Commentary: Boycott Israel

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Various versions of a Boycott Israel petition are circulating on the internet and elsewhere. Some target products made in Israel, others are aimed at any U.S. company that does business with Israel. WNYC's Brian Lehrer opposes these campaigns, and finds one in particular very disturbing.

Brian: It's the one that calls for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions.

Written by British academics Steven and Hillary Rose, it says, among other things, that the boycott is for Israel's policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories and its denial of basic human rights such as the right of refugees to return to their homes and lands.

Ironically, such a declaration belies an anti-intellectualism toward the Middle East in academic circles. Serious advocates of the Palestinian cause these days no longer demand a right of return, understanding that, taken literally, such a right would demographically overwhelm Israel and destroy it as a Jewish state. Even the Saudi government, in promoting its recent peace plan, acknowledges that some accommodation for refugees other than return must be considered.

In Britain, where the academic and cultural boycott originated, it has had a particularly perverse effect. That's where two Israeli scholars were fired from the boards of prestigious academic journals, simply for being Israeli scholars. Never mind that Miriam Schlesinger of Bar Ilan University has been chair of the Isareli branch of Amnesty Int'l, and continues to be critical of her government. She recently signed a petition protesting the enforced closure of Palestinian universities.

Just the fact that she teaches at an Israeli university was enough to get her removed from the journal, because the editor joined the boycott. What cause is served by treating her the same as Ariel Sharon?

And what cause is served by the boycott?

For one thing, it looks to me like an intellectual dirty trick. It's a not-so-subtle attempt to equate Israel with South Africa, the last target of a mass international isolation campaign. It therefore looks like an effort to revive the lie, long ago renounced by the UN, that Zionism=racism - or put another way, that the very existence of Israel is illegitimate.

But apartheid, of course, was an unambiguous, unilateral racist evil for which an economic and cultural boycott was appropriate. The Middle East conflict is highly complex, with bad actors in many quarters including Arab governments, the PLO, and too often, yes, in my opinion, the government of Israel.

Academics, of all people, who are allegedly expert in analyzing information, should grasp the complexity. They shouldn't need to be reminded about the 50 year history of Arab governments overtly opposing the creation of Israel, refusing a partition plan, going to war to try to destroy Israel multiple times, and deflecting public criticism of their own totalitarian regimes by ratcheting up hatred of Israel, as if Israel was the source of the problems in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

But the boycott Israel campaign will have none of the inconvenient nuances.

And it's tinged with anti-Semitism. I can understand Palestinians wanting to boycott Israel, with which they are at war and by which they are being occupied. But who among the outside academics who have joined the campaign expend similar energy on fighting the oppression of the Kurds by Turkey, of Tibetans by China, or any other ongoing domination of the weak by the strong? Why do only strong Jews seem to bother them enough to act?

Finally, Academics are supposed to be good at comparing and quantifying variables. So where, I wonder, is the outrage over last week's bombing at Hebrew University? This, of all terrorist attacks, should have produced an instant front of international academic solidarity. It was a direct assault not only on an institution of higher learning, but on a rare multicultural one where Arabs and Jews think and reason together. Pluralism itself, held dear in theory by academia, was attacked. But I haven't yet seen a petition drive aimed at boycotting organizations that do business with Hamas. Just a boycott of Israel. Don't join it.