gesture politics of an Israel boycott
July 22, 2002
The demand by some British academics for a "boycott"
of Israel is significant mainly for what it tells us about the prejudices
and short-sightedness of the boycotters.
As "gesture" politics I admit it has a certain interest,
and it will undoubtedly provide material for scholarly articles.
But, make no mistake, it will have no effect - none at all - upon
Israeli policy in the Disputed Territories.
The lead taken by the campus academic unions in building this folly
is deeply regrettable. The National Association of Teachers in Further
and Higher Education (NATFHE) has called upon UK universities to
sever all their links with universities in Israel. None will do
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) has shown a tad less
political immaturity, by calling merely for a cessation of European
Union funding of cultural and research links with Israel. This is
unlikely to happen.
The AUT resolution was aimed only at Israel. Its ostensible purpose
was to bring pressure to bear on Israel, via the EU, to force the
democratically elected government of Israel to ignore its popular
mandate by making concessions to which the Israeli electorate happens
to be opposed.
What interests me is that the resolution did not call for EU pressure
on Arab governments to - for example - recognise the Jewish state,
or to cease funding the campaign of terror to which Israel has been
exposed. Why not?
I am not sure that it is the legitimate business of unions of university
teachers to meddle in international affairs. I admit that it is
legitimate for them to interest themselves in the plight of academics
and academic institutions around the world. But, strange to say,
neither the AUT nor NATFHE has shown much if any interest in the
numerous examples of repression of academics in Islamic states.
For example, last year, the Egyptian government put 28 scholars
on trial for "impugning Egypt's international reputation."
Many were imprisoned, some with hard labour. Why didn't the AUT
or NATFHE demand a boycott of Egyptian universities? Why did Professors
Hilary and Steven Rose, who have taken a leading part in the Israel
boycott movement, not demand a cessation of all academic links with
Had NATFHE or the AUT demanded a boycott of Israel because of -
say - the systematic abuse of academic freedom in Israeli universities,
I might have taken some notice. However, such a regime does not
exist, whereas it is more or less a way of life in many Islamic
Some academics have tried to use the example of South Africa in
the apartheid era to justify their demands for a boycott of Israel.
The analogy is fundamentally flawed.
The racist policies of white-only South African governments impacted
directly on the work of South African universities. I boycotted
the South African state. That is to say, I refused, insofar as I
could, to lend it any legitimacy. For instance, I declined an offer
from the South African government of an all-expenses-paid trip to
see the country for myself.
But I did not boycott South African institutions of higher education.
I maintained my personal links with South African colleagues, for
I knew that they valued these links not least for the hope and encouragement
Israel is not a racist state. Jews of all races live in Israel.
Arabs and Christians may attend Israeli universities. God knows,
Israel is not a perfect society. But it is a great deal less imperfect
than scores of other countries in which the repression of freedom
of expression and of academic activity is widespread and systematic.
Now we learn that a professor at UMIST has taken it into her head
to dismiss two scholars from the editorial boards of learned journals
which she edits (and apparently owns) merely because these scholars
happened to be Israeli. This action is utterly contemptible and
is in my view a brazen affront to academic values. It has been rightly
condemned by other scholars around the world, by the National Union
of Students and by the Education Secretary.
Those academics who have led the boycott movement have indeed opened
a Pandora's box. But if they were now to make amends, by calling
for a boycott of Mona Baker (the UMIST professor in question) I
should certainly join them, and if I did so I would be acting only
to uphold the academic values by which I live.
The pursuit of these values depends crucially on personal contact
and interaction. I shall continue to maintain contact with academics
around the world, irrespective of the societies in which they live
and work, and of the political or military environments in which
they may find themselves.
· Professor Geoffrey Alderman is Academic Dean of American
InterContinental University - London. He writes in a personal capacity.