The debate on the academic boycott of Israel that appears in the British Medical Journal (BMJ, July 2007; 335: 124, 125) brings into sharp relief the extent to which the boycott campaign, and the movement in British public opinion that it reflects, are an exercise in exceptionalism. In response to the charge that the boycott is discriminatory in singling out Israel for collective punishment, while passing over in silence countries with far worse records of current human rights abuse, Tom Hickey says the following:
But whether a boycott is appropriate in such places depends on the merits of each individual case. In the case of Israel, we are speaking about a society whose dominant self image is one of a bastion of civilisation in a sea of medieval reaction. And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in high regard. That is why an academic boycott might have a desirable political effect in Israel, an effect that might not be expected elsewhere.The absurdity of this 'defence' is painfully obvious. Hickey does not address the fact that the boycott which he promotes applies its sanction selectively, deliberately choosing to ignore far worse cases of occupation and repression than the one he seeks to punish. Such arbitrary distinctions in the wielding of a sanction undermine the credibility of the principle on behalf of which the sanction is used. If a law were applied in this way, the police and the prosecution service would be open to the charge of unwarranted discrimination. Hickey's attempt to justify his selectivity is cringingly silly. He trades on a cultural stereotype of Jews, and by extension Israelis, as the 'people of the book', who place a supreme value on learning and education. This 'fact' leads him to conclude that a boycott against Israeli academic institutions stands a better chance of influencing Israeli government policy than if such a boycott were directed at other nations.
The 'argument' is offensive on two grounds. First, it is racist in its suggestion that other cultures (Arab, Chinese, Russian, American, African, etc.) value learning less than Jews and Israelis do, and so they would be less inclined to take such a sanction seriously. Would Hickey be prepared to protest Mugabe's reign of terror through a boycott of Zimbabwean music on the grounds 'that Africans have rhythm'? Or perhaps he would suggest a ban on Russian vodka to support the rebels in Chechnya because heavy drinking is an integral feature of Russian society.
Second, it entails that one launches a boycott only when one believes that it will succeed in altering the policies of the country at which it is directed. On this reasoning, the larger and more powerful a country is, the more immune it becomes to boycott. Russia, China, and the United States, for example, escape an academic or a consumer boycott because such a campaign stands little chance of having any impact on their policies. But then precisely those countries that are guilty of the greatest human rights abuses are exempt from a sanction intended to express moral opprobrium. Only small and comparatively vulnerable countries amenable to external pressure need be targeted. Surely this is a perverse conclusion for a campaign that purports to champion the universal and consistent application of human rights.
In fact, Hickey's comment shows very clearly that he simply has no substantive reply to the argument that the boycott against Israel is arbitrary and discriminatory. He is not alone here. No other advocate of the boycott has yet succeeded in offering such a reply, nor have they felt the need to do so. That they are not embarrassed by this fact but are happy to continue to promote their programme in the face of a thoroughly lethal objection, indicates that they regard Israel as a unique case. Apparently, in their view it is a case in which the usual requirement that one must provide compelling reasons for the differential treatment of agents responsible for the same type of misdeed may be safely set aside without further discussion.
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