Boycotting the British UCU Boycott of Israel:

This morning I received the following note from Professor Steve Lubet of Northwestern University Law School that I thought would be of interest to VC readers.

Dear Colleagues:

As you probably know, the British University and College Union recently passed a resolution advancing a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions. Whatever your political views on the Middle East, I trust you will agree that such a boycott is antithetical to academic principles. It shuts off dialogue, when one of the key purposes of universities is to promote dialogue and thereby the pursuit of truth. It ignores existing projects where Israeli and Palestinian academics cooperate. It requires academics to hew to one ideological line. And it constitutes discrimination on the basis of nationality. Many leading international scholars — including Palestinians — have issued statements in opposition to a boycott, recognizing that it violates essential academic values. In the words of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, "In seeking to quarantine Israeli universities and scholars this vote threatens every university committed to fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy, and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas."

If you agree that the UCU boycott resolution is wrong, you may show your opposition by signing the petition circulated by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). It has already been signed by numerous Nobel Laureates and university presidents.

The text of the SPME petition is as follows:

We are academics, scholars, researchers and professionals of differing religious and political perspectives. We all agree that singling out Israelis for an academic boycott is wrong. To show our solidarity with our Israeli academics in this matter, we, the undersigned, hereby declare ourselves to be Israeli academics for purposes of any academic boycott. We will regard ourselves as Israeli academics and decline to participate in any activity from which Israeli academics are excluded.

To sign the statement, go here. A list of signatories is available here. Note that one need not support Israeli policies, or even the positions of SPME, to support this statement. Academic boycotts of this sort are, quite simply, contrary to the ideals of open intellectual discourse.

On pro-Jewish anti-Zionism:

I posted a comment to Jonathan's post below that I thought I'd promote to an actual post (with some slight changes). It's about the recurring question whether there's anything anti-Semitic about singling out Israel for criticism when, for anything bad that Israel arguably does, a ton of other countries (China, Sudan, etc.) do it worse.

I claim that singling out Israel in this way not necessarily anti-Semitic. In fact, there are some extremely pro-Jewish (perhaps even too pro-Jewish) reasons for doing so. (Note that, in what follows, I'm making no claim about how many pro-Jewish types there are in the anti-Israel crowd relative to the anti-Semitic types. I'm only arguing that this position is coherent, by way of rebutting the claim that anti-Israel policies are necessarily anti-Semitic.)

First, let's take as given that someone opposes Israel for some reason — for instance because of its policies with respect to the Palestinians, or because of certain preferential policies for Jews (or for certain Jews), or because of its tactics in the war against Lebanon, or what have you. (I'm not interested, for the purposes of this post, in arguing the merits of that position.) And I'll stipulate that this reason applies in spades against many other countries (China, Sudan, whatever).

Note, though, that there are several ways of setting one's priorities. One way is to concentrate one's efforts on the worst cases; on that view, singling out a relatively mild offender would be wrong. But another way — perhaps more in line with economists' thinking — is to concentrate on the most fixable cases. For example, on this blog, we tend to criticize the American government more than other countries — though surely Sudan does worse things than the Libby commutation??? One reason might be that we have no special knowledge of Sudan; another reason might be that we have no special interest in Sudan; and another reason, which is the one I want to focus on, might be that we think we can make a greater difference in America.

On this view, it's actually correct to single out America or Israel for criticism rather than other countries. For instance, one might think that only Israelis are sane, basically rights-respecting, and receptive to basic Western values — so that one can appeal to Israelis' basic principles in arguing that they're acting wrongly. Or one could believe that only Israel — and not Sudan or China — has a healthy enough democratic culture that this sort of treatment will change its policies. In other words, far from being an anti-Semitic policy, the boycott could be an act of deep respect for Israel, essentially saying: "Only you guys aren't savages; we think you might actually listen."

Relatedly, one might hold Israel to a higher standard because they're basically "like us" and "should know better." Unlike the previous rationale, this one may well be dishonorable, because it treats non-Israelis (Sudanese and Chinese) as not being capable of understanding the right thing to do. But if it's dishonorable, again it's dishonorable by virtue of considering Israelis superior. So it's hardly anti-Semitism.

So there are anti-Semitic reasons one might support a boycott. But there are various pro-Semitic reasons, some honorable and some not, along the lines of "you guys aren't savages; we think you guys might listen; and you guys should know better."

UPDATE: Good times in the comments, in which, among other things, I defend looking at people's motives, and also argue that even comparisons of Israel to Nazis, while severely lacking in perspective, aren't necessarily anti-Semitic.

Why Does Israel Get So Much More Left-Wing Criticism than France?

Sasha Volokh is right to point out that not all left-wing criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or otherwise biased, even in cases where the critics attack Israel while ignoring other government that are guilty of similar offenses to a much greater extent. As Sasha puts it:

For instance, one might think that only Israelis are sane, basically rights-respecting, and receptive to basic Western values — so that one can appeal to Israelis' basic principles in arguing that they're acting wrongly. Or one could believe that only Israel — and not Sudan or China — has a healthy enough democratic culture that this sort of treatment will change its policies. In other words, far from being an anti-Semitic policy, the boycott could be an act of deep respect for Israel, essentially saying: "Only you guys aren't savages; we think you might actually listen."

But I am skeptical that this distinction really does account for the vastly disproportionate focus on real and imagined Israeli offenses in many left-wing quarters. The problem is that even other liberal democracies don't get even a fraction of the criticism that Israel gets when they enact comparable policies.

Consider the case of France, which doesn't get so much as a tiny fraction of the hostility directed at Israel, even though most of the accusations typically made against Israel could just as easily be leveled at the French government. The French comparison is far from the only example of anti-Israel double standards. But it has the virtue of highlighting that double standard with unusual clarity because the main arguments used to defend the double standard in other cases simply don't apply to France. The French surely accept "basic Western values," and have a "healthy democratic culture" at least as much as the Israelis do. Let's consider the bill of indictment that left-wingers could make against France were they so inclined:

I. Human Rights Violations.

The French state's likely complicity in the 1994 Rwandan genocide (see here and here) by itself dwarfs all the human rights offenses that can reasonably be charged against the Israelis. France's draconian anti-terrorism laws infringe on civil liberties as much or more than Israel's do, and much more than those of the US. Yet even utterly bogus claims of Israeli "genocide" get more attention than France's role in Rwanda.

II. "Imperialist" Occupation.

For those who believe that occupation is the greatest of all evils, there is the fact that French troops have repeatedly occupied various African nations over the last 40 years in order to prop up regimes that support French economic and political interests or help overthrow those that don't. This, despite the reality that the security threat these governments pose to France is negligible compared to that posed to Israel by its Arab neighbors. When it comes to the traditional left-wing bete noir of "imperialism," the Israelis are pikers compared to the French.

III. Mistreatment of Muslim minorities.

Finally, France's treatment of its large Muslim minority leaves - to put it mildly - a great deal to be desired, and is hardly better than Israel's treatment of its own Muslim Arab minority (which, I agree, includes a great deal of unjustified discrimination). France's restrictive labor policies have led to 14% unemployment among the country's mostly Muslim immigrant population, with much higher rates than that among the young. The government has also forbidden Muslim students to wear veils and other religious symbols in public schools - a restriction on Muslim religious expression that goes far beyond anything done by the Israelis.

I do not claim that all these French policies are completely indefensible (except for the Rwanda case). To the contrary, there are at least minimally plausible arguments for all of them. For example, I have some sympathy for French arguments that the regimes their troops prop up in Africa are often less bad than the likely alternatives.

But similar arguments can be used to defend the parallel Israeli policies; If French-supported African dictators may be better than their rivals, there is at least an equally strong case that the Palestinians are better off under Israeli occupation then left to the tender mercies of Hamas and Fatah (the realistic alternatives). Despite their many (often legitimate) grievances against the Israeli government, Israeli Arabs almost uniformly reject proposals to transfer their villages and towns to Palestinian rule. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has not noticeably improved the lot of Gaza's Arabs, and may well have worsened it.

It is, I think, still possible to make a left-wing case that, overall, Israeli policies are, say, 10% worse than French policies. Perhaps even 50% worse. I don't agree with such claims, but they are not wildly implausible. However, it is utterly impossible for a fair-minded observer with typical left-wing values to conclude that Israel is 100 or 1000 times worse than France. Yet the ratio of left-wing criticism of Israel to left-wing criticism of France is far closer to 100-1 or 1000-1 than 1.5-1.

Perhaps the difference is due to ignorance. Many of those who spend lots of time and energy attacking Israel may simply be unaware of comparable French policies. Perhaps it is due to the far greater media coverage of Israel. But that only begs the question of why so many left-wing intellectuals and activists spend so much more time and effort learning about Israeli shortcomings than French ones, and why a mostly left-liberal media does the same.

Not even the alleged left-wing bias towards "underdogs" and against "the powerful" can explain the disjunction. France is much larger and more powerful than Israel (with about 10 times Israel's population and GDP), and France's enemies are weaker than Israel's are. From any objective viewpoint, France's policies are far more important than Israel's and deserve far greater attention. Perhaps not ten times more, but certainly not 100 times less.

Is anti-Semitism the only cause of the disproportion between left-wing criticism of Israel and those of France? Almost certainly not. Perhaps it is not even the most important cause. But the other likely causes - bias against a nation perceived as more of a US ally than France, sympathy for France's (pre-Sarkozy) anti-American rhetorical stance, an implicit belief that Jews should be held to "higher standards," etc. - are only marginally more defensible.

UPDATE: In case it wasn't clear enough in the original post, I am NOT analogizing France's treatment of its Muslim citizens with Israel's treatment of West Bank or Gaza Palestinians. I am analogizing that French policy with Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens.

However, I AM analogizing the condition of West Bank Palestinians to the condition of Africans living under dictators propped up by French occupying troops. Thus, claims to the effect that "France treats its Muslims better than Israel treats West Bank Palestinians" do not undermine my argument in any way. Defenders of the double standard between Israel and France must instead show that the condition of the West Bankers is overall worse than that of Africans living under dictators installed or propped up by the French military.

As I noted in my original post, both the French and Israeli military occupations can be supported on the grounds that the available alternatives (Hamas, Fatah, various repressive African rulers) are worse. Thus, I'm not necessarily condemning either. I do, however, insist that both be judged by the same standards.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Why Does Israel Get So Much More Left-Wing Criticism than France?
  2. On pro-Jewish anti-Zionism:
  3. Boycotting the British UCU Boycott of Israel: