This foolish boycott will solve nothing

Published in the Evening Standard

Lord knows, I’ve had my differences with Ken Livingstone, especially when it comes to the politics of the Middle East – but there’s one issue he’s got absolutely right. Last week, to the enormous surprise of much of London’s Jewish community, the mayor agreed with them – and came out against an academic boycott of Israel.

Unfortunately, his intervention came too late. The very next day, Britain’s University and College Union voted to promote the call for a boycott. Now, I was raised to be respectful of teachers and positively reverential towards academics. Which is why it pains me to say that this decision is almost laughably stupid. But it is. If a student had come up with it, he would find it daubed with a thick red line, from top to bottom.

First, it lacks all logical consistency. Let’s say you accept, as I do, that Israel is wrong to be occupying the territories it won in the Six Day war, whose 40th anniversary is being marked this week. Let’s say that that is your reason for boycotting Israel. Then why no boycott of China for its occupation of Tibet? Or of Russia for its brutal war against the Chechens? Or of Sudan, for its killing of hundreds of thousands in Darfur, a murderous persecution described by the US as genocide?

If it’s the ill-treatment of Palestinians in particular that concerns you, then why no boycott of Lebanon, whose army continues to pound the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, killing civilians daily? True, the Lebanese government is not a military occupier. But if occupation is the crime that warrants international ostracism, then why no boycott of American universities? After all, the US is occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. So, for that matter, is Britain. Why do the good men and women of UCU not speak out, by boycotting, say, Oxford, Cambridge and London universities? Why do they not boycott themselves?

Maybe academic freedom is their chief concern. That would make sense, given that they’re academics. But if that was the issue, there would surely be boycotts of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few places where intellectual freedom remains a fond dream. (The awkward truth is that the freest place in the Middle East for an Arab scholar is Israel.) Yet the UCU sees no “moral implications,” to use the language of last week’s resolution, in institutional ties with Damascus, Cairo or Tehran. Only Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

For some reason, the activists pushing for this move believe Israelis should be placed in a unique category of untouchability. Never mind the 655,000 the US and Britain have, on one estimate, killed in Iraq. Never mind the two million displaced in Darfur. Never mind the closed, repressive societies of the Middle East. The Israelis are a people apart, one that must be shunned.

But let’s be charitable and forgive the boycotters their inconsistency. Surely any tactic, even an inconsistent one, is forgivable if it does some good. This, though, is where the combined geniuses of the UCU have really blundered. For a boycott will be hugely counter-productive.

For one thing, Israeli academics are disproportionately represented in Israel’s “peace camp.” The UCU will be boycotting the very people who have done most to draw the Israeli public’s attention to the folly of the occupation, to the very people working to bring an end to this desperate conflict. By their actions, the UCU will embolden the Israeli right who will be able to say, ‘Look, the world hates and isolates us: this is exactly why we have to be militarily strong.’

The second error is more subtle. One of the few things that might make Israel change course would be a shift in diaspora Jewish opinion: those campaigning for Palestinian rights and an end to the occupation need to win over Jewish allies. Yet no tactic is more likely to alienate Jews than a boycott. That’s because the very word has deep and painful resonances for Jews: a boycott of Jewish business was one of the Nazis’ opening moves. No one is equating the current plan with that. But of all the tactics to have chosen, a boycott is the very dumbest one.

Advocates say there’s nothing to worry about, this will be a boycott of institutions, not individuals – a necessary move because no Israeli institution has ever taken a stand against the occupation. This, too, is numb-skulled. When do academic institutions ever take a collective stand against anything? Did Imperial College declare itself against the Iraq war? What was the British Museum’s view of UK policy in Northern Ireland? Of course there was no such thing. Institutions of learning don’t take a stand; individuals do.

Which is why it will be individuals who are ostracised by this action. When you boycott the Hebrew University, you’re not boycotting bricks and mortar but the men and women who teach there. The “institutional” talk is just a ruse designed to make this boycott more palatable. It will still end in the shunning of individuals.

And why? Simply because they are citizens of the wrong country, born with the wrong nationality. In 2003 the Linguistic Society of America declared itself against blacklisting scholars simply because of the actions of their governments. “Such boycotts violate the principle of free scientific interaction and cooperation, and they constitute arbitrary and selective applications of collective punishment.” They also amount to a pretty crass form or discrimination: you can’t come to this conference, because you’ve got the wrong colour passport.

Oh, but none of these arguments stopped the boycott of South Africa, say the pro-blacklisters. Except these situations are completely different. In South Africa, the majority of the people were denied a vote in the state in which they lived. Israelis and Palestinians are, by contrast, two peoples locked in a national conflict which will be resolved only when each has its own, secure state.

Ken Livingstone is right: to launch a boycott of Israel now would hurt, not help the search for the peace that might end this Middle East tragedy. And that, when all the posturing is put to one side, is all that should matter.