Against the “Academic Intifada”

Against the “Academic Intifada”

An international campaign for a boycott of Israeli artists, musicians, teachers, thinkers, writers, and researchers calls itself the “Academic Intifada.” Two years ago, it proposed that the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) should require its members to blacklist colleagues who worked for Israeli universities. This boycott was rejected by the AUT.

This past year, the campaigners came back with what they thought was a more sophisticated approach. They argued for boycotts against particular Israeli institutions, in the hope that they would gather momentum for a total boycott in due course. They also responded to the objection that such boycotts would silence even Israeli academics who oppose the Occupation. They offered an exemption for professors who would denounce the “colonialist and racist” policies of Israel.

This political test would require that Israeli academics apply for exemption on the basis of their political cleanliness. The AUT would have endorsed the idea that “Zionists” had no place in academia, and some of its militants might have been tempted to extend the “Zionist” test to Jewish academics outside Israel.

Many in the Palestine Solidarity Movement have long claimed that “Zionism Equals Racism,” that Israel is the only “illegitimate” state in the world, and that Jewish nationalism is irremediably worse than any other. This singling out of Jewish nationalism is anti-Semitic in effect, if not intention, because it licenses people to relate to Jews as though they were racists until they define themselves as “anti-Zionist.” The Union of Jewish Students reports that campaigns to boycott Israel on campuses bring with them an increase in racist incidents against Jewish students.

An academic who comes originally from Poland wrote to me saying that the rhetoric of the boycotters reminded him of events there in 1968. Under the cover of solidarity with Palestinians, the Polish state had purged the Jewish intelligentsia. Jewish intellectuals were challenged to declare themselves anti-Zionist. Most of them refused, and many left the country; Poland lost a large number of its thinkers, teachers, writers, and researchers.

Something about the boycott effort brought a new group of people into open opposition. Personally, I had encountered some difficult moments while teaching. Some of my Masters students, for example, in a course on human rights, had created a swirl of half-baked anti-Semitic narratives in response to a lecture on the complexities of Holocaust representation. “What about the Holocaust industry?” “There is so much discussion of the Holocaust because of who controls the market.” “Why does one group feel they own the Holocaust?” “The Holocaust myth.” “It’s the Zionists that insist on the ineffability of the Holocaust.” In another class a student had repeated the claim that there were no Jews in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. ...