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.