Academic blacklists from McCarthyism to anti-Zionism (Geoffrey Wheatcroft)
Yours for reality-based discourse,
June 26, 2006
Boycott rooted in McCarthy's unhappy legacy
No single word in the political vocabulary has been more used and abused over the past 50 years than “McCarthyism”. Part of the unhappy legacy of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s brief but lurid career as a demagogue in the early 1950s was to leave a term which has since been so overworked as to be almost meaningless.
Along with the related “witch-hunt”, this word is an incantation recited in an attempt to deflect any awkward charge, false or true. It is not so much unusual as well-nigh unique to hear the term used in a context where it means something valid: to condemn the proposed boycott of Israeli universities and academics.
A prolonged campaign, which recently began again in earnest, has been waged within the British university teachers’ union to impose such a boycott. (Like McCarthy, the unfortunate Captain Charles Boycott gave his name to the language, although a little unfairly in his case. When he was a land agent in Ireland in the 1870s, and although there were other such men evicting tenants more ruthlessly, it was he whom the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell singled out to be ostracised “as if he were a leper of old”.)
Advocates of this boycott have consciously modelled it on a previous campaign against South Africa a generation ago, and a deliberate political comparison is made when Israel is condemned as an “apartheid state”. The rights and wrongs of that are another matter. What almost nobody noticed at the time – though this struck me then, when I was reporting from South Africa – was that the campaign against apartheid used methods not similar but identical to those of McCarthyism: boycotts, blacklists and loyalty oaths.
More precisely, those were the means used not so much by McCarthy himself (whose own favourite technique was the reckless smear or unsubstantiated allegation) as by the broader anti-communist campaign in the US in the decade after 1945, which became known somewhat unhistorically under the label of “McCarthyism”. Hollywood screenwriters or directors with communist connections would be placed on blacklists, and fellow-travelling academics could lose their jobs – but they might retain them if they purged themselves by abjuring communism.
Thirty years later, entertainers and sportsmen who had worked in South Africa were likewise placed on blacklists. They, also, could purge their offence if they denounced apartheid. Any argument that these methods were illiberal or even totalitarian was met with the insistence that apartheid was so evil that considerations of academic freedom or individual rights had to be overridden.
Those boycotters would invariably say: “I have always supported academic freedom, but my hatred of apartheid is even greater,” which was not only hypocritical but an elementary category mistake. And since Stalin killed the equivalent of the entire black population of South Africa, that could have been argued in the earlier case also. Those who opposed that South African boycott used to counter that many academics had been among the strongest critics of the apartheid regime, but this was, in turn, what barristers call a bad point. It conceded that an individual scholar’s political views should be the criterion by which he – and his work, and his suitability to work in the larger, international academic community – were to be judged.
Now the same thing has happened again. Those who oppose the boycott say that many Israeli academics have been brave critics of the settlements, and maltreatment of Palestinians, while supporters say that Israeli scholars who publicly denounce their government’s policies may be exempt. But this is the same error as before. What should be done with an Israeli scholar, a physicist or philologist, say, of the highest academic repute, who happens to support the annexation of the West Bank? If there were to be a boycott, it would surely be more honourable if it applied to all Israelis regardless of political outlook.
Ironically enough, something comparable can be found the other way round. Any journalist who wants to work for the Springer group in Germany must make a declaration of support for Israel’s right to exist. Why should they? Fighting oppression is admirable but to insist that no one in a free society should have to make any kind of political statement in order to get a non-political job is to fight for a more vital principle still.
[Norman Geras asks: "More vital or as vital? In any case, vital." --JW]
The writer is author of The Controversy of Zion,which won an American National Book Award and, most recently, The Strange Death of Tory England (Penguin)