Symbolic Politics

Perhaps this isn’t about bringing real pressure to bear on Israel; perhaps it’s just symbolic politics, gesture politics, feel-good politics.

Maybe it’s that, and maybe that’s important. But it also provides a propaganda victory to all the cheerleaders for the Israeli government, who will say (and who are saying, but I’m not going to link to Little Green Footballs) that this is a victory for anti-Semitism, that we’re attacking academic freedom, that it’s a crap union, anyway, that double standards are rampant in this case, and so on. Lots of the people who will say these things are nuts, of course, and we shouldn’t worry too much that they’ll be saying the kinds of things that they’re going to say. But we’re handing over exactly the kind of ammunition that they most want to get hold of.

Obviously I don’t think there’s a significant anti-Semitism issue here, and I don’t really think there’s a core academic freedom issue in play here, either (though, as I say, the idea of the political test rather sticks in the craw). But we can’t easily evade all of the double standards problems this case opens up.

Why Israel, not other Middle Eastern countries? Other repressive, expansionist, colonial regimes? If we’re opposed to imperialism, why not boycott the universities of the leading imperialist power in the world, the United States, which also happens to be the major source of international support for Israeli government policy? And why not boycott ourselves while we’re at it, for the assistance that British academics often provide to the British state in support of its activities of which the AUT might disapprove?

Often charges of double standards are levied in pretty bad faith, to displace attention from somebody’s wrongdoing onto somebody else’s. And some of these questions can be addressed, to some extent, probably. But there are too many double-standard worries flying around this particular issue to make this a politically sensible road to go down.

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