Thursday, April 18, 2013

Academic boycotts of Jews and Israelis: Historical parallels

When one reviews Jewish history one occasionally finds disturbing parallels. Accusations that Zionists were dragging Britain and the USA to war against Iraq were common before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was astonished to find that Mosleyites (British Fascists) had used similar claims back in the Thirties.

The current push to discriminate against Israeli academics may seem new, but it has a history.  It seems that academia is one of the first places to be affected by antisemitism.

Jews were first admitted to the Oxford colleges in the 1880's. In complete contrast to Britain, Russian universities introduced quotas for Jews in the 1880's, Jews were anyway banned from living in most of Russia. After the First World War, the new state of Hungary introduced quotas at its universities. In the USA growing Jewish enrollment at Ivy League universities led to tight quotas allowing only a very small number to attend.

In those days, faced with Pogroms and the like, troubles at universities were a minor irritation and not a major issue for Jews.

The German student union banned Jews from joining in 1921.  A poll of students found that 75% supported the ban which applied to converts as well as practising Jews. Einstein left Germany in part because of the constant disturbances in his lectures, related to his Jewish origins.  In Poland they had something called Ghetto Benches in the Thirties in which Jews, whose presence at the universities was subject to quotas, were also required to sit in seperate areas of the lecture halls.

There was a logic to restrictions on Jewish students, in that Jews deprived non-Jews of University places and later of middle-class jobs.  This logic doesn't apply today because the numbers of Jews in Europe has greatly dropped, however it remains true of Israeli academics, many of whom seek employment abroad.  While Israeli students probably bring more benefit then costs to British academics (by paying for courses), Israeli academics compete for jobs and article publication and so they have a direct interest in a boycott of Israelis.

Am I an Israeli academic?  I have dual nationality and dual degrees. Do boycotts apply to Israeli Arabs or just to Jews?  Where do you draw the lines? At present it seems like these boycotts are more expressions of emotion then policies but they cause us to assume that we face discrimination.  Unoffical apartheid.

Back in the Nineties, I visited the World Trade Center in New York and climbed to the top.  At the top of the building was a large metal pole: a lightning rod. Obviously such a tall building was a magnet for lightning, just as it was (we now know) for terrorism.
In a way, Zionism functions as a lightning rod for Anti-Semites. Israel, as the most prominent Jewish locale naturally attracts the ire of those who dislike Jews.  That they follow the same lines as earlier antisemites is hardly a surprise: they are, afterall, directing their ire at Jews.

Is it because of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel?  Discrimination exists in Europe too. It may well be that the Palestinians are the Casus belli - the excuse.  If the issue is the West Bank, then the use of antisemitic practises may be popular but it is hardly likely to prove to Israelis the error of their ways.
When dealing with minorities, the difference between legimitate criticism and racism is very subtle; The likelihood that union memebers can exercise such judgement are close to nil and a boycott intended as an anti-racist measure will soon become antisemitic and cease to serve any function.  The claim to be acting from anti-racist motives becomes particularly absurd when you consider the deeply antisemitic opinions voiced by many Hamas leaders.
Sometimes it is more important to be wise then to be right, ultimately the boycotters are neither wise nor right.

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