I’m in London this week, so last night I went to a debate entitled “Boycotting Israeli Academia: Right or Wrong?” at the LSE, between Steven Rose and Geoffrey Alderman. I had never heard either speaker before, so it was quite interesting on that account, but I can’t say that I came out greatly enlightened on the issue of the boycott.
Steven Rose motivated the boycott by a critique of Israel’s policies in general, and by pointing out the huge imbalance in the quality of academic life and freedoms between Israel (where almost all academics are Jewish) and occupied Palestine. He observed that most Israeli academics acquiesce in the injustice of the occupation, from which they benefit, but suggested that a boycott could make exceptions of those who have resisted it or worked with Palestinian colleagues.
Geoffrey Alderman replied with some examples of other (especially Arab) countries in which academic freedom is also sharply restricted, to raise the question of why Israel should be singled out for a boycott. He maintained that by killing dialogue, a boycott would harden established divisions and make positive progress more rather than less difficult.
Contributions from the floor weren’t confined to the question of the boycott – they hardly could be, since Geoffrey Alderman’s position was both to resist a boycott and also to resist most of the criticism of Israel. On the specific boycott issue, though, some speakers questioned whether this was the best use of energy – perhaps we should be focussing first of all on supporting Bir-Zeit and sympathetic Israeli academics, and giving less importance to punishing unsympathetic ones. The discussion was deeply disrupted by a heckler who called Alderman a “Nazi” and refused to retract or apologise. Only when the chairman of the meeting (Lord Desai the economist) had temporarily left in protest, was the heckler persuaded to leave by popular pressure from the rest of the audience (who were on the whole very sympathetic to Steven Rose’s arguments).
Overall, it was the wrong line-up for this debate – we should have had two speakers who both opposed Israel’s policies but differed on the merits of a boycott. Then we could have discussed the issue at hand, instead of having a general discussion about how bad Israel’s behaviour really is, and whether it deserves all the attention we give it.