As the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by Palestinian groups in 2005, has grown, some strategies and targets have attracted more controversy than others. The academic boycott campaign is one which is still rejected or viewed with ambivalence by some who would otherwise support other forms of boycott, such as goods produced in West Bank settlements.
Before looking at the specifics of the case for an academic boycott, it is important to place it in the context of BDS as a whole, a campaign the tactics of which are increasingly adopted internationally in response to a call from Palestinians for civil society action to help end Israeli impunity and contribute to the realisation of the Palestinians’ rights. At the heart of BDS is the reality of Israeli apartheid and exclusionary policies, a direct link between these crimes and the need for accountability, and the principle of international solidarity.
The same logic is at play when it comes to the question of the institutional complicity of Israeli universities with colonisation, occupation and apartheid, of which there are numerous examples (useful information can be found in this 2009 study).
The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, for example, has strong ties to the Israeli military and defence manufacturers, including drone-specialists Elbit Systems. Technion’s researchers’ list of credits includes the development of a remote-controlled bulldozer for use by the IDF in the Occupied Territories.
Tel Aviv University, meanwhile, has boasted of its role “at the front line of the critical work to maintain Israel’s military and technological edge”, citing both “classified” research, as well as “55 projects” funded by the R&D Directorate of the Ministry of Defence. Tel Aviv University campus includes land belonging to Sheikh Muwannis, a Palestinian village ethnically cleansed and destroyed in 1948. The faculty club is the home of the former village sheikh.
At the University of Haifa, the National Security Studies Centre talks about “a special programme of graduate studies in national security and strategic studies” that “has by now trained hundreds of senior officers in the Israeli Defence Forces” and is the reason for “a warm and active relationship” between the university and the IDF. At Bar Ilan University, one joint initiative with the government grants teaching certificate scholarships to “outstanding fighters” in order to harness their values “for the benefit of Israel’s next generation”.
These are just a few of the many ways in which Israel’s academic institutions collude with the state in the colonisation of Palestine: “The entire nation is complicit in the occupation, and there is no safe haven in the libraries and laboratories within the Green Line.” This reality is at the heart of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, launched in 2004, with its call for boycott joined by the general BDS declaration the following year.
There are a few consistently-raised objections to the academic boycott campaign. One such issue is the claim that it constitutes an attack on academic freedom. Firstly, it is unclear why the institutions of academia should be exempted from the same questions of complicity and responsibility that other sectors of society face. Leading boycott activists Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki have addressed this question directly:
We think that the freedom that Israeli academics appear keen to preserve is the freedom to continue being scholars, i.e. to have an uninterrupted flow of research funds, to continue to get grants to be released from teaching, to take sabbaticals, to continue to be able to write, engage in scholarly debate, and to do all the things respectable academics are supposed to do. But can they or should they be able to enjoy these freedoms (which sound more like privileges to us) without any regard to what is going on outside the walls of the academy, to the role of their institutions in the perpetuation of colonial rule?
The reality for Palestinians under military occupation means numerous restrictions on the ability of faculty and students to conduct academic life, including the permit regime and obstacles to freedom of movement. Just recently, Israel’s High Court supported the state’s refusal to allow Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to attend West Bank universities. It is these attacks on ‘academic freedom’, part and parcel of Israel’s apartheid regime, which BDS strategies are intended to challenge.
A second, frequently heard objection is that academic boycott targets, harms and alienates the most ‘progressive’ sector of Israeli society – professors committed to Palestinian rights and a ‘just’ solution. But this is not an accurate picture. From several thousands of Israeli academics, sporadic initiatives aimed at defending, for example, the right of Israelis to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories, typically gain the support of a few hundred individuals (see this petition).
In fact, when Israeli academics have protested against government policies, it is often in the context of defending themselves or their colleagues, including concern for how Israeli academia will be viewed internationally. So in 2008, protests about restrictions on Palestinian students from the West Bank being allowed to enter Israel for studies were expressed in terms of both “academic freedom” and, in the words of Hebrew University professor Moshe Ron, that the policy helps “those who are trying to impose an academic boycott on Israel”.
The same argument has been deployed in the case of Ariel settlement’s college, where those opposed to it being granted university status have claimed that the upgrade “makes [the anti-boycott] case much more difficult to make”. Prof. David Newman, who has “spent much of [his] time during the past five years rebutting attempts by foreign academics to impose an academic boycott on Israel”, is similarly worried about the impact of the current struggle over Ben Gurion University’s Politics Department.
Sadly then, the dissident role of Israeli academia is exaggerated (both disingenuously, and also by wishful thinking), particularly when it comes to challenging and resisting the systematic and institutionalised mechanisms of Palestinian displacement, subjugation and dispossession. A few may genuinely speak up against apartheid, but the majority are silent, or worse. Even Meretz and Labour-voting ‘leftists’, for example, have no problem teaching in a West Bank colony.
A third charge is that the academic boycott campaign is hypocritical, given the links enjoyed by UK (or US, etc.) universities to national militaries, arms companies and other human rights abusers. This is a version of the ‘But what about X’ argument routinely deployed to attack BDS and ignores the fact that BDS, including academic, is a strategy (not a principle) being pursued in light of a call from Palestinians. Furthermore, BDS initiatives on campuses can often end up feeding into, and strengthening, efforts to challenge domestic militarism and links with imperialism and war profiteers.
Fighting against the boycott
Despite the academic boycott campaign being in its infancy, it has already caused enough concern so as to prompt different forms of pushback. As early as 2006, there was a meeting between Britain’s then-education secretary Alan Johnson and Israel’s education minister “to discuss anti-Israeli sentiment on university campuses” and an academic boycott in particular.
Two years later, the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange partnership (BIRAX) was established, with media reports noting how the initiative’s focus on “junior academics” was “not coincidental” and aimed at influencing the boycott debate in the unions. Announcing further funding in 2010, UK Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis said that support for BIRAX was “a tangible example of [the government’s determination to oppose boycotts against Israel”.
Another example of pushback is the establishment of Israel studies centres – “a different way to fight academic boycotts“, in the words of Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Academic boycott initiatives have, according to professor Ilan Troen, director of the Israel Studies Centre at Brandeis University, influenced positively “the willingness of donors to give funds toward this cause”.
With significant amounts of money and resources being invested in combating an academic boycott through various initiatives, campaigners know that they face an uphill battle, but one that is an important part of global Palestine solidarity.
At a Knesset committee meeting in May attended by a delegation from the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council (LSC), the Chief Scientist at Israel’s Ministry of Science, Prof. Ehud Gazit, related how “during the dark days of the beginning of the calls for boycott”, he went to a conference at the University of Nottingham where he found “no dispute, no boycott”, nothing “about the conflict”, and Israel “portrayed as a normal country”.
Unwittingly, however, Gazit here points to the significance of the boycott campaign. There is nothing ‘normal’ about military occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism – and as long as Israel continues such practises, then an approach of isolation and accountability must be our response to the Palestinian call for solidarity.