Speaking of groupthink, this current rash of dysfunctional group behaviour from the British Left is in no way a new phenomenon. Some have suggested that very old anti-Semitism is to blame.1 I’m reluctant to over-simplify the discussion. There are other factors worth considering.
Anti-globalists amongst the British Left are certainly playing a part in this round of anti-Israel activity. They claim to decry all forms of imperialism, but in practice have spent an inordinate effort targeting the Jewish state. Israel's economic success, especially compared to the backward economies of her neighbours, is seen to be a result of her collusion with the globalist forces (i.e. The US of A). As Mark Strauss, a senior editor for Foreign Policy writes (it's a pay link, sorry), "Islamists and secular nationalists alike portray globalization as the latest in a series of US-Zionist plots to subjugate the Arab world."
Ironically, it is the British who were the Imperialists not so long ago. In pre-state Palestine, the Leftists readily identified the Jew as a legitimate enemy based on perceived collusion with the British during the Mandate years.2
Is there legitimate concern that British antipathy towards Jews is real? In January 2002, British left-wing magazine The New Statesman published a cover story on the "Zionist lobby" in Britain. The cover displayed a golden Star of David stabbing a Union Jack behind the banner: "A Kosher Conspiracy?" To be fair, the magazine's editor apologized (after many complaints) but it's hard to dismiss such a blatant expression of distrust.
At the very least, this current spate of anti-Zionism is acerbated by a blithe ignorance of 2,000 years of Jewish nationalism (not to mention erstwhile British support for Zionism). What is more mystifying is the apparent lack of knowledge of contemporary Middle East history. Considering the role of the British themselves, their sense of historicity seems illusory at best.
Some are suggesting that a boycott of British academics is now warranted. I can’t go along with that. But I do know I’ve lost a lot of respect for these allegedly learned men and women. If their judgement can be so impaired by bias, and their research so willingly absent, can their academic output really be trusted?
But all of this is beside the point. Members of NATFHE may well have real and sincere complaints to make against the Israeli government on behalf of Palestinian Arabs. However, NATFHE is not a political body. It is an educational union. And the issue at hand is academic freedom.
Despite petitions and emails to forestall the boycott vote on the grounds it would impinge academic freedom, NATFHE approved the resolution recommending that its 67,000 members personally boycott all Israeli professors, lecturers, universities and colleges, unless they publicly forswear Israel's "apartheid policies" in the territories. Paul Mackney, NATFHE's secretary-general, will likely feature in a future course on irony.
Mackney, an unabashed supporter of Palestinian rights,3 has said: "Palestinian civil society, including the universities, needs support and solidarity as never before, and I will not be bullied into silence."
Good for you, Paul. God forbid your opinion should be stifled.
- As described in an essay by Ben Cohen: The Persistence of Anti-Semitism on the British Left.
- “[Resolved: that] the revolt of the oppressed peoples in the colonies against imperialism has always been accompanied by destructive attacks against the national minorities when they aided the imperialist regime, and that the revolt of the Arab masses in Palestine against the imperialists had been and would in the future be accompanied by a war of annihilation against the Jewish minority, as long as it cooperated with the British imperialists. - Palestine Communist Party resolution, 7th Congress, 1932
(Zachary Lockman, “The Left in Israel: Zionism vs. Socialism,” MERIP Reports, July 1976, p8)
- Seen here addressing a Palestine Solidarity Campaign conference (Shabbat, March 1, 2003)
It should be noted that on June 1, 2006 NATFHE will join the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to form the University and College Union (UCU).
Today, AUT issued the following statement:
"AUT does not endorse this policy and is strongly advising its members not to implement it." The full statement can be read here.
In May 2005 the AUT council overwhelmingly rejected an earlier decision to boycott two Israeli universities and reasserted its belief that freedom of expression, open debate and unhampered dialogue are prerequisites of academic freedom. They also established a commission to investigate the effectiveness of boycotts. The report of that commission was passed this month by AUT. It recommends that boycotts are applied only in exceptional circumstances, are fully justified by the facts, and can be shown to be an effective way of furthering academic freedom and human rights.
It's impossible that Paul Mackney and NAFTHE were unaware of AUT's position regarding boycotts of Israel. Ergo, NAFTHE's resolution (and subsequent vote) was a calculated publicity stunt (albeit with some symbolic value). Perhaps their efforts to improve the lives of the Palestinians would be more effective if they worked to make real change rather than play at politics like students pretending to be diplomats at a model UN.