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What Academic Values Does the British Boycott Protect?

In what has nearly become a perverse, recurring rite of spring, and yet more evidence that universities have become, as Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” Britain’s University and College Union, which represents some 120,000 members, voted in May to call for a boycott against Israeli academics. Why Israeli academic institutions? Because, the boycotters say, “Israel’s 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement,” that there exists a “complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation,” and therefore academics in a State which behaves this way will henceforth be shunned from joint intellectual pursuits, research, and teaching.

Critics of the called-for boycott, and there were many who voiced immediate and thunderous opposition, wondered aloud why, of all countries on earth—countries where actual and chronic repression, genocide, occupation, militarism, and subjugation do exist—why was Israel being singled out for the academics’ disdain. Many, of course, ascribe the obsession with Israeli faults as being symptomatic of a more serious concern, Europe’s long sickness of anti-Semitism, a Jew hatred that has been finessed in current times by its promoters being able to publicly announce, as the boycotters have, that, ‘no, it is not anti-Semitism at all. It is not Jews we abhor, only Zionism and Israel for what they do to the perennially-victimized Palestinians.’

Assuming that the British union is actually innocent of this pernicious hatred, and that their sanctimonious effort to right the perceived wrongs done to the Palestinians is, though misconceived, sincere, what is the just cause or set of values they purport to defend with their boycott? If they take the outrageous first step of denying Israeli academics any discourse at all in what is usually called “the academic marketplace of ideas,” of banishing them from the world of dialogue, research, and learning, have not they already struck a fatal blow to the core guiding principle of the academy? Since when has it been the responsibility of the university to control the actions of the state, or for its members to share culpability for the political decisions of a nation?

And if the Union members in fact feel that academics shape and influence national policy and political behavior, their choice of the Palestinians, now being led by homicidal Islamists, Hamas, seems a bit troublesome. What should not be lost on observers is that in the Union’s decision to condemn and boycott Israeli academics, they therefore affirm the perceived ideological superiority of the Palestinian side of the moral equation. They have embraced ‘Palestinianism’ completely as their choice of a cause to defend—with the genocidal terrorism, rabid anti-Semitism, political truculence, internecine violence, and general despair that has defined the Palestinian cause since it was minted in 1967 as a political tool against Israel.

Nor, since they target Israeli academics for not speaking out against the State of Israel’s political actions, should the boycotters overlook the political actions of the Palestinian “state” they so obsessively defend with their fulminations against Israel: because here, in what has been deemed by observers to be essentially child abuse, young Palestinians are inculcated, nearly from birth, with seething, blind, unrelenting, and obsessive hatred of Jews and the “Zionist regime”; kindergartners graduate with blood-soaked hands while toting plastic AK 47s and dedicating their lives to jihad; and older children are recruited to hide explosives on their bodies to transform themselves into “shahids”—a new generation of kindling for radical Islam’s cult of death.

The higher educational system which the British boycotts chooses as the morally- superior and deserving choice to Israel’s has not been free of the perverse indoctrination and teaching of terror, either. When Hamas formed its cabinet after being voted into office, for example, 13 of its ministers had been teachers at either at the Islamic University in Gaza or at the Al-Najah National University in Nablus.

In fact, says Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute's Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, with some 11,000 students, Al-Najah is the largest university in the territories and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which al-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc. “Of the thirteen members of Al-Najah's 2004 student council, eight,” he says—“including the chairperson—belong to Hamas's Islamic Bloc.”

Sometimes students take their ideological lead from college administrators who are not hesitant to make their political feelings know. In fact, Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, took the opportunity during a 2002 appearance on Al-Jazeera to congratulate the mother of a suicide bomber with whom he appeared by rhapsodizing, "When I hear the words of Umm Nidal, I recall the verse [from the Koran] stating that 'Paradise lies under the feet of mothers.' All respect is due to this mother; it is due to every Palestinian mother and every female Palestinian who is a Jihad fighter on this land."

The British boycotters may be frustrated that Israeli academics have not been influenced by their own government’s oppressive actions, but the same cannot be said of students at al-Najah University, for example, who fondly remembered the outbreak of the Intifada by constructing a macabre attraction called "The Sbarro Cafe Exhibition," named for the location of a 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizza parlor where 15 Jews were murdered and dozens more wounded. Created not as a memorial but as an inspiration for further terror-laden savagery, the diorama included scattered pizza slices amid Israeli body parts, splattered blood, calls to martyrdom with Koran and Kalashnikovs close by, and, beaming out of a loudspeaker behind a mannequin version of an Orthodox Jew, the inspiring take on an oft-repeated Islamic exhortation: "O believer, there is a Jewish man behind me. Come and kill him."

Nor are Palestinian students unimaginative in demonstrating their newly-found hatreds when they actively participate in student government activities. “During student elections at Bir Zeit University in 2003,” Leavitt recounts, “Hamas candidates reenacted suicide bombings by blowing up models of Israeli buses. In one Bir Zeit campus debate, a Hamas candidate taunted his Fatah challenger by boasting, ‘Hamas activists in this University killed 135 Zionists. How many did Fatah activists from Bir Zeit kill?’”

But even the tranquility of the university setting, where this ideological stew can normally boil unmolested, was shattered with June’s internecine violence in Gaza between factions of Hamas and Fatah. Though the British lecturers excoriated Israel because, as one of their complaints went, Palestinian students were inconvenienced by security checkpoints as they carried their books to school each morning, the “sanctity” of the college setting was forgotten when Palestinian Authority forces, believing it was being used as a staging area for Hamas rocket launches, stormed the 17,000-student Islamic University in Gaza, setting the entire campus ablaze, destroying books in its library , and gutting offices, classrooms, and the student center. Apparently the concept of academic freedom had to be revoked here, since virtually every leading figure of Hamas has taught or studied at Islamic University.

Not to be outdone, Hamas masked thugs soon took their turn at educational reform by showering the Fatah-linked Al Quds Open University with rocket-propelled grenades, and shortly thereafter storming the facility, looting it of its computers, and torching the classrooms.

Commentator Melanie Phillips, in speaking about the Union’s boycott, lamented how British academics, with a long tradition of learning, had incredulously shamed that legacy and that their action, as she puts it, “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour, which is freedom of speech and debate.” The act of condemning Israel’s universities, of excluding them from the fellowship of the international academic community, was, Phillips thinks, a disgraceful calumny that contradicts all those values that the university should, and usually does, hold dear. Instead, the boycotters have begun to behave in a repressive, unethical, and morally- questionable way.

“Censorship, suppression of ideas and intellectual intimidation are associated with totalitarian regimes,” Phillips says, “which attempt to coerce people into the approved way of thinking.” As Hamas shuts downs internet cafes, stifles dissent, murders its political foes, and begins introducing Islamic law in Gaza, one wonders if the British Union, in their misguided quest to make academic inquiry and unfettered learning flourish in the Levant, perhaps has chosen the wrong horse to ride.