I’m confused. According to the many media reports, the UCU, successor to the AUT and NATFE and the main trade union representing British academics, has voted to reinstitute the boycott of Israeli universities that the AUT finally rejected last year. But in fact, as far as I can tell , the UCU Congress has done no such thing. Rather it has passed some rather wooly pro-Palestinian resolutions and has ordered its executive to promote discussion of the boycott at branches over the next year or so. The practical effect of this in the world is at best close to zero. In fact it is almost certainly negative: no-one actually gets boycotted but the worst elements of the Israeli right (and the likes of Alan Dershowitz) get a renewed opportunity to portray themselves as victims.
Aside from the general stupidity of the boycott campaign (well summed-up by Steven Poole last year), it promises to consume a lot of energy in fruitless arguments that go nowhere. Last time this happened I stood up on my hind legs at my local AUT branch and opposed the pro-boycott motion . I’ll vote against it again this time, when the opportunity presents itself. I have to say though, that I’m a lot less motivated to oppose the boycotters than I was. They are just as wrong as they ever were, but I’ve been sufficiently disgusted by Israeli conduct over the past year (especially in Lebanon) not to feel all that much enthusiasm for making a big effort. And then there’s the fact that when I did speak up against the boycott I received a load of offensive email. Normally, you’d expect to get such email from the people on the other side, telling you what a horrible sellout you’ve been. But I didn’t receive a single bit of hostile email from a pro-Palestinian persepective. Rather, I got a good deal from Likudniks and their American friends who mistakenly assumed that if I opposed the boycott I must share their vile perspective on Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular. (No thanks. Go away! I don’t want email from people like you.)
Martha Nussbaum’s article in Dissent puts the case against the boycott pretty well. However there’s one pro-boycott argument that she doesn’t address and which I’ve not heard a good reply to. It doesn’t, for me, outweigh the arguments against, but I do think it weakens the often-put “double standards” argument that anti-Israel measures unfairly discriminate against Israel since there are far worse countries in the world. (This is often accompanied by the further claim that because Israel is picked out whilst other countries are worse, the motive of the boycotters must be sinister and is probably anti-semitic.) The argument is this: that the Israeli perpetrators of injustice are far more vulnerable to outside pressure than, say, the Chinese or the Russians are. Measures taken against Israel therefore stand a better chance of being effective. The Russian treatment of the Chechens or the Chinese treatment of the Tibetans may indeed be worse than the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. But we can take action now to force the Israelis to negotiate and to end the injustice of the occupation, whereas we cannot act with similar prospect of success against Russia or China. Obviously that argument depends on a number of facts about the way the world is. And those facts are highly contestable. But it doesn’t depend (to the contrary!) on any claim that Israel is uniquely or even especially evil or unjust.