'It is crazy to boycott Israeli academics. It is the mother of all own goals'Tim Hames
- 16 June 2007
The campaign to boycott Israeli academics is one of the strangest and most indefensible that I have ever encountered. It starts from the wholly inaccurate stance that the situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or "occupied territories") is essentially the same as apartheid South Africa. It is not. It is far, far more complicated than that and even those who, understandably, sympathise with the Palestinian cause should be willing to acknowledge this. Forty years on, Israel is still trying (and, I will concede, often failing) to live with the consequences of having won the 1967 war too well while Palestinians have to live with not only awful conditions imposed on them but the results of atrocious corruption and fratricide among their own leadership. This is not the same as white South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s and it is wrong to pretend otherwise. Israel has its faults but it is far better than that.
And so are Israeli academics. There are 1,001 reasons I could offer for why this boycott is a bad idea but let me focus on just one of them, the one that is most paradoxical.
I used to be a very frequent traveller to Israel in my day job role at The Times newspaper. Between 1997 and 2001 I must have been the better part of seven times before Mrs Hames banned me from travelling further because all my favourite restaurants and bars kept being targeted by suicide bombers (this is absolutely true). During these many trips I met scores of Israeli academics and talked to them. To be more precise, they talked at me because Israeli academics like talking and are very hard to stop once they start. It was an immensely enjoyable (if slightly deafening) experience. I found out a lot from it.
One of the main things I discovered is that there is no more left-wing, pro-Palestinian group of people anywhere than Israeli academics. They must be the last set of people left on the planet who believe in Communism. They would not only hand back the land which Israel won in the Six-Day War but an awful lot more besides. Considering how small Israel is, this is a pretty astonishing position for an Israeli to take. I suppose somewhere there is a right-wing Israeli academic but I have never found one. The ones I met not only hated Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon when they were Prime Minister, they were distinctly sniffy about Yitzhak Rabin (until he was shot), Ehud Barak and even the saintly Shimon Peres as well. The only people who were willing to say a kindly word in private about Yasser Arafat were Israeli academics (every Palestinian I met was much more scathing). That is why it is absolutely crazy to boycott these people. It is the mother of all own goals. It is self-defeating. It makes no sense whatsoever.
There is more to Israeli academics than their left-wing credentials and passion for peace. They are also extraordinarily intelligent. Israel must have the highest concentration of exceptionally talented people anywhere in the world. (This assertion is reinforced not only by Israel's GDP which is higher than that of all of its neighbours combined, but also by the number of Nobel Prizes which its citizens have accumulated.) The quality of intellectual argument in that country is immediately apparent. I have never been anywhere and felt so stupid when contrasted with the natives. There is nowhere better (in proportionate terms) to hear the arts and sciences discussed not only in lecture halls but on the equivalent of Radio 1. It is intense and impressive. It is absolutely what the exchange of ideas should be about.
What will a boycott achieve? Absolutely nothing. In fact, a lot worse than nothing. If it succeeded, then what would occur is that the section of the Israeli population which most enjoys travelling abroad and chatting about how dreadful their own politicians are would be confined to base. A category of humanity which would love to engage with the Arab world and promote compromise would be told that it has no choice but to stay in Tel Aviv. The Palestinian cause would actually benefit from Israeli academics travelling much more frequently, not much less so. No intelligent Palestinian can be in favour of this risible effort and neither should any other intelligent person. It is the worst idea since window tax in the eighteenth century. It is an abject tragedy - not for Israelis, but for Palestinians.