Four days ago, the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz published a de facto interview with Larry Summers, the ex-president of an ex-employer of mine:
Summers, along with Stanley Fischer (an equally Jewish ex-teacher of Summers at MIT and an outgoing governor of Bank of Israel), was recently named as the most promising candidate to replace Ben Bernanke behind the steering wheel of America's central bank. He is bullish on the U.S. (and Israeli) economy, predicting a 3% growth by the end of the year and his answers don't unambiguously prove that he would accept Bernanke's job.
But the most important part of Summers' answers to Haaretz were his opinions about Stephen Hawking's boycott of a presidential conference in Israel. It shouldn't be shocking that Summers chose to publicly react because the "president" from whom the adjective "presidential" is derived is no one else than Shimon Peres, a long-time friend of Summers'.
It's been reported that Noam Chomsky and a few comrades were behind the pressure that led Stephen Hawking to the boycott which is why Summers may want to start to bring some ethical principles back to his town, Cambridge Massachusetts, before he chastises a famous physics professor in the other Cambridge.
I know both men rather well, admire them (although, if I weren't afraid of being insulting, I could say that in recent years, Summers the economist sometimes sounds like Paul Krugman light: I actually do remember Summers the warrior against a spiralling debt rather well), have spoken to Summers many times and, have touched Stephen Hawking ;-) (although being a co-author of Andy Strominger who's been a co-author with Stephen Hawking might be counted as a more intimate path towards Stephen Hawking; no, I haven't fainted in his office yet).
The men would probably agree with one another – and with your humble correspondent – if they discussed feminism and related topics. But needless to say, Summers is right when it comes to boycotts.
Summers says that the right path towards the resolution of things that we see as offensive is a debate rather than ostracism. Academic interchange shouldn't suffer just because this suffering may be used as another tool of political pressure. Except for extreme circumstances. Right. Moreover, Summers disagrees with the idea of singling out Israel – a country that surely doesn't look like an exceptional black sheep in the context of the Middle East where brutal human right violations, chemical weapons, and beheading are on the daily schedule.
I totally sympathize with his second argument and I do agree with most of the first one, too. Well, there exist contexts in which politics and the law are "at the top" and the scientific interactions are nothing else than "examples of trade and aid" that may be uniformly banned if a rogue state could benefit from those things. On the other hand, it's very problematic if such boycotts are invented by individuals or "cliques" in separate industries such as science and it's counterproductive if interactions that may only bring people closer, and not further, and that don't represent a tangible physical threat are discouraged. After all, the freedom that our nations and their governments guarantee for researchers are among the things that make us better than some... other nations (not to mention our own nations in the Middle Ages).
Needless to say, these debates about the right way to criticize Israel are completely academic from my viewpoint because as far as I can say, a politically sensible person in Europe or America should think about the optimum ways to strengthen and extend Israel – to add "Palestine", Syria, and Lebanon to its territory as first three steps, for example – instead of thinking about ways to harass this island of relative freedom and reason in the ocean of unrestricted violence and medieval brainwashing.
Moreover, the boundary between anti-Israel proclamations and bad ol' anti-Semitism is very subtle.
I would say that anti-Zionism is just the "politically correct" label that contemporary anti-Semites (sorry, Jews, your being Jewish doesn't mean that I can't count you as elements of this set! In fact, due to some characteristic Jewish masochism, many of you are among the near-leaders of the set!) like to use for their attitudes whose beef is still the same. Also, I have carefully studied the evolution of anti-Semitism here in Central Europe of the 1930s. It did start with various selective regulations that encouraged non-Jews to treat Jews differently (less pleasantly) and the gas chambers were largely inevitable end points of this journey. This whole journey is unacceptable for me from the very beginning and I think that it's an ethical rule to treat Israel on par with any other similarly large (e.g. European) democratic country that is comparably advanced. Anything else is more or less manifest anti-Semitism.