Last week’s vote by the British Universities and Colleges Union admonishing its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” marks a new stage in the concerted campaign to put Israel into a kind of cultural quarantine. This boycott and others like it are not merely aimed at forcing a change of that country’s policy towards the Palestinians—they are explicitly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. By branding Israel an apartheid state, these academics are denying its right to exist in anything like its present form.
But what are the “moral implications” of aligning the British academic community with those, such as the Palestinian government, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Is it plausible that the universities now under censure would survive a Hamas-led regime? The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is true, long preceded the founding of the state of Israel, but the survival of this and other academic institutions in Mandatory Palestine was only possible because they were protected by the British authorities and supported by academics around the world. Had the Hebrew University been left to the mercies of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, its faculty members would have suffered the same fate as the Jewish academics in Germany did at the hands of the Mufti’s ally, Adolf Hitler.
Academic boycotts were a favorite method of the Nazis in the early days of the Third Reich, before all Jews had been excluded from German universities. Viktor Klemperer was one of those Jewish professors who, as veterans of the First World War, were permitted to teach under the Nazi Civil Service code introduced shortly after Hitler seized power. In his diaries, Klemperer describes how his lectures were initially well attended. Clinging to the hope that the regime would not last, he noted with satisfaction, “My most eager student is the Nazi cell leader Eva Theissig.”
Two years later, however, Klemperer was down to one student for his lectures on French and two for those on Italian literature—and in May 1935 he was abruptly dismissed. Then he was banned from using the university library—“the absolute end.” For Klemperer, the academic boycott was an intellectual death sentence, foreshadowing the physical one.
We have seen what happened when the Israeli settlers were evicted from Gaza: the first thing the Palestinians did was to burn the homes and desecrate the synagogues the Jews left behind. The universities of Israel, among the best in the world, would be among the first priorities for destruction if Hamas and Hizbollah were ever to achieve their “right of return,” as the British academics advocate.
It is vital to grasp what is at stake here. Western civilization in general—and the idea of the university in particular—has always depended upon the love of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect for their own sakes. When science and scholarship are subordinated to political ends, it is not only universities that suffer. The British academics who condemn their Israeli counterparts are in reality perpetrating an act of vandalism against their own institutions—and, indirectly, against the society that supports these institutions and is, in turn, shaped and supported by them.
It is Britain, not Israel, that is most harmed by this vandalism. These academics are cutting themselves off from the mainstream of Jewish intellectual life—from one of the sources of their own civilization. When Alan Bloom conjured the image of the closing of the American mind, he meant just such self-inflicted amnesia. Only this time, it is the British mind that is closing.