(1) If some people are picked out for specially favourable or specially unfavourable treatment relative to the norm, that's discrimination; and discrimination is wrong. Yes? No. It depends. To be able to tell whether a policy that treats some people in a selectively better or worse way is discriminatory in the pejorative sense, we need to know the context for that policy. We need to know whether there are relevant and good reasons for the selective treatment in question.
Here are a few examples. If an organization grants sick leave to an employee who is sick, most of us would think that that was fine (unless we just believed the sick should go to the wall or learn to be more lucky). We might, on the other hand, frown if some employees were allowed to take holidays at will when most employees could not, and we might call this, critically, favouritism. If I mark certain student papers at 70 percent or more, on the grounds that those papers are exceptionally good in terms of knowledge of the subject matter, evidence of the analytical abilities of the students whose papers they are, originality of thought, etc., I'd be doing my job as an examiner. If, however, I only awarded 70 or more to the students I liked best or who'd slipped me a bribe, I'd be a disgrace to my profession. Again, if the police arrest five people from Didsbury on suspicion of a crime, and arrest no one from Hounslow, this is neither police harassment nor discrimination against the residents of Didsbury provided that the police have some genuine and compelling evidence linking the five Didsbury-dwellers with the crime, and have nothing similar for anybody living in Hounslow. And so on.
To know whether a policy is unjustly or perniciously discriminatory, we need to know what reasons, in the given context, would be relevant to justifying differential treatment, and whether or not there are good reasons of that relevant kind.
These remarks serve as an introduction to the discussion between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh in the latest edition of Democratiya on whether the proposed academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic or not. That discussion, I am bound to say, is less illuminating than it might be. This is because Martin's position is vitiated - so I shall be arguing here - by a weakness at its very heart, a grave logical weakness; but David, though he is surely aware of it, does not concentrate attention on this strategic point and consequently Martin is not obliged to defend the point, to try to make the weakness good (assuming this is possible). The two of them give us a general tour of the issues in a way unlikely to enlighten anyone unless they are quite new to the debate.
Martin's view is stated succinctly at the start. The academic boycott of Israel is not anti-Semitic, even if, he says (referring to a formulation of David's), it disadvantages Jews more than others.
By this topsy-turvy reasoning, the boycott of apartheid South Africa must have manifested anti-white or anti-Afrikaner racism, since it harmed whites and Afrikaners more than others. It simply will not do to say that action against a racially based state like Israel is itself racist because it must by definition harm the interests of the groups that benefit from that state.
Does Martin think, then, that there are good reasons for the academic boycott of Israel? He does not. He emphasizes, right from the off, that he has never supported the academic boycott, and one has, therefore, to assume that he doesn't think the reasons for supporting the boycott are good. But if the reasons aren't good, then the academic boycott of Israel is, by Martin's own lights, a piece of unjustified discrimination. Might it be that I am thrusting upon him a logic he does not himself recognize – that, while he might accept my attributing to him the view that there is no good justifying case for the academic boycott, he doesn't see that this absence makes the boycott policy discriminatory in the bad sense? I will not pursue these hypotheticals. For he does see it. Martin later makes plain his own awareness of the perniciously discriminatory character of the boycott. He says:
As it happens, the main reasons why I oppose the academic boycott of Israel are indeed that it can be perceived as collective punishment of Israelis for the crimes of their state, and that it disadvantages Israelis who make criticise [sic] their government's policies as well as those who support them.
It is difficult to read the final clause in any other way than as saying it is morally inappropriate to treat Israelis who are critical of their government disadvantageously (whatever may be the case with regard to uncritical Israelis). The boycott is a form of unjust discrimination.
A summary so far, then: Martin doesn't think there are good justifying reasons for the academic boycott of Israel; and he does think (as I claim amounts to the same thing) that the boycott is discriminatory in the pejorative sense. (I urge readers to keep a hold of this central point, since other arguments Martin makes, and which I now come to, may seem to obscure it.) The anti-Semitism of the boycott, on the other hand, for Martin is merely 'alleged'.
(2) If there are not good justifying reasons for the academic boycott, Martin does think there are good reasons for campaigning against Israel. Here's one of them:
Another is the 'racial basis of the Israeli state'. Now, I don't feel any argumentative obligation to examine whether these are or are not good reasons for campaigning against Israel. Even if they are, we know that Martin himself does not judge them to be good reasons for a boycott targeted on Israeli academics, a piece of unjust discrimination against them by his own lights. And the question at issue is whether the boycott is anti-Semitic, not whether some other possible forms of protest or campaign against Israel would be anti-Semitic.
Unlike Burma or China (and actually plenty of opponents of Israel's policies also oppose these regimes), Israel claims to be a democracy and receives enormous support from Western governments.
But, even though I am not obliged to, I will nonetheless point out two or three problems with these reasons for campaigning against Israel. Though Martin doesn't think they justify a boycott, he does think they are telling as a basis for campaigning. But since what they are being used as a basis for in fact is not campaigning in general but a boycott of Israeli academics in particular, what they tell is a different story from the one Martin suggests.
Thus, Israel is a democracy and supported by Western governments. Well, the US and Britain are also democracies, and they are themselves governed by Western governments. If these serve as grounds for boycotting Israeli academics (as for the boycotters, though not for Martin, they do), how come there has been no thought of action against US and British academics, whether on account of Western support for Israel or of the Iraq war (which many of the boycotters opposed as an illegal war)? That Martin considers them good reasons for campaigning does not detract from the charge of unjust discrimination against the precise form of campaigning that is the boycott. On the contrary. Israeli academics, and they alone, have to stand answerable for the putative misdeeds of their government, because it is a democratic government and supported by the West. No one else.
Nothing could be more telling, furthermore, than the fact that Martin lets this argument sit beside the analogy of the anti-apartheid campaign, without the slightest trace of mental discomfort. Somehow, solidarity action in that case could go ahead though South Africa was not notably democratic vis-à-vis the majority black population, and white Afrikaner society not especially open to the influence of liberal and left pressure from the West. Now, on the other hand, Israel is apt for being campaigned against, and Burma and China perhaps less so, because Israel is a democracy. This is, transparently, an argument of convenience.
As to the racism of the Israeli state, I will limit myself to noting that the selectivity of the academic boycott movement applies not merely with respect to the rest of the great wide world - to Burma or China, Sudan or Zimbabwe, Britain, the US; it applies even within the narrow geography of the land that is at issue here, Israel and Palestine. Israeli academics, yes, for the racism of the Israeli state, but not Palestinian academics - though their national movements, one of these officially and in its very charter, are compromised by poisonous forms of anti-Semitism.
So - reasons for campaigning as may be, but when looked at under the glass of the UCU boycott and the reasons given for that, not altogether reassuring ones.
(3) If Martin isn't troubled in the way that others of us are - or if he is less troubled - by the unjustly discriminatory character of the academic boycott, it is because, on his own account of things, he understands the way in which political activism alights now here and now there:
[A]s a sociologist as well as an activist [he writes] I understand that there are many reasons, good as well as bad, why particular causes attract support in particular periods.
By way of sociology of activism, this is fine, but apart from that it won't do. Martin is right that people gravitate towards some causes rather than others under the influence of many different things. Moreover, individuals are entitled to devote their political energies as they see fit, and if many of them happen to converge on one campaign rather than another, no one can legitimately tell them that they ought to be doing something else. You work in support of the Medical Foundation and Amnesty International but not of various old-age charities; you campaign over Burma but not China, or Zimbabwe but not Burma... you're one person and can do only so much. Better that you do something and not nothing. And if you are several or many persons and are attracted to the same cause, so be it.
Still, there is, as well as a sociology of activism, a morality of political action and this applies differently to organizations than to individuals. If I want I can spend all my free time campaigning against Israeli policies I regard as mistaken and unjust, like the occupation of the West Bank and (once) Gaza, or the Jewish settlements on that occupied territory. But the University and College Union is not a random collection of individuals that may do as it pleases with its limited resources and the efforts and the reputation of its members. It is an academic union and bound by its very nature to have relations with the academics of other countries. For the UCU to adopt a discriminatory policy disfavouring academics of one and only one nationality cannot be justified by any sociology of activism, even if it may be partially explained by that. For the union to do this because of the actions of a subset of its members who happen to have a particular activist focus on Israel that is not shared by the majority of the membership accentuates the point.
(4) Since Martin Shaw does not support the academic boycott, why should he see it as pertinent, and indeed persuasive, to enumerate what he regards as good reasons not for the boycott itself, but for campaigning against Israel in other than academic-boycott ways? It's the anti-Semitism or otherwise of the academic boycott that is at issue, rather than whether campaigns against Israel of some other kind are justified. The answer to my question isn't hard to come by. It is given by the terms he uses in the first two paragraphs of his opening contribution to the debate between him and David Hirsh. Martin writes as if to be racist, a policy must 'manifest' racist attitudes. He takes David to task for 'the suggestion that anti-semitism must lurk behind the choice to campaign against Israel' (my italics). The anti-Semitism, I infer from this way of putting it, must inhere in the minds of those responsible for the action or policy in question, before we can reasonably say that it is anti-Semitic. If this were true, it would make anti-Semitism a singular form of prejudicial discrimination. So far as I'm aware, no other type of racism is treated as requiring so high a threshold as motivational animus or attitudinal hostility. It is well known that there are racist symbols, prejudicial patterns of speech and, above all, discriminatory practices. These may or may not be accompanied by matching states of mind and it is, generally, better when they are not. But even in the latter case, the symbols, patterns of speech and practices, if they are racist or perniciously discriminatory in some other way, matter. They are to be opposed and not excused.
Imagine, here, an ancient university in which certain positions of authority are closed to women. In most other ways the institution has kept pace with the modern world, and its members in their vast majority have properly liberal attitudes towards gender equality. But they are attached to the tradition that reserves these positions for men. Without feeling any hostility towards women (which is what 37 percent of them indeed are), they want to stick with the aforesaid tradition, and keep the positions ineligible to those of their number who are of the said 37 percent. Many of these women protest and some of the men do as well, but they are outvoted on the university's McCallum-FitzHugh Council - all feminists to a man, where they are men - and the outcome of a university-wide referendum, which the Council agrees to sanction, is in line with the vote of the Council itself. Could anyone say with a straight face that there was not a sexist restriction in operation in this ancient university?
Imagine, next, that a music academy in Paris or Berlin, the governing body of which is vigorously opposed to the Iraq war, decides that it will cease to admit US citizens as long as the war continues; or that a chain of restaurants in one of these two countries, and on the same grounds, declines for the duration of the war to serve Americans, who are asked to leave the premises as soon as their identity as Americans has been ascertained. Someone tells you that this is not anti-Americanism, it is merely a protest against the Bush administration. I don't think so. The would-be reasons for the policy may be as cogent as you find them when applied to some other kind of protest or campaign against the Iraq war; but they are not good reasons for excluding American musicians or diners. This exclusion is therefore a wrongful form of discrimination, and is anti-American just by reason of the criterion for the exclusion, and regardless of the attitudes towards Americans of those doing the excluding. Maybe they love Americans, but are misguided in the way they have shaped their protest; it is the policy, and not necessarily the attitude, that is anti-American.
(5) It might be argued now in defence of Martin's position that, even if I have said enough to show the academic boycott is unjustly discriminatory (as he accepts), and even if this is so whether or not the boycotters are motivated by attitudes of animus or prejudice, I have not shown that the boycott is anti-Semitic. Its target, after all, is Israeli and not Jewish academics. Yes, the two categories are not identical. There is a link between them, all the same, and it is therefore a matter of some interest how Martin - or anyone - can be as confident and categorical as he seems to be that this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
Consider where we now are. (a) The academic boycott is unjustly discriminatory. (b) It discriminates unjustly whatever might be the inner attitudes of those who support it. (c) The people it discriminates against are Israeli academics, who are, in their overwhelming majority, Jews. (d) And there are no reasons specific to their 'Israeli-ness' that pick out a justifying reason for boycotting them. The academic boycott, in sum, targets Jews, though not all Jews, and for no good reason that anyone, including (by his own admission) Martin, has yet come up with. That seems to me to provide prima facie grounds for describing it as anti-Semitic.
I will now go further, however, further than I think I need to in rebutting Martin's argument, but in a way that strengthens the rebuttal. I do so by asking how Martin can be so sure that no attitudinal anti-Semitism, that is, no anti-Semitism on his own very restricted definition of it, is at work in the academic boycott campaign. Even if attitudinal anti-Semitism is not of enormous weight there, anti-Semitic tropes do sometimes turn up amongst boycott activists - such as alleged Jewish control of the media and other centres of power and influence, or the equation made between the Jewish state and Nazi Germany - as do apologetic discourses about movements that are unambiguously and unashamedly anti-Semitic. If one adds to this that anti-Semitism is an ancient prejudice in Europe, how does Martin exclude the possibility that, even in his own terms, there might be at least threads of anti-Semitism staining the boycott campaign?
Well, when all is said and done, and despite the dominant drift of his argument, he doesn't so much exclude the possibility as make light of it. Martin writes:
I accept that there are antisemites among Israel's critics and that as with all long-standing and widely diffused racial prejudices, low-level antisemitism may be widespread - probably even among Israel's supporters in the US and British political classes. However I do not think that on any serious assessment, antisemitism can be regarded as politically potent in Western societies today – by historical standards it is definitely weak - or a major theme among Western critics of Israel.
I have no quarrel with this as an overall judgement. Attitudinal anti-Semitism in this country is not potent by historical standards, and as for its weight in the boycott campaign, Martin may well also be right to say that 'opposition to Israel is more likely to be a reflex of left-wing opposition to US or British 'imperialism' than of antisemitism'. But why is the historical standard the relevant standard in this context, and why, equally, is the fact that there are weightier influences on the boycotters than attitudinal anti-Semitism any reason to treat the worry about such anti-Semitism as there is dismissively? One tradition and one duty of the left, or so I understand it, is to oppose racism in all its forms and to call it by its proper name wherever it manifests itself. To say that it has been or could be worse, is not a commendable impulse. The point, rather, is to try to ensure that it gets no worse.