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Some British people may or may not have supported a boycott against Israel until yesterday (boycotts and attempted boycotts in England include those by their main journalists’ union and by a large academic union that has been disbanded and folded into another union that will be holding a similar vote shortly) but today they are united in anger. And what has united them? A Jewish Nobel laureate in Physics (1979), Steven Weinberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has declined to visit the UK. He wrote a letter to his hosts explaining his reason. As the Guardian describes it:

In the letter, the professor said his decision was triggered by an agreement by the National Union of Journalists at its national conference to boycott Israeli products.

He wrote: “I know that some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel, rather than generally against Jews.

“But given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-semitism.”

A spokeswoman for Imperial said it was “very sad” about the professor’s decision.

Prof Weinberg said the only other reason he could imagine for the boycott was the NUJ’s “desire to pander to the growing Muslim minority in Britain”.

Now do visit that article because it has a comments section at the bottom. While there are some who defend Israel and express strong opposition to boycotts of Israel, many Brits justify boycotts and attack Weinberg, falsely for accusing them of being antisemitic.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, Weinberg elaborated:

“I’m not calling on anyone else not to go to Britain…I don’t want to say I’m cutting ties with the U.K. – I love England. I just feel personally uncomfortable going with the atmosphere there at the moment. It’s increasingly hostile to Israel, especially in the intellectual world.”

…”I just felt this was too disgusting and I didn’t want to go there this summer,” Weinberg said. “I see in the British press and the BBC signs of a very strong anti-Israel bias – a kind of blind hostility that whatever Israel does, it is always in the wrong – so this is not an isolated action of a small group of anti-Semitic conspirators. This represents a widespread feeling among British journalists.”

Weinberg said he sent the letter before learning that 120,000 members of the University and College Union were asked to vote on a proposed boycott of Israeli universities at its annual congress in Bournemouth on Tuesday and before he knew about the call in March by 130 British doctors to boycott the Israeli Medical Association.

Weinberg said he is against boycotts, and specifically boycotts of Israel: “To boycott Israel today would be like boycotting Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hilter was complaining the Czechs were being unpleasant to the Germans in the Sudetenland.”

That Haaretz article has plenty of talkback comments and they are very telling. Some British are gravely offended. I suspect, though, that they weren’t so offended when their own institutions voted for boycotts.

In the next couple of weeks in England, a 120,000 member University and College Union will be voting on an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and academics while a group of physicians is also planning to vote for a boycott of Israeli doctors and health care facilities. Just to be clear for those who aren’t aware, Israel’s academic institutions are a bastion of free speech with numerous academics who openly criticize Israel. Also, for those who don’t know, back in 1967, there wasn’t a single Palestinian institution of higher learning while today there are several universities and about 20 community colleges. For the physicians, they would have to note that Israeli hospitals are a model of integration with Arab and Jewish doctors working side by side on both Arab and Jewish patients. Then again, it didn’t matter that Israel has a vibrant and free press when Britain’s National Union of Journalists voted for a boycott against Israel some weeks ago. If journalists who are supposed to report the news and report objectively behave this way, why would others behave any better?

Dr. Weinberg is in a position where his decision not to visit Britain at this time garners some attention. However, he isn’t boycotting England. He’s merely choosing not to visit that country because it makes him feel quite uncomfortable.

A country that has launched a war against Iraq where countless innocent civilians have been killed and where all political and social barriers have been swept away with active British participation, has prominent groups that would like to ignore their country’s own sins, other countries’ sins (think China with Tibet, Russia with Chechnya, etc.) and would prefer instead to boycott Israel, a country fighting for its survival. It is no wonder Dr. Weinberg feels uncomfortable. After all, the facts bear out a singling out of Israel that makes no sense whatsoever. Sometimes you’ll hear them say that because Israel is a democracy, it should be held to higher standards than non-democracies. That’s like saying that your priority should be to replace your worn out wipers instead of repairing the overheated engine because they’re more accessible. Others say that British support of Israel makes the British culpable and therefore responsible for its misbehaviors. Putting aside the question of whether Israel’s behavior is unacceptable or unlawful, how are the British not culpable for the many other ills in the Middle East? If anybody is, the British take the lead in the line.

What I admire about Dr. Weinberg’s actions is that he is not being vindictive or aggressive. He is merely staking a high moral position based on his personal feeling that an injustice is being done. He is not cutting off dialogue, but seeking to present it on his terms, not the terms of those who, illogically, single out Israel unfairly. This is the way to go. There are many citizens of Britain, as well as politicians, who do not see Israel negatively and who should be engaged by us. We should make them aware, however, that it cannot be on the terms set out by Israel’s haters because we won’t play along.

For an introduction to where large segments of British society stand with regards to Israel and to the Jewish people today, here is a worthwhile AJC sponsored survey. It is called Anti-Zionism in Britain and Beyond: A “Respectable” Anti-Semitism? by Alvin Rosenfeld.

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