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Director's Column: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism in the News, November 2009
Boycott of Israeli Academics Forcefully Rejected

By Kenneth L. Marcus

Director, Initiative to Combat Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism in America's Educational Systems

Efforts to boycott Israeli academics were forcefully rejected at Norwegian and Scottish universities this month. This is a notable development, since the campus-based boycott, divestment and sanctions (or BDS) movement has been increasing lately in strength and shrillness Nevertheless, as Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg explain in Uncivil University (Lexington Books Rev. ed. 2009), the significance of the BDS proposals is not so much in whether they are actually enacted but in “how the debate on Israel is framed.” In this sense, it is hardly a victory if boycott proposals are rejected on academic freedom grounds, but Israel is associated in peoples’ minds with the heinous practice of apartheid.

On November 12, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s governing board unanimously decided to reject a proposed boycott of Israeli academics. During a widely followed board of governors’ meeting, BDS activists were startled to find that not a single member of this Trondheim institution was willing to defend the measure. Norway’s education minister, Tora Aasland, had condemned the proposed academic boycott as being "incompatible with the hallmark of academic culture: a free, research-based dialogue." A week later, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association also soundly rejected an anti-Israel boycott proposal.

One should not minimize the importance of these resolutions, which resulted from concerted efforts in many quarters. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East had called on "academic colleagues from around the world ... to refute and condemn the campaign" at Trondheim. (Disclosure: the author had a modest role in preparing this petition.) SPME’s online petition, signed by over 3500 scholars, had bluntly stated that "[w]e stand in solidarity with Israeli academics and academic institutions; if you boycott them, boycott us as well." Thirteen of the signatories had been recipients of the Nobel Prize in their respective fields.  The rector of the University of Haifa also asserted to his Norwegian counterpart that the proposed boycott stems from ignorance of Israel and would harm academic freedom, intellectual progress and universal values.

Nevertheless, by framing the Israel discourse around whether Israel is an “apartheid state,” though, BDS activists win even when they lose. Kenneth S. Stern has compared this situation, in Antisemitism Today (AJC 2006) with Holocaust denial:  “Just as Holocaust deniers do not think they are going to persuade people today that the Holocaust did not happen, but want to create the illusion that there is a reasonable ‘debate’ about the historical facts, anti-Israel activists want to construct a linkage in peoples’ minds between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.”  In this respect, the debate itself is a loss, especially when Israel’s supporters can prevail only by relying upon the institutional norms of the university rather than by revealing the baselessness of the anti-Israel charge. 

In his famous 2002 Address at Morning Prayers, however, then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers warned against the seamy underside of the BDS movement.  “Serious and thoughtful people,” he cautioned, “are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”  As Manfred Gerstenfeld once pointed out, “Jews have been at the receiving end of boycotts and similar actions throughout much of Jewish history,” but they found their most notorious expression during the Nazi era.  Goebbels had once called for an anti-Jewish boycott “until German Jewry has been annihilated" if international resistance to the Nazi regime continued.  The notorious Arab boycott, launched before the State of Israel was established, provided that “Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries."  The BDS movement relies upon both age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes and ancient anti-Jewish weapons.

While the BDS movement continues to grow internationally, many observers now see through it.  Director Wim Wenders recently made headlines with his response to proposed boycott of Israeli films.  “I’ll boycott boycotts,” he announced, explaining that he saw no reason to boycott Israeli films. Indeed, reaction against proposed boycotts have spawned “buycott” movements in both the United Kingdom and Canada.  In both countries, supporters of Israel are promoting the purchase of Israeli goods to compensate for the pounding that Israel has been taking at the hands of its adversaries.  This welcome development provides a constructive way for community activists to stand up against efforts to demonize and delegitimize Israel around the world.