Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Boycott idiocy

The British University and College Union's racist move will be referred to in no more polite terms on this blog. "Israel is mean," they say. Well, Britain, too, is mean, as is America, as are the Arab countries, the Asian countries, the African countries, and so on. Is Israel worse? Obviously! Why? Because scapegoating Jews, accusing Jews of being disproportionately guilty for crimes shared by all humanity, is a time-honored path of self-righteousness. If the Jews are doing something wrong, you can point this out and no one will point out your own, perhaps more impressive, failings. Of course, Britain itself, though not located in the region, has had no role in destabilizing the Middle East, past or present, so never mind that, then.

A circular argument then appears: "But Israel is doing bad things, and that's the issue at hand; other conflicts are irrelevant." But why are these other conflicts so often irrelevant? Why is CNN International all-Israel-Palestine, all the time? Because the anti-Semitic impulse did not end in 1945. It remains popular to pay disproportionate attention to Jewish misbehavior, obscuring all positive contributions from Jews and assuming the rest of the world to be simply of no interest whatsoever. The suffering of a large segment of Southside Chicago's population, in full view of anyone who spends any time at the University of Chicago, would prompt an entity like the UCU to boycott at the very least that Southside university, and perhaps the entire United States. But when the two individuals shot to death fail to be implicated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oh well. Is the US government implicated in such a shooting? Of course--um, gun control? So here you have it, UCU, the time has come to forget about Haifa and Jerusalem, and stop attending conferences at my alma mater.

Colin Shindler, a British professor, explains the problems of an academic boycott for those who study Israel. University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum's piece in Dissent, "Against Academic Boycotts," makes all the key points, so onto Nussbaum:

"[...] I am made uneasy by the single-minded focus on Israel. Surely it is unseemly for Americans to discuss boycotts of another country on the other side of the world without posing related questions about American policies and actions that are not above moral scrutiny. Nor should we fail to investigate relevantly comparable cases concerning other nations. For example, one might consider possible responses to the genocide of Muslim civilians in the Indian state of Gujarat in the year 2002, a pogrom organized by the state government, carried out by its agents, and given aid and comfort by the national government of that time (no longer in power). I am disturbed by the world’s failure to consider such relevantly similar cases. I have heard not a whisper about boycotting Indian academic institutions and individuals, and I have also, more surprisingly, heard nothing about the case in favor of an international boycott of U.S. academic institutions and individuals. I am not sure that there is anything to be said in favor of a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions that could not be said, and possibly with stronger justification, for similar actions toward the United States and especially India and/or the state of Gujarat."

"I would not favor an academic boycott in any of these cases, but I think that they ought to be considered together, and together with yet other cases in which governments are doing morally questionable things. One might consider, for example, the Chinese government’s record on human rights; South Korea’s lamentable sexism and indifference to widespread female infanticide and feticide; the failure of a large number of the world’s nations, including many, though not all, Arab nations, to take effective action in defense of women’s bodily integrity and human equality; and many other cases. Indeed, I note that gross indifference to the lives and health of women has never been seriously considered as a reason for any boycott, a failure of impartiality that struck me even in the days of the South Africa boycott. Eminent thinkers alleged that the case of South Africa was unique because a segment of the population was systematically unequal under the law, a situation that of course was, and still is, that of women in a large number of countries. By failing to consider all the possible applications of our principles, if we applied them impartially, we are failing to deliberate well about the choice of principles. For a world in which there was a boycott of all U.S., Indian, and Israeli scholars, and no doubt many others as well, let us say those of China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (on grounds of sexism), and Pakistan (on the same grounds, though there has been a bit of progress lately) would be quite different from the world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted, and this difference seems relevant to the choice of principles."

"nobody should be fired for a political position, left or right, short of threats, assault, sexual harassment—the legitimate reasons for dismissal from a faculty position."

"In defense of the boycott, people say that scholars in Israel have not condemned the government as much as they might have. As a rationale for doing harm to them, this is both implausible and deeply repugnant to the core values of academic life. Usually, one aspect of being powerless is that one’s voice is not heard in the corridors of power, and I would think that (a) lots of Israeli scholars do have critical views but these views just don’t appear in the news and (b) that many are deterred from trying to write for newspapers for the same reasons that few Americans write for newspapers, namely that one almost never gets accepted there, and so it is a waste of time. Moreover, being a good chemist or classicist does not entail being a good writer of op-ed articles. Israeli scholars may well just be doing what they are good at doing. Whatever one says about this, I think one must, in all consistency, apply the same criticisms to scholars in the United States, who do not express their opinions much in public."

"In general, I think that we can only debate this question in a philosophically respectable way if we first offer a principled account of the responsibility of scholars to engage in public debate. If we have such an account, we can at least say who is violating it, in a principled and impartial way. But what disturbs me about the proponents of the boycott is that they lack such an account, and certainly do not comment on the actions of scholars in the United States. vis-à-vis U.S. foreign policy, or the actions of Indian scholars vis-à-vis Hindu-Muslim relations in India, or the actions of South Korean or Pakistani scholars vis-à-vis the alarming levels of violence against women in those nations—and yet, lacking an account that they would be prepared to defend and apply impartially, they wish to impose damages on Israeli scholars."


Blogs! said...

That's it, I've had enough! From now on I'm boycotting boycotts!
Wait, I'm confused...

Anonymous said...

Of course you are right. Why do they not boycott the United States? I think it is a combination of antisemitism as well as sticking it to the US without dealing without the economic impossibility of boycotting the US.

Anonymous said...

Of all the threatened boycotts of Israel by various organizations in Britain the one by the architects is most amusing. I would suspect that there is a not inconsiderable number of gay men in any association of British architects (Indeed, I wonder if there is anyone straight in such an organization!) After their hoped for demise of Israel as a Jewish state and its replacement by Hamastan do they think there will by any more gay pride parades such as was just held in Tel Aviv?