melanie Phillips, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending.