SINCE 1759

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Partial Juries
Boycott Journalists Boycotting Israel

At its Centenary Annual Conference earlier this month, the British National Union of Journalists passed a resolution by a vote of 66-54 “committing the 35,000-member union to boycott Israeli products, while demanding that sanctions be imposed on Israel by the British government and the United Nations.” The union called the boycott, in General Secretary Jeremy Dear’s words, “in response to the situation in Palestine and last year’s conflict in Lebanon .” Has the union lost its mind?

There’s nothing wrong with institutional boycotts. There’s a list of wrongs when the boycotting institution represents journalists (or academics). Individually, journalists have the freedom to do as they please (within limits: some news organizations forbid their reporters from taking part in political demonstrations on their own time if the politics somehow intersect with the reporter’s beat). Institutionally, reporters’ allegiance should be to no one, and nothing, but the truth they’re reporting on, which means no fear or favor (to quote the old Timesian line) of or for any side, up to and including so-called enemies. When Peter Arnett and Harrison Salisbury reported from behind enemy lines, they weren’t being disloyal. They were being factual—a concept most American news organizations have a hard time understanding in times of war, which is why honest reporting about al-Qaeda, Iran , Hezbollah and the rest of America ’s laundry list of enemies is so scant.

Then there’s the self-evident matter of bias. Good chunks of the British press is criticized for being biased against Israel . The criticism is unfair. If American reporters are whorishly pro-Israel, British reporters tend to whore on the side of the factual (I have in mind the Independent, the Economist, the Guardian, the BBC, ITN). It’s not that difficult. In matters such as the Lebanon war, the occupations and Israel ’s compulsive belligerence toward Arabs, Israel needs no help making itself look bad. It does a terrific job on its own. But for a reporters’ organization to officially take sides and declare an actual boycott turns the tables. It discredits the reporters’ organization. And in this case Israel is made to look like the victim of bias while the issues British journalists ought to be reporting about Israel become tainted by their union’s posturing.

The irresponsibility is vast, considering the circumstances. A British journalist, the BBC’s Alan Johnston, has been in presumed Palestinian captivity since March. Yet the union chooses to boycott Israel . Palestinian journalists were more on target: they boycotted the Palestinian government and demonstrated against it for three days this month. The British union managed to lump in Alan Johnston in its reasoning for the boycott, further illustrating the resolution’s sprawling, incoherently thought-out swagger that includes this bit from Dear, indefensible for a journalist: “The boycott call has nothing to do with reporting. The NUJ is not telling members how to report Israel —beyond its permanent injunctions to members to report independently and fairly on all matters, and not to produce racist or discriminatory copy. The union has not and never would adopt a line on how any issue should be reported. We stand for free reporting and free speech – and we criticise those, including the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, when they act against journalists’ freedom to report.”

In that case, the union should criticize itself. Just as incoherent is the statement’s claim that “this is not, as some critics have indicated, an institutional boycott.” Then what is it? What is a resolution bearing the institution’s name and passed officially by a majority of its voting members? Might as well say that the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council are just so much window dressing (not the best analogy: those resolutions are window dressing most of the time; the UN building on 42 nd Street in Manhattan is nothing but windows.) “Members,” Dear’s statement carried on, “who disagree with the decision can attend their branch, pass motions and seek to change the decision. The NUJ is a democratic union and it is the delegates at our conference each year – elected representatives of all the union’s branches – who make the decisions.” That reversal vote should have happened yesterday.

This isn’t the first time a sizeable British institution goes the boycotting way against Israel . Five years ago Steven Rose, a brain scientist who’s held a chair at Britain ’s Open University since its founding in 1970, launched a boycott of Israeli academics. This is a guy who devoted his career to defending the integrity of scientific research against abuses, political abuses especially. Yet here he was leading an international petition drive to boycott scientific and cultural exchanges with Israel . His reasoning wasn’t wrong. “The Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders,” he said at the time, and he was right. But he was wrong to boycott the one set of channels that could make a difference by enabling communication between Arabs and Israelis. However legitimate Rose’s concerns, “ Israel ,” the journal Nature noted in 2002, “is a research powerhouse that, given an eventual improvement of relations with its neighbours, could rejuvenate science and development in the region through collaboration and training.” Science depends on open communication. So does journalism.

If it’s effective boycotts scientists and journalists are looking for, they could start with their own backyards. Scientists could boycott their own defense industries—quit working for them, quit lapping up at their troughs—whose products end up causing so much of the damage in Lebanon and Palestine . They could boycott their own governments that contract with those defense industries, facilitate the arms trades, enable Israel ’s repression by condoning, encouraging and financing it. Imagine an American movement against Israel ’s friends in Congress and the American defense industry, against the kind of “aid” Israel has been receiving (as have so many repressive countries on America ’s recipients’ list). Better yet for journalists, they should spend a little more time reporting about those bottomless pits of favors at taxpayers’ expense and less time posturing about their own self-righteousness. Maybe then journalists’ credibility would rise a bit, and Israel would be come a little less “impervious to moral appeals.”

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