The academic boycott of Israel was the theme of a discussion at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) this week. An event organised by the student union and hosted by SOAS Palestine Society attracted a large audience as part of the campaign to secure a yes vote to join the growing list of academic institutions that are boycotting Israel.
The campaign for an academic boycott of Israel was started in 2005 by Palestinian civil society as a means to put pressure on the government in Tel Aviv until it complies with international law and respects Palestinian rights. Since then it has gained momentum by drawing support from hundreds of individuals and institutions around the world, including the renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking.
The effectiveness of the campaign can be seen by the way that major international bodies are also heeding the call. The EU, for example, has announced that its new guidelines should prevent Israeli universities, companies and projects based in illegal settlements from receiving European funding.
The vote at SOAS looks set to be positive as hundreds of students gathered to listen to two leading campaigners for justice in Palestine: Professor Illan Pappé of Exeter University and Dr Karma Nabulsi from Oxford University. Both made a very strong case for a boycott, stressing the central role that universities play in every such struggle around the world. Last October, Exeter University voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution to boycott Israel, with the largest turnout in the history of the institution; 86 per cent backed the resolution.
Prof. Pappé is one of the "new historians" from Israel and the author of numerous articles and books on the Palestine-Israel conflict, including "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine". He opened his argument for SOAS to join the boycott movement by citing the victory at Exeter, a university, he pointed out, which has a fox hunting society, an indication of its conservative nature. "If Exeter can do it then SOAS can surely do it," he said.
He went on to state why an academic boycott is an important component of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a whole and how it can be made more effective. "An academic boycott exposes the double-speak and exceptionalism that Israel enjoys in pursuing its criminal policies on the ground," he told the audience. "They have to be mentioned because not every university, unfortunately, is joining the BDS movement."
Pointing to the strengths of the BDS movement, Prof. Pappé made some suggestions for its improvement. BDS, he said, is part of the much wider Palestinian struggle for justice and no one should undermine it. "There is however a danger of neglecting other aspects of the Palestinian struggle, such as the plights of Palestinian refugees, Palestinians in Israel who are treated as second class citizens and Palestinian representation."
A factor that the BDS movement needs to consider is the lack of tangible results on the ground. BDS is gaining incredible support around the world but has had little impact for Palestinians. "What is the connection between boycott and the daily life of Palestinians?" asked Pappé. "There is a gap between a shifting public opinion against Israel and reality on the ground for Palestinians. How can we narrow the gap between shifting negative global opinion towards Israel and the dire situation faced by Palestinians?"
With the events in Paris dominating the media and the question of free speech coming under intense scrutiny, the history professor insisted that BDS is an issue of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. He noted the hypocrisy of the French government, which has outlawed BDS and pro-Palestinian demonstrations, amongst other acts which grate against Jewish sensitivity. "We need to reverse the sacralisation of Israel and its symbols and insists that BDS is our right to freedom of expression," stressed Pappé.
Moreover, he suggested that the terrible events in Paris has also undermined the Zionist narrative. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was criticised for exploiting the incidents to score political points when he said that Jews are under threat in Europe and should move to Israel. "This underscored the redundancy of the Zionist narrative," claimed Pappé. "Europe will not stand by while Jews are threatened."
His final point was directed specifically at Israeli academics who have forgone their academic responsibility and objectivity and allowed themselves to become an instrument of power; a tool for the Israeli government to justify and facilitate its ongoing occupation of Palestine. "We boycott the Israeli academics for the knowledge they produce. They are a pillar of the Israeli occupation and the type of knowledge they produce sustains the occupation; we need to remind them that their knowledge is sustaining a rogue state."
Dr Karma Nabulsi is an associate professor in Politics and International Relations. She stressed the importance of an institution like SOAS joining the academic boycott and described how it is a major component in the overall battle for justice in Palestine. "It is an old and successful tactic used many times in history, but in the case of Palestine it also serves to raise awareness."
Stressing the snowball effect of BDS, Dr Nabulsi said that one of the main goals of the movement is to educate people about the nature of Israel's occupation. "When people are informed they become keen to join the BDS campaign," she claimed. "We need to mobilise, raise awareness and strengthen ranks by bringing more people into the BDS campaign."
Having served previously as an advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Nabulsi was involved in the Oslo negotiations. She pointed out that one of the unique features of the Palestinian plight is the gap between legal rights and reality. "We need to make people aware of the minimum legal rights of the Palestinians, such as their right of return under international law and how far they are from achieving even the most basic of their legal rights."
Dr Nabulsi ended her short presentation with a resounding statement reminding students that justice belongs in the university. "Imagine who's not with you, and think how you can reach them and make BDS a mainstream issue; and note that the struggle for Palestine is a remarkable cause as it raises those who take part in it."
The campaign in SOAS is a microcosm of similar efforts around the world; organisations and institutions are outraged sufficiently at Israel's actions to join the BDS movement. A classified Israeli government report claims that the boycott will only get worse from Israel's perspective as institutions like the EU are making a clear connection between diplomatic relations and economic ties. Taken to its logical conclusion, this can only push Israel into a downward spiral of more boycotts, more divestment and more sanctions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.