Recently a group of colleagues, many of them from my own institute, the LIAS, have signed a letter calling for a boycott of Israeli universities. I write to those colleagues in particular here. And the first thing I would say to them is that I too feel that the actions over long years of Israeli governments have been in many respects wrong, unjust, immoral, and in all too many cases illegal under even Israeli law and in contravention to Israeli court rulings. The treatment of Palestinians within Israel has and continues to be in far too many cases wrong, unjustified and unjustifiable. And it is right that all moral persons oppose it.
What is in question is the form that opposition take. In this regard, I find the public reaction of my colleagues puzzling. The reasons for my puzzlement may be, ultimately, reduced to two: proportionality or consistency, and appropriateness.
Many kinds of evils
Let me explain. The world is filled with many kinds of evils, abhorent things that human beings do to one another. There is no need to offer an accounting here, and it would be utterly impossible to even begin to scratch the surface. This very fact is unspeakably sad.
But let us agree nonetheless to a short list, nonrepresentative as it may be: the Chinese Communist Party has since at least 1959 engaged in a low-level campaign to wipe out Tibetan culture, which in retrospect might be seen as training and preparation for their current active project to eradicate Uighur people and culture in Xinjiang. For years the CCP has harvested organs from political opponents and followers of the Falun Gong. The Chinese military, a branch of the CCP, is currently openly threatening to invade the democratic country of Taiwan.
In the Middle East and Western Asia, Saudi Arabia has been destroying Yemen, basically driving it back into the stone age. The Assad government of Syria has engaged in universally recognized war crimes. Turkey and its neighbors have been trying, with some success, to wipe the Kurds off the map. And this is a list so truncated as to be itself an offence.
And yet, my puzzlement: I do not recall a single letter of protest or public expressions of unity with the groups of victims of any of these atrocities. I am sure that many of the signatories of the letter mentioned above are indeed outraged, and some may even have made efforts to help victims in one way or another. Some, by their research, no doubt work to make known what was and is happening. But none, as far as I know, has stood up and called for a boycott of Chinese, or Saudi, or Syrian or Turkish universities. Why not?
Hand in hand
And secondly, to appropriateness: there is an arrogance and an ignorance (and the two go hand in hand) behind the call to boycott Israeli universities.
To my direct knowledge, universities are among the most liberal of Israeli institutions, and few would be happier with their reduced circumstances than the present Prime Minister of Israel. The persons I know who are most involved in peace movements in Israel, Jews putting themselves on the line— getting arrested, tear-gassed and assaulted with rocks (thrown, it is true, often by other Jews)—these persons are, in their day jobs, employed in universities.
Think back a bit: why did Palestinian terrorists stop bombing Israeli pizza restaurants in Tel Aviv? The answer is simple: the persons they were harming were those most sympathetic to them and to their causes. The attacks did not harm the government, they harmed the liberals.
A boycott is not a bombing, of course, but the logic is not dissimilar: the target is again misplaced. It makes me sad that the signatories of the letter of which I speak did not take the trouble to sufficiently inform themselves of the situation on the ground.
Their ignorance fueled their arrogance.
They acted, I cannot but conclude, not like scholars, who desire to understand before they speak, but like a mob. They imagine the pain of victims, whose situations some of them may indeed understand well, that I do not dare to deny. Their subsequent desire to do something, to do anything at all, is also understandable. But the dangerous and misguided combination of ignorance fueling arrogance has led them in precisely the wrong direction.
Jonathan A. Silk is professor of Buddhist Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies