Leader: A boycott that is as misguided as it is unworkable

June 8, 2007

Of all the improbable kites that are occasionally flown at conferences, the decision by the University and College Union to explore a boycott of Israeli academe must rank as one of the most spectacularly foolish. It may not be inherently anti-Semitic, as its backers are at pains to claim, but it is unethical, unworkable, unpredictable and utterly useless.

Boycott supporters argue that it is not aimed at individual Israeli academics but at institutions. Initially, it may be. But how long before academics feel justified - or pressured into - refusing to co-operate with Israelis simply because they are Israelis? In fact, we do not have to speculate: some already do, citing their Israeli colleagues' silence, if not alleged complicity, as proof of their contribution to Palestinian suffering. The concept of collective guilt does not have an illustrious pedigree. It is shameful that some academics should be so ignorant of its history that they are casually prepared to revive it.

By the same token, it is hard to see why universities should be held responsible for the policies of their governments or, if one manages to swallow that particular assumption, why Israeli ones should be singled out for special attention when there are so many other targets for righteous indignation.

In place of dialogue, we have diatribes. Scholarly debate and the free interplay of ideas are jettisoned in favour of tit-for-tat talk of counter-boycotts and the loud harrumphing of outraged ideologues posturing behind entrenched and immovable positions. And for what? The UCU, whose leadership commendably tried to head off the motion, cannot even spell out exactly what the implications would be.

One consequence is clear enough - the boycott, which has yet to be put to the entire membership for approval - has succeeded not in highlighting the plight of the Palestinians but the partisanship of a clique of activists with a particular view of the Middle East. Contrary to what Lisa Taraki argues on this page, it is not Israeli academics who find themselves on the defensive but, avoidably and unnecessarily, their British colleagues.

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