Yet another academic group is mulling censuring Israel. This time it is the Modern Language Association. Just recently, it was the American Studies Association, which called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Before that, similar resolutions were passed by European academic associations, much concerned with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. These are asinine movements in all but one respect: They tell Israel what it needs to hear.
As many American academics have pointed out, these resolutions vitiate academic freedom, which, as it happens, abounds on Israeli campuses but not on those of its neighbors, lovely Syria for instance. The illogical logic of the boycotters prompted protests from many colleges and universities, some of which noted that Israeli campuses are precisely where the American boycotters are likely to meet their ideological soul mates. They are riddled with moderates and liberals.
Others have pointed out that the boycott promoters scanned the world and somehow overlooked Russia, China, Cuba and similar nations where the occasionally rambunctious professor is granted tenure behind bars. There is scant academic freedom in the Arab world — freedom of any kind, actually — yet it escapes the boycott movement. Can the professors stir themselves about the plight of women in Saudi Arabia? Apparently not.
For these and other reasons, the boycott movement is absurd and makes the various academics seem detached from the real world. At the same time, they are paying Israel a backhanded compliment. They know that China, for example, would ignore a boycott launched by the American Studies Association. China is a country, after all, that locks up its dissident academics and brings out tanks to deal with protesting students.
Israel is a different matter. Exactly because it is a liberal, Western state, ruled by law and not by whim, it can be pressured. It wants to belong to the worldwide academic community and, of course, it should.
What matters most about the boycotts is what they represent — widespread and growing antipathy toward the Jewish state. It’s facile to attribute this entirely to anti-Semitism, although it surely lurks here and there. But in America at least, anti-Semitism is a spent force — witness the appointment of the third Jew in row to head the Federal Reserve. A generation ago, more than a few commentators would have mentioned the International Jewish Conspiracy or some such thing. That now exists only in the rattled brain of a Louis Farrakhan.
Nonetheless, there is a special, worrisome fury directed at Israel. I hear it from people who are not in any way anti-Semitic. (I would hear more of it if many people were not afraid of being labeled anti-Semitic.) Sometimes I think the anger comes from having repressed criticism of Israel lest it offend. Sooner or later, though, the emotions come spilling out.
Whatever the cause, the fact remains that Israel’s occasionally harsh occupation of the West Bank has put it on the defensive. One only had to see the extraordinary documentary "The Gatekeepers," in which six former heads of the internal security service, Shin Bet, discuss — and rue — the methods they used to maintain control of the West Bank, to see what I mean. This is a film — academics take note — that only could have been made in Israel. That’s good. But what it says ... that’s bad.
There is fault here to share. Israel’s enemies have been often recalcitrant, sometimes violent, and Israel holds the West Bank, in fact, due to a war started by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. To abandon it entails a risk. Will it become, as Gaza has, a staging area for terrorism — a daily barrage of rockets? This is not some remote concern. Hezbollah is in the north, Hamas in the south. The neighborhood grows ever more dangerous. Parents fret.
I had lunch with Ariel Sharon about a month before he suffered the stroke that incapacitated him and led to his death Saturday. He strongly suggested that he would do in the West Bank what he had done in Gaza — some sort of withdrawal. The details were murky, but his general intentions were not. He realized that Israel faced a demographic nightmare — too many Palestinians, too few Jews — and maybe also he realized that the occupation was tarnishing one of the 20th century’s resplendent achievements, the creation of a nation from the ashes of Auschwitz. He did not say.
The boycott resolutions are coldly barren of historical understanding or empathy and painful to read. But what they say is not as important as the sound they make. The Israel I love is increasingly hated.
Richard Cohen’s is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group and can be reached at email@example.com.