Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, has pledged to lead a campaign to visit financial and legal ruin on any UK academic backing a boycott of Israeli academe. Jon Marcus asks him why.
Why do you object to an academic boycott of Israel?
First, the idea of singling out Israel for a special boycott in a world in which academics are murdered, imprisoned, disappeared and censored is a reflection of a double standard so severe that it can be explained only by bigotry. And the excuse provided by supporters of the boycott exacerbates the problem.
How is that?
They claim they picked Israel because they require a formal complaint by some union or other entity. In countries where tyrannical regimes suppress academic freedom, they also suppress unions and the possibility of dissent by institutions. So this lame excuse rewards tyranny and tyrannical regimes and punishes democracies that allow dissent. It doesn't even pass the giggle test.
That's the first reason. Second, I think that generally academic boycotts, perhaps except in the most extreme cases, are not justified because academics should be encouraged to communicate with each other.
So in what cases would an academic boycott be justified?
The most extreme cases might include Nazi Germany, where academics were helping implement the Final Solution. But the idea of extending an academic boycott to the Middle Eastern nation that has the most academic freedom is immoral. Israel provides more academic freedom to Muslims and Arabs than any Arab and Muslim country. So this is pure and simple bigotry.
Many of us regard this boycott as comparable to what German universities did to Jewish students and faculty in the 1930s.
Why do you think the calls for an academic boycott have come in the UK in particular?
Because the UK has probably among the deepest history of a kind of polite upper-class anti-Semitism of any country in Western Europe. Today there is more anti-Semitism in the UK than there is in Germany. Of course, since it's polite anti-Semitism it tries to disguise itself as anti-Zionism, but it fails.
There are three or four groups that are pushing this: old-fashioned British anti-Semites; new-fashioned British hard-Left anti-American anti-Zionists with an overlay of anti-Jewishness; the third group would be radical Muslims who have their own agenda; the fourth group would just be naive, simple-minded people who think that this is a politically correct way to become acceptable; and a fifth group of hard-Left Jews who think their ticket into political acceptability is to show that they are even more anti-Zionist than non-Jews.
How will the rest of the academic world react to a boycott?
I can only really speak for the US, where it is almost universally condemned. For many Americans, this is a litmus test of bigotry. As soon as I announced that I was helping to form a group of American academics who will regard themselves as Israelis for the purpose of this boycott my e-mail became clogged, including with some of the most distinguished academics in the country. We'll have 10,000 people before we're through.
What effect do you expect your campaign will have on UK academics and universities?
I hope it will marginalise those extremists who are inflicting this on thousands of decent British academics who have no interest in participating in this kind of selective politicisation of academia. We're now preparing legislation (in the US) that would impose extraordinarily punitive sanctions on any institution that boycotts Israeli academics.