Joan Smith: Punishment for people who don't deserve it

My heart sinks when I see people urging boycotts of countries whose governments they dislike
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The Independent Online

All over the world, repressive regimes are doing their best to prevent the free exchange of ideas. They threaten, imprison and murder journalists, authors and academics, and if they can't do it themselves they get their proxies to do it, which is what probably lies behind the unsolved murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow last autumn. Three months later, the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul, and shortly after my old friend Orhan Pamuk went into temporary exile, driven out of his own country by death threats and a failed prosecution for supposedly insulting Turkish identity.

These are dark times for those of us who believe that the free exchange of ideas is a prerequisite of democracy, so my heart sinks whenever I see misguided people urging cultural or academic boycotts of countries whose governments they dislike. The ANC did it during the apartheid years in South Africa, urging not just an economic and sporting boycott but a cultural one as well, leading to an absurd situation where the London production of a play by an author who opposed the regime was threatened with a demonstration by anti-apartheid pickets. I was young and naive at the time, so naturally I refused a request from a South African women's magazine which wanted to serialise my first novel, only realising afterwards that the regime was no doubt perfectly content at the prospect of a left-wing, feminist writer indulging in self-censorship.

Twenty years later, the question of an academic boycott of Israel is having a similar effect, dividing opponents of the current government in that country. In Bournemouth yesterday, British academics ignored a plea from Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), not to back calls for a boycott, reigniting arguments which have been causing heated and sometimes bad-tempered debates among British academics for the past five years.

The idea of a boycott returned to the agenda this week when delegates from Brighton University and the University of East London urged the conference to condemn the "complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation of Palestine" and demanded a "comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions". Yesterday Ms Hunt argued against the motion, suggesting that the supporters of a boycott were out of step with the rest of the union. "Most want to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides - not just those we agree with," she said. She pointed out that this is the UCU's approach in Zimbabwe and Colombia, two regimes with at least as poor a human rights record as Israel's in the Occupied Territories.

Ms Hunt lost the vote but her position is absolutely right, and I say this as someone who believes that the policies of the present Israeli government towards Palestine and Lebanon are bullying, counter-productive and a violation of human rights. It is obvious to all but the most deluded Zionist that Israel will never live in peace until it returns to its 1967 borders and allows the Palestinians to share the economic prosperity enjoyed by most of Israel's Jewish population; the Israeli government also needs to abandon the fantasy that it can defeat Hizbollah militarily, a conclusion that leading Israeli politicians are still resisting in spite of the utter failure last summer of their invasion of Lebanon, which caused terrible civilian casualties and the widespread destruction of Lebanese infrastructure.

As a result, Hizbollah's domestic popularity has soared, entrenching the Islamist organisation even deeper in a country which desperately needs secular politics and producing quite the opposite effect to what was intended; some commentators even argue that Tony Blair's shameful reluctance to call for a swift ceasefire made his departure from office this summer inevitable, once again demonstrating the capacity of the Arab-Israeli conflict to have an impact outside the Middle East. Indeed I suspect it is the Israeli government's stubborn refusal to listen to a torrent of criticism from European politicians and human rights organisations which lies behind the calls for an academic boycott, and as a symptom of frustration it is just about comprehensible.

Frustration is closely linked to feelings of impotence, however, and impotence rarely produces good politics. The principles at stake here don't apply only to Israel, even though it is more often the focus of debates about academic boycotts than regimes elsewhere which are as bad or worse; Putin's Russia, for example, which is fast becoming a rogue state that has no respect for the law and subjects the few brave people who openly defy the government to relentless harassment and threats. If academic boycotts really were an effective means of shaming governments and changing policy, UCU delegates would be threatening to withdraw co-operation from Russian universities - and from academic institutions in countries which have fallen under the influence of political Islam.

No matter how much I dislike the current Israeli government, I know it isn't Iran or Saudi Arabia, and it certainly doesn't speak for every single one of its citizens; it isn't even Venezuela, where the government is closing down TV stations. If individual academics in Israel are slanting their research to suit the government, I have no problem with the idea that their bias should be challenged and exposed, but academic institutions should not be made a scapegoat for government policies. On the contrary, boycotting them isolates and undermines the very people the rest of us most need to engage with.

If the boycott is put into practice as now appears likely, it will have a disastrous effect on individual careers and the exchanging and challenging of ideas which is at the heart of academic freedom; British academics will be urged not to attend conferences at Israeli universities or invite Israeli colleagues to this country, while some British academics might refuse to peer-review articles for academic journals. You can call this a boycott, and produce all sorts of justifications, but what it really amounts to is collective punishment of Israeli academics, some of whom actively oppose their government's policy, and a form of censorship.

I have spent too much time observing the dire effects of censorship, as carried out by authoritarian regimes and religious extremists, to start recommending it as a means of effecting political change, even to well-meaning people who can't think of anything else to do. If you believe in universal human rights, for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or anybody else, the way to bring about change is to identify and support those who agree with you and work on changing the minds of those who don't. Leave censorship to the Putins and Mugabes and Chavezes, who already do it much too well.