The University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion calling for the right to boycott Israel and Israeli academic institutions at its congress last month. Although this move might be rendered illegal by proposed legislation to outlaw such a boycott, it could be challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court. Laws penalising those who boycott Israel exist in 35 states in America but some are preparing to challenge them.
The best way to thwart such boycotts is to refute the arguments made by those who advocate for them. It is also essential to build an academic culture which is true to what many would think should be the real values of academia. That is the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
In the past there have been calls to boycott specific Israeli universities. In 2005 the Association of University Teachers (later incorporated into the UCU) passed a motion calling for a boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities. Bar-Ilan was singled out because it supervised degree programmes at a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Haifa was accused of suppressing the work of staff and students conducting research into the founding of Israel which portrayed the country in an unflattering light. Both institutions rejected the accusations. Bar-Ilan denied the claim that supervising degree programmes in Ariel amounted to collaborating with the mistreatment of Palestinians. Haifa said the accusations made against it were false. A sinister aspect of the episode was that the motion was discussed on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover. That meant that observant Jews could not attend.
The 2015 initiative to boycott Israeli universities was on a much larger scale. Some 343 academics declared they would not accept invitations to Israeli universities, act as referees for them or take part in events organised by them. However, they did say they would work with individual Israeli academics.
All calls for an academic boycott of Israel meet with a strong backlash from other academics and governments, and sometimes even authors and celebrities as was the case in 2015. Academics For Academic Freedom, a campaign group, has what it calls the banned list which describes attempts to cancel visits of individuals connected to Israel. While any attempt to cancel such visits are wrong, it does not seem that any long-term damage has been done by boycotts. That is if indeed any of these boycotts ever came into effect.
There are obvious reasons to oppose any such boycotts, especially absolute ones. First, they are hypocritical. Many universities work with academics from countries with horrendous regimes. A classic case is China. So why single out Israel when its wrongdoing is considerably less than that of the Chinese government?
Second, they are anti-intellectual. It is a nonsense for academics to boycott other academics in the knowledge generation process. That is assuming the knowledge is generated ethically and the research is not fraudulent. To say that there is moral value in taking advantage of knowledge generated in Israel while simultaneously boycotting the generator of that knowledge is posturing.
It should be said that if Haifa University really had been suppressing properly-conducted, evidence-based research then some sort of action would have been legitimate. That is as long as it was targeted and directed at the individuals involved in the suppression rather than Israel as a whole.
Third, boycotts punish the innocent with the guilty. Even if Israeli government policy is objectionable in the extreme, punishing the best elements of a country (its researchers) does not have any effect on its worst elements (government ministers pursuing illegal or racist policies).
Fourth, all such boycotts invariably appeal to the need to express solidarity with the Palestinians and maintain that they are similar in spirit to anti-slavery campaigns. Claiming the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is similar to historical campaigns against slavery is absurd. It is possible to have considerable sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians without claiming it is morally equivalent to slavery. Nor do such boycotts help Israelis or Palestinians work out a way forward to resolve their conflict. That is a political question the two sides need to resolve with each other.
Finally, if such high-minded considerations were not enough, there is the argument of enlightened self-interest. Israel has cutting edge research in medicine, high tech and in genetically modified foods designed to make crops more capable of dealing with climate change. Boycotting Israel risks counter-boycotts which could mean that research projects based in Britain start to fall behind those being done in Israel. British institutions could also suffer compared with others who do cooperate with Israeli ones. There is no moral case to risk impairing our research base by making gestures which are meaningless, ineffective and hypocritical.
Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisation.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.
Photo: Aerial view of Bar-Ilan University. "File:Biu Aerial photograph of Bar-Ilan University (21004322376).jpg" by Bar-Ilan University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.