Susan Bassnett: This boycott is wrong, bigoted and racist

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Last week's vote by the Association of University Teachers for an academic boycott of two Israeli universities was a long time coming.

Last week's vote by the Association of University Teachers for an academic boycott of two Israeli universities was a long time coming. A small group of fanatical anti-Israeli lobbyists had been pressing for it for some time. When I heard the news, I found it hard to decide whether I was sad, angry or simply contemptuous. It is sad that supposedly intelligent people (one's academic colleagues) can be so closed-minded as to suppose that boycotting their fellows in another country is going to achieve anything. One feels contemptuous for the bigotry of these people and their refusal to understand that academic boycotts are discriminatory, racist and offensive to fair-minded individuals. I felt angry at the stupidity of it all, and at the boycotters' ignorance of history.

Let us set aside images of survivors returning to Auschwitz and Belsen and put the argument less emotively. But let us not forget what those camps, and all the other atrocities perpetrated by brainwashed people from Cambodia to the Sudan, signify: the death of reason; the end of argument. Academic life is fuelled by debate, contrasting ideas, experimental thinking, and the challenging of orthodoxies.

Time and again, repressive regimes have imprisoned, tortured, and killed intellectuals for expressing themselves too loudly or controversially. We owe it to the memory of these victims to oppose boycotts of our colleagues anywhere in the world. The thinking behind an academic boycott is the same thinking as that which leads to the arrest of people who fail to conform to a dominant party line. It might not seem so, particularly when the boycott's supporters throw their emotional arguments into the pot and imply that they have the moral high ground. But it is. To suggest, as the basis of this boycott does, that all Israelis are anti-Palestinian is absurd. It lumps the people of Israel into one category: it labels and condemns them equally. Perhaps the proposers of the boycott need to be reminded that politicians always like to talk glibly about a category they label as "the people".

In the run-up to the general election in the UK, the phrase "the British people" is bandied around constantly by candidates of all persuasions. But what does it actually mean? Does anyone ever define themselves as "one of the British people", one of that group whom both the left and the right claim to represent? The homogenisation of entire populations of nation states is a common rhetorical device. But it is also patently ridiculous. Nobody really believes that there is such a thing as the British or the Iraqi or the American or the Nigerian people: there are people who hold passports that designate them to one state or another, but all populations are diverse, with a huge range of opinions that vary according to age, gender, religion, region, ethnicity, education, class, and so on.

Academics should (surely most of them do) acknowledge the fallacy of such rhetoric and help their students to understand the complexity of diversity. Whether the boycott is of Israeli or Icelandic academics, the flaw in the argument is the same.

We hear a great deal, too, about "the international community" and "global networks", which may or may not actually exist. I see myself as a writer who is part of an international circle of peers. When I visit the homes of colleagues in China, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Finland or Italy I find I share a number of things - books, exhibition posters, music and ideas. Whatever the governments of individual states do, however unpalatable their policies or corrupt their infrastructures, the role of writers and academics remains the same. Such people challenge, sometimes quietly, often aggressively. They push the boundaries of knowledge forward by sharing ideas with their students and peers around the world.

The proposed boycott of Israeli academics is pointless and depressing. It will achieve nothing and will damage the credibility of international intellectual life. Scholarship and ideas should be freely circulating across time and space.

We should be supporting all those colleagues in Israel who are as concerned about the Palestinian cause as we are, not seeking to condemn them in this ignorant way. The AUT discredits itself by this bigoted, racist vote.

The writer is Professor of Comparative Literature at Warwick University