Two British scholars, only one of them Jewish, fought against the boycott of Israeli academia. They succeeded, but not before being the target of racist attacks

Anti-Israel demo in Brussels (photo: Simon Aughton)

The anti-boycott movement’s movers and shakers

PUBLISHED IN |  Oct 10, 07

“Rotten Zionist” is only one of the names David Hirsh was called during his campaign against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Hirsh, who in 2005 founded the organization Engage with Jon Pike, was called these names not by hooligans or angry Internet posters, but by his colleagues in the British academic world, whom he – until recently – considered his professional and political equals. His only sin was daring to voice his opinion loudly and clearly: that the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions is racist, superfluous and even harmful.

After two difficult years, Hirsh and Pike chalked up a victory two weeks ago. On September 28, the British University and College Union (UCU) published an opinion by attorney Anthony Lester stating it cannot even discuss the boycott proposal, because it goes against British law.

Lester was the guiding light behind the wording of anti-racist legislation in England in the 1970s and is considered an authority in the field. Lester determined that such a boycott was liable to lead to a deluge of lawsuits against the organization and against its members as individuals. Thus he effectively ended the boycott campaign conducted by the UCU for the past five years.

Blatant stupidity

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Hirsh and Pike, who have not been interviewed in the Israeli media until now, are not the “immediate suspects” in the discourse on Israel and its policies in the territories. They don’t think Israel is a perfect country – they believe it to be no different from England, Belgium or Australia, but neither do they see it as “the embodiment of evil.” They are exceptions in the European discourse today.

Hirsh is a Jewish sociologist, a leftist, whom the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem would be unlikely to appoint as its spokesman regarding Israeli policies in the territories.

Pike is a non-Jewish philosopher, also a leftist, who is very troubled by the situation facing the Palestinians in the territories – mainly by the straits of academics.

But both believe that the boycott campaign against Israel, specifically Israel and only Israel, contained a clear note of discrimination based on nationality, outright stupidity and even anti-Semitism.

A short reminder: In April 2002, two British Jewish academicians, Steven and Hilary Rose, wanted to stop all scholarly cooperation between Europe and Israel. A month later, Mona Baker of the University of Manchester barred two Israel experts in the field of translation, Miriam Shlesinger and Gideon Toury, from working for publications she edited. The reason was their relationship to Israeli universities.

A year later, Sue Blackwell of the University of Birmingham suggested ending any connection with Israeli institutions, including universities. In April 2005, Blackwell presented an amended proposal with a demand to boycott three specific universities: Haifa, Bar-Ilan and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“This decision was made after a 10-minute discussion,” says Hirsh to Haaretz in a phone interview from London.

“There was no time for discussion and there was no time to present the opposite view. There were several impressive speakers who presented the story in a very emotional manner and gave examples of discriminatory Israeli legislation. You have to bear in mind: There are 120,000 people employees of the British academic world are members of the union, some of them administrators. Not all of them are sophisticated professors. These are people for whom the union is very important, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that every discussion there is a profound philosophical discussion.”

That was the moment when Hirsh and Pike decided that they had to do something. “The union occasionally discussed international politics,” says Hirsh. “I think that we may ask what can be done for the Palestinians, but I simply think the organization gave a wrong answer.”

Pike also felt hurt, as someone who holds the union in high esteem: “I didn’t want my union to do anything stupid,” he says in a phone interview from London.

“This decision was discriminatory and futile. Academicians have to speak to one another, even if they don’t agree with the policies of their governments. As a professional union, we must speak out against harming the academic world. We have to work against the boycott of academicians, against the imprisonment of academicians, but we don’t have to take a stand in a political conflict. That’s not the job of the union. Besides, if they say that Israel or the Israel Defense Forces are not in the right if they prevent Palestinians from studying in a university only because of his national identity, how can you support a boycott of Israelis only because they are Israelis?”

The two decided to promote a manifesto calling for a revote. In addition, they founded the organization Engage, established an Internet site ( and began a lobbying campaign in the academic community. Additional organizations outside the academic community strived toward the same goal, such as the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community. However, they were the only ones working from within.

Hirsh and Pike did not want to run a Jewish or Israeli campaign, but one over the image of the British left. “Even people who oppose Israel’s policies thought that the idea of the boycott was idiotic,” says Pike in reply to a question about his participation in the campaign as a non-Jew. “My area of research in philosophy is the principles of justice, and this was clearly unjust. I thought it was important for non-Jews to voice their opinions aloud too. Our feeling was that there had to be opposition to it within the left, that we could not allow the bodies that usually conduct the discourse about Israel and its policy to conduct the debate. There were people who left the union after this decision, but I thought that we had to continue to fight from within.”

A perusal of the articles that appear on the Web site reveals clearly leftist opinions, at least what was once called leftist positions: a call for criticism, social involvement and solidarity, and unease at the nationalist idea, but directed at all types of nationalism, whether Israeli, Palestinian British or Australian. There is a lot of moderation and balance.

“Unfortunately,” says Pike, “the genuine liberal democratic left is gradually losing its hold because of the domination of monolithic anti-American and anti-Israeli opinions.”

The attempt by the two to challenge the accepted opinions led to a deluge of accusations against them. Hirsh says that some of the members of the Jewish community consider him a radical leftist, but nevertheless, during the last campaign the academicians called him a neocon.

They accused him being a “Zionist,” despite the fact that he does not define himself as such, but “from the moment they accused me of that, I’m happy about the accusation,” he says.

Pike says that they threatened to sue him, called him “a Zionist scab” and some even decided that he was actually Jewish. “Many people said that I was getting money from the Israeli embassy,” he says, “which is really untrue. I lost friendships during this period. In previous discussions in the union they told me, ‘Jon, you’re wrong.’ This time, they said, ‘Jon, you’re a liar,’ and that’s a big difference.”

Of all people

Anti-Israel demo in London (photo: Chris John Beckett)

Anti-Israel demo in London (photo: Chris John Beckett)

In the final analysis, Hirsh and Pike had a choice of two options: going to a vote about imposing an academic boycott on Israel or claiming that the discussion itself was improper.

“We knew that we were going to win the vote,” says Hirsh. “Surveys we conducted in the prestigious institutions such as Imperial College or Oxford University, showed over 90 percent opposition to the boycott. But we thought that even bringing such a proposal up for discussion was immoral and racist.”

Lester’s opinion, which determined that the discussion was illegal, in effect ended the affair.

Hirsh says he is not certain that the motivation of those who proposed the boycott was anti-Semitism, but he’s certain that the proposal itself is an anti-Semitic act.

“Boycotts against Jews have a very long history. You have to note the fact that nobody who proposed the boycott proposed boycotting American academia for the invasion of Iraq, Russians academia for the occupation of Chechnya, or Chinese academia for what is happening in Tibet. Using other, stricter standards towards Jews is a discriminatory and racist act.”

Hirsh and Pike have no good answer to the question of why all this happened in Britain of all places. Anyone who has been keeping abreast of public opinion in Europe in recent years could have expected such an initiative in France or Spain, for example, where public opinion is much more belligerent toward Israel.

“I only have a feeling about that,” says Hirsh, “which is based on things I heard at one of the conferences on the subject. Suddenly one of the participants got up and said, ‘how do the Israelis dare accuse us of anti-Semitism? After all, we saved them in the Holocaust.’ The British, unlike other countries in Europe, have no history of collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, perhaps because they never had the opportunity. Therefore their consciences are clearer when it comes to Jews. On the other hand, there are many guilty feelings in Britain about the colonialist past and a feeling that Israel was established because of Britain. This feeling has only been reinforced in recent years in light of the present support of Israel by British and U.S. governments.”