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Boycott Calls Against Israel
Howard Jacobson: Those who boycott Israeli universities are doing intellectual violence - to themselves

Published: 14 July 2007
I have a confession to make. I stepped off the straight and narrow last week. I addressed a political rally. Not a rally in the George Galloway sense, where you stand on a box in the middle of Trafalgar Square, proclaim: "I glorify the Hizbollah resistance movement, and I glorify the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah," and then when someone reminds you that that same Hassan Nasrallah has said he looks forward to the day when all the world's Jews are congregated in Israel so that he can annihilate the lot, and wonders (the someone, not Nasrallah) whether that doesn't make you a raving anti-Semite by association, you say you can't stop to discuss it because you've got a Big Brother's Big Mouth to present.

So no, not that kind of rally. More a meeting of concerned people in a not very big room. And no fanatics spewing hate.

But it was still an event more political than I am used to, or, to be honest, believe that as a novelist I should take part in. I am squeamish about any sort of activism or affiliation. If you're a novelist you're not essentially anyone in the activist, affiliative sense. Your characters speak through you which is not the same as speaking for you. Strictly speaking you don't, as a novelist, have anything to say. Discourse ain't your discourse.

On this occasion, though - a meeting called to oppose the proposed academic boycott of Israel - I felt I had to depart from the principles of my profession because academics in this country had departed from theirs. You don't silence other voices if you're a scholar, that's where I stand. You don't, if you're a thinker and a teacher, remove from the unending conversation of the mind those of whom you happen, rightly or wrongly, to disapprove.

I won't rehearse the arguments here. I had my say some weeks ago in this newspaper. In response to what I wrote, a boycotter popped up on some blog explaining that I'd got it wrong. Those in favour of excommunication weren't removing Israeli voices in the sense of gagging or silencing them, they were simply refusing to listen to them. A distinction that was lost on me at first, but with time grew clearer and more shocking. For "not listening" is, if anything, more philosophically brutal than silencing or gagging. Brutal, in especial, to the person not doing the listening. That act of intellectual violence which, if you are a boycotter, you are presently preparing against the Israeli academy, is in fact an act of violence against yourself.

To say you intend knowingly and purposefully and on principle "not to listen" is to say you are waging a sort of war on your own faculties, because listening, if you are a reasoning person, is chief among the tools you reason with.

Most of what Socrates did was listen. No longer to listen is no longer to engage in the dialogue of thought. Which disqualifies you as a scholar and a teacher, for what sort of example to his pupils is a teacher who covers truth's ears and buries it under stone. A university that will not listen does far more intellectual damage to itself than to the university it has stopped listening to.

It seemed worth saying this at the meeting. Not that I was the only one who said it. What impressed me, as a political agitation virgin, was how lucid and calmly rational everyone was apart from the pro-boycott pickets outside - though why you would want to picket people who are gathering to disagree with what you said at your gathering I am at a loss to understand. Which I suppose shows how politically naive I am.

The other thing that seemed worth saying related to that now classic formulation - "It is not anti-Semitic to be critical of Israel." I wasn't concerned to make the no less classical rebuttal - "Of course being critical of Israel doesn't necessarily mark you out as an anti-Semite, but it doesn't necessarily mark you out as not one either." Enough already with who is or who isn't. What I wanted to address was something different - how the glamour word "anti-Semite" has transfixed both parties to this semantic tussle, when the real issue is what we mean by "critical".

Reader, only think about it: was ever a tiny word sent on such a mighty errand, or to put it another way, was ever such a massive job of demolition done by so delicate an instrument. Critical - as though those who accuse Israel of every known crime against humanity, of being more Nazi than the Nazis, more fascist than the fascists, more apartheid than apartheid South Africa, are simply exercising measured argument and fine discrimination.

I know a bit about being critical. It's my job. Being "critical" is when you say that such-and-such a book works here but doesn't work there, good plot, bad characterisation, enjoyed some parts, hated others. What being critical is not, is saying this is the most evil and odious book ever written, worse than all other evil and odious books, should never have been published in the first place, was in fact published in flagrant defiance of international law, must be banned, and in the meantime should not under any circumstances be read. For that we need another word than critical.

So try replacing it with whatever that word or words might be and have a look at how the statement bears up now. "It is not anti-Semitic to defame or curse or stigmatise or revile or execrate or anathematise or with malice aforethought misrepresent Israel." You might think that veers a touch too far in the opposite direction, but you take my point. Put back the inordinacy of reprehension hidden behind the pretend even-handedness of fair-seeming little "critical" and you see why those who oppose the boycott and other such traducements smell a rat.

None of this, to rehearse another tired though necessary qualification, is to support the Israeli occupation. Something else that impressed me at the meeting - how universally what needed to be condemned was condemned. An unequivocal no to the ban didn't mean an unequivocal yes to Israel.

This was not a room of people blind in love with Zionism. Which made me wish that some who write vituperatively to me whenever I use the word Israel had been there.

You don't have to be a Zionist to oppose the boycott. You don't even have to be pro-Israel. You can weigh an argument on its merits. There is such a thing as disinterestedness, even at a political rally. I speak as a veteran.

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