There’s nothing British academics like more than a good academic boycott. It makes them feel they are at the center of things, important cogs in the motor of history—and virtuous into the bargain: for virtue these days is more a matter of making the right gestures and expressing the “right” opinions than of conforming one’s behavior to inconvenient ethical standards. It allows one to be a libertine on a Neronian scale and yet detect the odor of sanctity emanating powerfully from oneself.
The Guardian reported several weeks ago that the British academic boycott of Israel is gathering steam. Colin Blakemore, Professor of Physiology at Oxford, for example, noted that he does not know of a single British academic who has been to a conference in Israel in the past year. The overweening snobbery in what Professor Blakemore says is characteristically British: after all, he implies, he knows everyone worth knowing.
But why Israel, you may ask, when the world pullulates with undesirable regimes whose performance would make Israel’s seem positively splendid even if every last accusation against it were true? The most obvious answer is anti-Semitism, but this would not be wholly correct. The boycott’s most prominent public advocate has been neurobiologist Steven Rose—himself Jewish—whom the Guardian rather coyly describes as having been active in left-wing causes for many years. This is a bit like describing Dr. Goebbels as “not a multiculturalist’: true, but not quite the whole truth. Professor Rose is, and has been for years, a hard-line Marxist, quite unmoved by the millions killed in the doctrine’s name. For him, Marxism is like Chesterton’s Christianity: it hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
Why do Rose and his acolytes not fulminate against Syria and call for a boycott of a government that has, after all, killed many more Arabs than Israel ever has? The first reason, no doubt, is that a boycott of Syrian science would not require much in the way of positive activity: Syrian science is self-boycotting, as it were. The second reason—a more important one—is contempt for the Arabs masquerading as sympathy for them. They are not to be held to the same standards of conduct as the Israelis, because they are—well, Arabs—and everyone knows that you can’t expect an Arab government to refrain from massacring its own people, let alone to be democratic and to expose itself to regular elections that it might actually lose.
Here is one more example of what the French author Pascal Bruckner described: compassion as contempt. We boycott the Israelis because they are like us, and therefore ought to know better; we don’t boycott the Arabs because, poor things, they don’t know any better.