This essay, by Jonathan Rynhold, appeared recently in the MERIA Journal (Middle East Review of International Affairs). MERIA is published by The GLORIA Center (Global Research in International Affairs).
The campaign for an academic boycott of Israel is symptomatic of a wider campaign by the extreme Left to delegitimize the State of Israel. Although the extreme Left is a marginal political force in the UK, the boycott campaign gained significant purchase in the much larger moderate Left by blurring its ideological foundations. While the moderate Left is also hostile to Israel, it is possible to counter the boycott campaign successfully by framing Israel’s case in broadly liberal terms that appeal to the moderate-Left and center-Right, while exposing the ideological gulf between moderates and the extreme Left.
What does the academic boycott of Israel by trade unions representing British academics tell about British attitudes to Israel and the Middle East? Many Israelis and American Jews tend to view it as classical antisemitism. Sometimes they generalize, assuming that this was a reflection of a general disposition in Britain toward antisemitism. Others tend to dismiss the boycott campaign as the ranting of a small and insignificant minority; while the boycott campaigners and their sympathizers tried to present their actions as legitimate criticism of Israel. However, these are all misperceptions.
The boycott campaign was driven by a small cadre of extreme Left anti-Zionist activists. While not driven by classical antisemitism or hostility to Jews per se, their approach often gave expression to the New Antisemitism, which discriminates against, and demonizes, the Jewish State: Israel, and by extension Jews politically supportive of Israel.
Although their underlying ideology lacks significant appeal in the UK, they were able to leverage their power by gaining control over the policy of trade unions with hundreds of thousands of members. Outside the trade union movement, they gained a significant amount of sympathy on the moderate Left and have contributed to shifting the boundaries of legitimate debate in the UK regarding Israel and the Middle East. While the movement has not succeeded in sustaining an academic boycott of Israel, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as politically irrelevant.