Academic Boycott Reaches These Shores (sort of…)

I have to admit a grudging fondness for Great Britain, having lived there for quite some time after college, even if London is one of the two cities (Portland Oregon being the other) where I had the displeasure to hear two anti-Semitic cracks in a single day.

Continuing on that dark note, for a variety of reasons the UK seems to have become of the least hospitable places for Jews who dare to speak up for themselves and the Jewish state in all of Europe these days. And many of the most disgraceful tactics of Israel’s attackers seem to be emanating from Britain and, sadly, crossing “the pond” to arrive here in the US.

Violent or threatening behavior, such as campus building takeovers – the goal of which is to bring attention to divestment demands – began in Britain, inspiring imitators at NYU earlier this year. Both efforts ended with universities ejecting students from the buildings they occupied without acceding to divestment or other demands. And it may be that this effort was nothing more than another attempt at “Fantasy Politics.” Still, it set a tone that is troublesome, especially given the violent reception that has accompanied pro-Israel speakers on college campuses in Canada and elsewhere.

But if you have to find the single worst idea in all of Boycott-Divestment-Sanction-land, it would have to be the academic boycott. For five years, a cadre of single-minded partisans who had secured leadership positions in Britain’s largest teacher’s union (the UCU) tried to force the union to take a stand on boycotting Israeli academics. At some times, this took the form of boycott calls for specific Israeli universities. On other occasions, the call was to force Israeli professors to swear a “loyalty oath,” denouncing the actions of their country before they would be given the same opportunities offered to every other academic in the world (invitations to conferences, acceptance of research papers in academic journals, etc.) automatically.

As noted previously, these efforts have all ended in one spectacular failure after another. But in the course of pushing an agenda so at odds with academic freedom (the core purpose and principle of academia), these top-down, anti-democratic efforts have ended up leaving UCU a far more unpleasant place. Jewish members, fed up with their concerns being marginalized, their people and motives being maligned, have left in droves, and the union itself is viewed with suspicion (rightly so, given its willingness to flirt with abandoning the very principles of academic freedom upon which it is founded) by a public whose support any union desperately needs.

Given the track record of academic boycott as a harbinger of ugliness and failure, it was with some surprise that I discovered a subset of the American professorate was launching a similar campaign in the US. Admittedly the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel consists of little more than a WordPress blog and a petition signed by a couple of hundred (out of tens of thousands) American professors.

One major difference between the UK and the US academic boycott efforts is the role played by union leadership in each country (represented by the UCU leadership in Britain and their American counterparts the American Federation of Teachers or AFT, in the US). While UCU leaders were either complicit in boycott efforts (in conflict with a membership who overwhelmingly loathed boycott calls), in the US the AFT has taken a clear and unequivocal stand against moves to single out for punishment academics from Israel or any other nation.

American academic leaders actually took a bold stand against UCU boycott calls, informing potential European boycotters that they should consider American academics Israelis (and boycott them as well) if they proceeded with their mendacious and misguided agenda. And once word got out that academic BDS was opening up an American branch, the AFT made this statement clearly stating that such politicization of academia was nothing less than an unwelcome assault on academic freedom everywhere.

Despite that little dust-up we had in 1776, America has learned a great deal from Great Britain over the centuries. Perhaps it is now time to return the favor.

One thought on “Academic Boycott Reaches These Shores (sort of…)”

  1. A wonderful column — thank you.

    The UCU and likeminded academic organizations might do well to recall what happened to Germany’s intellectual position after it became ‘Judenfrei”. Before WWII, students studying medicine (for example) had to learn German in order to keep up with medical research. After the Jews were gone — not so much. You could probably say the same about musical composition and performance.

    Another observation: the concept of forcing Israelis to take an oath against their own country is absolutely hilarious. Have these people ever MET any Israelis?

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