A boycott of Israel by liberal Western academia undermines the freedom on which the world of letters is founded
The ethics of political action could be a tricky affair in everyday life. This was firmly driven home to the Oxford professor who had initially refused to supervise an Israeli student. Mr Andrew Wilkie was sure that Mr Amit Duvshani is a perfectly nice person. But “no way” would Mr Wilkie take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army. This was in protest against Israel’s human rights abuses on Palestinians for wanting to live in their own country. Oxford has, of course, come down like a ton of bricks on Mr Wilkie, who has offered his apologies. But Mr Duvshani has clearly felt discriminated against because of his nationality. He has washed his hands of Oxford.
In Britain — where many ordinary men and women strongly feel that they have been tricked by their prime minister into fighting an unsavoury war — gestures like Mr Wilkie’s could look like assertions of the individual’s right to some sort of articulate representation in a democracy. This is not an isolated incident. Debate over a boycott of Israel has divided Western liberal academic and literary circles for a while now. A professor in Manchester had earlier sacked two Israelis from the editorial board of a journal, purely as a matter of principle. Various other academics have been campaigning for a boycott — of Israeli institutions and not of individuals, they insist. They also insist that this is not the same as being anti-Semitic. Prominent Jews, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt among them, had written to the New York Times in 1948 to protest against the massacre of Palestinians by Zionist fascists in the then newly formed state of Israel.
Quite apart from the self-righteousness of such boycotts, the injustice of Mr Wilkie’s initial response to the Israeli applicant undermines the very premises of “academic freedom”, which most pro-boycotters swear by. Academia’s freedom comes from its commitment to merit and equal opportunities. Sanctions are the result of the conflict between states, and are essentially — and often brutally — collective measures subordinating individual human beings to general policies and principles. Academia, together with many other institutions of civil society, provides a radically different, though no less “political”, alternative to such forms of conflict — in its very transcendence of these conflicts through personal contact, collaboration and interaction. The classroom, lecture-theatre and laboratory could be part of the road-map of peace-keeping in a very different way, through an engagement with individuals and their potentials of excellence, rather than seeing them as faceless representatives of hostile nations. To surrender this distinctness from the state is not to reclaim political agency for civil society, but to actually relinquish its capacity to transform conflict into peaceful forms of co-existence.
A Jewish conductor and an Arab professor — Messrs Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said — regularly bring together Israeli and Palestinian musicians to form what has now become a famous musical workshop. While rehearsing the Beeth- oven Seventh, they describe how, within the orchestra, “one set of identities are superseded by another”. Israelis and Palestinians become cellists and violinists — notes in a different harmony.