It is that time of year again. News arrives of 343 "university teachers" who signed a letter pledging that henceforth they will not cooperate with Israeli academic institutions. Their joint letter took up a full page advertisement today in Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper (where else?) and has caused almost no stir in Britain. It comes days after a letter in the Guardian's letters page, signed by 150 leading British writers, musicians and others -- including JK Rowling, Simon Schama and Hilary Mantel -- opposed any and all such boycotts against Israel, and pointed out that in the eyes of most people, intellectual and cultural exchange is a good thing.
JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is one of 150 leading British writers, musicians and others who have signed a public letter opposing boycotts of Israel. (Image source: White House video screenshot)
The anti-boycott letter was signed by some of Britain's leading intellectuals. The main response to the pro-boycott letter, however, may well be, "Who?" Who knew, for instance, that Israel -- or any state -- would be diminished if it could not gain from the wisdom of Professor Alex Callinicos, one of Britain's most obscure Marxist academics? He is the author of numerous interminable tracts; his efforts to bring his thoughts into mainstream politics reached their summit during his involvement with the Socialist Worker's Party, an entity too extreme even for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. As almost nobody in Britain wants Prof. Callinicos's thoughts, why would anybody in Israel be begging for them?
Or consider another figure on the letter, one Professor Jane Hardy who teaches at the University of Hertfordshire. It would come as a great surprise to most people in Britain -- and possibly to many people in Hertfordshire -- that such an institution exists. But a quick internet search reveals that it does, and that until 1992 it was known as "Hatfield Polytechnic." So what are the students in Israel unilaterally going to lose the right to know, thanks to the stance taken by Professor Hardy? Well, her own profile page says, "My research and publications on regional development, and the gender and class impacts of change have been underpinned by a concern with the lives of ordinary people and how they have contested neoliberalism." One tries to be polite, of course, but it is worth pointing out that this kind of "study" has never been helpful in finding a place in the job-market for British students (apart, possibly, in furthering their studies in low-grade academia). Why the withdrawal of Prof. Hardy's research on regional development, gender and class in a Hertfordshire context should be such a loss to students in Israel, one is at a loss to guess.
Others on the list comprise a list of the even more obscure and unknown. Perhaps their families know who some of them are? The majority are from Britain's second or third tier universities, former polytechnics misguidedly rebranded as universities, which have lowered the coinage of universities as a whole. Of course, there is, as usual, the requisite smattering of Jewish names, brought to the fore by the petition's organizers in an attempt to cover over the latent bigotry and racism of their letter. But what a chorus of presumption and self-importance is there.
Just consider the reasoning behind the letter and you will see that it shows the tragically low bar now needed in Britain to qualify as an academic.
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, for instance, speaking for the organizers of the boycott letter, says, "Israel universities are at the heart of Israel's violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinian people." Is that really true? Take one of the hardest measures that the Israeli state has ever had to carry out against those who carry out suicide terrorism against its people: home demolition (in which the home of a terrorist is destroyed after the case has gone through the courts, because it is hard to find many ways to dissuade someone from doing something if they are willing to die in the process: but what happens to their family home afterwards can provide a disincentive). Does anybody know how Prof. Rosenhead has come to the belief that home demolition of suicide bombers is work carried out by the universities of Israel? Ordinarily it would be the IDF or other security forces that would carry out such regrettable work. Does Prof. Rosenhead really have evidence that it is in fact Israeli academics who are sent to carry out such an order? It seems vanishingly unlikely. And even if one academic somewhere in Israel had been involved, why should that affect somebody studying literature at a university in Tel Aviv? Do students in any British or American university have to be held responsible for the actions of the British or American armed forces in Northern Ireland or Iraq? Would we not think it the grossest ignorance, not to mention bad manners, to think they should be?
Prof. Rosenhead's view of what ordinary academics are up against appears to be skewed at home as well as abroad. At the launch of his racist petition he announced, "These signatures were all collected despite the pressures that can be put on people not to criticise the state of Israel." I do not know where he thinks such pressure comes from. To my eye the only people who exert any pressure not to sign boycott letters are a couple of small Zionist organisations in the UK. It is hard to believe that this comprises a force that is feared by these brave signatories unless the idea that the organizers are in fact playing into is that there is always some price to pay for standing up to "Jewish interests" and "Jewish power." Racism like that has not been heard in Britain for many decades. How unpleasant to hear it bubbling up again from the obscurest backwaters of academia.