Starting in 2006 the University College Union in the UK launched its campaign for an academic boycott of Israel. Prominent amongst the proponents of this motion were those who claimed Jewish birth as if this somehow strengthened the force of their argument. I was thrown into the fray by accepting the poisoned chalice of defending Israel in a debate published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 20th July 2007. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/335/7611/125?ijKey=5a7e5f23cf436e0c44be b2a5acd8b852e54c2a8b&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
I thought it was pretty mild stuff yet it lead to the largest on line vote the BMJ had ever experienced (23,000) and countless rapid responses on line and e-mails addressed directly to me that were hurtful and abusive. Perhaps the most pernicious of these that is still drifting round cyberspace read as follows: “What kind of doctor is it who, after the Jewish experiences of people like Dr Mengele, approves of and covers for Israeli doctors supervising torture sessions? You should be ashamed of yourself Dr Baum and the GMC should be stripping you of your license to practice if you don’t see anything wrong in your actions and behaviour”
This was written by someone claiming to be a Jew and was followed by a coordinated campaign to get me struck off by the General Medical Council for reasons of scientific misconduct. My misconduct was claiming that it was a lie to accuse the Israel Medical Association of being complicit with the torture of Palestinian prisoners as well as women and children.
Fortunately that has all died down at the moment but as a consequence of that sorry episode in my life I was left continuing a dialogue with two colleagues from the more tolerant, or at least polite, of my foes. One Dr. W. is active in Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP) and the other Professor Y. is active in Jews for Justice for Palestine. (JfJfP). I had somewhat naively thought that we could start a movement of medical humanitarians that would ignore their political divisions and yet work towards relieving the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians. I used this quotation from Amin Maalouf’s wonderful book [In the name of identity, violence and the need to belong, Arcade, New York, 2001] as my starting point:
“The basic postulate of universality is that there exist inherent rights to human dignity that no one may deny to his fellow creatures, whether on the grounds of religion, colour, nationality or sex, or on any other consideration. This means, among other things, that any attack on the fundamental rights of men and women in the name of some tradition-religion or other-is contrary to the spirit of universality. There cannot be on the one hand an overall charter of human rights and on the other hand special and particular charters for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Africans, Asians and the rest.”
I then suggested that we might all agree to sign up to this declaration codified as follows.
• All men/women are born equal
• Any life is of infinite value
• Therefore any quantum of life is of infinite value
• Therefore all men and women deserve equal access to the best of health care and preventative medicine
• Furthermore all men, women and children should be spared the consequences of civil or military conflict
• Furthermore the intentional infliction of pain or suffering, by way of torture or neglect is abhorrent.
• Justice is a universal right for those who suffer any abuse of the principles described above.
I had little doubt that we shared these sentiments and I was confident that we could have found the others who would also share these sentiments and help launch a “movement”.
Very sadly operation “Cast Lead” intervened followed by the Goldstone report. On both these rocks did our “movement” founder. In my attempts to re-launch our ship of humanitarianism I was guilty of the trope of mentioning Global institutionalized anti-Semitism. My friends were shocked and confessed their disappointment with me.
I then undertook to explain myself in full by way of an essay and sent it to them with the following covering letter.
Dear Dr. W. and Prof. Y.
As you have learnt to your cost by now, whenever I am troubled by controversy and passionate disputation, especially with colleagues who I respect, I put my ideas on trial (essayer) and write an essay. This essay took on a will of its own, delaying my response, giving me insomnia and ending up with 25 pages. I crave your indulgence but would forgive you if you gave up before the end. I’m setting out my thoughts (manifesto), not to convert you, but to explain my thinking so that you may at least empathize with my position (and thousands like me) even if you don’t share it. Middle East politics is a minefield both literally and figuratively and I would dearly like to stay out of it and enjoy a happy retirement, writing my books and painting my pictures. Sadly even if I try to disengage, the ripples of the Arab/Israeli conflict lap at my doorstep. We have just finished celebrating the Jewish high holy days. Our suburban synagogue looked like the “Green zone” in Iraq, with barriers outside to protect us from car bombs and security guards at all road junctions within a square mile radius. We were even forbidden to congregate in the synagogue courtyard after service for our traditional gossip, in case we made too attractive a target. No, it’s not the British National Party that worries our community but the threat of Islamic fanatics. You may think that I exaggerate or that our community is paranoid, yet we are acting under the advice of the metropolitan police.
In addition a close friend of mine who is a judge at the Old Bailey, told me about a recent case where three young British born Islamic zealots, where sent down for three years for possessing material linked to the manufacture of suicide bombs along with inflammatory anti-Semitic literature.
Furthermore you don’t have to look far to see the reality of the threat. Across the channel our French co-religionists have faced the reality of Islamic terror, with murder of orthodox Jews and firebombing of synagogues. As expressions of what French Jews are suffering at the hands of the North African Muslim extremists, the largest group of immigrants to Israel at the moment happens to be the middle class French. I know I cause you embarrassment to raise the issue of anti-Semitism and even worse to mention the holocaust in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and I know it’s considered bad form in polite leftish liberal circles, but I believe it is essential to our understanding of the geo-political landscape. Your narrow focus on proximal events taken out of context provides a false picture and alongside of this I believe your attitudes inadvertently, fan the flames of hatred and do nothing to end the conflict or improve the plight of the Palestinians. You need to stand back a little to see the bigger picture.
Furthermore you and I inhabit planets with different orbits, rotating round differing gravitational influences, so let my essay introduce you to the aliens who inhabit my world.
For those of you who might be interested in what I had to say and can spare the time, you can download a PDF file of my essay on:
http://files.me.com/michaelbaum3/3wp0zy I so hope that it might become a useful resource for our embattled students on the campuses of the western world