Hideous spectre of censorship

August 15, 2003

The anti-Israeli boycott threatens the very basis of academic debate, argues Ghil'ad Zuckermann

There is a story about a Jew who applied for a job as an auctioneer, but failed the interview. When his wife asked him what had gone wrong, he replied "An-an-ti-ti-ti-Se-Se-mi-ti-ti-s-s-m!."

I do not believe that Andrew Wilkie of Oxford University, who rejected an Israeli doctoral applicant, is an anti-Semite. But this does not mean that the university's disciplinary panel should not remove him from his prestigious professorship.

Yet one ought not to focus exclusively on a single case. The most disturbing sentence in Wilkie's pathological email rejecting the student is not "no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army", but rather, "as you may be aware, I am not the only UK scientist with these views". For those who would dismiss Wilkie's case as exceptional this sentence demonstrates that his action was, in fact, encouraged by the general atmosphere in the British media.

Certainly the boycott of Israeli academics, which began in Britain, played a role. This action has led to the dismissal of academics, rejection of articles, cancellation of conferences, and other moves designed to isolate the Israeli academic community. So it should come as no surprise that Wilkie's judgement was clouded and that he did not attempt to camouflage his prejudice. But he is the tip of an iceberg - others, shrewder and less honest, might simply invent spurious reasons for rejecting an Israeli applicant.

The initiators and supporters of the boycott have sought to justify it by drawing parallels with the boycott of South African academic and cultural institutions in the 1980s and early 1990s. Neither they nor their opponents have detected the crucial difference between the two situations. The apartheid boycott was believed to be a supportive gesture rather than a hostile measure directed against the nation as a whole. Those who initiated it were actively involved in South African affairs and sought the advice and involvement of the country's academic community.

In contrast, the boycott of Israel is an internal European initiative directed against academics affiliated to Israeli institutions. Mona Baker, the editor of translation studies journals, took the liberty of firing Miriam Shlesinger, a former president of Amnesty International Israel, from their editorial boards. When the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology investigated Baker's action, she argued that as a private citizen she had the right to boycott anyone she chose.

But, as Gideon Toury, another of her victims, observed, the boycotting by a British "private citizen" of an Israeli "public representative" is gross double standards. How is Baker more "private" than Shlesinger or Toury? Does Baker really believe the boycott will do any good? Similarly, would Wilkie outlaw doctoral applicants from China, Russia, Syria, Iran or Libya? Has he ever rejected an American applicant, or does he agree with US policies?

Any such excommunication is eviscerated of intellectual integrity. Academic boycotts oppose the very idea of UNIVERSity, supplanting it with the notion of VILLAGity. They infect academia with discrimination, weakening its ability to serve as a global model for independent thought.

We should not allow the boycotters to ban us from inviting an Iranian colleague for a high table dinner or stop us quoting a Damascus-based scholar. We should continue to write academic articles with Shanghai professors and participate in conferences in Moscow, Alaska or a law school near Al-aqsa. We must not allow censorship and racism to destroy our already fragile academia.

Ghil'ad Zuckermann is Gulbenkian research fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. He is currently in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni in Italy.

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