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Boycotting Israel: Back to 1933? By: Edward Alexander
The Jerusalem Post | Tuesday, January 07, 2003


On April 6, 2002, 123 university academics and researchers (their number -would later rise to 250) from across Europe signed an open letter, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper, calling for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel until the Israeli government abided by (unspecified) UN resolutions and returned yet again to negotiations with Yasser Arafat to be conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in the latest Saudi peace plan. The petition was organized and published at the very time Israelis were being butchered on a daily basis, mainly by brainwashed teenage suicide bombers, Arab versions of the Hitler Youth. It declared, in high Pecksniffian style, that since the Israeli government was "impervious to moral appeals from world leaders" Israel's cultural and research institutions should be denied further funding from the European Union and the European Science Foundation. It neglected to recommend that the European Union suspend its very generous financing of Yasser Arafat or that Chinese scholars be boycotted until China withdraws from Tibet. The petition was the brainchild of Steven Rose, director of the Brain and Behavior Research Group at Gresham College, London, and the great majority of its signatories were British. But it included academics from a host of European countries, a number sufficient to give it the appearance of a pan-European campaign against the Jews. It even had the obligatory display Israeli, one Eva Jablonka of Tel Aviv University. (Nine other Israeli leftists added their names as soon as they found out about this opportunity for international renown.)

In June, Mona Baker, director of the Center for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) decided to practice what the  all-European petitioners had preached: She dismissed from the boards of the two journals she owns and edits two Israelis, Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University and Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University. She also added that she would no longer accept articles from Israeli researchers and it was later revealed that she would not "allow" books originating from her private publishing house (St. Jerome) to be purchased by Israeli institutions. One paradox of the firing, which would be repeated often in later stages of the boycott, was that Shlesinger was a member in good standing of the Israeli Left, former chairman of Amnesty International's Israeli chapter, and ever at the ready with "criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank..." 

Toury, for his part, opposed taking any retaliatory action against Baker - this had been proposed by an American teaching fellow at Leeds named Michael Weingrad - because "a boycott is a boycott is a boycott." A small contingent of Toury's (mostly British) friends in  linguistics issued a statement objecting to his dismissal because: "We agree with Noam Chomsky's view that one does not boycott people or their cultural institutions as an expression of political protest." It was hard to say whether this document was more notable for its lack of Jewish self-respect or for sheer ignorance (of the fact that Chomsky was leading the American campaign for disinvestment in Israel, the economic phalanx of the professorial campaign to demonize and isolate Israel). A few (non-British) members of Baker's boards resigned because they objected to the dismissal of people solely "on the basis of [their] passport," especially by a journal entitled The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication. BUT, FOR the most part, the dismissals raised no public opposition from within the British university system, just as almost none had been raised back in April when the racist hoodlum Tom Paulin, stalwart of the IRA school of poetics and a professor at Oxford, had urged that American Jews living in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria "should be shot dead."

The situation changed only when an American scholar, Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard, intervened. After arriving in England in early July 2002 to receive an honorary degree from London University, Greenblatt called Baker's actions "repellent," "dangerous" and "intellectually and morally bankrupt." "Excluding scholars because of the passports that they carry or because of their skin color, religion or political party, corrupts the integrity of intellectual work," he said. Greenblatt's statement forced the British public to pay attention to Baker's boycott. Even a writer for the venomously anti-Israel Guardian was emboldened to criticize the way in which the European boycotters' petition was being carried to extreme and radical form in Britain: A British lecturer working at Tel Aviv University applied for a post back home in the United Kingdom and was told by the head of the first department to which he applied: "No, we don't accept any applicants from a Nazi state." 

Greenblatt was still treating the boycott mainly as a violation of academic freedom - plausibly enough, since Rose had declared that "Academic freedom I find a completely spurious argument..." But the real issue was an anti-Semitic campaign to transform the pariah people into the pariah state, as became evident in the rhetorically violent reactions to Greenblatt's criticism. Baker herself quickly announced that she repented of nothing. She was "not against Israeli nationals per se; only Israeli institutions as part of the Israeli state which I absolutely deplore." She was acting on behalf of good Europeans everywhere, and refused to reveal where she herself was born - Egypt, as it happens. Greenblatt was also assaulted by another inhabitant of the academic fever swamps of Manchester, Baker's colleague Michael Sinnott, a professor of "paper science." Springing chivalrously to Baker's defense, he called Greenblatt's open letter to her "sanctimonious claptrap," decried Israel as "the mirror-image of Nazism," and asserted that what made Israel a unique menace to the world was "the breathtaking power of the American Jewish lobby."

In a seven-year sojourn at the University of Illinois in Chicago, he had felt the power of the insatiable Jews on his own pulses. First, "the Israeli atrocities for which my tax dollars were paying were never reported in the American news media, which were either controlled by Jews, or browbeaten by them in the way you have just exemplified"; second, his "pay raises at UIC never really recovered" from his defiantly scheduling a graduate class on the Jewish Sabbath. The UMIST administration, already busy distancing itself from Baker, now had a still greater embarrassment on its hands when the Sunday Telegraph (September 29) reported Sinnott's letter. It "launched an investigation" into the abstruse question of whether Sinnott might be an anti-Semite. Sinnott, ever mindful of his "pay raises," issued a weasely statement of regret, not over his sin but over its detection. 

As the boycott campaign intensified, its guiding lights were plagued by problems of definition bearing a ghoulish resemblance to those that once beset the Nazis in deciding just which people were to be considered fitting victims of discrimination, oppression, and (eventually) murder. Perhaps this is why Baker struck up an acquaintance with David Irving, who in December reported on his web site that she had kindly taken the trouble to alert him to an ad placed by Amazon.com in the Israeli press which might be considered supportive of that terrible country.

The Hitler-loving historian could have supplied Baker with information about problems the Nazis faced in implementing their boycott: Should the targeted group be people with four Jewish grandparents or perhaps just two?

Some Baker defenders had chastised Greenblatt for suggesting that it was their Israeli nationality that led to the sacking of the two Israelis. By no means! It was just the fact that they worked for Israeli universities. But what of Arabs who worked for Israeli universities? If the Hebrew University employee whose mass murder of the people in the Mount Scopus cafeteria was the perfect existential realization of the boycotters' ideas had survived his exploit, would he have been banned from joining Baker's janitorial staff in Manchester? There was also the problem of ideology. Could the professors who organized the boycott have been so ignorant of the Israeli political scene as not to know that the Israeli professoriat is the center of anti-Zionist polemic and political activity in the country? Many of the targets of the boycott would inevitably be people with political views similar to those of the boycotters themselves, especially the assumption that it is "occupation" that leads to Arab hatred of Israel, and not Arab hatred of Israel that leads to occupation. The most paradoxical example of the boycott's effect was Oren Yiftachel, a political geographer from Ben-Gurion University, described by Ha'aretz as "hold[ing] extreme leftist political views." 

Yiftachel had co-authored a paper with an Arab Israeli political scientist from Haifa University named As'ad Ghanem, dealing with the attitude of Israeli authorities to Arabs within Israel proper and the disputed territories. They submitted it to the English periodical Political Geography, whose editor, David Slater, returned it with a note saying it had been rejected because its authors were Israelis. Here was a case to test the mettle of a boycotter - a mischling article, half-Jewish, half-Arab, wholly the product of people carrying Israeli passports and working for Israeli institutions, yet expressing opinions on Israel as the devil's own experiment station indistinguishable from Slater's.

Poor Slater, apparently unable to amputate the Jewish part of the article from the Arab part and (to quote him) "not sure to what extent [the authors] had been critical of Israel," rejected the submission in its entirety. Or so it seemed - for after half a year of wrangling, it emerged that Slater might accept the paper if only its authors would insert some more paragraphs likening Israel to apartheid South Africa.

In other words, the Englishman might relax his boycotting principles if his ideological prejudices could be satisfied. EXACTLY WHAT  happened at this point is not easy to discover. Since Yiftachel is one of those academics who adheres to the motto "the other country, right  or wrong," it is hard to believe he would balk at describing Israel as an apartheid state. He had in the past denounced Israeli governments as racist or dictatorial and had co-authored with Ghanem a piece in Ha'aretz urging Jews to participate in "Land Day." But now he had become the classic instance of somebody "hoist with his own petard," caught in his own trap. At one point he complained to Slater "that rejecting a person because of his [national] origin, from an academic point of view, is very problematic." Not only did it interfere with the progress of Yiftachel's career, it hurt the anti-Israel cause. "From a political and practical point of view, the boycott actually weakens the sources of opposition to the Israeli occupation in universities," he admitted. Poor Yiftachel found that when he and his colleague carried their message about Israeli wickedness to America, audiences would constantly pester them about - the boycott.

Nor was this the only instance in which the boycott threatened to backfire. Susan Greenfield, neurobiologist and director of the Royal Institution, England's oldest independent research body, published a warning on December 14 that the boycott, "if it continues... will harm people in every 
sphere, but in medical research lives are potentially at risk." In 1941, Otto Warburg, one of Germany's preeminent cancer researchers, was facing dismissal from his post at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society because of his "half-Jewish" origins. Hitler, aware of the value of Warburg's research to the health of German citizens, alerted Goering, who promptly turned Warburg into a "quarter Jew."

Will the boycotters emulate the (occasional) pragmatism of their predecessors, or will they stick firmly to their principles in order to reduce Israel to pariah status? More importantly, will the European Union, many of whose prominent members either participated or acquiesced in the destruction of European Jewry 60 years ago, put a stop to the conspiracy of these spiritual descendants of those Max Weinreich famously called "Hitler's Professors," to expel the Jews (once again) from the family of nations?

The writer is professor of English at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Classical Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition.




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