London

The move to boycott two Israeli universities by Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) was a bad idea, but the faculty union’s decision on May 26 to reverse the boycott did little to advance academic freedom while handing a victory to the defenders of Israeli domination. Indeed, the whole episode was a tragedy that needn’t have happened.

The initial boycott was problematic for a number of reasons. By singling out Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, proponents of a boycott ended up arguing specific cases rather than general principles. By scheduling the vote on the original boycott motion for a Saturday–and on the eve of Passover–despite objections from Jewish members that they would not be able to attend, the pro-boycott forces seemed to rely on procedural shenanigans rather than open debate. By letting British activists rather than Palestinians take the lead, they weakened the analogy to South Africa, their supposed inspiration. Whatever the merits of their case, the boycotters’ tactics made defeat inevitable, raising and then cruelly dashing Palestinian hopes for the sake of a sanctimonious gesture.

Even Jews who don’t immediately think of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses might recall the Arab boycott against Israel–a boycott that long predated the 1967 war, and whose echo in the current campaign made many suspect that the ultimate object was not just the end of the occupation but the liquidation of the “Zionist entity.” Palestinians are under no obligation to defer to Jewish sensitivities, but anyone interested in creating a broad, effective campaign to end the occupation ought to at least pause before picking up the boycott weapon. Still, there were Jews on both sides of the debate.

As were academics. Hebrew University professor Baruch Kimmerling wrote that he agreed “with most of the reasons raised in support of this call,” yet felt that as a last bastion of dissent inside Israel the academy had to be protected. Ilan Pappe, like Kimmerling a prominent Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, argued in favor of boycotting his own university. Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi opposed the boycott; so did Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. The Palestinian teachers’ union favored it. Dividing people who all agree on the justice of the Palestinian cause is not a winning tactic.

If the boycott was a bad idea, why not be glad it was defeated? First, because whatever the effect on academic freedom, this is also a victory for an already overweening, powerful pro-Israel lobby whose aggressive policing of acceptable opinion has done more to poison intellectual debate on Israel and Palestine than a dozen boycott motions. The Anti-Defamation League, whose devotion to academic freedom led it to threaten a counter-boycott of British universities, had every reason to celebrate. And while boycott opponents may argue that their triumph was not a victory for Ariel Sharon, Palestinians will register yet another defeat. “Palestinian civil society was thrilled,” boycott campaigner Hilary Rose told me. “They think the cavalry of the world is coming to help them.” Now, presumably, they know better.

The decisive margin in favor of repealing the boycott revealed only the current balance of forces within the British academy. Still, as the rhetorical fog generated by the controversy disperses, and since the issues raised are likely to recur, perhaps it’s worth clarifying a few points:

§ A boycott is not a bomb–or a blacklist. A boycott may be a blunt instrument, but it is not an act of terrorism. Andrew Rubin of Georgetown and others who objected to the AUT boycott nonetheless argue that as a nonviolent means of exerting political, moral and economic pressure the boycott is “a crucial political strategy that should not be dismissed out of hand.” For all its flaws, the AUT boycott targeted institutions, not individuals–though language allowing exceptions for academics supportive of Palestinian rights could be read as imposing a political or ethnic litmus test.

§ Academic freedom is not the issue. The AUT has previously passed motions boycotting two British universities over pay and conditions; Fiji was also the target of an AUT boycott following the coup on the island in 2000. None of these were remotely controversial. Nor did most of the voices raised against the AUT boycott protest the campaign of systematic intimidation in American universities waged by such pro-Israel groups as Campus Watch. And in a political landscape dominated by military checkpoints, tank incursions, land seizures, house demolitions and targeted assassinations, and where many Palestinian students now find themselves walled off, literally, from their own universities, it seems obscene to repeat platitudes about “the freest possible…movement of scholars and ideas.” Where were the American defenders of academic freedom when Iman al-Hams, wearing a school uniform and carrying only a book bag, was executed by Israeli troops despite being described, in a military radio recording of the incident played on Israeli television, as “a girl of about 10″?

§ Israel is not South Africa. The most serious piece of intellectual dishonesty by boycott campaigners was their deliberate ambiguity over whether the boycott was intended to end the occupation or delegitimize the State of Israel. Palestinians have every reason to regard the creation of Israel as a “nakba“–a catastrophe. But Jews have equal reason to suspect the motives of anyone who would grant national rights to Palestinians but withhold them from Jews. In the long run some of us might favor a binational state. At the moment, though, both sides have to start by recognizing the reality of their adversaries’ attachment to the land.

§ The AUT is not the ANC. The South African academic boycott began as a simple pledge not to accept or apply for posts at universities that practiced racial discrimination. The wider ANC boycott came only after a massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience had been brutally suppressed by South African authorities; the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid never deliberately targeted civilians. By comparing themselves to the ANC, the AUT and their Palestinian allies are trading on moral credit they have not earned.

A boycott is a simple approach to a complex problem–a thumb on the scales of justice. Those of us on the left who thought this boycott was a bad idea must now find more effective ways to tip those scales. We need to make those who agreed with us see that until the Palestinians have justice, cries for peace will fall on deaf ears. And we need to prove to those who disagreed with us that when we talk of reconciliation, we do not mean surrender. This boycott was the wrong answer. But the question remains: If you are opposed to the occupation–if you are opposed to the humiliation of the Palestinian people–what are you going to do about it?