As has been widely reported, anti-Semitic hate crimes have increased sharply in this country. Our nation’s universities should be doing their part to fight anti-Semitism, but too many are doing just the opposite by adopting academic boycotts that single out Israel while leaving in place academic programs that send students to countries that are major human rights violators. What are students to take from this other than the message that the world’s only Jewish Nation is the worst of the worst?A good example of the problems with academic boycotts is what is happening at California’s Pitzer College. Last November the faculty there voted to suspend its study abroad program in Haifa, Israel. In anticipation of an upcoming meeting on the issue, a prominent faculty member recently published an editorial defending the decision. The editorial claims that the move is in keeping with other decisions the college has made and gives the example of boycotting military recruiters in 1990.
But the military boycott was over the military’s exclusion of gays and lesbians—a poor analogy to Israel, which has, by far, the most liberal policies on same-sex equality in the Middle East. If we are looking for moral consistency, the obvious comparison to Pitzer’s program in Israel would be its study abroad program in China. It is certainly true that Israel occupies the West Bank. It is equally true that China occupies Tibet and brutally so. The Dalai Lama has said that the Chinese occupation of Tibet has produced a “Hell on Earth.” Literally millions of Tibetans have been forcibly displaced and many have been killed. Pitzer maintains its study abroad program in China, but, amazingly this is not mentioned once in the editorial defending the suspension of the study abroad program in Israel. When specifically challenged on this in the comments section, the author of the editorial responds that “our China program should indeed be reviewed . . .” So why hasn’t it?The Pitzer editorial says the choice of singling out Israel is based on two principles. The first is “act when one’s actions can have real impact.” Would an academic boycott of China really have no impact? China sends, by far, the largest number of students to American Universities of any nation in the world and was among the top destinations for American study abroad students. An academic boycott of that country would have a strong impact. So why single out Israel while maintaining a program in China?
The Pitzer editorial states that the second principle is “in contemplating action in response to injustice, listen to the victims, to those who are suffering, to learn what help they seek from allies.” Perhaps we should listen more closely to the people of Tibet. If colleges believe that academic boycotts are effective do they really have any reason to believe that the people of Tibet would not welcome the same assistance? The people of Tibet have called for a boycott in other contexts to protest the Chinese occupation—it’s silly to think that they wouldn’t welcome an academic boycott.
That is why the academic boycott of Israel is hypocritical. But is it anti-Semitic? That is a serious charge and should be made with care and a few caveats. First of all, not everyone (or even most people) associated with an anti-Semitic movement is an anti-Semitic person. Second, for a movement to be anti-Semitic, it does not mean that anti-Semitism is the movement’s sole motivating factor. There is little doubt that many people associated with the boycott movement are genuinely concerned with the fate of the Palestinian people.Finally, the fact that some supporters of the boycott are Jewish themselves (as is the author of the editorial) does not mean the movement isn’t anti-Semitic. If anything, it is admirable that many Jews want to hold the Jewish State to a higher standard than other countries are held to. But for others to seek to punish Israel while holding their fire on many of the world’s worst human rights violators is inherently anti-Semitic.Israel is the only Jewish Nation in the world. Pitzer is boycotting it, while maintaining its study abroad programs not just in China, but other Nations with poor human rights records such as Rwanda. Pitzer speaks with pride about its boycott of the U.S. Military for its exclusion of gay service members but continues its study abroad program in Botswana, which criminalizes homosexuality.
A boycott of Israel while maintaining these programs is a clear statement that Israel is the worst of the worst despite the fact that this is obviously not true. That is anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent.The government of Israel, like the governments of most nations, is hardly a group of saints. There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. But when doing so, universities and academic scholars should follow a few basic guidelines:First, universities should have a process that is fair and transparent. Rather than suspending ties with Israel and taking an “it will happen when it happens” approach to reviewing other study abroad programs, universities should create a process to set clear standards for how and when they determine academic boycotts.Further, universities should aim to promote mutual understanding. It’s right to shine a light on the hardships caused by the occupation of the West Bank. But when doing so, if an article or class does not discuss the fact that, for example, the Palestinian Authority acknowledges that it provides cash payments to families of terrorists who kill or try to kill Israelis, then how can readers or students understand why Israel is reluctant to turn power over to that very same Palestinian Authority?
Finally, universities should recognize that their strength comes not from some sort of moral superiority but from their expertise in methodologies that separate fact from fiction. In an ideal world, universities should be the place one can go to hear clear explanations for why two peoples both believe that they have the most valid historic claims to the disputed land or why both parties believe the other is the primary aggressor. Universities should be helping students understand the complexity of the situation, not serving up simplified morality tales.More transparency, greater accuracy and a good faith attempt to help everybody understand different points of view would go a long way here.