Rex Murphy: The failed boycott
campaign against Israel
Rex Murphy | January 4, 2014
“An intellectual hatred is the worst.” — Yeats
When university professors, stewards of knowledge for the next generation of thinkers, propose to fence off all contact, all mental commerce, with others of their kind, they lose the right to be called professors. When they selectively embrace a boycott of a single country’s academics and institutions, they reveal themselves as activists. Not professors but propagandists.
No scholar with any intellectual integrity would support freezing all contact, or seeking to isolate other scholars and researchers, simply because of their national origin, ethnicity or religion. The very idea of an “intellectual boycott” is a betrayal of a scholar’s mission.
Such a betrayal is contained in the American Studies Association’s recently endorsed resolution targeting Israeli universities, whose text begins as follows: “Whereas the American Studies Association is committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia, and to solidarity with aggrieved peoples in the United States and in the world; Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians …”
It goes on like that for several more paragraphs. To summarize, it’s predictable anti-Israeli boilerplate aimed at the Middle East from the safe confines of America’s collective faculty club.
The champions of this academic quarantine offer as their rationale the fact that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.” Have these learned folk considered what such a stand reveals? Here we have a “studies” association — one that purports to represent 5,000 experts on American culture and history — that seeks to amputate all connection with thousands of other scholars. Not because of the content of those scholars’ ideas, their research, their intelligence, or their field of study. But because they are Israelis. Or teaching and researching in Israel. Why it’s a form of intellectual — what label applies? — ah, yes, “apartheid.”
Absurdly, the ASA claims it’s going to boycott only the universities, not the scholars and students working therein. In other words, they intend to catch fish but vow not to go near the water.
Knocking Israel is nothing new in academia, of course. On certain campuses, moaning on about Zionist racism, imperialism, colonialism, hegemony, settlerism etc. is, for many students, a more enthusiastically pursued activity than getting an actual degree.
The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, of which this latest boycott attempt is offspring, has been around since 2005. Its popularity with the hard left coincides with the rise of Israeli Apartheid Week activities on North American campuses. But something has happened in recent years: I notice that the response to the latest urging from the claque of self-styled anti-Zionists is not being received with nearly the same respect as previous iterations. The ASA has been taking withering fire from all quarters. Over 100 American universities already have come forward to say that they want nothing to do with any such boycott.
Catholic University president John Garvey offered a splendid volley: “The Association has appointed itself as a kind of inept volunteer fire department, aiming to put out the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration by throwing gasoline on the fire. That’s not exactly right. It has decided to pour gas not on the source of the fire but on bystanders, some of whom are trying to extinguish the flames.”
Another response, from Richard Slotkin, emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, is admirably succinct: The boycott “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”
The president of Haverford pronounced the boycott “[so] intellectually clumsy and shortsighted that it’s hard to understand what actually they [the ASA] were thinking.”
There is, in these statements, a return to clarity and confidence in academic principles, and a refusal to accord the rote declamations and slanders against Israel even minimal respect or notice.
And that has produced an interesting result. For is it not now the case that the group proposing the boycott, the American Studies Association, is far more tarnished and isolated than the academic institutions it was asking the whole world to shun?
If anyone deserves to be “boycotted,” it’s the ASA itself.
Subsequent letter to the editor, Jan. 8:
Re: The Failed Boycott Campaign Against Israel, Rex Murphy, Jan. 4. I served the World Council of Churches in Bethlehem as a human rights observer for a few months this past year. I went because I, like most Canadians, believe in: the rule of international law, human rights and peace with justice.
Witnessing human rights abuses by Israeli forces on an almost daily basis was shocking. Standing by the bedside of an innocent 12-yearold critically wounded by an Israeli sniper was gut wrenching. Being with a 16-year-old bystander shot by the Israeli military who still has a bullet lodged in his brain was sickening. Violence only serves to beget more violence. From 2000 to 2012, almost 8,000 people died in the conflict, over 6,800 were Palestinians including over 1,000 Palestinian children. A single death alone is one too many.
Another reality is that Israeli courts in Palestine have a conviction rate of 99% against Palestinians. This has led the ASA and others like Nobel winner Stephen Hawking to join the academic boycott called for by Palestinians against Israel.
Perhaps Mr. Murphy should look at the stand of the European Union in relation to Israel. Better yet, perhaps he should spend some time on the ground meeting with Palestinians and Israelis working for peace.
Rev. Steve Berube, United Church minister and co-chair of the United Network for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel, Riverview, N.B.
Letters to the editor re: above letter, Jan. 9:
Re: Israeli Boycott Campaign Is Just, letter to the editor, Jan. 8. Once I got past all the passion surrounding Rev. Steve Berube attempts to justify the United Church of Canada’s boycott of Israel, I noticed a number of glaring omissions. Did he sit with the relatives and friends of the Israeli family in Itamar, slaughtered in their beds (March, 2011) by Palestinian terrorists, and offer his own brand of saccharine comfort? The victims included a four-year-old little boy and a three-month-old baby girl. Perhaps Rev. Berube does not believe that as Jews, they have “human rights” to be violated.
Joan O’Callaghan, Toronto.
How quick are the Palestinians to show their wounded, especially the young. There are now over 200 Syrians in Israeli hospitals, expenses paid by the Israeli taxpayer. Yet there are no media tours of these poor people. The sad fact is that they don’t want their identities revealed, since they will be killed on their return home, lest other Syrians realize that the Israelis are not Satan. And did Rev. Berube take the time to visit the wounded in the Israeli hospitals, including Muslim and Jews? As a Christian organization, where is the United Church’s voice when it comes to the tragedy of the Coptics in Egypt? When are you going to boycott Egypt, Iraq, Iran, just to name a few countries that are allowing the slaughter of a religious minority? Or is it a “Jewish” issue.
Sara Krengel, Thornhill, Ont.
Did Rev. Steve Berube’s committee, The United Network for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel, spend any time at all examining human rights abuses by Palestinians against Israelis? Did they visit with Avigail Ben Zion, who was almost killed by a rock hurled at her parents’ car by “innocent” Palestinian youth like those for whom he shows so much concern? Did he visit the parents of Shalhevet Pass, the Jewish infant shot by a sniper while in her stroller? Did they spend any time examining the incitement to violence in Palestinian media, schools, mosques and daily life? If, as he puts its, “violence only begets violence,” why is that his outrage and condemnation are reserved only for one side of this conflict?
Stephen Tannenbaum, Thornhill, Ont.
Rev. Steve Berube justifies the boycott of the Jewish State because almost 8,000 people died in the conflict between 2010 and 2012, mostly Palestinians. I wonder why he and the United Church have not uttered a syllable on the deaths of over 120,000 civilians in Syria in also about two years. What is the reason for this double standard? Could it be that Israel and Zionism has replaced the Jews as the scapegoats of the world. Boycotting Israel only hardens its citizens concerned about their existential threat not only from the surrounding Arab world and Iran but also from the boycotters who single out Israel while ignoring worse human rights abuses elsewhere.
Robert Yufe, Toronto.