Academic boycott: In support of Paris VI


In April 2002, following the Israel’s “operation” in Jenin, first calls for institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities appeared in England and in France. The British petition called to freeze European Union contracts with Israeli university as long as Israel continues its present policy. What started as the individual voice of concerned academics, has become lately a formal resolution of a French university. The Administrative council (board of Governors) of the prestigious Marie Curie University-Paris VI issued in its meeting of December 16, 2002 the following resolution:

“The Israeli occupation of territories in the West Bank and Gaza renders it impossible for our Palestinian colleagues in higher education to teach or pursue their research: the renewal of the European Union-Israel Association Agreement, in particular as regards research (6th Framework Program for Community RTD) is a form of support for the current political policies of the State of Israel and would contravene Article 2 of this agreement (relationships between the parties, as well as all the stipulations of this agreement, which are based on the observance of human rights and democratic principles guiding their domestic and foreign policies and which are a key feature of this agreement)” (Paris VI university press relase).
This decision raised an enormous storm in France. Bodies ranging from the Jewish Lobby, to conservative parties all came up with the standard anti-Semitism accusations. “Several hundred protesters, including the philosophers Bernard Henri-Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, a leading Paris politician, the Nazi-hunting lawyer Arno Klarsfeld and Roger Cukier, the president of the Jewish umbrella organisa tion CRIF, waved banners and chanted slogans outside the campus entrance” (Guardian, Jan 7, 2003). Threats of potential consequences and budgetary cuts if the university does not retract its decision came from official governmental sources. Under this pressure a second discussion of the resolution was scheduled for this week.

But Paris VI did sustain the pressure. In the board meeting on Monday January 27, 2003, the previous resolution was reconfirmed with an overwhelming majority. A similar resolution was subsequently approved by two other French universities in Grenoble and in Montpellier. Below is my expression of support.

In support of Paris VI

It is not easy for an Israeli academic to support the calls for boycott of Israeli academic institutions these days. Like any other segment of the Israeli society, the universities are paying the price of Israel’s war against the Palestinians, with severe budget cuts and deteriorating research conditions. A freeze of the EU funds would, no doubt, make things even tougher. It is therefore understandable that the Israeli academia is mobilizing its forces to attack any such boycott attempt. Understandable, but not just.

Most of the Israeli academics, just like their colleagues in France, supported the boycott of apartheid South Africa, which contributed to the end of apartheid. This means that they recognize boycott as a legitimate means for the international community to enforce a change, when serious breaches of moral and civil principles occur. The question, then, is whether the analogy between Israel and South Africa’s apartheid is correct.

I believe that even much before its present atrocities, Israel has followed the South-African Apartheid model. Behind the smokescreen of the Oslo “Peace process”, Israel has been pushing the Palestinians in the occupied territories into smaller and smaller isolated enclaves— a direct copy of the Bantustans model. Unlike South Africa, however, Israel has managed so far to sell its policy as a big compromise for peace. Aided by a battalion of cooperating ‘peace-camp’ intellectuals, they managed to convince the world that it is possible to establish a Palestinians state without land-reserves, without water, without a glimpse of a chance of economic independence, in isolated ghettos surrounded by fences, settlements, bypass roads and Israeli army posts — a virtual state which serves one purpose: separation (Apartheid).

But what Israel is doing under Sharon far exceeds the crimes of the South Africa’s white regime. It has been taking the form of systematic ethnic cleansing, which South Africa never attempted. Since April last year (following the Jenin “operation”) we are witnessing the daily invisible killing of the sick and wounded being deprived of medical care, the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and those who are bound to reach starvation.

Since the US is backing Israel, and the European governments are silent, it is the moral right and duty of the people of the world to do whatever they can on their own to stop Israel and save the Palestinians. In fact, a boycott on Israeli institutions, economy and society is already taking place and growing: consumers boycott, tourism boycott, divestment movement in the US campuses, and cultural boycott. As in the case of South Africa, academic boycott is just one specific realization, yet it drew most fire, and the question which underlies the debate around this is whether there is something special about the Israeli academia that exempts it from the ongoing general boycott, e.g. something that distinguishes it sharply from the white academia of South Africa at the time?

The traditional spirit of the academia is that intellectual responsibility includes the safeguarding of moral principles. What could help to exempt the Israeli academia would be some institutional record of such safeguarding. But there is none. Never in its history did the senate of any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities, let alone voice protest over the devastation sowed there during the last uprising. It is not that a motion in that direction failed to gather a majority, there was no such motion anywhere in the Israeli academia. Even the closure of Al Quds university in Jerusalem last July left the Israeli academia unmoved. If in extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system.

At the individual level, there are pockets of resistance and opposition in the Israeli academia, as anywhere else in the Israeli society. Indeed, close to four hundred (out of the tens of thousands of) Israeli academics signed a petition supporting conscientious draft objectors. But the individual intentions are not what is under consideration here, because the boycott is institutional. (I do not support individual boycott, like stopping overseas collaborations with individual Israeli scholars.) The Israeli academia, as a whole, is not different than the white academia of South Africa. In both places there were also dissidents. It is sometimes a trait of intellectuals that they can choose the option of dissent. But the dissidents do not represent the academia; they are not dissidents thanks to the mainstream academia, but rather despite of it. Some of the real dissidents of the Israeli academia are being constantly harassed, publicly or behind the screens, by university authorities.

If one needs more indication of how detached the Israeli academia is from the perception of the apartheid reality, one can read the arguments of the Israeli opponents of the boycott. Thus, Jerusalem professor Idan Segev urges the intellectual community opposing the occupation to help in “constructing an open dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian universities”. Rather than boycotting, the EU should “help us organize an international scientific congress in one of the universities of the West Bank” (Liberation, Jan 7, 2003). Though the Jerusalem campus is about 15 minutes drive from the prisons of the West Bank, Prof Segev appears to have no idea about what is happening in these prisons. He never heard that the Palestinian academic life is on the verge of paralysis, that the towns and village are isolated and locked, that there is curfew most of the time. It is in this pastoral setting that he believes a scientific conference will promote dialogue.

The first step in promoting dialogue would be to remove Israeli tanks from the gates of Palestinian universities.

Tanya Reinhart

Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University, and among the Israeli signers on the British boycott petition. She is the author of ‘Detruire La Palestine - ou comment terminer la guerre de 1948’, La Fabrique 2002; Israel/Palestine- How to end the war of 1948, Seven Stories, NY, 2002.