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Should British Academics, or Rock Bands, Boycott Israel?

By ALAN COWELL, NEw York Times, May 30, 2007
Source: Should British Academics, or Rock Bands, Boycott Israel?

LONDON, May 29 — In what has become an annual rite, British college teachers will debate Wednesday whether they should punish their Israeli colleagues, in solidarity with Palestinians calling for boycotts, and whether it would be anti-Semitic to do so.

The questions reflect some of the deepest and most ambiguous strands in the history of a land that issued the Balfour declaration in 1917, offering “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine in almost the same breath as it promised Arab independence — and sent Lawrence of Arabia to help fight for the Arab cause.

Even earlier, did Shakespeare’s characterization of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” sow an English seed of a Jewish stereotype that blossomed in the most gruesome chapters of the 20th century? Or, to reverse the argument, are the accusations of British anti-Semitism — or pro-Arabism — misplaced, reflecting not so much bias as sympathy for the perceived underdog?

For several years, two major associations of British higher education instructors have wrestled with those issues. Last year the larger of the groups urged its members to consider such a boycott, and two years ago the smaller organization first voted for a full boycott of two Israeli universities and then rescinded that resolution.

Now the two have merged into a single organization, the University and College Union, comprising 120,000 members and amplifying this voice from the lecture halls and seminar rooms.

The agenda for their discussions, which includes acknowledging a deepening anti-Semitism on campuses, seems intended to support their argument that criticism of Israel does not imply criticism of Jews in general.

The first item of business for the first congress of the University and College Union addresses matters under the heading “Equality,” noting that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain rose 31 percent from 2005 to 2006. A resolution stating, “Anti-Semitism is becoming acceptable in the U.K., including on university campuses” is to be voted on.

But that debate, said Dan Ashley, a spokesman for the University and College Union, is separate from another resolution, which “condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation” of Palestinian lands, “which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.”

The resolution says that “in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism cannot be construed as anti-Semitic.”

Defenders of Israeli academia have long denied that Israeli universities merit such opprobrium and call boycotts of this kind a form of McCarthyism. In support of the resolutions to be debated Wednesday, though, a group called the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called Israeli universities “an integral and complicit part of the structures of oppression in Israel.”

The conference resolution to be voted on does not call directly for a boycott, but seeks to “encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.”

The resolution on Israel is one of a handful relating to overseas issues in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Colombia, but the prominence of the Israel debate in recent years has provoked concern among Jewish figures here. “It’s the singling out of Israel” that is troubling, said Jeremy Newmark, a spokesman for a coalition of Jewish groups opposing the proposed boycott. “The motivation may not be anti-Semitic, but the effect could certainly discriminate against Jews.”

To press their case, supporters of a boycott frequently liken Israel to South Africa in the apartheid era, a comparison rejected by most Israelis but made vocally by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The organization recently urged the Rolling Stones not to play in Israel.

Those sentiments found an echo in April when the National Union of Journalists, with 40,000 members, voted to boycott Israeli goods to protest what it called Israel’s military adventures. It called the action “similar to those boycotts in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”

Some, of course, find such talk contemptible. Prof. Steven Weinberg, an American Nobel laureate in physics from the University of Texas at Austin, canceled a visit to Imperial College, London, after the National Union of Journalists’ action.

“I know that some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel, rather than generally against Jews,” he said in a letter to the British college setting out his reasons for canceling the trip, which had been planned for July. “But given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism.”

Professor Weinberg’s letter was published in The Guardian.

Some delegates have suggested in the conference agenda that the rise in anti-Semitism here is “part of a more general rise in racism associated with the Islamophobic and racist scapegoating engendered by the supporters of the war in Iraq.”

For its part, the leadership of the University and College Union seems to want to persuade its members not to dwell on the issue.

“I simply do not believe that the majority of U.C.U. members support an academic boycott of Israel or that they believe it should be a major priority for the union,” Sally Hunt, the group’s general secretary, plans to say, according to an advance text of her remarks.

“Most want us to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides — not just those we agree with,” her text says. “It’s the approach we have in Zimbabwe and Colombia, and it’s the approach I think we should have here.”

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