Why Liberals Should Oppose Academic BoycottsPosted: April 13, 2013
The Teachers Union of Ireland has unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academia. Heartened though I was by the hostility towards Galloway’s walkout at the Christ Church debate (his opponent, as he discovered, was – gasp! – born in Israel), it’s not an attitude matched in a lot of left-wing circles.
The much-quoted precedent was that of the anti-apartheid boycott in the 60s, one which was never as widely supported as pseudo-historians would have us believe. Whatever the case it would be ridiculous and illiberal to apply it to Israel:
- No matter what the soundbites splutter, Israel is not an apartheid state. Arabs can vote for the Knesset. Gaza and the West Bank are excluded from the political process because they are not part of Israel, and that is the injustice here. A people without a state have created another: in Edward Said’s phrase, the Palestinians are the “the victims of the victims”.
- The inevitable boycott is therefore indiscriminate towards political outlook: its characterisation of everyone in Israel as pro-occupation and anti-arab is itself a form of racism.
- The result of this is counterproductive: it equates academics who are critical of the government’s policies – like Gideon Levy or Avi Shlaim – with Eretz Israel racists like Habayit Hayehudi. Israeli academics in Britain would lose their security based simply on the nation of their birth.
- Even if these motivations were somehow purified, and the boycott became unambiguously anti-expansionist and anti-racist, it would still be a battle for censorship. Freedom of expression is the most liberal principle any society has ever had: it is the starting point of all intellectual progress. If you cannot beat a Zionist in debate then step aside and let someone else. Silencing them achieves nothing.
- And it doesn’t work. It’s easily avoided and had virtually no impact on ending South African apartheid. Much like the frivolity that is the Gaza flotilla, it can only be understood as a symbol. And, as I say, a racist one at that.
The opposition to racism, to censorship and to the marketplace of ideas – chief emblems of liberalism – is made a mockery of. There are far better ways to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, one which achieves more and abandons less.