The Academic Boycott of Israeli Universities
Lecturer, Department of Government
London School of Economics
26 May 2007
An international, non-violent movement supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions regarding Israel is gathering strength. The Oslo Process, which began so optimistically on the White House lawn in September 1993, has failed to resolve the long-standing Israel/Palestine conflict. World leaderships have been manifestly incapable of delivering viable political solutions anywhere in the region. Israel continues to settle and occupy Palestinian land in defiance of international law. In this context, people in many parts of the world are increasingly coming to the conclusion that global civil society must raise its voice. Given the seeming inadequacy of letters, petitions and demonstrations, it is understandable that many are seeking more effective forms of engagement.
The question for academics, which will be posed in the United Kingdom at the inaugural congress of the University and College Union this week, is whether they should vote to put their weight behind this international movement, and refuse any longer to do business as usual with Israeli academic institutions. What is at stake is not the boycott of individual Israelis, nor their subjection to some political test, but the withdrawal of institutional collaboration with Israeli universities. In practical terms, this implies the refusal to participate in conferences or research sponsored or co-sponsored by Israeli authorities or universities; withdrawal from and opposition to institutional level cooperation with Israeli universities; opposition to the award of grants by the EU or other international agencies to Israeli institutions, and refusal to serve as referees for publications based at Israeli universities.
In coming to their decision, those academics who have not already made up their mind will be weighing up the best arguments on both sides. The best arguments against the boycott are obviously not those most easily exposed as propaganda. In this category must be included the erroneous claim that Palestinians themselves are against the boycott. In fact, the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), The Coalition of Political Parties in Palestine, The Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), The Palestinian BDS Campaign and the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign have all endorsed the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions in general, and the specific motion before the UCU in particular. When opponents of the boycott make the propagandist claim that Palestinians support them, they only make themselves look foolish.
Also propagandist is the claim that the Israeli universities have a track record of trenchant criticism of Israeli violations of international law and human rights, and have been important supporters of Palestinian national self-determination. In fact, no Israeli academic body or institution has ever taken a public stand against the military occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, now in its fortieth year, nor have academic institutions or representative bodies of Israeli academics criticized their government’s longstanding siege of Palestinian education. On the contrary, the handful of Israeli academics – of an academy thousands strong – who have courageously attempted to subject conventional Zionist narratives to critical evaluation, have been hounded and harassed. The noted historian Ilan Pappé is the latest casualty of this kind of harassment, and has effectively been forced out of Israel altogether in order to continue to pursue his profession. Whatever we deem the proper role of the University in relation to state and society to be, it is very difficult to deny the fact that the Israeli academy has systematically provided and continues to provide different kinds of intellectual, linguistic, logistical, technical, human, and scientific support for an ongoing military occupation and paramilitary settlement activities in direct, long term violation of both international law and the historic right of Palestinians to self-determination. Particularly pertinent in this connection is that Israeli universities have never engaged in serious or sustained public opposition to the infrastructural degradation of Palestinian education at all levels, the destruction by Israel of educational buildings and equipment, the killing and injuring of students and others, and the checkpoints, border controls, land seizure, and the illegal separation Wall which place significant obstacles on academic and educational activity.
In my view, the charge that those supporting a boycott are anti-Semitic will not be among the best or most significant arguments of boycott opponents either. I do not see that those who are honestly engaged in seriously weighing up the arguments of either side among the academic community will be impressed by those who resort to vilifying them. The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions includes Jews and non-Jews, stands against racist prejudice of all kinds, and refuses the determinist and arguably anti-Semitic notion that all Jews by nature must identify with and be implicated in Zionism and its atrocities. The charge that international civil society levies against Israel is that while claiming to be a beacon of democracy in an authoritarian region, it is in fact a state founded on discrimination. Whether that discrimination is ethnic, religious, or racial in character is a matter for fine debate, but this discrimination privileges Zionist-Jews, and subordinates and dispossesses Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. The latest phase of this fundamental discrimination has been compared by many – the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, former US President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and South African government minister Ronnie Kasrils among them – to the system of apartheid set up in South Africa. Many will note that it was precisely in regard to apartheid, where world leaders failed to act, that a movement of international civil society, supporting boycott and sanctions, played an important role in bringing about the end of a system now universally reviled as racist and oppressive.
Neither propagandist claims about Palestinian attitudes, tall tales of Israeli academic rectitude, nor the increasingly cheapened charge of anti-Semitism will win the debate for the opponents of the boycott. More significant are those who admit Israeli crimes and atrocities, and even own up to the complicity of Israeli universities, but argue that a boycott by academics is wrong-headed and counterproductive. Wrong-headed because you cannot support academic freedom as a universal value, while withdrawing it for the citizens on one nation, particularly as there’s no real basis for singling out Israel in a world where atrocities are committed by Syrians, Saudis, Russians, the Chinese, not to mention the British and the Americans. And counter-productive because what is needed, and what academics are actually good at, is dialogue and engagement, not boycott, and if you hit Israelis with a boycott, you’ll only intensify their rejectionism.
In my view, these are serious arguments against the boycott, and they may well persuade some serious people. Nonetheless, such arguments misread the meaning of the boycott, and fail to grasp the political and historical situation. Their weakest point is the claim that a boycott is counterproductive. This argument has to deny or ignore the enormously powerful example of South Africa. In this case, the international boycott movement had a tremendous impact in raising consciousness about apartheid and disrupting the ways in which governments, businesses and cultural institutions did business as usual with the racist government. This consciousness and institutional disruption played an important role in the breakdown of the oppressive system. Israel, like South Africa under apartheid, considers itself a part of the West. Israelis have precious few substantial nonviolent ties to the region into which they intruded by force. They do not look to Damascus or Mecca, but see Europe and the United States as their cultural, economic, and political partners and interlocutors. This is crucial. It means that unlike in Syria, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, it is not at all easy to depict a Western boycott as an imperialist plot that means little in terms of existing patterns of everyday existence. The fact is that if Israeli expansionism and apartheid was widely recognized and condemned as such in the West, and if this recognition involved some significant institutional disruption, then some significant progress on the ground would be inevitable. This is partly because governments would have to act, and partly because some substantial proportion of ordinary Israelis would demand positive change. A boycott of Iran, or Syria, would not have the same effect, because both these countries expect opposition from Western countries, and regularly ascribe it to imperialism, racism, arrogance or all of the above. Anyone involved in the boycott can testify from personal experience that the publicity involved in any single such act is enormous, and that Israelis are seriously concerned about the enormous potential of such a movement. In short, the boycott is productive, empowering and exciting because it raises consciousness with singular effectiveness and involves the actual disruption of business-as-usual with fundamentally unjust institutions.
It is common to hear those accused of some crime deflect attention from their case by claiming that others are guilty too. This is the gesture made by apologists who say, ‘Why single out Israel?’ Whether or not there are other states quite like Israel – and it is far from clear that there are other heavily militarized, nuclear-armed, expansionist apartheid states with no declared borders, extensive illegal settlement, land-seizure and wall-building activity, and a decades-long occupation on their hands – it remains the case the Israel has singled itself out for a boycott. Of course there are other violators of international law on the international scene. There is no reason to exclude other boycotts a priori. As Nelson Mandela wrote long ago, the use of the boycott is a tactic and not a principle, and the case for each must be made on its merits. None of this weakens the case for a nonviolent, international movement regarding Israel. To say it does is simply special pleading: ‘Do not bring me to justice because others have committed crimes!’
One cannot fail to note in this connection that other conflicts bequeathed by settler colonialism have made real progress in the 1990s and 2000s. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, has been moving towards power-sharing and a version of democracy. South Africa, in one of the most hopeful and inspiring changes of the last decade, became a state for all its citizens in the mid-1990s. Why not Israel too? In reality, while aggressively claiming the moral high ground against all-comers, Israel has regressed rather than progressed regarding the most basic goal of building a state for all its citizens. If Zionism is not racism, then what’s the problem with one person one vote?
The point about academic freedom remains to be addressed. In my view, if one refuses to privilege Israeli academics over their Palestinian counterparts, then it becomes clear that the situation at present and for decades past has involved the radical denial of academic freedom to one group (the Palestinians) as a result of the actions and activities of the other (Zionist-Jews). The point of the boycott is to end this vicious discrimination and the massive and structural violation of academic freedom involved. This is something that will weigh with all academics genuinely concerned about academic freedom. In other words, shorn of privilege and prejudice, the boycott stands full square behind academic freedom, criticism, and what Edward Said called speaking truth to power. Indeed, in my opinion, the boycott will encourage those Israeli academics critical of their universities’ complicity on the one hand and their government’s policies on the other, to speak out, and it will give protection to those who are willing to engage in free and uncoerced academic debate, not least the Palestinians. In these ways, those who support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions are encouraging criticism, debate, and an end to Israeli expansionism and apartheid in general, and the destruction and siege of Palestinian education in particular.
In my view, therefore, the best arguments of the boycott’s opponents fail. It seems to me that it is the precisely the right time to examine our consciences in regards to doing business-as-usual with Israeli academic institutions. Far from being wrong-headed and counterproductive, it is the appropriate course of action, and as the movement grows, will start to yield important results.