Over dinner on Sunday night at a Japanese restaurant off the much-bombed Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, Ofira Henig mentioned that she was leaving the next day for Berlin, Paris, and New York, in search of theatre companies to perform at next year's Israel Festival. When I said that sounded like pleasant work, she corrected me. She was dreading it. She knew that everywhere she went, people would pounce on her and demand that she explain why Ariel Sharon's government had re-occupied the Palestinian territories.
Insults from ignorant foreigners are not the heaviest of the burdens Israelis carry this year, but neither are they easy to bear. Anxious to rebuke Mr. Sharon, many intellectuals have decided to do it by punishing their Israeli counterparts. Among other things, that decision helped cripple the 2002 Israel Festival, Ms. Henig's first as artistic director. It took place in May and June, in the wake of the terrorist bombings and during the rise of anti-Israeli feeling in Europe. Five companies that had agreed to take part changed their minds. Three of them, from Italy, France and Belgium, withdrew after the program was printed and tickets sold. As a result, the biggest theatre in Jerusalem was dark for nine of the Festival's 19 nights.
Ms. Henig, like many Israelis with similar backgrounds, understands the irony in her position. She's a radical leftist who has often worked closely with Palestinian friends: "We grew up as artists together." She doesn't admire Mr. Sharon. Now she finds herself lectured by Europeans -- "even the Swiss!" -- who think they must explain Israel's realities to someone who lives with them every day.
Academic self-righteousness, never a pleasant thing to behold, has taken a particularly grotesque turn in this case. Certain European professors have in all seriousness compared the Sharon policy to both the Nazi Holocaust and South African apartheid. Apparently it is now permissible for a professor to say anything, no matter how obscene, against Israel; in certain academic circles, dislike of Israel has become so popular as to be almost mandatory.
So far as I know, the first signs of a cultural boycott appeared during the summer of 2001 in, of all places, Hobart, Tasmania. Michal Govrin, an Israeli novelist and poet, was scheduled to read at the Tasmanian Readers' and Writers' Festival in August. Suddenly, the Festival sent a letter withdrawing its invitation, explaining this action as a protest against the killing of Palestinian children. Ms. Govrin's admirers protested, and a Hobart newspaper supported her. The festival backed down and she went to Hobart, read from her novel The Name, and publicly discussed the attempt to erase her from the program. Nevertheless (as Ms. Govrin told me the other night) the professor directing the festival expressed her pique by rudely ignoring Ms. Govrin's presence.
European academics have set up two anti-Israeli petitions on the Internet, one calling for the boycott of Israeli scientific institutions, the other for breaking cultural links with Israel. So far, about 1,000 professors have signed on. The lists change constantly, but France has produced the most signatories. Many names on the petitions, though far from the majority, are Arabic. Some, countable in the dozens, are Jewish, including 10 from Israel. In Britain the notable anti-Israel signers include Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, Victoria Glendinning, a popular biographer, and Ted Honderich, the Canadian-born philosophy professor. Only one gives a Canadian affiliation: Amini Massoud, a University of Saskatchewan mathematician.
If the subject were less tragic, we could enjoy this fresh proof that in academic life the combination of power-grabbing and impotence produces a vicious and ludicrous politics. Signers of the science petition proudly state: "I will attend no scientific conferences in Israel." (The ultimate punishment!)
An obscure University of Manchester professor, Mona Baker, has become famous by dropping Israeli professors from the boards of The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts, two tiny publications she owns and edits. She's proud to have taken such an audacious stand. When criticized she says, "I'm damned if I'm going to be intimidated."
A counter-boycott statement has been gathering hundreds of signatures. Its manifesto rightly asks those blaming Israel to understand that it is responding to unacceptable violence, unleashed after Israel offered to end the conflict with a major compromise at Camp David in 2000. The manifesto predicts that boycotts will be self-defeating: "For the Israeli public, a boycott reinforces the perception that it must fend for itself. Within the Palestinian community, it sends the message to the non-compromising extremists that their strategy of violence is bearing fruit."
All this results from the world's bizarre habit of judging Israel by higher standards than those applied to any other nation and then condemning it where it fails to meet these standards. At the same time, the world has decided not only that the Palestinians are oppressed but also that they deserve about 100 times as much attention as all other oppressed peoples combined.
Perhaps a subtle reason lurks behind these opinions. Perhaps the world so loves Israel that anything less than perfection registers as the gravest sin. It seems likelier that many of those behind the boycotts have found new ways to express old-fashioned anti-Semitism and free themselves of national guilt over treatment of Jews in the past. Their tone suggests that they delight in the chance to hate Israel while simultaneously appearing virtuous.