In the most fetid swamplands of left-wing British academe, it is not enough to condemn Bush, Blair and the Iraq war while endorsing all Palestinian claims to the West Bank and Jerusalem. New rules require that you also punish Israeli professors and make them suffer for what you regard as their country's sins, even if the particular professors are critics of the Israeli government.
This argument, sometimes called the Academic Intifada, looked like a temporary aberration when it surfaced three years ago. Today it's become a permanent (though by no means triumphant) belief among certain intellectuals. As Ronnie Fraser of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs recently put it, "Britain has become the world's centre of agitation against Israeli academia.
Britain? Like most democracies, Britain has seldom boycotted professionals from any country. The British may disapprove of the Chinese government but no one proposes banning academic relations with China -- or even with the U.S., which many British professors regard as the world's most dangerous nation.
Only Israel has been selected as a target for boycotting. Like many misguided notions, this one originated in the Guardian, the newspaper where leftish swamp creatures regularly thrash the waters in their struggles for dominance. In 2002, after Israel attacked terrorist camps, the Guardian published a letter to the editor, signed by 125 academics, asking the European Union to stop funding grants and research contracts involving Israeli universities.
The EU didn't endorse that idea, but something ugly came to life among British left-wing academics. Since then, Israel-haters in the universities have been trying to hijack the Association of University Teachers (AUT). They haven't succeeded, but they have introduced a fresh kind of malice into left-wing Britain.
Last April they briefly captured the AUT. At a council meeting they pushed through motions calling for a boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities. They condemned Haifa for victimizing and threatening to dismiss a professor opposed to Israel's policies (the university claims it never planned to fire him and his status is secure) and charged Bar-Ilan University with the crime of supervising a few courses at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, where the students include Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. The accusation against Haifa was particularly bizarre, since it's perhaps the most integrated and disputatious of all Israeli universities. Every university in Israel has Arab professors, but Haifa's are particularly outspoken.
Those embarrassing AUT resolutions lasted barely a month. A counterforce emerged, also consisting of left-wingers, organized under the name Engage. It demanded a special meeting of the AUT council in May and got the sanctions against Haifa and Bar-Ilan erased. Engage set up a web site, www.engageonline.org.uk , which operates now as a kind of blog but will also include an edited on-line journal, beginning in January. Engage contributors, while disagreeing on some issues, argue together against the belief that Israel is illegitimate and try to save the left from falling into the morass of anti-Semitism.
They suspect that the anti-Israel campaign is leading left-wing British intellectuals, including a number of Jews, into potentially disastrous alliances with Middle East dictatorships that share no ideals with the left in Britain or any other democracy. One of the organizers of Engage, David Hirsh, argues further that "the act of singling out Israel as the only illegitimate state -- in the absence of any coherent reason for doing so -- is in itself anti-Semitic, irrespective of the motivation or opinions of those who make that claim."
A famous Social Democrat in Germany, August Bebel (1840-1913), called anti-Semitism "the socialism of fools." He was trying to persuade German workers to fight capitalism rather than hating the Jews, advice they declined to take. The worst anti-Semitism in history, when it came, marched under the name of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, popularly known as the Nazis. This a painful fact of history that the left often ignores. It also forgets an applicable folk saying: "Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas."
But at least the British believe in passionate debate. Engage's Web site may evoke a certain envy among some Canadians. Our NDP automatically takes an anti-Israel line without much opposition. So far as I know, precisely three prominent left-wingers (a doctor, a lawyer and a labour chief) have publicly separated themselves from the standard left position long enough to suggest that Israel deserves fair treatment. It's a painful issue that requires making painful choices. Most of the heavy thinkers on the Canadian left would prefer to sleep through it.