Student Union Silliness

by Benjamin Studebaker

So apparently some people at Oxford’s student union want to boycott Israel. I disapprove strongly of the way the Israeli state treats its Arab citizens and the Palestinian population it keeps stateless. Nonetheless, I am opposed to this idea, and I want to explain why.

To understand why it is wrong for the Oxford student union to boycott Israel there is a question one must know the answer to–what is the role of a university student union? Why do universities have them in the first place? Well, why does any union exist? Unions exist because their members have something in common. They are all employees or members of some given institution or industry. So what about the Oxford case? Well, all members of the Oxford student union are students at Oxford, so their union must exist to defend what interests Oxford students share.

What kind of interests might those be? Maybe it’s making the university listen to student feedback, or getting a building built or a service created that students desire, or reducing tuition fees, or what have you. Students may not all necessarily agree on what their collective interests are, but they do have a collective interest of some kind, difficult as it is to divine. In the same way, a truck drivers’ union protects the common interests of truck drivers (perhaps it’s their wages, or their time off, or pensions, or what have you). Truck drivers don’t all agree on what the interest of truck drivers is, but they have a common interest, at least in theory, and it is worthwhile for them to work together and argue and debate among themselves in an effort to use collective bargaining to pursue that interest.

You know what would be really stupid though? If the trucking union started campaigning on behalf of conservative Christian groups. Why would that be stupid? Because that is not an interest that all truck drivers share, certainly not one they share simply because they are truck drivers. Some truck drivers are Muslim, or Jewish, or atheist, or Hindu, or what have you. They do not pay union dues to the trucking union so that the union can support religious or political positions that they don’t share. They pay union dues so that the union can protect their shared trucking interests–their wages, pensions, time off, and so on.

The Oxford union is proposing doing something very similar. Support for Israel or opposition to it is completely unrelated to being an Oxford student. There might be more Oxford students who lean one way or another, but their leaning is not grounded in their being students. It’s usually a pre-existing opinion. Maybe they developed the opinion at the university, but that would be as a result of exposure to new ideas, not because being at Oxford is intimately associated with a pro or anti-Israel point of view.

If anything, boycotting Israel is against the Oxford student interest. Students benefit from free and open discourse with people from other countries whether they agree or disagree with the governments of those countries. It wouldn’t matter if Israel were North Korea–Oxford students could benefit a great deal from free exchange with their North Korean brethren. Access to research, access to ideas, to opinions, all of these are not only good, they are necessary for productive academic work. So not only is the issue not directly related to being an Oxford student, but a boycott could indirectly harm some students.

In a sense, the Oxford union is considering acting in the very way that Israel does–it is taking positions on issues where its members do not share a common interest. Is this not what Israel does by being a Jewish state? Arab Israelis are citizens of Israel, but they do not share an interest in Israel being a Jewish state. In so far as Israel uses their tax money to promote Judaism, they betray their Arab citizens. Being Israeli does not entail being Jewish, and a Jewish interest and an Israeli interest are not synonymous. Many Arab Israelis have an interest in the success of Israel; they do not have an interest in the success of Judaism in Israel, and have no reason to promote it. If the Israeli state is to do what states do, which is to work in the social interest of their people as a whole, it can only consider the actual material interests of its people and what furthers them, not their religious beliefs or personal lifestyle choices, at least not in so far as the latter do not conflict with the former.

While it’s possible that someone’s lifestyle choice or beliefs could diminish said person’s ability to contribute to the state and to society (I certainly don’t think that this is the case with respect to non-Jewish Israelis, but think of say, reckless bankers or drug addicts), there’s no reason to believe that Oxford students who interact with Israel or Israelis are harming the university or their fellow students. They may be offending them, but offence does not qualify as harm, unless we are going to embrace an illiberal way of doing things and make John Stuart Mill turnover in his tomb.

Of course, the Oxford union isn’t the only student union that behaves illiberally. My own undergraduate university union banned Bacardi rum on the grounds that Bacardi funds an organisation that seeks to undermine the Cuban government. It had no business doing so, and not because of the politics of whether or not Cuba is a good state, but simply because a student at my university has no stake derived from being a student in that outcome. Whether Bacardi funds insurrection in Cuba or not has no impact on someone merely because of student status. It is not in the union’s domain to advocate an interest that has nothing specifically to do with its members.

Now, we all have to pay taxes to the state even though it does things we disagree with all the time, but the state’s domain is much larger. It has to:

  1. Reconcile disputes among interests internally in an effort to find and protect the social interest.
  2. Protect the shared interests of its people as citizens externally in the foreign arena.

It is conceivable that the people of a country would have an interest in the success or failure of the Israeli or Cuban states simply by virtue of being part of that country in question, even if many of its citizens disagreed about what that interest was. In that case, the Israeli state is more similar to pensions or wages for a trucking union–it has something to do with what the union was instituted to handle. Some Americans opposed entering World War II–they had a conception of the American interest, but it happened to be the wrong one, and, fortunately, they lost the debate. We may often disagree on what our interests are, but we have shared interests, so we can debate them and decide on them as political communities, as states.

Student unions do not seem able to comprehend that they exist to serve the very specific and limited student interest, that that interest does not entail doing the job of the national government. Oxford’s union should leave it to the British state to determine policy with respect to Israel. Those students at Oxford who care, one way or another, should write, petition, make speech, and interact or refuse to interact with Israel as they so choose individually (or even in lobbying groups, provided membership is voluntary), but they are wrong to attempt to commandeer an organisation that exists to defend students for their personal political ends, and every other student union that acts as such is similarly wrong.