Commentary Magazine


Against the Boycott

The presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Brown, conspicuously absent from the original list of signatories, have since posted assurances that they join the almost 300 American college and university presidents who signed a statement earlier this month protesting the vote of Britain’s University and College Union to impose a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” read the American counter-declaration, composed by Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger. “[We] do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.”

It is heartening to see such unanimity among academic leaders who normally shun group protests or statements; still, it is less heartening when one considers that these leaders may have found it easier to denounce an outrage overseas than to tackle prejudice in their own institutions. President Bollinger and his colleagues know that anti-Israel venom is widespread on American campuses. The real test of their resolve to preserve academic integrity will occur here, at home.

Anti-Israel sentiment penetrates American campuses at both the student and professorial levels. Every year the average campus welcomes Arab and Muslim students for whom Israel’s illegitimacy is a matter of faith, conjoined in most instances with plain anti-Semitism. The Pew Research Center finds that Muslims hold unfavorable views of Jews at astonishing levels: Jordan, 100 percent; Lebanon, 99 percent; Morocco, 88 percent. Arab and Muslim students inculcated with these prejudices from birth see no harm in promoting them. To the contrary, since they regard Israel as the root of evil, agitation against it is for them often a matter of cultural self-expression. Dissenters from this norm are often afraid of being ostracized—or, worse, of not being able to return to their native communities should they stray from an ideology that unites the Arab world.

The campus ethos of all-embracing multiculturalism aggravates the problem by refraining from distinguishing between a culture of aggression and a culture of accommodation—two opposites trapped in a philosophy of equivalence. Ignored are the radically divergent histories of Arabs and Jews that produced today’s preposterous global imbalance between 1 billion-plus Muslims on the one hand, and 13 million Jews (4 million fewer than in 1939) on the other. Historically, Jews have been the no-fail target of innumerable aggressors; since the 1870′s they have been the ideological butt of anti-liberal movements everywhere.

Indeed, Middle East-style anti-Semitism plays a larger role in the international arena today than its European-style equivalent did a century ago. But our universities provide almost no academic or extra-curricular opportunities to discuss the issue. If anything, as the scholar Martin Kramer has shown, the hate-ridden attitudes within the Arab world find a natural reflection in the highly prejudicial bias of the academic discipline known as Middle East Studies. The current director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard, as well as a number of others who teach in the field, were among the signatories of a Harvard-MIT petition urging divestment from Israel—a petition meant to echo and give a highbrow patina to the currently fashionable calumny of the Jewish state as an “apartheid” regime. Sami al-Arian may be the only U.S. professor convicted of conspiracy to help Islamic Jihad, but others support Arab antagonism in their own ways.

The protest against the British academic boycott published in the New York Times was framed strictly as a defense of academic freedom and solidarity with Israeli colleagues. It avoided any mention of the ideology of hate that fuels this boycott. One might as well condemn cancer without investigating its cause or doing what one can to prevent its spread. Having once joined in symbolic action, these presidents of American colleges and universities would do well to appoint a committee from within their midst to investigate the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel prejudices on their own campuses and within their own curricula, where it does the most damage. As in medicine, prevention is the best cure.