The gesture politics of an Israel boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Geoffrey Alderman | The Guardian | 22 July 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 so.
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 Egypt?
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 countries.
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 they gave.
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.