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LONDON — “It could happen here” is the shorthand phrase frequently used for a variety of alarming hypothetical scenarios. “How could this happen here?” was the question more pertinently asked in Britain recently, as its universities witnessed the unfolding of an all-too-real and perplexing action.

In early June, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), Britain’s largest academic union, with 67,000 members, passed a motion to sever ties with all Israeli professors and institutions of higher learning unless they publicly dissociate themselves from “continuing Israeli apartheid policies.”

The motion was subsequently revoked; but the fact that it was put forward at all is astonishing enough.

Indeed, the union’s call for a wholesale boycott contravened its most fundamental values: the principle of academic freedom, openness and exchange; protection of research from state politics; and the fundamental right to free speech. The motion implicitly adopted the yardstick of collective punishment and a distinctly McCarthyite tone, demanding a sort of “disloyalty oath” from Israeli academics.

What has led the putative guardians of democratic freedoms to embrace measures so reminiscent of fascist and Stalinist tactics? Unfortunately, NATFHE’s effort is part of a larger phenomenon.

In 2005, the Association of University Teachers called for a more limited boycott, singling out Bar Ilan and Haifa Universities for opprobrium. Before that, a petition, signed by roughly 80 prominent British intellectuals and a few from other European countries, demanded the cessation of European Union funding for Israeli cultural projects and institutions. These campaigns, encouraged by Palestinian groups and nongovernmental organizations, have been accompanied by individual acts of professional ostracism, and an informal boycott of Israeli scholars, publications and cultural projects already exists in some European circles.

Such developments suggest an advanced and deeply disturbing trend, whereby certain segments of the European intelligentsia are willing to violate their own beliefs to target one state for unique stigmatization; and whereby insidious and sometimes illegal forms of discrimination against that state’s citizens are increasingly seen as acceptable.

In a certain ideological mind-set, Israel is perceived not as a political entity, susceptible to prevailing standards of judgment, but as an almost allegorical force, the symbolic center and source of the globe’s evils and ailments. Of course, Israel has been guilty of both bad policies and political sins. The occupation of Palestinian territories has had terrible consequences, and it is necessary to end it. But in today’s intensely charged climate, the Middle East has become a kind of ideological projection screen, a magnet for tendencies to demonization and idealization.

In the putatively “radical” interpretation, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is rarely seen as a conflict between two groups with sometimes tragically opposed interests. Rather, the stubborn complexities of the situation are reduced to a stark struggle between absolute power and absolute powerlessness, the archetypal oppressor and archetypal oppressed.

The rhetoric applied to Israel becomes ever more extreme, and conducive to hatred. Phrases like “apartheid state” and “Zionism is racism,” unthinkable in liberal discourse a few years ago, have become routine.

At the same time, the Palestinians become objects of romanticized identifications — one of the leaders of the NATFHE motion was seen, prior to a meeting, draped in a Palestinian flag — and unwitting condescension. They are seen as the last pure cause, the entirely innocent “Other,” unimplicated in their fate and apparently deprived of political agency or choice.

The possibility that the Palestinians are capable of deliberate decisions, that they have adopted policies that may have contributed to the current situation, or that they have exercised their own forms of power and violence, is, in this framework, never admitted. Hamas was never mentioned in either of the university union’s motions.

This is Manichaeanism of the left, and, like Manichaeanism of the political right, it can distort reality to the point of becoming divorced from it.

Certainly, the boycott efforts ignored basic facts. Unless British academics are ill informed, they know that Israel, far from being an “apartheid state,” has a large proportion of Arab citizens; that Israeli universities are well integrated, in some cases with considerable numbers of Arab students, as well as a number — admittedly small and insufficiently representative — of Arab faculty; that many universities sponsor collaborative projects with Palestinian and Arab colleagues; that they are often sites of dissidence against government policies; and that such dissidence, even in radical forms, is tolerated.

Advocates of discriminatory measures often charge their opponents with stifling legitimate criticism of Israel. This argument is both disingenuous and dishonest. Many of the boycott’s critics are also critical of Israel. But credible criticism must be based on evidence — and on generally applicable criteria of judgment. If the British unions wanted to be ethically consistent, they should apply the same strategies to universities in the numerous countries where human rights are brutally abused and free speech suppressed.

Some see this hostility to Israel as camouflaging old-fashioned anti-Semitism. It is always risky to speculate about hidden motives; nevertheless, systematic disparagement of Israeli society and culture undoubtedly encourages the sense that anti-Semitism, too, is a permitted prejudice. It is always easier to see a group or nation as a malevolent “Other” when this impulse is fed by an old, and still potent, prejudice.

There is a deeper issue at stake. Democratic societies depend not only on the foundational principle of free speech, but on the character of political thought and conversation among various constituencies. When the supposedly most enlightened and liberal of those constituencies resorts to illiberal discourse and intolerant measures, tendencies toward bigotry and ideological irrationality are reinforced.

The actions of the British academic unions have Israel as their obvious target. But their main effect may be an erosion of reasoned debate and civil conduct, without which democracy is powerless against the forces of polarization and extremism.

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