NEW YORK CITY, New York, Jan. 9th, 2018 — The vocal BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign calling on student unions and business enterprises to boycott Israeli universities and companies has become a feature of many campuses. But is it having any effect? Ambassador Daniel Taub represented Israel in the United Kingdom, widely regarded as the ‘hub’ of the campaign against Israel, argues that on the simplest level it has been extremely unsuccessful.
“The campaign calls for breaking off trade and academic ties with Israel” says Taub. “But during my years in London I’ve seen UK-Israel bilateral trade double, and our academic links deepen and broaden considerably. That’s on top of the governmental cooperation which is becoming more significant every day.”
At the grass roots level, Taub also considers that the boycott campaigners, while vocal, lack widespread popular support. “Most British people want to build bridges not block them” he notes. “In those instances when people have tried to disturb performances by Israeli musicians or theatre companies the audience is not supportive at all”.
But that does not mean the campaign is having no effect at all. Taub notes that while the declared boycott has not produced tangible results, it has helped fuel what he calls a “passive boycott”. By this term he means a reluctance on the part of universities and cultural institutions to host Israeli events for fear of intimidation or even violence by aggressive anti-Israel campaigners. “This is nothing less than cowardice in the face of academic hooliganism,” argues Taub, adding that this should be of major concern not only to Israel but to anyone who cares that “some University administrations have lost sight of the fact that they are custodians of an important academic space that deserves to be cherished and protected”.
Rejecting boycotts does not mean silencing criticism of Israel, says Taub. He argues, “If I’m not able to engage with students on campuses how am I expected to hear their concerns?” He adds: “The goal of a university must be to allow informed and honest discussion and debate. This requires a certain degree of trust. Students will benefit most when speakers have the confidence to share their dilemmas and discuss their own failings honestly. That can’t happen in an atmosphere of intimidation.”
Confronting the passive boycott, which is often hard to identify, is not easy. Taub’s embassy has made it a matter of principle to push back against attempts to silence Israelis wherever it may happen. When George Galloway, MP for Bradford West in Yorkshire, declared his constituency “an Israel-free zone”, Taub and his embassy staff travelled to Bradford, displaying their Israeli passports. Opening a lecture in Bradford before Moslems and Jews alike. Taub joked “The only good boycott to come out of Yorkshire is [legendary cricketer] Geoff Boycott”.
Taub dismisses the argument that boycotts are the only way to protect human rights in the region. “It clear that human rights are not the real concern here. If you’re only protesting about human rights in one situation, and ignoring other, far more acute cases elsewhere, that’s not human rights, it’s politics”. Taub also points to the composition of the boycott coalition which unites extremist from the radical left and from radical Islamist groups. “That coalition is remarkably fragile”, he notes, “like all coalitions that define themselves negatively rather than positively. If you say to them: I know what it is that you are against, but what are you for? Do you support women’s rights? gay rights? freedom of speech? Then the coalition just falls apart”.
What is Taub’s main message to students thinking of joining the call for a boycott? “The need for a positive vision. We have enough negative energy already in the Middle East. We don’t need you to send us more. If you truly want to bring about change, think positive. Be part of the solution.”