Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Boycotts, blacklists, and anti-Zionist obsessions - Two thought experiments

Even some people who I know are otherwise intelligent and sensible try to deny the undeniable fact that many other people in western Europe and North America have an unhealthy and morally indefensible obsession with trying to institute boycotts, "divestment" campaigns, and ritual condemnations aimed at Israel (not to mention blacklists of Israeli academics) on the basis of standards they apply to no other country on the planet.

Sometimes these people try to change the subject by denying that everyone who supports these vendettas is necessarily anti-semitic, and I agree that the motivations are often more complex than that. In some cases, though by no means all, anti-Zionism (by which I mean systematic bias and hostility against Israel and Israelis, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization) has independent roots, though it's also true that in certain circumstances anti-Zionism promotes anti-semitism almost as much as the other way around. But to pretend that there is no element of obsessive bias and hostility against Israel at work strains credibility. So if these people are upset by responses that attribute these obsessive anti-Israel vendettas purely to anti-semitism--and, again, I agree that such explanations are often overly simplistic and misleading--then it seems to me the onus is on them to come up with better explanations for these bizarre phenomena (which, by the way, is not the same thing as coming up with excuses for them).

To help clarify what is so bizarre about this situation, consider two thought experiments, one offered by Eric Lee and one by me.

=> Eric Lee's piece, "Unions: Don't boycott Palestine", argues that incessant campaigns "to boycott Palestinian products and academics" are unfair, unwise, and counter-productive. Here are some highlights.

The decisions by major unions in the UK and Canada yesterday to promote peace in the Middle East by encouraging boycotts have come in for a lot of criticism. But I want to understand the reasons behind the decisions by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to boycott Palestinian products and academics.
The Canadian union's Ontario branch called for a policy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Palestinian Authority until it recognises the Jewish people's "right to self-determination".
The election victory for Hamas, which rejects the Oslo accords, the road map, the 1947 UN partition plan and basically every other suggestion of ways in which Israelis and Arabs can live together side by side is a worthy target for the Canadian unionists.[....]
But I have to say that I don't agree with them. I think the best way to deal with the Palestinians is not by boycott, but by dialogue and engagement.
Targetting Palestinian academics is particularly stupid, as quite a few of them were involved in the original Oslo peace process. Boycotting the Palestinians will be counter-productive, causing them to react defensively, rallying around the Hamas government. And it is a form of collective punishment, blaming Palestinian innocents for decisions taken by some of their leaders.
Finally, the decision by NATFHE and CUPE is a bad one because it could be turned around and used by supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
I know it sounds unlikely, but this could some day lead to unions calling for boycotts of Israeli academics and Israeli products. Yes, I know this seems highly unlikely, following the recent Israeli elections where the centre-left triumphed and the far right was routed. Israel's new defense minister is one of the founders of the "Peace Now" movement. Its government is committed to further large scale withdrawals from Palestinian territories.
It sounds crazy, I know, but next thing you know, unions might even call for boycotts against Israel too.

=> And here is part of a recent e-mail exchange I had (with an intelligent, fair-minded, and generally very sensible person) about the NATFHE vote to endorse a blacklist of Israeli academics, with an exemption for individual academics who made appropriate political declarations. Larry Summers, who once notoriously--and correctly--explained that some forms of extremist anti-Zionism could be anti-semitic in effect even if they weren't anti-semitic in intent, had been quoted in a Financial Times article going one step further with respect to the NATFHE blacklist vote: "There is much that should be, indeed that must be, debated regarding Israeli policy. However, the academic boycott resolution passed by the British professors union in the way that it singles out Israel is, in my judgment, anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent." My correspondent, in turn, had publicly described Summers's statement as an "over-the-top claim".

I indicated that I agreed this formulation by Summers was open to potentially reasonable objections, but I also thought that my correspondent's indignation in this case was excessive and focused in the wrong direction.

Let's try a thought experiment.

Suppose it were suggested that every academic who wanted a job in a US or European university had to sign a public statement denouncing the terrorist murder of civilians. I assume (a) you and I would agree that this was a bad idea, even though (b) I assume we also agree that the terrorist murder of civilians is a bad idea.

Now what if the proposal were that academics had to sign a denunciation of Islamist terrorism (not just of terrorism in general) as a condition of employment? I assume we would agree that this would make the proposal even more problematic.

Now supposing that Muslim academics, but no other academics, had to sign this public denunciation of Islamist terrorism in order to get jobs. Would it be "over-the-top" to suggest that an element of religious and/or ethnic discrimination might be involved here? Not necessarily. Suppose someone suggested that this measure was motivated, at least in part, by some degree of bias against Muslims? (The people who proposed this measure, of course, would insist that they had no bias against Muslims at all--they only opposed Muslim terrorism.) You might respond to someone who made this suggestion that the situation was more complex than that, and that this measure was probably not motivated simply by anti-Muslim bias. But would you say that the suggestion of anti-Muslim bias in this case was inherently ludicrous and offensive? I doubt it.

And now let's take matters one step further still. Are there people who respond to any criticisms of Islamist terrorism--or indeed to any criticism of any actions by Arabs or Muslims, no matter how justified these criticisms might be--by reflexively dismissing them as "Orientalist," "racist," "Islamophobic," and/or "Zionist"? Sure there are. Are such responses often unhelpful, misleading, tendentious, and even absurd? Sure. But does that mean that singling out Muslim scholars for discrimination in the manner described is actually OK, and that it would not raise some legitimate questions of bias or bigotry. I think not. And would it be a good idea to simply ignore this aspect of the matter, and to tell Muslims who protested to be quiet about it? Again, I don't think so.

--Jeff Weintraub