If the criterion for boycott is that the boycotted country should be worst country, as John Chalcraft would have it, then the case for the academic boycott of Israel is flimsy.
But not everybody agrees that the boycotted country necessarily has to be the worst country. Marion Hersh responded to an Engage request for candidates’ responses prior to the UCU elections, and I revisit this because it’s apposite and engages with, rather than evades, the arguments. She said (excerpted from a longer statement):
” Currently there are organisations in most countries which could justifiably be boycotted. I would therefore suggest that making choices about boycotts is a question of strategy and tactics rather than fairness. To my mind it should not necessarily be a case of choosing the worst offenders (and how do you choose them, there are so many?), but looking at what will be effective both in terms of the specific issue and in terms of strengthening UCU with regards to its ability to campaign more generally as well as on the specific issue.”
I find this problematic because it glosses the processes through which UCU decides what to campaign about. Say that UCU comes to a conclusion that it should “campaign on a specific issue”. Presumably this conclusion would be reached through precisely those processes of evaluating, comparing and prioritising the relative severity of that issue in relation to all others which Marion seems to dismiss. And you’d imagine that this kind of assessment would necessarily contribute to a weighting – tacit or explicit – applied to the issues in order to identify a shortlist. Marion’s point is that, within this shortlist the chosen issue must be both ethically compelling and at the same time ripe to be able to benefit from the particular type of activism which UCU can muster.
This seems at first to be common-sense pragmatism of “hit them where it hurts” – for example, boycotting Sudan over its failure to act against genocide would be futile, and epitomise of ivory-towerism, because university activity is all but non-existent in Sudan. However, this doesn’t on its own make her point, which would only stand if boycott were the sole course of action available to UCU. But it isn’t; UCU can do more than boycott and when Marion argues that other measures have failed she really needs to back this up. As her argument stands, it’s akin to suggesting that UCU start its selection process by deciding which issue would be the best candidate for its pièce de résistance, the boycott.
As for her assertion that such decisions are a “question of strategy”, this is extremely dodgy, instrumentalising people’s lives and careers as it does for some putative higher aim (getting at the US? Keeping Jews from getting above their station? Who knows – these higher aims are almost always opaque and known only to the string-pullers).
No, it’s impossible to get round the necessity of discriminating on an ethical, rather than tactical basis.