Two weeks ago, the British University and College Union (UCU), the union of university academics, passed an absurd and deeply offensive resolution calling on all union members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.” In plain English, the UCU is encouraging its members to agree to a boycott of Israeli academia–to cut ties with any Israel-based professors, conferences, journals, or institutions. This preposterous move presents itself in response to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Now let me start by saying there are legitimate reasons one might have concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (although, frankly, a bigger concern might be Palestinians’ treatment of the Palestinians, given Hamas and Fatah’s nasty new habit of throwing each other’s members off of rooftops). Even for those who are concerned about Israeli policies, however, there are several reasons that a boycott should be seen as a ludicrous piece of theatrical grandstanding at best and a shocking display of anti-Semitism at worst. First, the whole core premise of academic freedom is appallingly disregarded when certain perspectives are systematically delegitimized in what Burt Siegel, executive director of the Philly Jewish Community Relations Council (full disclosure: and my congregant), calls “the worst kind of intellectual McCarthyism.” Add to this the fact that many Israeli academics who would be penalized under the proposed boycott are on the political left and share concerns about Israel’s policies in the territories. Rather than furthering the Palestinian cause, the boycott would only strengthen those on Israel’s right who see a systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel.
And they’re right. What makes this campaign so outrageous and dangerous is that it punishes Israel’s actions, which are relatively minor, even as it stays silent about flagrant human rights abuses and genocide in countries like China and Darfur. The UCU is completely silent when it comes to these countries and maintains relationships with human rights abusers around the world, including with Serbia during the height of the genocide. And what’s worse is that the UCU is not alone in this hypocritical effort to single out Israel. The Presbyterian Church recently voted to divest from Israel; the National Synod of the United Church of Christ has a similar resolution for Israeli divestment on the table for their coming meeting, while the question of divestment from Sudan isn’t even on the agenda. In other words, it’s clear that Israel is being singled out for isolation, even as organizations carry on business as usual with far worse offenders. The truth of the matter is that the UCU boycott will do nothing to help the Palestinian cause; it isn’t pro-Palestinian, it’s just anti-Israeli. The true aim of the UCU isn’t to change Israeli policy or help Palestinians. Its purpose is to delegtimize Israel and turn it into a pariah state. That is why it is so insidious and that is why it must be opposed.