On the Academic Boycott of Israel

Academics don’t like academic boycotts. In fact, we detest external limits of any kind. We treasure our own universities for offering precious sanctuary for critical debate (even though they rarely do) and we don’t like to see any of them banned, even for ostensibly laudable reasons. Sure, universities in some countries are little more than fig leaves for their regimes. But that’s not usually their fault. So we avoid the lectures of state hacks rather than denounce them and we protect the universities so that they can nurture that rare point of light.

Still, in very exceptional cases, an academic boycott comes onto our agenda. This happens when a country’s universities are recognized as central players in legitimizing a regime that systematically inflicts massive human rights abuses on its own people and any pretence that the universities are independent fortresses of principled intellectual thought becomes too insulting to the human conscience. But since universities in many oppressive regimes fit those criteria, in practice a second condition is required: their faculties have the freedom to act differently.

In democratic countries where human rights abuses abound as rampantly as in Israel, it is not tenable that faculty entertain and promote the notion that their institutions — cranking out the architects and professional foot soldiers of occupation — have no role in those abuses and can join in mixed company as fine upstanding members of the international scholarly club. It is especially not tenable when universities themselves perpetrate discrimination in their research and their grants and admission policies. University faculties are supposed to hold their institutions accountable to basic standards of objectivity, fairness, and non-discrimination. Where they are capable of acting on those standards and refuse, the hack becomes the hypocrite. Moral paralysis becomes moral culpability.

On this reasoning, back in the 1980s offended foreign academics launched an academic boycott of apartheid South Africa, whose universities were finally rightly identified as bastions of white supremacy and whose white faculties, privileged by racial democracy, could be held accountable. Similarly, we now see a boycott of Israeli universities being urged by, among others, Britain’s University and College Union. Israeli academics, naturally enough, are appalled by the idea of a boycott and the Israeli government is worried that the idea is gaining momentum. Hence an Israeli academic delegation has to come to England to wage battle against the boycott, and all the old banners once waved by apartheid’s defenders — ‘academic freedom’, ‘balance’, ‘proportionality’ — are being waved again in this one.

Israeli academic arguments are indeed too reminiscent of apartheid South Africa to escape the comparison. Especially, South African academics trying to defeat the boycott typically avoided discussing the abuses of apartheid. Israeli academic arguments against the boycott also do not discuss the reason for it, which is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the subjugation of almost four million civilians under military rule. Instead, they stress the need for ‘balance’ — which, in Israeli parlance, is a code word for shifting attention entirely away from the occupation to reiterate a tired canon of Israeli innocence, victimhood, and deniability. And because they do not discuss the occupation, they do not address their own universities’ responsibility for it.

Whatever our conceits of political neutrality, academics never work in a vacuum. In conflict zones, our work is as inherently political as any other activity. For example, let us briefly suspend disbelief and accept Ben-Gurion University Professor Zvi Hacohen’s claim, cited in Ha’aretz (15 May 2007) that ‘there is widespread cooperation between our universities and Palestinian and Jordanian universities’, although he does not specify what this ‘widespread’ cooperation is. His argument is hardly supported by Palestinian faculty, whose only public voice on the question has been to support the boycott.

But in any case, he cannot pretend that such collaboration is apolitical when Palestinian research partners are held captive under draconian military rule by his own government and the occupation is wrecking their families’ hopes and lives, their institutions’ viability, and their entire community’s basic safety. Nor can he pretend that his own university is politically neutral when it subsists partly on privileges gained by such appalling human rights violations and conducts research designed to preserve and strengthen those privileges.

Ignoring such complicity is not neutral: it is enabling. It promotes a veneer of normalcy over a ghastly human rights situation and so helps shelter it from scrutiny.

Israel’s defenders in this controversy also protest that a boycott violates the moral economy of academic work. ‘Communication, understanding and international collaboration is what this field is all about,’ said Professor Miriam Schlesinger of Bar Ilan University, who was asked to resign from the board of a translation journal because she is Israeli. Yet the ethic of communication, understanding, and collaboration with Palestinian universities is precisely what Israeli universities have unacceptably abandoned. Instead, Israeli scholars are casually allowing Palestinian institutions to crumble on their doorsteps, at the hands of their own government, while they themselves share elevated discussions in the paneled salons of Oxford and Cambridge.

A third argument is that a boycott is too sweeping, punishing Israel’s intellectual progressives along with nationalist reactionaries and passive enablers. Schlesinger even calls it ‘collective punishment’ — an unfortunate reference, since Israel’s occupation and brutalization of some 4 million people is often denounced as collective punishment and the phrase suggests, again, that peculiar Israeli interpretation of the word ‘balance’. Yet collective punishment is wrong where collective responsibility is lacking. Palestinian civilians in a refugee camp are not capable of controlling and therefore not responsible for what some militants do to resist occupation, and resisting occupation is a human right in any case. Israeli professors have the capacity to take a stand against human rights abuses furthered by their own institutions and therefore have the moral responsibility to do so.

Hence it is also false moral symmetry for Dr. Schlesinger to equate her right to serve on the board of an academic journal with the right of Palestinian students to university education. She was denied her board position not just because she is Israeli but because she is complicit, through the privileges and power she enjoys through her nationality and her job, with a brutal occupation. Palestinians are being denied their right to education solely because they are not Jews. The former ban, even if controversial, is a moral gesture; the latter ban is a racist one.

A fourth argument is that Israel is being unfairly singled out. For example, since the US and Britain have recently teamed up to kill, or cause to die or be killed, hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, surely a better case can be made for boycotting them. This argument trips over the grave of South African apartheid, however, for South Africa attempted the same claim of proportionality and the world had none of it. For one thing, state sins are not measured by death counts alone, nor are they ranked by their measurable gravity. If they were, we would focus on just one conflict at a time.

For another, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip is not a foreign policy gone wrong. The entire Israeli state system — its laws, its policies, its ideology of Jewish statehood, the privileges that serve its Jewish-national society — is implicated in a grand demographic strategy to exclude, imprison, and subjugate some 50 percent of the state’s own territorial population solely on the basis of their ethnic identity. This distinguishes Israel from other states behaving badly by casting it into the particular moral abyss of an apartheid state.

And there’s the rub. The small but growing international boycott of Israel signals that the political ground is shifting — that its occupation is sliding conceptually, if not yet legally, into an apartheid model. The UN International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines ‘the crime of apartheid’ as ‘inhuman acts’ similar to apartheid, such as ‘the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups’ by denying ‘the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality [citizenship], the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association’. The Convention particularly prohibits any measures ‘designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos’.

If this package does not sound like Israel’s military rule over Palestinians, it is hard to imagine what apartheid outside South Africa would look like or how the Convention might ever be applied again.

Israel hotly rejects the apartheid analogy, of course, partly on grounds that Palestinians are not a racial group but a national or ethnic group (defined in the negative, as non-Jews). Also, Palestinians are not supposed to be Israel’s citizens, but rather are considered citizens of some nonexistent state that may exist some time in the future. But no one looking at the dismembered and walled West Bank enclaves now left to the Palestinians can imagine that these prison camps are intended to constitute a state, and the distinction between ethnicity and race in this context is losing all meaning. The A-word is everywhere now, and the boycott is one signal that the apartheid paradigm is seeding broadly into international civil society. Israel’s hapless academics are fast losing ground fast to its growth.

Because they are in denial about the horrors of the occupation itself, Israeli academics protesting the boycott may not grasp its real purpose, which is to force them to confront those horrors. It is not acceptable for them to insist on ivory-tower privileges with so terrible a human rights catastrophe as the occupation stark on their doorstep, perpetrated by their own government and involving their own institutions in its cruelties and deceptions. When Dr. Schlesinger protests that being treated according to her nationality rather than her individual character ‘was a blow,’ she misses the entire point. To claim a right to principled treatment, one must extend it to others. Israeli academics must become serious about according their Palestinian colleagues the dignity and respect they expect themselves. When they do, given their formidable talents and resources, the occupation will face its toughest opponents.

Virginia Tilley is a US citizen now working as a senior researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. She is the author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock.

Related Links

  • Boycott the Israeli Academy Now!, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (26 May 2007)
  • BY TOPIC: Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions