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Boycotting Common Sense

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, May 24, 2005; A17

I am now going to propound what will henceforth be known as Cohen's
Paradox: The louder your voice, the less I listen. By that I mean not
just the volume but also the shrillness of the argument and the
distinct unwillingness to apply it universally. This is the case with
the call by the British Association of University Teachers for a
boycott of two Israeli universities. Soon after the boycott was
approved, I stopped listening.
First, though, I sent an e-mail to the association's spokesman asking
for clarifications, background, etc. But the spokesman said he was
not speaking. Pity. What I wanted to know was how the two Israeli
institutions -- Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa --
were so much worse than those in China or Cuba or any Arab country
where academic freedom is virtually unknown. I also wanted to know
whether Russian institutions were being boycotted -- or maybe Iranian
ones. (Published reports say no.) And what about Saudi Arabia, where
this month a court sentenced three reformers to long jail terms for
submitting a petition to the crown prince asking for -- brace
yourself -- a constitutional monarchy? The three were sentenced to
terms of six, seven and nine years.
Where is the outrage over any of this? Yet, when it comes to Israel,
certain people -- particularly in Europe -- seem to think that the
country warrants the most operatic of denunciations. In the case of
the two Israeli universities -- Haifa, with an enrollment that is 20
percent Arab, and Bar-Ilan, which has an associated campus on the
(occupied) West Bank -- the Brit academics want nothing to do with
What are the offenses? Haifa is accused of trampling on academic
freedom by suppressing a thesis that alleged a massacre of
Palestinians during Israel's 1948 war of independence. This would not
be the first time such a massacre was alleged nor, just for the
record, would it be outside the realm of possibility. (Alleged
Israeli atrocities are not a taboo subject in Israel.) But in this
particular case, the university found that the thesis relied on
information that was invented or distorted. If so, the university had
a perfect right to reject the paper. This is hardly sufficient cause
for a boycott.
How about Bar-Ilan? Well, it has been targeted for a more substantial
reason -- its association with the College of Judea and Samaria,
which is in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. If I had my druthers,
Israel would pull out of Ariel, which is what the British teachers no
doubt want as well. But the so-called settlement is really a
substantial town that, incidentally, enjoys enormous support from
America's fundamentalist Christian community. The matter is
complicated. Time and reality will deal with Ariel -- a bad idea
whose time is past and hardly, by itself, worth a boycott. More
talking would be a better idea.
The trouble with the boycott movement -- the trouble with most such
movements directed at Israel -- is not that they are constructed out
of whole cloth but rather that they seem fueled by an indignation
that applies to Israel and almost nowhere else. The word "apartheid"
-- used by those urging the boycott -- is flung in Israel's face. Yet
Israel is nothing like the South Africa of old. Ethiopian Jews, who
are black, are not deprived of the vote or forced to live in
townships. Arab Israelis elect representatives to the parliament.
This is hardly apartheid. In fact, the people who label it so
trivialize that loathsome practice and smugly refuse to recognize the
historical forces -- periodic war, incessant terrorism -- that have
helped cause the ethnic separations that now exist. What is being
boycotted is common sense itself.
In a sense the boycott is a backhanded compliment. It holds Israel to
a standard that the Arab countries, for instance, could not begin to
meet. Good. But that selectivity is also insulting. In this case, it
calls for a breach, not more dialogue -- yet another boycott, of
which Israel has endured so many. To Israelis and their supporters --
to Israelis and even their occasional critics -- the use of such ugly
terms as "apartheid" (reminiscent of the United Nation's odious
"Zionism as racism" resolution) and the fury of the condemnation are
so familiar. They sound like, they seem like, they feel so much like
contempt that even when the critics have a case -- and sometimes they
do -- their message is ignored. In this way, something unintended
happens: The boycotters are boycotted, and they talk, as apparently
they have been, only to themselves.


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