The Moral logic of academic boycotts

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It’s been a long time since I last wrote an “Angry, of Richmond” letter to a newspaper–I suppose I never really quite got over The Independent‘s not publishing an elegant missal I’d written a while back about George Bush. On Friday 13th June, however, I may have been prompted to write as much by the ominous date as by the letters that appeared in The Independent that day on ‘The problems with boycott of Israel’, reproduced below together with my response, the counter-response, and my counter-counter response of this morning.

The titles of the letters are the work of the Letters editor. The text of my own letters, truncated in The Independent, are printed in full below. I have no way of knowing whether the letters to which I respond have also been edited for reasons of space, and so I have no option but to reproduce them as published.

The problems with a boycott of Israel

Sir: The University and College Union (UCU) has passed a motion asking its members “to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions”. This was met with typical hostility by Israel’s supporters and with claims of anti-Semitism.

Donald McIntyre (“Gaza students appeal to Brown over ban”, 3 June) now reports that Israel continues to ban Palestinian students in Gaza from returning to their studies or taking up scholarships in the UK and US. In addition, Israel continues with its immoral siege on Gaza, which is a collective punishment of 1.5 million innocent people.

I doubt if Mr Brown will find time to come to the students’ rescue while he is fighting for his political survival. It therefore falls to ordinary people to show their contempt for Israel as long as it denies Palestinians their rights. They need to join the growing campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) which Palestinian civil society has called for. It is simply not enough for people to express concern about Israel’s actions. It is time for BDS.

Kamel Hawwash


Sir: I’m sure all those who so vociferously protest when anyone proposes an academic boycott of Israel are working tirelessly to persuade the Israeli government that the ban on students leaving Gaza to take places at universities in the UK and the US is counterproductive.

And I am equally sure they are campaigning hard for Israel to remove checkpoints and other obstacles, such as daily harassment by illegal settlers, that prevent students attending schools, colleges and universities in the illegally occupied West Bank.

It’s a shame they don’t raise the public profile of these activities, which would give the lie to those cynics who believe that, with regard to the defence of academic freedom, as in so much else, it is one rule for the occupiers, another for the occupied.

Sophie Richmond

London N8

Sir: The UCU Motion 25 asked colleagues “to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating”.

If Jewish and Israeli academics support the Palestinian point of view, they will be protected from further action; if they are against it or non-committal, they may be considered unsuitable for continued association.

It is bad enough that the basis for the motion is historically and factually flawed but does anyone appreciate how dangerous, damaging and hypocritical this is?

Lewis Herlitz

Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

I responded as follows:

To be fair, UCU must target the world


As a member of the University and College Union I feel compelled to suggest that, lest the UCU find itself not unjustifiably accused of hypocrisy, it might seek the moral high ground by even-handedly asking us to “consider the moral and political implications of educational links” with academic institutions in all countries that have occupied the territories of, systematically oppressed, and denied the basic human rights of peoples in every part of the world.

China? yes, of course. Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara? undoubtedly. The list is long. Yet one cannot also escape the conclusion that the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as its consistent record of veto at the UN of every resolution censuring Israel, clearly argues the case for the severing of all links with US academic institutions. The UCU might also reflect on academic links with universities within the European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner and politically complicit in Israel’s siege on Gaza. Well, there goes the ERASMUS programme.

Finally, in light of the fact that Britain is not only a senior member of the EU but has also damned itself through unconditional complicity in America’s invasion and de facto occupation of Iraq, I look forward to hearing the UCU call on universities throughout the rest of the world to “consider the moral and political implications of educational links” with academic institutions in the United Kingdom.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Hutchison

On Thursday 19th June the Independent published the following letter of response from Martin Hughes:

‘Hypocrisy’ over Israel boycott

Sir: When I was President of the Association of University Teachers, a predecessor of the University and College Union, we passed resolutions critical of China but not of Israel; now it’s the other way round. Contrary to Dr Hutchison (letter, 17 June), there neither was nor is anything illogical or hypocritical here: the boot is on the other foot.

If we decide not to oppose any evils because we cannot oppose them all, we entirely trivialise the concept of evil. The list of morally similar things is always indefinitely long and always disputable at every point, because similar things are always a bit different. The demand that we check off the entire list before we speak out against, say, Israel or China is a demand that would cause all moral language to die in our mouths.

Something bad does not cease to be bad because something else is bad too. We constantly face rhetoric that changes the subject from bad acts in the world to the state of mind or alleged hypocrisy of those who condemn those acts, rhetoric which is really a sign of guilty conscience.

Martin Hughes

Wokingham, Berkshire

Persuaded that I had been misunderstood, I replied with the following:


I should like to thank Mr Martin Hughes for his clarification, in response to my letter of 17 June, of the rationale underpinning the UCU’s position on academic boycotts (“we passed resolutions critical of China; now it’s the other way round”, letter, 19 June). I had not realised that calls for boycotts operated on a kind of ‘Special of the Month’ rota basis.

I wonder, however, whether Mr Hughes read my letter with the attentiveness that would have made it transparently clear to him that, far from proposing we ought “not to oppose any evils because we cannot oppose them all”, I was rather suggesting that we jump off our moral high horse and reflect on the many reasons that universities elsewhere in the world might have for re-appraising their academic links with a country whose historically appalling record of (neo-)imperialism, invasion, occupation, human rights abuses, discrimination against its own minorities, callous treatment of asylum-seekers, unflagging support of Israel, and continued investment in brutal regimes, might clearly single it out as itself an appropriate candidate for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Yes, I really do mean Britain; and, yes, I really do believe our ‘holier than thou’ hypocrisies (to use Mr Hughes’ words) “trivialise the concept of evil”.

As a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner I supported the academic boycott of white Afrikaner universities throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including AUT Council resolution 29, which stated: “Council reaffirms its total opposition to the policies of apartheid and of censorship of academic work, books, literature, etc., and believes that the most effective action is the maintenance of a total boycott on any form of contact with South African universities and with South African Academics”. Quite apart from the deleterious effect of the boycotts on the many thousands of black students attending the more liberal non-Afrikaner universities such as UCT and UWC which were key players in the anti-apartheid struggle, history and hindsight have surely led us to question whether the sanctimonious posturing that afforded privileged academics in Britain the comfort of guilt-free consciences had any substantive impact in ending apartheid. Studies such as F.W. Lancaster’s “The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?” (1995) suggest that it probably did not; indeed may have “actually had some effects that could be considered beneficial. Lacking convenient access to foreign textbooks, some faculty members wrote their own, more appropriate to the South African situation; some departments moved from the study of Dutch literature to the study of the domestic literature”.

I would, however, especially recommend reading Neville Alexander’s “Academic Boycotts: Some Reflections on the South African Case” (1995). Black anti-apartheid militant and for 10 years a fellow prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island, Alexander clearly saw that the moral onus lay on South African academics themselves to ‘self-boycott’: “All anti-apartheid academics and intellectual activists should band together in academic staff associations explicitly opposed to the regime and committed to the eradication of apartheid. These associations would be mandated, as appropriate, to invite foreign scholars to South African universities or to prevent them from coming. The boycott should not be a suicidal weapon cutting off all communication between the progressive academic community in the rest of the world and ourselves living in South Africa.”

Years on, prominent Palestinian academic and president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, argues against academic boycotts of Israel: “If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favour of seeing us as equals … If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.”

It is therefore with something short of seriousness that I suggest a global academic boycott of British universities. It is in all seriousness, however, that I suggest we in Britain reflect both on our true motives for supporting blanket academic boycotts such as AUT resolution 29 and also on the moral and political implications of our working in institutions where our research, consultancy, and teaching often render problematic our faith in our own moral superiority.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Hutchison

I suspect it will not be published; I suspect that, even if published, it will–for reasons of space–be ruthlessly edited down to a pale shadow of the full piece. Hence my decision to copy it to my blog.

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