The decision by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain to boycott two Israeli universities - Bar-Ilan and Haifa - can provide an opportunity for a renewed discussion of the connection that exists (or not) between academia and Israeli current affairs and, no less, of the connection that exists (or not) between anti- Israelis on the left and the right.
In regard to the former, things would seem to be simple. Even those who think that the Israeli academic community can exist in a research bubble would appear to be mistaken. Even if the accusations being leveled by the AUT are false and contain more than a little ignorance and malice, they are enough to remind even someone who estranges his research as if he were writing in New Zealand that it won't help him - we in academia are part of what is happening here. Those who seek to remove academia from the debate over current events in Israel are an unholy coalition of pure-intentioned or frightened researchers, and a populist government (the education minister, for example).
However, the other coalition is equally disturbing. In a move underpinned by passions, gut instincts, ignorance and especially malice, Israel bashers on the left and the right are forging a strange coalition that seeks to assail the original Zionist idea: the normalization of Jewish existence. It is not only the decision by the AUT - which is also deserving of the adjectives above - that should disturb us. Under the inspiration of the Palestinians, who invented the method, they have shot themselves in the foot.
Tomorrow this primitive method of boycott will spread from the Saudis and the Britons to the academic community wherever it may be: from the Arab states, where there are few saints when it comes to human rights and terrorism, to the Western democracies that send their soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq. But that is mainly their problem. Israel's problem in this affair involves the refusal to make a distinction between proper and essential criticism, and assailing our very existence as a collectivity, which is not isolationist, religious or totally devoid of identity.
The challenge of the extreme right to the Zionist idea, which seeks a Jewish state that exists normally - a "nation like all nations" and not "a people that dwells alone" - is well known. But this is exactly the same issue when it comes to the extreme left, which looks askance at Israel's existence. The Ilan Pappe affair, which is the pretext for the boycott of the University of Haifa (the AUT accused the university of threatening to dismiss Pappe from the department of political science, for defending a graduate student's paper about a massacre of Arab civilians by the Haganah); the very limited responsibility of Bar-Ilan University for the academic program of Ariel College in the occupied territories; and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's land dispute with a Palestinian family - these are excellent examples of malicious harping on events that go almost unnoticed in places where far greater crimes are committed (including Israel itself).
If these affairs did not exist, the boycott advocates in Israel would find others. Has a genuine attempt been made here and in Britain to look closely at the Pappe affair? Has his academic behavior been impeccable? Has anyone bothered to compare the number of Palestinians who study and work at the University of Haifa, for example, with those in Britain? Has anyone examined the nature of Bar-Ilan University's academic influence on the college in Ariel? As for Hebrew University, in its case, at least, doubts have arisen - temporary ones, we may assume. For these matters are not what is disturbing the boycott advocates here and in Britain. What disturbs them is Israel's normal existence.
Nevertheless, the debate in Britain as such is legitimate (as distinct from the motivations and conclusions). Those who seek a normal existence must not dwell in a nationalist bubble without discourse and dialogue with the rest of the world.
Yet, the supporters of the boycott are erring here again, by excluding people like me from the dialogue. This tendency toward isolationism is a salient expression of the hostility toward an Israeli existence that seeks normality for Israel, toward the future Palestinian state, and toward the prospect for peace between two entities that have the right to exist as long as their inhabitants desire this. The advocates of Israeli disengagement from the world - from Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) to Pappe and his associates - would do better to work together openly. That would be effective and brave.
The attack on the Israeli academic community is not only a product of ignorance and malice. It is also an expression of academic laziness: It is easy to get at those who are asking for research grants or who seek publication in international journals. Would the lecturers in Britain boycott local academic institutions? Not likely. The government is responsible, they would say, and they would be partially correct.
Finally, the demand for an ideological "kosher certificate" from lecturers who want to maintain ties with the academic community in Britain is particularly violent and is not fundamentally different from the acts that are imputed to Israel. The boycotters here and in Britain have learned nothing and forgotten everything - and are proud of the fact, too.
The writer is the head of the department of Land of Israel studies at the University of Haifa.
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