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.