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Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel

November 6, 2015 at 1:05 pm

On Tuesday, October 27, a full-page advertisement appeared in The Guardian, announcing the support of more than 300 UK-based scholars for an academic boycott of Israel. A week on, the list of supporters had grown to some 600.

Criticism from the usual suspects was immediate, with condemnation by the Israeli embassy in London, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC). Opponents of the boycott also expressed themselves in various op-ed columns and on The Guardian’s letters page.

Here I will suggest responses to the most common arguments advanced by critics of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and specifically its academic component.

What we need is dialogue – boycotts are counterproductive

This is one of the most common arguments heard against the academic boycott. It was found on The Guardian’sletters page, and voiced by the Israeli embassy, who claimed that “divisive boycott initiatives…serve only to sow hatred, alienating the sides rather than promoting coexistence.”

According to Rabbi Janner-Klausner in The Telegraph, “stamping out academic dialogue may feel cathartic, but it prevents the dialogue desperately needed to solve the present situation in Israel, and to satisfy the need for Palestinian self-determination.”

This kind of argument is based on a misunderstanding of both the nature of the academic boycott (it is not about ending conversations), as well as what is required to end the ‘conflict’ (the answer is not more conversations).

Boycott and ‘dialogue’ are not mutually exclusive; BDS campaigns typically provoke and stimulate profound exchanges, and encourage education and awareness-raising. It is not about closing down discussions; it is about accountability for, and ending complicity in, violations of a people’s rights.

The boycott exists because dialogue is not enough, and does not tackle the asymmetrical status quo. As Martin Luther King wrote in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

The idea that boycott, as opposed to some undefined ‘dialogue’, is unhelpful or counterproductive is often based on the suggestion that BDS only strengthens the ‘Israeli right’. However, this presupposes an alternative, credible ‘Israeli left’, which unfortunately just does not exist.

Labour MP Michael Dugher’s op-ed in The Jewish Chronicle is a case in point. Attacking boycotts as “misguided”, the shadow cabinet member proudly declared himself to be a “supporter of the Israeli Labor party” and critic of “settlements in Palestinian territories.”

So what of Israel’s ‘moderate’ opposition? Isaac Herzog, Labor party leader and head of the Zionist Camp, has declared himself “more extreme than Netanyahu” when it comes to “security”, and has backed the atrocities committed in the Gaza Strip.

Herzog’s last election campaign included Israeli army veterans praising him as someone who “understands the Arab mentality” and “has seen Arabs in all kinds of situations,” including “in the crosshairs.” His idea of a Palestinian ‘state’, meanwhile, is a blueprint for a Bantustan.

When assessing the effectiveness of the academic boycott specifically, it should not be isolated from the wider campaign of isolation and pressure of which it is a part. In the words of a group of anthropologists who back BDS:

Boycotts are effective. The boycott makes complicity with the status quo more burdensome for Israeli academic institutions. The boycott of Israeli institutions exerts pressure to motivate Israeli academics to demand policy change from their government.

Both supporters and opponents of boycott agree that Israel’s universities are significant, influential institutions. Imagine the impact they could have if they took a genuine stand; if they ended R&D programmes that produce weapons to kill Palestinians, stopped providing benefits for occupation forces, expressed support for Palestinian rights, went on strike, and so on.

Unfortunately, the reality is that nothing even remotely like these basic expressions of opposition to state crimes, or of support for Palestinian rights, has happened over the decades. The pressure of the boycott is the answer to these institutions’ ongoing, wilful complicity.

A boycott is an attack on academic freedom.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) upholds “the universal right to academic freedom”, and maintains that “the institutional boycott called for by Palestinian civil society does not conflict with such freedom.”

PACBI endorses what it describes as “the internationally-accepted definition of academic freedom as adopted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR).”

Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to face a decades-long attack on their academic freedom at the hands of their occupier. Professors and students have their movement restricted, while Palestinians experience discrimination and censorship in Israeli universities.

Thus while “Israel’s apologists wring their hands over a cancelled conference invitation, Palestinian academics bury colleagues and students killed by Israeli university-developed weapons.” The boycott “aims to create conditions in which true academic freedom is enjoyed by all scholars in Palestine/Israel equally, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.”

Israeli universities are not responsible for their government’s policies.

According to the critics, an academic boycott unfairly punishes Israeli universities and their members for the actions of the state. This is incorrect. Israeli universities are responsible for their own choices to assist, collaborate or be complicit in, state policies of colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.

The role played by Israel’s higher education institutions is well documented. This 2009report, for example, notes how “Israeli academic institutions have not opted to take a neutral, apolitical position toward the Israeli occupation but to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies toward the Palestinians, despite the serious suspicions of crimes and atrocities hovering over them.”

Examples abound. The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has boasted of the “tailored” programmes offered to the Israeli army and Ministry of Defense, while its scientists helped develop the bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes.

Tel Aviv University is proud of its role “at the front line of the critical work to maintain Israel’s military and technological edge”, with dozens of Ministry of Defence-funded projects. The university also participates in a settler-run archaeological dig in Silwan, occupied East Jerusalem.

The University of Haifa has “trained hundreds of senior officers in the Israeli Defence Forces” through “a special programme of graduate studies in national security and strategic studies.” Bar Ilan University offers teaching certificate scholarships to “outstanding fighters”, in order to harness their values “for the benefit of Israel’s next generation.”

Ben-Gurion University offered a special grant for each day of service to students who went on reserve duty during the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ assault on Gaza. Israeli universities similarly offered enthusiastic support for the ‘Operation Protective Edge’ offensive of 2014.

Hebrew University, meanwhile, has a joint programme with the Ministry of Defense for students heading to the army’s R&D units, who live in a special base located on campus. The university also works with the aforementioned settler-run archaeological dig in Silwan.

As for Ariel University, it is actually based in an illegal settlement in the Occupied West Bank. Settlements are a grave violation of international law, and considered a war crime.

Israeli universities are not just satisfied with supporting the state – they also are eager to defend its actions. A number of higher education institutions now offer hasbara courses, including Haifa and Tel Aviv – the former for Israelis, the latter for foreign students.

One Israeli scholar, while opposing BDS, described the belief in “a kind of cordon sanitaire [that] separates scholarship from the settlements” as “an inaccurate representation of Israeli reality.” She continued: “The entire nation is complicit in the occupation, and there is no safe haven in the libraries and laboratories within the Green Line.”

Whether it is the research dollar spent on a security algorithm, the professor serving guard duty as a reservist in the territories, or even the Bagel-Bagel snack (produced in Ariel!) purchased in a cafeteria, Israel’s educational network — regardless of the political persuasions of faculty — is already entrenched in the occupation.

Israeli academics in particular are vociferous critics of the government’s human rights abuses.

Expressing his opposition to the academic boycott last week, a University of Essex professor claimed that in his “interactions with academic colleagues in Israel”, he has found them to be “among the most critical of the treatment of Palestinians.”

This is another common argument against the boycott: letters in The Guardian last week described Israeli universities as “hot beds of antipathy to Israeli government policies” and “liberal institutions where all students and staff are at liberty to speak freely.” Pro-Israel activist David Hirsh claimed that “Israeli academics have always been central [in the politics of peace].”

Rarely is any evidence presented for this apparently remarkable dissent (in contrast to the copious evidence of their universities’ collaboration with the state and armed forces).

From 1988 to 1992, Birzeit University near Ramallah in the West Bank was closed by the Israeli authorities almost year-round. Other Palestinian universities faced similar repression. During that period, “the silence of Israeli universities was deafening.”

Jump forward some twenty years, and a 2008 petition supporting academic freedom in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – hardly a radical demand – was sent to some 9,000 Israeli academics. It was signed by 407 professors, or 4.5 percent of the total.

1,000 academics, meanwhile, signed a petition against the granting of university status to Ariel college (which ultimately took place). Even this protest, however, was motivated in part by the desire to protect Israeli academia from being identified globally with “the policy of settlements.”

Indeed, as Ha’aretz reported, a number of the academics actually working at Ariel University profess to having “distinctly leftist views”, yet “see no contradiction between their work place and their political positions” – some “were even pleasantly surprised when they discovered what it was like.”

‘Israeli-Arabs’ attend Israeli universities.

The fact that Palestinian citizens attend Israeli universities is not a stamp of approval for these institutions; they are not immigrants – it is their own country. To use this as an argument against the boycott, like other lines regularly trotted out (‘Palestinians work in settlements’, ‘there are Arabs in the Knesset’), manages to combine both irrelevancy and colonial condescension.

Yet, some BDS opponents make their case by describing Israeli academic institutions as “about as close to the embodiment of Arab-Israeli coexistence that the Middle East is likely to see” (with Haifa University cited specifically).

So let’s take Haifa, which has given preference to army veterans in its dormitory application process, thus excluding the vast majority of Palestinian students. The same university has also banned students from raising the Palestinian flag during demonstrations, restricted the activities of Palestinian student clubs, and tried to expel organisers.

These are not one-off incidents. Palestinian students routinely face “discriminatory practices and policies in Israeli post-secondary institutions.” One analysis of political cases heard by the disciplinary board in Haifa University between 2007 and 2012 found that “no Zionist or right-wing Jewish Israeli student was called before the board in that period.”

While Palestinians constitute some 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, according to the most recent statistics they make up 14.4 percent of Israeli university undergraduates, 10.5 percent of master’s degree students, and 5.9 percent of Ph.D. candidates.

A 2007 survey found that of 4,576 senior faculty members, 64 were Arabs, while just 23 of 8,558 administrative staff were Arabs. Data in 2013 showed only 2 percent of 174 senior staff members of state-funded institutions are Arab. Bar-Ilan University has two Palestinian senior faculty members.

Israeli universities conduct important and beneficial research.

A common objection to the academic boycott, in the words of another letter published in The Guardian, is that “Israeli universities are at the forefront of scientific research in countless fields.” But this is no grounds for opposing the boycott campaign.

Did the fact that the first ever human heart transplant took place in 1967 in Apartheid South Africa absolve that country’s regime of its crimes – or invalidate the boycott? Contributions to technological or cultural progress cannot exonerate a persistently criminal state from accountability.

An individual or entity responsible for an immoral or illegal act does not gain immunity from the consequences simply because he/she/it is also responsible for acts of great benefit – and it is hard to belief that those trumpeting the success of Israel’s universities would accept this premise.

Putting it another way, it is grossly irresponsible for Israeli universities to prejudice or jeopardise valuable academic endeavours by refusing to end their complicity in crimes for which they could, and should, be held to account.

The academic boycott singles out Israel.

Accusing the boycotters of a disturbing “selectivity”, one letter writer in The Guardian noted that “China occupies Tibet, India occupies Kashmir, Turkey occupies Northern Cyprus and Russia occupies Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

Another went even further, claiming that “a selective academic boycott aimed only at Israeli academic institutions,” and “not at universities and research institutes belonging to other countries with equally bad or far worse records of human rights abuse” is simply “discriminatory.”

In fact, as the organisers of the initiative pointed out, “all boycotts are selective” – but this “does not mean that they are morally tarnished.” They continued:

If the demands of ‘consistency’ lead to the claim that nothing can be done unless and until everything is done, then passivity is bound to be the result. This, in relation to Israel, is surely what the critics intend.

At any given time, there are dozens of active consumer boycott campaigns with a host of state and corporate targets. Meanwhile, Western governments – including the UK and European Union – currently enforce sanctions and embargoes for a number of countries.

Thus in reality, Israel is ‘singled out’, but for diplomatic protection and impunity, military partnerships and aid, preferential trade deals, and institutional and governmental cooperation.

Furthermore, in the words of Nelson Mandela, boycott is “a tactical weapon”, not “a matter of principle.” The academic boycott of Israel is part of a broader campaign, called for by Palestinians, based on a persuasive assessment that Israel is vulnerable to this kind of pressure.

Palestinians ‘single out’ Israel because it is Israel who has expelled, dispossessed, colonised and occupied them. Are Palestinians uniquely prohibited from appealing for and receiving solidarity? Does anyone accuse Tibetan solidarity campaigners of disturbing selectivity in ‘singling out’ China?

A boycott based on nationality is discriminatory

PACBI explicitly rejects “boycotts of individuals based on their identity”, and makes it clear that “mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is…not grounds for applying the boycott.”

However, they continue, if “an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.”

The boycott has nothing to do with discrimination; rather, it is about “academic organizations…using the power that is at their disposal, namely the freedom to dissociate from institutions that are complicit with the illegal Occupation and that facilitate the oppression of Palestinians and other groups in Israel.”

The academic boycott is antisemitic

The claim that the academic boycott is ‘antisemitic’ is sometimes stated explicitly – including with Nazi comparisons – while on other occasions, it is the unspoken implication of the accusation that Israel is being ‘singled out’ (the former version at least has the merit of honesty). There is also a (slightly) smarter variation: that the boycott is antisemitic ‘in effect’, if not in intent.

In 2013, an Employment Tribunal dismissed a case brought by a pro-Israel activist, represented by a prominent lawyer, who claimed he had suffered antisemitic harassment in the University College Union, in the context of efforts by Palestine solidarity campaigners to advance an academic boycott.

Much to the chagrin of his backers, who included two Members of Parliament, the judges described the activist’s claims as “without substance” and “devoid of any merit.” Another attempt to accuse academic boycott supporters of “racism” in the courts, this time in Australia in 2014, alsofailed.

Some of the signatories to the academic boycott statement launched last week have responded to the implications or accusations that their stance make them “antisemites and equivalent to Nazis” as “deeply offensive as well as intellectually and morally vacuous.”

Rather than casting slurs of antisemitism, advocates of universal human rights would do better to engage with the reasons why the violation of Palestinian human rights has become a matter of grave, international concern, and why a campaign of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israeli institutions is now an urgent necessity.

That campaign, including the academic boycott, is backed by a number of Jewish groups. Ahead of a forthcoming vote by the American Anthropological Association on a pro-boycott resolution, grassroots U.S. group Jewish Voice of Peace has spoken of being “heartened by this effort at the AAA to stand for human rights and social justice.”

In conclusion

The case for an academic boycott of Israel is based on the following three, key points.

  1. The facts of Israeli colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.
  2. The complicity in and role of Israeli academic institutions in the aforementioned crimes.
  3. The call and support for BDS as a tactic from Palestinian professors and students.

Opponents of the boycott always deny or ignore at least one of these elements – and often all three. In particular, however, what is the significance of so many BDS opponents simply ignoring the call from Palestinian professors and students?

This act of omission is instructive because those arguing against the boycott often explicitly position themselves as ‘friends’ of the Palestinians and ‘understanding’ of their plight – and yet in framing their argument in such a way, do not engage with or even mention the Palestinian boycott call.

‘Palestinian civil society’ is not some monolithic bloc, but the facts are that groups and unions representing Palestinian academics and students are calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. To ignore this appeal by the colonized is a telling act of erasure and silencing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.