From the hellish to the ridiculous, the pattern is the same. Back at home, the Universities and Colleges Union has just voted for its members to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions".
The main universities of Israel are, in fact, everything that we in the West would recognise as proper universities. They have intellectual freedom. They do not require an ethnic or religious qualification for entry. They are not controlled by the government. They have world-class standards of research, often producing discoveries which benefit all humanity. In all this, they are virtually unique in the Middle East.
The silly dons are not alone. The National Union of Journalists, of which I am proud never to have been a member, has recently passed a comparable motion, brilliantly singling out the only country in the region with a free press for pariah treatment. Unison, which is a big, serious union, is being pressed to support a boycott of Israeli goods, products of the only country in the region with a free trade union movement.
Universities boycotting the only truly free academic system in the Middle East, journalists targeting the only country in the area with a free press, and unions targeting the only country that has significant, powerful unions smacks of absurdity (to be very, very kind).
Speaking of the boycott, Martha Nussbaum has written a spectacular piece examining whether or not, as a matter of principle, academic boycotts such as this are morally justified (targeting Israeli universities or anyone else). She concludes they are not, in a very tightly reasoned and compelling argument. But there is a tangent to her piece that I wish to emphasize as important. Though she is examining the question of academic boycotts generally, it remains distressing that these discussions occur within a virtual sole locus of Israel:
I am made uneasy by the single-minded focus on Israel. Surely it is unseemly for Americans to discuss boycotts of another country on the other side of the world without posing related questions about American policies and actions that are not above moral scrutiny. Nor should we fail to investigate relevantly comparable cases concerning other nations. For example, one might consider possible responses to the genocide of Muslim civilians in the Indian state of Gujarat in the year 2002, a pogrom organized by the state government, carried out by its agents, and given aid and comfort by the national government of that time (no longer in power). I am disturbed by the world’s failure to consider such relevantly similar cases. I have heard not a whisper about boycotting Indian academic institutions and individuals, and I have also, more surprisingly, heard nothing about the case in favor of an international boycott of U.S. academic institutions and individuals. I am not sure that there is anything to be said in favor of a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions that could not be said, and possibly with stronger justification, for similar actions toward the United States and especially India and/or the state of Gujarat.
I would not favor an academic boycott in any of these cases, but I think that they ought to be considered together, and together with yet other cases in which governments are doing morally questionable things. One might consider, for example, the Chinese government’s record on human rights; South Korea’s lamentable sexism and indifference to widespread female infanticide and feticide; the failure of a large number of the world’s nations, including many, though not all, Arab nations, to take effective action in defense of women’s bodily integrity and human equality; and many other cases. Indeed, I note that gross indifference to the lives and health of women has never been seriously considered as a reason for any boycott, a failure of impartiality that struck me even in the days of the South Africa boycott. Eminent thinkers alleged that the case of South Africa was unique because a segment of the population was systematically unequal under the law, a situation that of course was, and still is, that of women in a large number of countries. By failing to consider all the possible applications of our principles, if we applied them impartially, we are failing to deliberate well about the choice of principles. For a world in which there was a boycott of all U.S., Indian, and Israeli scholars, and no doubt many others as well, let us say those of China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (on grounds of sexism), and Pakistan (on the same grounds, though there has been a bit of progress lately) would be quite different from the world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted, and this difference seems relevant to the choice of principles.
In cases such as this, I am of the mind of Dan Markel--such boycotts are good only for the pleasure of flouting them.