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The Contemporary Fight Against Anti-Semitism

The University College Union on May 30 passed two boycott resolutions. Resolution 30 endorsed the call for an academic boycott of Israel by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). It also committed union funds to promoting it on campuses. But it did not commit the union of university teachers itself to a boycott. Resolution 31 condemned the USA and EU boycott of the Palestinian Authority (that is, the “suspension of aid”). There is symmetry here. Thirty calls for a boycott; 31 calls for the ending of a boycott. Israel’s universities, which are liberal institutions, are to be shunned; the government of the PA, which is governed by a party committed to the destruction of Israel, is to be embraced.

These resolutions are the successors to boycott resolutions passed by the predecessor academic unions, the AUT in 2005, and NATFHE in 2006. The AUT resolutions purported to justify a boycott of named Israeli universities by making specific - though false - allegations against them. The NATFHE resolution, which was much like UCU resolution 30, “invited members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals and to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies.” The AUT resolutions were reversed following a special conference; the NATFHE resolution lapsed upon the union’s dissolution only a few days later.

The UCU resolutions are in a 2007 series of boycott resolutions. They follow the National Union of Journalists resolution, and precede the UNISON resolutions. The NUJ resolution called for “a boycott of Israeli goods similar to those boycotts in the struggles against apartheid South Africa”. One of the UNISON resolutions affirms the union’s “right and desire to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people”. These resolutions open with a very one-sided, hostile account of events in the Middle East. Britain has become the boycott nation of the world – but in relation to Israel alone. It is an ugly obsession.

There are two contexts relevant to the passing of the UCU resolutions.

First, the union context. The UCU and its predecessor unions have been failing for some time to defend the interests of their members. According to Shalom Lappin, a London University professor and longstanding Peace Now activist who has just resigned from the UCU, “the rise of the boycott campaign in British professional unions coincides with their precipitous decline as effective agents of collective bargaining and industrial democracy. The constituent predecessors of the UCU, the AUT and NATFHE, had consistently failed to address the long-term decline in academic salaries and deep under-investment in UK universities. They showed themselves to be largely impotent in their attempts to protect their members' wages and working conditions. While tuition fees have soared, the Government has made no serious attempt to correct the deterioration that threatens British institutions of higher education. It has also recently imposed deep cuts on research funding. The impresarios of the annual boycott hunt … have substituted the campaign against Israel for serious union activity addressing these issues.”

Second, the Middle East context. There are two aspects here. There is the character of the political opposition to Israel, and there is the condition of the Palestinian national movement. As for the former, the boycotters have aligned themselves with Hamas, a frankly anti-Semitic party, Hezbollah, another frankly anti-Semitic party, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a frankly anti-Semitic politician. All are unreconciled to Israel’s existence, wish it harm and are committed to an account of its power and standing that is utterly dependent on classical anti-Semitic tropes and texts. As for the latter, the Palestinians have never been further from possessing the collective self-discipline, and the constructive engagement in building state institutions, that are necessary to achieving statehood. The collapse of Palestinian morale may prove irreversible. (We hope not – we remain committed to a two-state solution.) In combination, these two aspects explain the re-emergence of the “one-state solution” favoured by most boycotters – the destruction of Israel, and an implicit acknowledgment that the Palestinians are incapable of building their own state.

It has been noted, not least because the boycotters themselves loudly insist upon it, that the boycott cause has Jewish supporters. Though not advancing fresh arguments in favour of a boycott, these Jews have made two distinctive contributions to the boycott campaign. First, they maintain that as Jews they are under a moral duty to campaign for a boycott. Their Jewish conscience requires them, they believe, to side with Israel’s enemies. Second, they give cover to non-Jewish boycotters accused of anti-Semitism. An anti-Semitic position, they believe, ceases to be anti-Semitic when adopted by a Jew. These absurd, ignominious beliefs have attracted only a few Jews (the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta, for example, and some secularists), though they have been much exploited by the boycott movement.

Are academic boycotts ever justified?

What happens when people are boycotted? The ordinary courtesies of life are no longer extended to them. They are not acknowledged in the street; their goods are not bought, their services are not employed; invitations they hitherto could rely upon dry up; they find themselves isolated in company. The boycott is an act of violence, though of a paradoxical kind – one of recoil and expulsion rather than assault. It announces a certain moral distaste; it is always self-congratulatory. “I am too fine a person to have anything to do with those people,” the boycotter says to himself. “They will have to reform themselves before I am ready to admit them back into my circle. They are indecent.” Boycotting is thus an activity especially susceptible to hypocrisy. It implies moral judgments on both boycotter and boycotted.

It follows that all boycotts are problematic. Academic boycotts are especially problematic, however. This is because they violate two important principles. One of these principles is peculiar to academic life, the other principle is best represented in academic life. The first principle is known as “the universality of science and learning”; the second principle is freedom of expression, which here implies freedom of association too. We will refer to them collectively as “the two academic principles”.

Universality of science and learning: This is the principle that academics do not discriminate against colleagues on the basis of factors that are irrelevant to their academic work. There are three justifications of this principle: the advance of science is potentially of net benefit to all mankind; the value of a given contribution to science ought to be judged on its own merits; scientists’ co-operation valuably transcends boundaries of race, citizenship, religion.

Freedom of expression: Expression is one of the principal means by which we realise ourselves. It is by speaking or writing that we discover who we are. To limit or deny self-expression is thus an attack at the root of what it is to be human. Now freedom of expression must incorporate freedom of address. It is not sufficient for my freedom of expression for me simply to be free to speak. What matters to me is that people should also be free to hear me. There should at least be the possibility of dialogue. Boycotts put a barrier in front of the speaker. He can speak but he is prevented from communicating. When he addresses another, that other turns away.

These values are serious – even, momentous. When they are given their due weight, can an academic boycott ever be justified? We suggest that the answer is yes – though only rarely. Prima facie, a boycott may be justified:

- When the person or institution to be boycotted does not meet the criterion of being a scholar or place of learning: This is a criterion with minimal content, but it would exclude, for example, the Holocaust-denying “Institute of Historical Review” and the professional anti-Semites who contribute to its defamatory activities. It is not a place of learning, and they are not scholars. They are mere impersonators. They may therefore be “boycotted” without fear of compromising either of the two principles.

- When the person or institution to be boycotted violates either or both of the two principles: For example, where freedom of research is denied to the employees of the institution. Another application of this exception is the counter-boycott. It meets the boycotter with a reciprocal gesture of rejection. A counter-boycott is justified in the face of a boycott. It is not open to the same objections as the boycott itself.

These are the two exceptions. Do Israeli institutions or academics come within either one of them?

Is the academic boycott of Israel justified?

Beyond formulaic denunciations of Israel, the boycotters rarely offer a rational account of why it is right to shun Israel or its academic institutions. The supporters of the UCU resolutions, for example, relied instead upon the unargued assertions that a boycott was justified because:

- First, Israel's universities are complicit in its misdeeds. Some boycotters allege active complicity; others, a complicity that arises either through failure to condemn the State’s misdeeds or because the universities are themselves organs of the state.

- Second, Israel’s misdeeds justify the boycott regardless of the universities' own complicity in them. The universities are an important aspect of the prestige that Israel enjoys in the world, and this prestige is not deserved because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

Israel’s misdeeds for these purposes (according to PACBI) comprise the “ethnic cleansing” during the 1948 War, the “military occupation and colonisation” following the 1967 War, and the “entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.” That is to say, the “misdeeds” are constitutive of the State itself, and can only be remedied by Israel embracing its own extinction. (That these “misdeeds” are either false accounts of the relevant facts, or consequences of much more complex processes in which Arab aggression played a significant part, is of no concern to PACBI or its fellow travelling supporters in Britain.) PACBI desires academics worldwide to boycott Israel’s universities until Israel itself disappears. It does not wish to remedy an injustice, it wants instead to perpetrate a greater one. The PACBI model resolution, to remind ourselves, is the one endorsed by the UCU.

Even if true, which they are not, these assertions would not justify a boycott. Complicity in the state’s misdeeds, still less the mere fact of those misdeeds, violates neither of the two academic principles. In any event, it is the utter irrationality of the boycotters’ position, its disconnectedness from the ordinary canons of argument – the marshalling of evidence, the advancing of coherent theses, the acknowledging of objections, and so on – that must strike, urgently and forcibly, any disinterested person of good will.

Consider, for example, the “complicity” complaint. It does not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Any doubts on the matter would be dispelled by reading the “Open Letter from Faculty Members” at Courage to Refuse.

Or consider the boycotters’ explanation that they are merely responding to a request for assistance from another trades union – in this case, a Palestinian one. First of all, this is just not true – the PACBI call was itself a response to the activities of British boycotters. But in any event, requests for assistance have to be judged on their merit – trades union solidarity does not trump considerations of justice. Furthermore, if the boycotters limit themselves to responding to formal requests for assistance, they exclude from consideration the very parts of the world that should be of greatest concern to them – that is, those nations in which autonomous organisations such as trades unions are not free to operate.

Or consider the boycotters’ defensive position, in response to the citing of (say) Iran or North Korea or Saudi Arabia, that Israel should be held to a higher standard than those other nations because it is a democracy. The position in turn exists in two versions:

- First, because Israel is a democracy the entire people are to be associated with the actions of the Government. The effect is to give a free pass to tyrannies and to disclose a basic misunderstanding of the nature of democratic accountability. Democracies make rulers accountable to the people; they do not make the people accountable to third parties. To think otherwise is to embrace a pseudo-democratic version of the belief in collective national guilt.

- Second, because Israel purports to respect law and human rights, it should be sanctioned if it fails to do so. But there is not a single state in the world that does not purport to respect law and human rights. No nation is exempt from judgment on its human rights record, and every nation is to judged by reference to the same criteria. When the boycotters exclude from consideration the many nations with far worse human rights records than Israel, they are merely practising sophistry in defence of their own double standards.

We have chosen just three arguments made by the boycotters. There are others. But not one has any more substance than the three we have analysed here. Indeed, it would appear that there is not a single, bad cause in contemporary times that has been more poorly advocated than the boycott of Israel. Given the essential irrationality, then, of this cause, it is reasonable to ask whether it is also tainted by anti-Semitism.

Is the academic boycott of Israel anti-Semitic?

It may be enough to say, “the boycotters are wrong.” They fail to make out their case; their reasoning is not “philosophically respectable” (the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example, says this). And one may leave it at that. But this does not quite meet the case. One senses that more is involved here. The boycotters are not just adopting bad politics, which is in turn derived from faulty thinking. There is an edge of malice to their campaign. Their desire to hurt, to punish, outstrips their ability even to identify with any precision their targets – all Israeli universities without exception? All academics within those universities? Israeli academics in non-Israeli universities? They cannot say. And so the question arises – does this malice have a name? To be blunt – is it anti-Semitic?

There are two reasons for regarding the boycotters’ position as an anti-Semitic one.

First, the academic boycott resonates with earlier boycotts of Jews. The history of anti-Semitism is in part the history of boycotts of Jews. Consider three representative moments.

- In Medieval times, Christians were not allowed to enter a Jewish synagogue; they were not allowed to celebrate a holiday with Jews; they were not allowed to go as guests to Jewish banquets and anyone thus “defiled by their impieties” was in turn to be shunned by Christians (to quote from a canonical collection). It would be wrong to have “fellowship with God’s enemies”. Medieval England was especially active in excluding or “boycotting” Jews. For example, at the 1222 Canterbury Council, Archbishop Langton threatened with excommunication any Christians who had any familiar dealings with Jews or even sold them provisions. In his first pastoral circular following election as Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste enjoined his archdeacons, “as far as you are able, study to prevent the dwelling of Christians with Jews”.

- In the very first weeks of the third Reich, on April 1, 1933, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores. Signs were posted “Don’t Buy from Jews” and “The Jews Are Our Misfortune”. Uniformed Nazis, some armed with rifles, stationed themselves in front of Jewish business premises, and barred customers from entry. Cars circulated in the street broadcasting slogans condemning buying from Jews. The Nazi boycott was intended to isolate German Jews from their non-Jewish fellow citizens. In mid-March, upon the Anschluss with Germany, Austria’s Jewish merchants faced a boycott, enforced by thugs in brown shirts or by marauding youths wearing the swastika armband, ready to take savage reprisals against those who ignored or defied them.

- And in 1945, barely 12 years later, the Arab League initiated a boycott of Jewish Palestinian businesses. It prohibited Arab States from doing business both with “Zionists”, and with any third parties who themselves might be doing business with Zionists. The object was to isolate and weaken the Palestinian Jewish community. One year later, the ban was extended to prohibit contact with “anything Jewish” (as the Palestine Post reported, quoting a League announcement). This economic warfare continues to the present day. In the 1970s, the USA made compliance with the boycott illegal; most European states, on the other hand, colluded with it.

Each boycott derives from a principle of exclusion: Jews and/or the Jewish State, are to be excluded from public life, from the community of nations, because they are dangerous and malign. We therefore see an essential continuity here, but even if we are wrong about this, there is no doubt that the boycott has indeed been an essential tool of anti-Semites for at least a thousand years. And who but the crassest of individuals, those least sensitive to the burden of anti-Semitism’s history on Jews, would wish to impose precisely that sanction on the Jewish State today?

Second, it is predicated on the defamation of Jews. The Jewish State, in pursuance of its racist ideology, is perceived as pure aggressor, and the Palestinians are perceived as pure victims. The PACBI boycotters and their UCU fellow travellers would deny to Jews the rights that they upholds for other, comparable peoples. They adhere to the principle of national self-determination, except in the Jews’ case. They affirm international law, except in Israel’s case. They are outraged by the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, but are untroubled (say) by the Islamic nature of Iran or of Saudi Arabia. They regard Zionism as uniquely pernicious, rather than as merely another nationalism (just as earlier generations of anti-Semites regarded Jewish capitalists as uniquely pernicious, rather than merely as members of the capitalist class). They are indifferent to Jewish suffering, while being sensitive to the suffering of non-Jews. They dismiss anti-Semitism as a phantasm exploited by Jews to pursue their own goals. They overstate, on every occasion, and beyond reason, any case that could be made against Israel’s actions or policies, and wildly overstates the significance of the Israel/Palestinian conflict in world affairs – indeed, they put Jews at the centre of world affairs. Many of these “anti-Zionists” are either anti-Semites or fellow travellers with anti-Semitism; longstanding anti-Semites now embrace “anti-Zionism” as a cover for their Jew-hatred. This is because, in relation to Israel, the anti-Semite finds a protected voice. The desire to destroy Jews has been reconfigured as the desire to destroy or dismantle the Jewish State.

Boycotters may have Jewish friends, some may be Jews themselves – but in supporting a boycott they have put themselves in anti-Semitism’s camp.

It is tempting to say: “The boycotters’ intentions may not be anti-Semitic, but the effects of a boycott are.” This lets the boycotters off the hook. Take a step back, and ask the most fundamental of questions. What is anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism consists, first, of beliefs about Jews that are both false and hostile, and second, of injurious things said to or about Jews, or done to them, in consequence of those beliefs. It is no enlargement at all to rewrite this definition as follows. Anti-Semitism consists, first, of beliefs about Jews or the Jewish State that are both false and hostile, and second, of injurious things said to or about Jews or the Jewish State, or done to them, in consequence of those beliefs. Anti-Semites wrong Jews and the Jewish State, and they are wrong about Jews and the Jewish State. Many anti-Semites also want to hurt Jews and the Jewish State or deny to them freedoms or rights enjoyed by non-Jews or the generality of States.

The fight against the boycott is one aspect, perhaps the most urgent aspect, of the contemporary fight against anti-Semitism.

Anthony Julius is a consultant at the legal firm Mishcon de Reya and Visiting Professor in the English Department at Birkbeck College, London University. Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

 This article can be found here.

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