Israel

Divestment? Are You Kidding?

Israel the unfair target of selective outrage

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In the 1980s, there was a concerted movement to make South Africa a pariah state because of its policy of racial apartheid. Today, a similar effort is directed at the state of Israel. A week ago, the anti-Israel campaign achieved two significant victories. Britain's National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, one of the country's two leading educators' associations, voted for a boycott of Israeli academics and colleges unless they take a stand against Israel's "apartheid policy." On the same day, the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the largest labor union in Canada, voted for a boycott of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

The British Foreign Office condemned the teachers' boycott as "counterproductive and retrograde." The reaction from Israel was even stronger. The chairman of the Knesset Committee for Science and Technology, Zevulun Orlev, asked the British parliament to "decry the anti-Semitic and racist decision."

Anti-Semitic or not, the movement to boycott Israel is hypocritical, sanctimonious, and quite simply wrong. It is a shocking example of selective outrage. Yes, Israeli policies are a legitimate target for criticism, and even most of Israel's supporters will admit there has been ill-treatment of Palestinians. Yet no one is demanding a boycott of Russian academics over Russia's occupation of Chechnya, and the accompanying atrocities (which dwarf Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories). No one wants to boycott China because of the occupation of Tibet, the persecution of religious minorities, and other abuses by the Chinese regime. No one wants to boycott Saudi Arabia because of its misogyny and religious intolerance.

Partly, this double standard is rooted in the familiar leftist mentality that strenuously condemns bad behavior by Western or pro-Western governments while turning a blind eye to the far worse misdeeds of communist and Third World regimes. But the movement to boycott Israel is especially repulsive for several reasons.

Apartheid-era South Africa, whose pariah status also reflected a double standard, was at least a truly repugnant regime intent on preserving white supremacy. Israel is a flawed democracy intent on preserving itself in the face of forces intent on its destruction.

What's more, the anti-Israel boycott combines this anti-Western, anti-democracy bias with an element of "picking on the little guy." The British professors and the Canadian public employees are not boycotting American institutions because of the occupation of Iraq. Obviously, such a boycott would cripple any institution's ability to function. But lashing out at Israel as a proxy for America is something that can be done with minimal inconvenience.

Nor should anti-Semitism be discounted. British scholar Mona Baker, a leading champion of the boycott, has written that while other countries are guilty of abuses, singling out Israel is appropriate because "Zionist influence [that is, Israeli influence] spreads far beyond its own immediate areas of dominion, and now widely influences many key domestic agendas in the West… This is particularly obvious in the case of the United States, where Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media." An international Jewish conspiracy: a sadly familiar tune.

Maybe American institutions should consider responding to such anti-Israel boycotts with their own boycotts. So far, the American Federation of Teachers has sent a letter to Britain's National Association of Teachers strongly condemning the move. The American Association of University Professors, which has generally taken a stand against academic boycotts, has remained quiet.

Jonathan Knight, who directs the American Association's program in academic freedom and tenure, told me that the issue is moot because the British group no longer exists as an independent body. On June 1, it merged with the British Association of University Teachers into a single group, the University and College Union, which is still deciding which policies of the two original organizations it will follow. The British Association of University Teachers previously approved a resolution to boycott Israel's academic institutions, but then rescinded it after an outcry.

Right now, while the decision is being pondered, would be a good time for the American Association to make a strong statement against this boycott. But this raises the issue of just how strongly the US group is committed to the anti-boycott cause. Its planned conference on academic boycotts came under fire for giving eight of the 22 speaking slots to strong supporters of the Israeli boycott—and then collapsed after the revelation that the conference packet inadvertently included an anti-Semitic article from a Holocaust-denying magazine.

The American Association should now stand up and be counted. A boycott of Israel would be the shame of academe.