British Academic Boycott Is Just Blinkered Bigotry

By Peter Kearney

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Later this month Britain’s largest university and college lecturers union will vote on a motion recommending its 67,000 members boycott their Israeli counterparts and Israeli academic institutions. The move by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education is only the latest in a series of high-profile anti-Israel declarations and boycotts to emanate from the United Kingdom.

Such actions highlight a chronic addiction on the part of Europe’s liberal chattering classes to hollow-gesture politics, a knee-jerk illiberalism that is unfortunately not limited to academia. Earlier this year the Church of England’s Synod voted to disinvest from the American company Caterpillar on the grounds that its bulldozers were being used to demolish Palestinian settlements.

It is far from certain that the mainstream British public subscribes to the Church of England’s views, or to those of like-minded Catholics and Presbyterians, who like liberal Anglicans rarely miss an opportunity to revile the State of Israel. Yet these days it seems the only pro-Israel voices to be heard among British Christians belong to those with messianic visions of Zionism — apocalyptic obsessives who see the Jewish people as little more than pawns in some cosmic chess game to be guarded and protected until all the pieces on the board are arranged in some biblical checkmate.

Like many Catholics — and, I suspect, an even greater number of other Christians — I’m left perplexed. Why the polarization of opinions? Isn’t there a middle way?

Why can’t we heed the words Pope John Paul II spoke during his seminal visit to Israel in 2000, when he described the Jewish people as “our elder brothers in faith” and urged everyone to pray for peace and forgiveness? Can’t Western Christians simply recognize and respect the State of Israel and acknowledge the immense contribution of the Jewish people to global civilization and culture, without subscribing to a messianic vision of the Jewish state?

It is not just for the sake of our elder brothers in faith that Christians — most of whom, I suspect, do in fact hold a balanced view of Israel — should reject the prejudiced, unrepresentative and one-sided perspective being peddled by the vocal liberal minority. The Islamization of the West Bank and Gaza that has accompanied Hamas’s rise to power has led to increased intolerance toward Palestinian Christians.

Christians continue to leave Palestinian-controlled areas fearing the sort of intimidation and violence displayed in the West Bank last month in the Hamas stronghold of Qalqilya. Firebombs were thrown into the local YMCA office, which provides assistance to local residents with disabilities. Mercifully no one was injured, but a sinister letter from Muslim leaders warned of “negative consequences” if the facility did not shut down.

I recently stayed for several nights at the YMCA Three Arches Hotel in Jerusalem, and afterward at the Church of Scotland’s hotel in Tiberias — and I can only wonder how long such facilities would last were they situated outside of Israel’s borders. This is not to suggest that Israel’s attitudes toward its Christian minority are always exemplary. Comparatively speaking, however, the Jewish state is an oasis of tolerance.

This, however, is not a description of Israel likely to make its way into the public pronouncements of the United Kingdom’s main Christian churches. Equally improbable is the likelihood that the noble principles of learning embodied by professors Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan — the former Israeli, the latter Palestinian — would be part of the lesson plan approved by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. Bar-On, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Sami Adwan, at Bethlehem University, have devised a project that aims to change the way the Arab-Israeli conflict is taught by exposing Palestinian students to Israeli history lessons and Israeli students to the Palestinian version of history. They hope to build, rather than bluster, their way out of conflict by using books instead of bombast. The booklets they’ve devised set the competing versions of history side-by-side on the same pages for students, in an effort to bridge chasms of misunderstanding.

Adwan describes their work as an attempt to “break down the stereotypes and build nuanced understandings.” Bar-On, for his part, says, “What we’re talking about is the disarming of history, where the teaching of history no longer feeds the conflict.”

It’s too bad the blinkered zealots in so many British universities couldn’t spend time in Bar-On and Adwan’s classrooms; they might just understand how absurd their overblown denunciations and ivory-tower diktats are. Bar-On and Adwan’s students know better than many a misguided British academic that marching with banners and manning barricades is easier than engaging with those you oppose in a complex and difficult process of honest dialogue.

Before members of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education see fit to pass judgment on Israelis, they would do well to reexamine their own motives. They appear to exhibit, perhaps subconsciously, a depressingly deep attachment to the post-colonial Western guilt found in many European institutions.

Elites in many walks of European life cling to the belief that atonement for the sins of a previous generation’s often-rapacious expansionism is best achieved by a reflexive identification with any group identified as dispossessed or disadvantaged. It’s an odd ideology, since turning the clock back far enough allows almost everyone at some point in their history to claim underdog status, yet it is an ideology that nonetheless holds sway.

According to this flawed orthodoxy, Palestinians are perpetually persecuted, Israelis are interminably inflexible and Europe’s chatterati are out to right the world through newspaper columns and conference resolutions. In this inversion of reality, only Arab and never Jewish blood is shed, one group is always apologists and the other always martyrs, and a wall is beloved by one side and begrudged by the other.

It is this last, especially pernicious fiction that perhaps captures best the bankruptcy of this ideology. To suggest that Israelis would freely choose to live in the shadow of such a miserable structure as the security wall is both facile and perverse. It is a scar, a blight and a symbol of failure.

It does not signify victory or defeat, but separation and hate, and its impact is indiscriminate. As British academics vote later this month on whether to boycott their Israeli counterparts, they would do well to remember that depending on the time of day, the wall casts two shadows.

Peter Kearney is national spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland.






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