Useless boycotts

Once again, my Union, the University and College Union, has sort-of voted to boycott Israeli academics. It’s only “sort of”, because, like last time, the decision comes about from a vote of activists present at the UCU annual conference, not of the membership at large. Indeed, the vote has been opposed by the General Secretary of the Union, not to mention the British and Israeli governments, the not particularly pro-Israel Observer newspaper, and even the New York Times. No matter what your feelings about the present Israeli government and its actions with respect to the Palestinians, such a boycott is, at best, an empty gesture. At worst, it actively works against progressive causes espoused by the many Israeli academics who are among the vocal critics of their own government. And, of course, it is bad for scholarship, which, we often say, should at least endeavor to rise above politics.

A few weeks ago, the UK’s National Union of Journalists made a similar gesture, one that will likely have even more repercussions for me and other physicists. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg was slated to give a plenary address at the coming PASCOS meeting at Imperial next month. Unfortunately, and rather bizarrely, Weinberg has decided to use the NUJ’s decision (this was before the UCU’s meetings) as a reason to back out of his engagement, citing this as an example of “a widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic current of British opinion, especially in the intellectual establishment.” The crucial word in that sentence is, of course, that meek connective “and”. An anti-Israel bias is pretty evident here, but whether or not this translates into actual anti-semitism remains unclear. (The US, for example, has plenty of pro-Israel anti-semitism in the form of fundamentalist Christians hastening the coming of their rapture/apocalypse, for which a strong Israel seems to be required in a perverse reading of Revelations.) Alas, Weinberg’s not-quite-empty gesture is certainly bad for scholarship at best, and at worst deprives him of an actual pulpit from which he could have propounded his views.

5 responses to “Useless boycotts”

  1. OM avatar

    I apologize for the spelling errors in my previous comment. Here is a better spelled version of the same comment:
    Let me tell you briefly how we, the Israelis, see this boycott:
    Sixty years ago we, the Jewish people, where slaughtered, chocked in
    gas chambers, burned in the Crematorium. All that happened on the
    soil of the “enlighten” Europe…
    The survivors (our parents and grand-parents) found refuge in their
    historical homeland, which, at that time, was occupied by the
    British… This homeland is not in the size of Britain; in fact, it is
    much closer to the size of the district of London… sixty kilometers
    wide including the occupied territories, 18 kilometers wide
    without. Surrounded by more than one hundred and fifty millions hostile
    Arabs we still have to fight for our own life in order to prevent a
    second Holocaust. Occupying the territories was forced upon us in such
    an attempt.
    And now, the arrogant British, who occupied one quarter of the world
    for centuries, who still occupies parts of Ireland, and still holds
    colonies all over the world, thousands of kilometers from home, are
    boycotting us… what for? for holding our own land; the hypocritic
    British are judging us harshly because we try to survive in an
    extremely hostile environment… because we try to have normal life
    while being attacked by armies ever since we landed here, being
    exposed to brutal terrorism from a population who wants us being
    kicked to sea…
    This is indeed so ridiculous, so much unfair, hence we cannot avoid
    the conclusion that the British academy either suffers from an
    antisemitic epidemy, or being deliberately vicious to Israel in order
    to bribe and flatter the growing Muslim population in UK.
    You now realize how bad indeed the British academy, and the British
    media, look in the eyes of most Israelis (and Jews in general).

  2. laila avatar

    Apologies in advance for my long comment!
    I had not realised that the physics community in the UK had even noticed the boycott, never mind been affected by it. However, I do disagree with the vast majority of your entry, and feel the need to clarify some of the objections you have made about the boycott.
    On the matter of this boycott affecting scholarship in general (in the UK in particular), I argue that the ramifications are not as hurtful as the actual occupation or the suffering of university students, and research in general in Palestine (check out Palestinian universities are starved of funds, their students face a near impossible commute to university… often passing through checkpoints, or being prevented from doing so by road blocks, and the universities have been closed many times due to extreme situations, such as curfews, bombings, incursions by the israeli army etc. etc.
    You say the boycott is an empty gesture? I think not, it shows solidarity, in a more tangible way than a rally in central London ever could. It is affecting Israel, they are annoyed and angry, and are planning on fighting it. Therefore, this boycott (which has yet to be physically put into affect!) has had an effect, which is what the boycott wants, to make a point, and Israel won’t listen unless there is either something in it for them, or they stand to lose something. It also enables Palestinian academics to have their voices heard in the UK, something which currently is nigh impossible.
    Academic boycott is probably the most humane, most benign type of boycott. The boycott the EU has on the Palestinians is far FAR more damaging. The EU and Britain is actively involved in the horrendous situation that the Palestinians find themselves in… they are withholding funds, to punish the Palestinians for being democratic. This is on top of their support of the Zionist regime, and its silence on the refusal of that government to implement the right of return. Israel is also withholding tax monies rightfully the Palestinian governments’… added to that the Arab/Islamic countries are too terrified of the USA to offer financial support.
    You say scholarship should rise above politics. I think scholarship has not only the ability but the luxury to be objective, I think any academic should take this situation and analyse it in an intelligent and scholarly manner. Also, to say that academics should rise above politics is also implying that the issue of Palestine, and what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is purely a political one, when in fact it is largely a humanitarian one.
    You say that you are unsure whether this boycott has anti-Semitic connotations… actually it is very clear, this movement is anything BUT anti-Semitic, and is supported by many Jewish organisations… to equate Zionism and the actions of the Zionist government to Judaism is not only factually incorrect, but is found to be offensive by many Jews (see,, I reject the underhand attempts by some groups to equate anti-Zionism to anti-semitism in order to garner more support for their aims.
    As for the Nobel Laureate Stephen Weinberg: his decision is his decision, it maybe a shame that Cosmologists in the UK have missed out on what I am sure would have been a fascinating talk, however, it is neither a catastrophe nor of huge impact to the future of cosmology. So, he may not cite those physicists verbally supporting the boycott, but at the end of the day it is a small sacrifice to make.
    Israeli academics such as Illan Pappe, who is probably the main academic there who is supportive of Palestinian human rights and condemnatory of Israeli actions towards the people whose land they occupied, is in fact FOR the boycott (
    Once again apologies for my long comment, I have been visiting your blog (quietly) for a while, as I find it interesting, and I am sure many others do too. I just thought that these points needed to be clarified.

  3. IGG avatar

    There’s an action proposed by a french site. (Missives against Barbarity) Have a look.

  4. Thomas D avatar
    Thomas D

    Wasn’t it the ‘Salam 50’ event, not PASCOS, where Weinberg was scheduled to speak?
    In any case, the idea of Weinberg using Salam’s celebration as a ‘pulpit to propound his views’ is bizarre and tasteless. Weinberg’s politics have already had a thorough airing, thanks to his decision to send out a press release detailing his personal (3 sigma?) detection of a ‘widespread’ anti-semitic current.
    It’s a win-win situation: he doesn’t have to come (Weinberg dislikes travelling) plus he gets to smear his political opponents.
    PS Mr. Grouik, if the price of being ‘against barbarity’ is associating with anti-Arabic and anti-Islamic bigotry then count me out.

  5. Andrew Jaffe: Leaves on the Line avatar

    Industrial Action?

    This week is the 100th anniversary of one of the most important events in the Labor movement (at least back in the US): the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in which the garment factory’s sweatshop conditions led to the death of almos…