There is a wrong way, a right way, and a righter way for Jews and their allies to respond to the British boycotts of Israel that have been adopted by the British University and College Union, or UCU, and by Great Britain’s largest trade union, UNISON, and that threaten to spread still further.
The wrong way is to turn the issue into one of the unacceptability of boycotts, as has been done in regard to the UCU decision by some Israeli and Jewish academics, especially those on the Left.
The UCU’s proposed ostracization of Israeli academic institutions, it is said by such people, is wrong because it infringes on academic freedom. Israeli scholars are not responsible for everything their government does and should not be punished for it by their fellow scholars elsewhere.
This is mealy-mouthed, cowardly, and self-accusing. Basically, it says: “Look here, Israel may really be the dreadful country that you say it is – in fact, many of us believe that – but why take it out on us? We’re the good Israelis, the ones who condemn our government just like you do. You’re only shooting yourselves and the principle of free speech in the foot by refusing to deal with us.”
This is also intellectually absurd. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with boycotts, academic or otherwise, if they’re aimed at the right targets. When Nazi universities in the 1930s fired all their Jewish staff, a boycott of them would have been entirely appropriate, even if some of their non-Jewish staff might have disagreed with what was done.
Indeed, there were abortive Jewish attempts to organize a boycott of Germany and German goods in the 1930s, and the sad thing about them is not that they were made but that they were ineffective.
The right response to the British boycotts is outrage and protest. As has been correctly observed, they judge Israel by a double standard that can only be called anti-Semitic.
Even if one opposes Israeli actions and policies toward the Palestinians, they cannot possibly be deemed worse by an honest observer than Russian actions and policies toward the Chechens, Turkish actions and policies toward the Kurds, Chinese actions and policies toward the Tibetans, etc. Anyone against Israeli settlements on the West Bank should be horrified by the deliberate turning of the Tibetans into a minority in their own country by mass Chinese immigration.
Where are the British boycotts of Russia, Turkey, and China? What but anti-Semitism, as vehemently as the boycotters may deny it, can account for singling Israel out in this way?
Right, too, is the expression of this outrage in manifestos and petitions, like the one that has been circulated by the American organization, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and signed by thousands of individuals, including numerous Nobel Prize winners and university presidents.
It is praiseworthy that many of the signers have announced their intention of standing by Israel’s side and considering themselves boycott victims too. When Nobel laureate in physics, Steven Weinberg, canceled a schedule talk at Imperial College in London, saying that he refused to speak in any place where Israelis were not welcome, he did the decent and commendable thing.
But it would be even righter for Jews and other supporters of Israel to fight back, not just on an individual basis, but in a massive and organized fashion – or, to call a spade a spade, by means of a counter-boycott. Every one of the 159 delegates to the UCU conference in Bournemouth who voted to boycott Israel last month should have his name put on a black list of Jewish organizations: Pressure should be exerted not to attend his courses, not to have him invited to other campuses, not to publish his academic writings, and so on and so forth.
The same should be done with UNISON. Having voted to sever all economic and cultural links with Israel, the British trade union should be given a taste of its own medicine. A maximum effort should be made to induce other trade unions, and institutions of every kind, to sever all economic and cultural links with UNISON. And the sooner this is done the better, because anti-Semitism thrives most when it is confident that it is picking on the defenseless and the helpless. The only way to combat it is to make it pay a steep price for what it does.
There are two possible objections to counter-boycotts of this sort. One is that they are too drastic and exacerbate tensions even more. The other is that if they fail, they demonstrate weakness and only make things worse.
The first objection is misguided. The anti-Semitic campaign against Israel is growing. If it is not combated by every possible means, it will continue to spread. Inaction induced by the fear of exacerbating it will exacerbate it.
The second objection is weightier. If Jewish counter-boycotts of anti-Israel boycotts fail, as did Jewish boycotts of Germany in the 1930s, they will indeed demonstrate Jewish weakness – and Jewish weakness is to anti-Semites as blood is to a shark.
But if Jews, their organizations, and the organizations of non-Jews, such as evangelical Christians, who identify with Israel are too weak to carry the fight to the enemy, one may as well know that now. The sooner one finds it out, the better the chances of doing something about it.
The assault on Israel is an international and increasingly well-organized one. It can only be resisted on the same basis, with Jewish organizations taking the lead. The British boycotts are the place to start. A counter-boycott is the order of the day.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.