Israel’s French Friends

Weekly Standard, January 27, 2003

ON DECEMBER 16, 2002, as a routine meeting of the Conseil d’Administration of Paris VI University drew to a close, a rump contingent of the administrative counsel seized the rare opportunity afforded them by the absence of their colleagues, most of whom had already departed for the holidays. The group — computer scientists and medical researchers, mostly — was suddenly and mysteriously seized with a desire to dabble in foreign policy.

They swiftly passed a motion lamenting the fate of the Palestinians and urged the European Union not to renew its cooperation agreements with Israeli scientists, researchers and universities. The boycott motion had not been on the counsel’s agenda; it was discussed with only 33 of the group’s 60 members present; it passed by only 22 votes. Had the motion been institutionalized, Israeli researchers of all political persuasions would have been thrown off European scientific committees and banned from European academic conferences. Israelis would have been barred from contributing to European academic journals. Cooperative international research projects led by Israeli scientists — including, for example, projects concerning water resource management, cancer treatment, desalination and regional disease eradication would have been cancelled; Israeli exchange students in Europe would have been sent home.

Of course, since Israeli universities are centers of scholarship not only for Jews but for Arab Moslems, Arab Christians, Druze and students of other ethnicities, non-Jewish casualties would have been inevitable, but then, the sponsors of the boycott resolution surely reasoned, one must break eggs to make omelettes. The motion contained no parallel call for the boycott of Palestinian universities or the exclusion of Palestinian scientists, nor any condemnation of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets, nor indeed any mention of these terrorist attacks.

Despite their understandable eagerness to deplore brutal military occupation in faraway lands, the academics, puzzlingly enough, 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. (Given the board’s preoccupation with blithely ignored UN resolutions, this oversight is particularly puzzling.) Nor did they petition to rupture the EU’s scientific ties to Russia to protest the occupation of Chechnya, even as the rubble that once was Grozny continues energetically to bounce. The British occupation of Northern Ireland was ignored, and curiously, not one single board member proposed to return his own pay check, resign his own tenure, or suspend cooperation with himself to protest recent French incursions into the sovereign nation of Ivory Coast.

One begins to suspect the unimaginable.

The motion proposed by Paris VI depended upon suppressed but nonetheless obvious premises. Among them are the following. First: Israel is the world’s foremost 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 censure or blame for the Palestinians’ misery is to be accorded the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian academics, Palestinian universities (themselves notorious terrorist training grounds), or any other confrontation state in the Middle East. Fourth: When considering the occupation, there is no need to discuss, no less deplore, the unrelenting and indiscriminate Palestinian terror campaign, on Israeli soil, against Israeli civilians, that began directly after Yasser Arafat rejected an unprecedented Israeli offer for territorial compromise — one that, had it been implemented, would have brought an end to the occupation. Assuming that these suppressed premises are accepted, we now reach suppressed premise five: It is right and proper for scientists and intellectuals to be punished collectively for decisions made by their governments. And six: The board members of French universities, who are neither elected by the people nor appointed to the task of making foreign policy by an elected government, should insert themselves, with all the grace of a hammerhead shark, into delicate, complex diplomacy in the globe’s most volatile regional conflict. Finally, seven: The world will be grateful for the French academy’s pronouncements on this issue — or any other issue, for that matter. These unspoken premises range from the ludicrous to the dubious to the patently false.

When word of the motion emerged, protests predictably ensued. I saypredictably, but members of the board at Paris VI of course declared themselves shocked, dismayed and deeply hurt to discover that the world was not quite so impressed by the grandness of their moral vision as they had hoped. 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!” Why she should have been surprised at all, no less scandalized, is a mystery; she might have recalled, for example, the case of one Mona Baker, the Anglo-Egyptian director of the Center for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who took the hygienic measure of dismissing two researchers from her journal — a publication entitled, richly enough, The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication— because they were Israeli. Baker added that she would no longer accept articles from Israeli researchers, nor would she permit books originating from her private publishing house, St. Jerome, to be shipped to Israeli institutions. The inevitable occurred: Critics pointed out that Baker’s actions were repellent in two dimensions; first, inasmuch as they implied that Israel, a reasonably free and functional democracy surrounded by thuggish, dictatorial neighbors, should be accorded the pariah status of a North Korea or an Iraq; second, in so far as they constituted a grotesque violation of academic freedom. Then the equally-inevitable occurred: Baker declared herself shockedand deeply hurtto find herself accused of anti-Semitism. She was not, she insisted, “against Israeli nationals per se; only Israeli institutions as part of the Israeli state which I absolutely deplore.” Whether it is anti-Semitic to deplore a state comprised by definition of Jews is something of a semantic question, and not one which should distract us here; the point is that French academics were, like Baker, taken aback to discover that the world did not appreciate their Great Humanitarian Gesture quite so much as they had hoped.

French academics in opposition to the boycott were led by Bernard-Henri Levy, a popular public intellectual who, when not appearing on television to discuss the finer points of French philosophy and foreign policy, dabbles in cinematography; he is known for directing a soft-porn film starring his own wife. BHL, as he is called, launched a petition denouncing the motion that swiftly attracted more than 21,000 signatories. The document seemed dispiritingly wide of the mark, however, focussing as it did on what seems an inessential element: By and large, BHL argued, Israeli academics tilt to the left, and therefore cannot be held responsible for the policies of the Sharon government. True, but not really the point, is it? Nonetheless, signatures accrued; the list was embarrassingly long and the signatories embarrassingly prominent. The timing of the boycott motion was particularly humiliating to the Chirac administration, which has been attempting delicately to position itself as a voice of reason and maturity in all things Middle Eastern. Jewish students protested; the Israeli ambassador expressed his indignation. (Arab students demonstrated as well, just to be sure no opportunity for demonstrating was missed.) The whole business was shaping up to be quite the embarrassment for la France, which no doubt caused considerable displeasure to an Elysée Palace keen to accuse Americansof the dreadsimplicisme.

Undeterred by their colleagues’ experience of opprobrium and keen to leap into the cannon’s mouth, administrators at Pierre and Marie Curie’s sister university, Paris VII, placed a similar motion on their own administrative agenda. The debate on the resolution was to take place on January 7 — this last, a nice touch in terms of timing, the discussion being scheduled to take place directly on the heels of the stabbing of a prominent left-wing Paris rabbi by a racist hoodlum and a double-suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that left 22 dead. (Not irrelevantly, many of the dead, like many of the academics who would have been affected by the proposed boycott, were neither Jews nor Israeli citizens. It is an interesting fact that those who favor collective punishments tend historically to evidence a nasty indifference to hapless bystanders.)

But upon returning from their vacations, senior French government officials, properly appalled by the academicians’ shenanigans, presumably passed a discreet but icily firm word to the universities’ administrators that this nonsense was to come to an immediate end. Their indignation is easy to understand: French officials, as the poet Nelson Ascher observes, are too cynical to indulge in anti-Semitism. France seeks to play a major role in world politics; given that it has no hope of expressing this aspiration through military might, it must do so through diplomacy. To have any influence in the Middle East, France must at least appear to be an honest broker. But if French universities are seen taking it upon themselves to boycott Israel, the pretence of neutrality becomes hard to maintain, particularly since French universities, unlike American ones, are under the control of a highly centralized government. More to the point, French politicians, unlike French academics, are still capable of shame. The government was well aware that particularly coming from France, with its bleak historic record of participation or acquiescence in the destruction of European Jewry, such a motion was apt to appear to the world to be precisely what it was: unconscionable and repellent.

The Chirac government sought publicly to divorce itself from the motion as swiftly and completely as possible: Over the course of a single day, a carefully choreographed series of statements: Education Minister Luc Ferry described the motion as “inappropriate;” the National Education Ministry indicated its hope that French and foreign universities might amplifytheir exchanges; the Foreign Ministry took pains in a press conference to disassociate official France from the caprice of a few misguided academics. Shortly thereafter, the mayor of Paris denounced the motion as a “shocking act and a tragic error;” Jack Lang, the socialist deputy of Pas-de-Calais, declared that “Israeli universities are oases of tolerance, fraternity, freedom and democracy” and that “the proposal for a boycott is an act that encourages fanaticism and obscurantism.” For good measure, the Quay d’Orsay reminded the press that “French authorities do not feel bound by the decisions of Paris VI university,” and Le Mondepublished an editorial deploring the motion.

And thus the resolution at Paris VII was never put to debate at all. University president Benoît Eurin, no doubt having been reminded exactly who pays his salary, declared the motion to be incompatible with the University’s charter, and issued a press release that rather irrelevantly paraphrased, without credit, Winston Churchill’s comment that democracy is the worst system possible save all the others. The announcement of the motion’s timely demise was buried in a very urgent communiqué about the university’s legal and moral obligation to complete asbestos removal before the year 2005. As an afterthought, the board of directors observed that judgments on the suspension of scientific exchanges with Israeli universities were outside the institution’s realm of competence, and, in compliance with Article 3 of the January 26, 1984, Law on Higher Education, the board was in favor of reinforcing Paris VII’s scientific cooperation agreements with all the universities of the world. The motion in favor of staying the hell out of foreign policy from then on was passed with 39 in favor, six against, and an abstention. (Readers will be relieved to know that the asbestos resolution was adopted with 41 votes and four abstentions — there, at least, is one principled stand of which the French academy can be proud.)

At first blush, the dismissal of the motion seems a characteristically French resolution to the problem, reminiscent of the judgement upon the lawsuit aimed at banning Oriana Fallaci’s feisty book about Europe and Islam, The Rage and the Pride.The French judiciary declined to take a stand on the essential problem — whether French courts should be in the business of banning books — and instead dismissed the suit against Fallaci on purely procedural grounds. But a closer examination of the statement issued by Paris VII reveals that the board did not really base their decision on a procedural point at all. They claimed first that the issue was beyond the counsel’s competence (Note to clerics: No fatwas!), but in appealing to the law of 26 January 1984, they appealed to its plain meaning (We’re French, if you’ve read this far, and we believe in the right things!). The law states that the university is committed to diversity of opinion and freedom of speech; but the law, as it happens, says nothing about proceduresat all. If the resolution in question had called for an improvementin relations with Israeli scholars, the board surely would not have declined to endorse it, nor prevented it from being debated, on procedural grounds. In any event, following Paris VII’s press release, the administrators at Pierre and Marie Curie University clung bravely to the mast of principle for all of five minutes, then followed suit by renouncing its initial resolution, also on quasi-procedural grounds, thus bringing the story to an ignominious close.

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