Tuesday, January 13, 2009

That CUPE boycott

Cards on the table: I do not support the current CUPE Ontario call for a boycott of Israeli academics. But it is mischievous and unhelpful for the Globe and Mail to provide op-ed space for some American busybody today to refer to this campaign as "anti-Semitic," and for the editor to add a frankly inflammatory hed, "CUPE Ontario's proposed boycott of Israeli academics is just plain anti-Semitic."

I am not opposed in principle to various boycotts and calls for divestment when a country is behaving badly. Nor do I feel called upon to be particularly consistent in this. I participated in the boycott of South African products during the international campaign against apartheid, for example, without feeling compelled to do the same with respect to every other country where social injustice prevailed. One does what one can without fighting every principled battle at once.

But the CUPE call goes beyond what I can support. Israeli academics are being asked, metaphorically speaking, to sign a loyalty oath: to publicly state their adherence to a political (and moral) position in order to be welcome on Canadian campuses. Yet these academics are not state actors, but simply citizens.

If they are like academics anywhere else, and I have no reason to believe that they are not, they are more likely to be critical and questioning than unthinking tools of the state. But they are also more likely to be immersed in their fields and sub-fields--mathematics, say, or quantum physics, or archaeology--than in geopolitics, even if they obviously can't remain entirely aloof from the latter these days.

Whether in favour of or opposed to the distressing actions of their country, however, they aren't responsible for those actions. It is unfair, in my view, to hold citizens of a country accountable for everything their government does. I have no wish, for example, to be called on the carpet during my travels because "Canada" was the lone voice at the UNHRC defending Israel's shocking violations of human rights in Gaza. I had nothing to do with it, dammit, and I don't mind saying so, loudly and in whatever company I find myself.

Yet I would feel resentful if I had to make a public declaration of my views as the price of being allowed to teach or do research somewhere. Not that I'm shy about public declarations--I just don't want to be told that I must make them. What do such declarations achieve concretely, in any case? It seems to me that forcing such utterances is little more than a political power-trip.

And, pursuing this further, why should a calculus prof who loves Harper be denied access to a campus somewhere to teach his subject because of that admittedly unfortunate character defect? It's not as though either he or I gave "our" UN representative his instructions. And in any case our
current government's foreign policy, more than likely, is incidental to our respective research interests.

But back to the article in the Globe. The author is not content to criticize the CUPE stance on its merits, which would have been entirely appropriate. No, he has to go that extra mile, calling the proposed boycott "anti-Semitic," even if, unlike the Globe editor, he hedges his use of the term. This is the salient paragraph, and it's worthy of close inspection:

The proposed boycott is to be based on national origin. But it's abundantly clear that it is does not stop there. What about Arab-Israeli academics? The measure seems to be directed only at Israeli academics who are Jewish. Israel is not immune from criticism, and one can and should be able to engage in such criticism without being branded anti-Semitic. But when a measure explicitly singles out one country and then implicitly singles out only Jews, there is no way to describe such a measure as anything but anti-Semitic, if not - as former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers once put it - in its purpose, then certainly in its effects.

Note, first of all, the usual self-serving disclaimer that "Israel is not immune from criticism, and one can and should be able to engage in such criticism without being branded anti-Semitic." But heaven help anyone who tries. Just ask Sid Ryan, CUPE Ontario' s president.

More important, though, pay close attention to how the author segues from criticism of Israel to alleged targeting of Jews. To do this, he has to engage in a little oblique racism. "What about Arab-Israeli academics?" he asks innocently, as though they are a political monolith of some kind, opposed on account of their ethnicity alone to the actions of their government, and hence automatically exempt from the boycott. (The dangers of such sweeping generalizations are obvious:
there has been inflammatory talk of an Arab "Fifth Column" in the Israeli parliament, and Israel has now banned Arab political parties from running in its upcoming election.)

Now, since, according to the author, all Israeli Arabs are thus excluded from the boycott, the latter "implicitly singles out Jews." (That word "implicitly" is so deftly inserted.) And those Jews, of course, must be yet another political monolith, supporting their government. Hey, presto! We've got anti-Semitism! Isn't it obvious?

This, of course, is an exercise in glaring intellectual dishonesty, yet the Globe not only gave prominence to a shoddy little piece of propaganda, but tore away all of the author's clever nuances by referring itself to the boycott as "plain anti-Semitic."

And even without resort to such trickery, the so-called "new anti-Semitism" has a suspiciously wide embrace. As Brian Klug writes in The Nation:

In his contribution to A New Antisemitism?, historian Peter Pulzer, faulting the way "the liberal press" sometimes reports the activities of the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories, makes a telling point about the misuse of words. He says: "When every civilian death is a war crime, that concept loses its significance. When every expulsion from a village is genocide, we no longer know how to recognize genocide. When Auschwitz is everywhere, it is nowhere." Point taken. But equally, when anti-Semitism is everywhere, it is nowhere. And when every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing--the concept of anti-Semitism loses its significance.

To declare interest at this point: I am presently a member of CUPE. And Sid Ryan happens to be a friend of mine. I fondly recall how we spent a long and increasingly drunken evening at a union convention once, reciting W.B. Yeats to each other. We both love poetry, and we're both strongly committed to social justice and equity. And I can attest that Sid doesn't have an anti-Semitic bone in his body.

But being harshly critical of Israel these days leaves one open to precisely that charge. It is a new McCarthyism, nothing less: and if we don't like loyalty oaths, we shouldn't care for the kind of name-calling that goes along with that sort of thing either. Once, the word "Communist" was used to silence, shame and even destroy political opponents. Now the word is "anti-Semitic," with its inevitable connotations of Nazi persecution and genocide. Its indiscriminate use is equally unfair and deceitful, a kind of moral blackmail employed to shut down and banish opposing views.

What was the editor of the Globe thinking? Surely we can--indeed we must--have the debate about Israel and its actions, and surely we can disagree amongst ourselves, even strongly, about tactics, without having to resort to or be subject to this kind of neo-McCarthyist rhetoric in a national Canadian newspaper.

CUPE-Ontario richly deserves an apology, not that the anti-union, Israel-can-do-no-wrong Globe and Mail is likely to do the decent thing, unless prompted by the Ontario Press Council. In the meantime, let the debate continue elsewhere--hopefully in a more measured fashion.

Comments by defenders and opponents of the boycott are welcome here. Let's just keep it civil.


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