The Magazine

Israel's French Friends

Yes, there are some.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By CLAIRE BERLINSKI
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AS A ROUTINE MEETING of the board of governors of Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris drew to a close on December 16, a rump contingent of the board seized the opportunity afforded by the absence of their colleagues, most of whom had already departed for the holidays. The group--computer scientists and medical researchers, mostly--passed a motion lamenting the fate of the Palestinians and urging the European Union not to renew its cooperation agreement with Israeli scientists, researchers, and universities. The boycott motion had not been on the council's agenda; it was discussed with only 33 of the group's 60 members present; it passed with just 22 votes.

Still, consider the project almost two dozen academics at the distinguished University of Paris VI (as the school is formally known) were pleased to support: Under their proposed boycott, Israeli researchers of all political persuasions would be thrown off European scientific committees and banned from European academic conferences. Israelis would be barred from contributing to European academic journals. Cooperative international research projects led by Israeli scientists--on such topics as water resource management, cancer treatment, and regional disease eradication--would be cancelled; Israeli exchange students in Europe would be sent home.

Of course, since Israeli universities are centers of scholarship not only for Jews but for Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druze, and students of other ethnicities, non-Jewish casualties would be inevitable, but then, the sponsors of the boycott resolution surely reasoned, one must break eggs to make omelettes.

Despite their eagerness to deplore brutal military occupation in faraway lands, the academics missed a few easy calls--there was no appeal for a boycott of Chinese scholarship to protest China's occupation and cultural genocide in Tibet, for example; nor did the board lobby to sever European ties to Indian scientists in protest of the occupation of Kashmir. The British occupation of Northern Ireland was ignored. Not one board member proposed to return his own paycheck and resign to protest recent French incursions into the sovereign nation of Ivory Coast. One begins to suspect a suspiciously selective sense of indignation.

The premises underlying the boycott proposal were unspoken but obvious. First: Israel is a pariah state and the most deserving object of any right-thinking academic's opprobrium. Second: The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is manifestly illegal and unjust, and the cause of Arab animus toward Israel, rather than vice versa. Third: No blame for the Palestinians' misery is to be attached to the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian academics, or Palestinian universities (themselves notorious terrorist training grounds). Fourth: When considering the occupation, there is no need to discuss the unrelenting and indiscriminate Palestinian terror campaign, on Israeli soil, against Israeli civilians. Fifth: It is fitting for scientists and intellectuals, teachers and students, to be punished for decisions made by their governments. And finally: What the globe's most volatile regional conflict really needs is for the board members of French universities to insert themselves into the mix. These premises range from the ludicrous to the dubious to the patently false.

When the motion was reported, there was a predictable uproar. Predictable, that is, to everyone but the board members, who declared themselves shocked, dismayed, and deeply hurt that their Nobel prize checks were not already in the mail. Biochemist Anne-Marie Leseney, who voted for the motion, remarked indignantly to the French press that "in the mail which I receive, they treat me like an anti-Semite; I am scandalized!" Alas for Leseney, being scandalized is something of a spécialité de la maison for French academics.

Opposition to the boycott was led by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the popular public intellectual who, when not appearing on television to discuss the finer points of French philosophy, dabbles in cinematography (he directed a soft-porn film starring his own wife). BHL, as he is styled, launched a petition denouncing the motion that swiftly attracted more than 21,000 signatures.