PACBI: All Israeli academic institutions complicit in apartheid

The following statement was issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) on 10 February 2010:

In response to the recent decision by the Israeli government to upgrade the status of the so-called Ariel University Center of Samaria (AUCS) to a full university, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) reiterates its call for a boycott of AUCS and all other Israeli academic institutions due to their complicity in maintaining Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people. While PACBI welcomes the recent protests against the decision to recognize AUCS — located in the fourth-largest Jewish colony in the occupied Palestinian territories — as a university, it cautions against attempts to divert the boycott movement away from its basis in the comprehensive, UN-sanctioned rights embodied in the Palestinian call for boycotting Israel to a selective focus on a subset of these rights.

Academics, journalists and others on the Zionist “left” who have opposed the academic boycott for years are now enthusiastically advocating a boycott that solely targets Ariel College because it is illegally built on occupied Palestinian territory. This, however, reduces the scope of the academic boycott to one against settlement institutions, while exonerating the Israeli academy at large, which is just as complicit, if not more, than Ariel in maintaining and justifying the Israeli colonial and apartheid apparatus. But even if the boycott were to apply only to universities built on occupied Palestinian territory, why hasn’t the fact that the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus sits on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem provoked any Ariel-like condemnation?

All Israeli universities are deeply linked to the military-security establishment, playing indispensable — direct and indirect — roles in perpetuating Israel’s decades-old violations of international law and fundamental Palestinian rights. No Israeli university or academic union has ever taken a public position against the occupation, let alone against Israel’s system of apartheid or the denial of Palestinian refugee rights. Israeli universities are profoundly complicit in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Gaza; justifying the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and gradual ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians; providing moral justification for extra-judicial killings and indiscriminate attacks against civilians; systematically discriminating against “non-Jewish” students in admissions, dormitory room eligibility, financial aid, etc.; and many other implicit and explicit violations of human rights and international law.

As boycott, divestment and sactions (BDS) gains momentum globally, an increasing number of Israeli voices are emerging in support of this strategy as the most effective, nonviolent route to bring about change towards justice and durable peace. The endorsement by Israeli artists and academics of specific boycott actions in the past few years is welcome and well-known. After Israel’s war of aggression on Gaza, several Israeli academic and cultural figures came out in support of BDS. Long before the Gaza massacre, though, staunch Israeli supporters of Palestinian rights such as Rachel Giora, Ilan Pappe, Haim Bresheeth, Oren Ben-Dor, Anat Matar and the late Tanya Reinhart had embraced BDS and defended it against Israeli critics, particularly so-called “leftists” in the academy. The recently-formed group, Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, is particularly praiseworthy, as it unconditionally accepts BDS as defined and guided by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, and is therefore regarded by the BNC as a reliable and principled partner in the movement.

These emerging voices from inside Israeli society point to the growing appeal of BDS and the recognition of its power to effect real change towards just peace. It is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that the BDS movement derives its principles from both the demands of the Palestinian BDS Call, signed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in July 2005, and, in the academic and cultural fields, from the Palestinian Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, issued a year earlier in July 2004. Together, the BDS and PACBI Calls represent the most authoritative and widely-supported strategic statements to have emerged from Palestine in decades; all political factions, labor, student and women’s organizations, and refugee groups across the Arab world have supported and endorsed these calls. Both calls underline the prevailing Palestinian belief that the most effective form of solidarity with the Palestinian people is direct action aimed at bringing an end to Israel’s colonial and apartheid regime, just as the apartheid regime in South Africa was abolished, by isolating Israel internationally through boycotts and sanctions, forcing it to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.

Since the formulation of these calls, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on defining the principles of the boycott movement. Rooted in universal values and principles, the BDS Call categorically rejects all forms of racism, racial discrimination and colonial oppression. PACBI has also translated the principles enshrined in its Call into practical guidelines for implementing the international academic and cultural boycott of Israel. All the while, the Palestinian boycott movement has been clear as to what the focus and goals of the BDS movement are.

In this respect, the importance of the 2005 BDS Call lies in its comprehensive approach to the Israeli colonial and apartheid system as a whole, and its subjugation of the Palestinian people, whether as second-class citizens inside Israel, subjects under its military occupation, or dispossessed refugees. This was summarized in the concise demands outlined in the Palestinian BDS call that Israel recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and fully comply with international law by: respecting, protecting and promoting the right of return of all Palestinian refugees; ending the occupation of all Palestinian and Arab lands; and recognizing full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In this sense, the BDS Call effectively counters the systematic Israeli fragmentation of the Palestinian people and the reduction of the struggle for freedom and self-determination to an endless bargaining game over land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Central to the Palestinian BDS movement’s three demands is an understanding of Israel as an apartheid state. Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid not just in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; it defines itself as a Jewish state, not a state of all its citizens. Most importantly, Israeli laws, policies and practices discriminate openly against Palestinian — i.e., “non-Jewish” — citizens of the state. The pervasive and institutionalized racism and discrimination are particularly evident in the vital domains of land ownership and use, education, employment, access to public services and urban planning. The apartheid character has been part of the design of Israel since its inception.

The state of Israel was established in 1948 by forcibly displacing the overwhelming majority of Palestine’s indigenous Arab population from their homeland. Today, these Palestinian refugees are prevented from returning to their homes and lands from which they were expelled. In contrast, any person who claims Jewish descent from anywhere in the world may become an Israeli citizen and national under the so-called Law of Return. Moreover, Israel’s brutal war on Gaza was not an anomaly; rather, it represents the most recent example of the systematic policies of ethnic cleansing and colonial oppression that Israel has carried out against the Palestinian people for more than six decades. During this recent military onslaught, Israel killed over 1,440 Palestinians, of whom 431 were children, and injured another 5,380. Israel subjected the besieged population of Gaza to three weeks of unrelenting state terror.

Despite the clarity with which the Palestinian BDS movement has enunciated the goals of the Palestinian struggle, some Israeli and other advocates of boycott have tried to limit its scope. They have attempted to limit the goals of the BDS movement by restricting it geopolitically and confining it to a call to end the Israeli occupation over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This “interpretation” of BDS is most dangerous as it attempts to appropriate the right to redefine the terms of the struggle in Palestine and to impose an ideologically suspect political agenda that lets Israel off the hook on the charges of apartheid and practicing the most pernicious form of racism and discrimination in all the territory under its control.

Some Israelis also base their support for BDS on a purely utilitarian rationale, that of “saving Israel from itself,” rather than principled solidarity with the Palestinians. This Israel-centered, “pragmatic” perspective, however, reproduces a colonial attitude of superiority where the indigenous population and their inalienable rights and struggle for freedom are not even recognized. What matter, according to this perspective, are Israel’s own self-interest, international image and future. Yet if some are committed to preserving Israel’s character into the future without challenging its colonial and apartheid laws and policies, how can they be counted on as true allies in the Palestinian-led, global BDS movement?

As for the targets chosen for BDS actions, the strength of the BDS movement lies in the fact that it does not impose specific targets or tactics on solidarity groups around the world. Based on the principle of context-sensitivity and respect for the autonomy and integrity of democratic international groups supporting Palestinian rights, the Palestinian BDS collective leadership has always believed that people of conscience and organizations advocating human rights know their respective situation best and are the most capable of deciding the appropriate ways and pace to build the BDS movement in their contexts. Sometimes the tactical targeting of settlement-only products may be the best way for a campaign to progress. At other times, it may be resolutions at local unions endorsing BDS, or cultural boycott targets, etc. But even if one were concerned only about Israel’s occupation, not its denial of refugee rights or its apartheid system, this cannot justify a principled focus on boycotting “settlement products” only, as if Israel’s colonies themselves were the party guilty of colonialism, not the state that established them and sustains their growth. In no other boycott context in the world does anyone call for boycotting a manifestation of a state’s violations of international law, rather than the state itself. After all, under international law states are the legal entities that are supposed to be held accountable for crimes and violations that they commit.

Regardless, it is never up to Israeli academics or activists, no matter what their principles are, to set out the reference parameters and priorities of the movement, particularly for activists worldwide. More often than not, members of the Zionist left have refused to recognize the BDS Call issued by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations, and its anchor and leadership, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, BNC. In so doing they fail to respect the aspirations of the Palestinian people and our right to define the goals of our struggle. Moreover, in response to the Zionist left’s insistence on focusing on the symptoms of the Israeli system of colonial oppression, by calling only for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is worth emphasizing that in apartheid South Africa it would have been ludicrous to focus solely on the Bantustans. The struggle against the Bantustans was an intrinsic part of the struggle to end the apartheid system as a structure of dominance whereby the white minority subjugated and oppressed the Black South African population.

As a people living under Israeli apartheid and exiled from their land, it is up to the Palestinians and their mass organizations to set their priorities, objectives and strategies to attain our rights under international law. Israeli support is a welcome and necessary part of this movement. But it must be extended in the spirit of real solidarity, as in the case of Boycott From Within, respecting the wishes and aspirations of the Palestinian people themselves.