The pseudo-boycott of Israeli universities

The affair of the “boycott of Israeli universities” supposedly declared by the administrative council of the University of Paris-VI (Pierre-et-Marie-Curie) in December 2002 was the subject of serious high stakes controversy which it is imperative to clarify. Calls to criticise this position were circulated and strong pressure was brought to bear (albeit without success) on members of the university’s administrative council to reverse their positions.

The goal of this campaign was to strengthen the impunity enjoyed by Israel and to give the impression that those who supported the position of Paris-VI had lurched into anti-Semitism (some protest appeals even attempted to sow confusion by drawing comparisons with the measures taken by [the collaborationist] Vichy [regime against Jews during World War II]).

Fortunately, other universities (Grenoble, Montpelier-III) in turn took similar positions, thus limiting the worrying indifference in our societies to what is being done to the Palestinian people.

In this context, we must ask a number of questions.

Why was the actual, precise content of the Paris-VI motion so grossly ignored?

According to the motion adopted, the university demanded that the European Union (EU) not renew its 1995 Association Agreement with Israel, giving that country commercial concessions, but also providing funds for infrastructure and research. The university’s motion called on Israeli academics to adopt positions on the measures being taken against Palestinian universities, whose work has been rendered impossible, and called on the university’s president to foster contacts with academics from both sides, in order to promote a peaceful solution. There is no “boycott” in any of this. The demand is only that the EU not renew the Association Agreement, in order that terms so favorable to Israel do not contribute to dramatic developments in the situation.

Why is no account being taken of an essential clause of this international agreement?

The 1995 EU-Israel Association Agreement was subject to the central condition that human rights and democratic principles, considered fundamental to relations between the two parties and all aspects of the Agreement, be respected (Article 2).

Can anyone be unaware that Israel massively violates the human rights of the Palestinians; that each day repression takes its toll of dead and injured, particularly among children; that extrajudicial assassinations are frequent and openly proclaimed by the Israeli government; that torture is practiced; that arbitrary imprisonment is increasing; that for fifty years Palestinian lands have been confiscated and colonies established on them in order to make peace impossible? Can anyone not know that every day houses and farms are destroyed?

For how long will we fail to understand that so much injustice drives the most fragile among the Palestinians to kill themselves taking with them as many innocent Israeli civilians as they can, and that only by breaking this injustice can the spiral of violence be interrupted?

Can anyone be unaware that in recent months the Israeli army has provocatively destroyed the infrastructure developed in Palestine with EU funds?

Herein lie all the reasons to suspend the Association Agreement on the basis of Article 2, a step the European Parliament endorsed in a vote on 10 April 2002 (or perhaps the Parliament was simply taken over by a fit of anti-Semtism!). A refusal to invoke the human rights clause is tantamount to considering it worthless, nothing but words for the sake of words, merely lip service.

Our colleagues of Paris-VI have acted honorably by taking this text seriously. Appealing to the institutional neutrality of universities to criticise their position is a poor argument, because it consists of nothing more than washing ones hands of grave violations of international law. Some have invoked the secular status of universities and the need to respect diversity of opinion in order to avoid taking a position on the application of the Agreement. But is this not simply to argue that the massive violation of Palestinians’ rights is a perfectly acceptable “opinion,” and that respecting human rights and international law is a “religion” that the secular principle allows one to choose not to practice?

This brings us to the last question that those who have protested the alleged “boycott” cannot dodge. What are we doing and what do we propose in order to stop the descent to hell of the Palestinians? The answer: nothing. Our governments wash their hands of the situation. The efforts of civil society are limited. The universities are public institutions that cannot be indifferent to the conditions in which international cooperation takes place. That a handful of academics launched an appeal to demand that this cooperation conform to stated principles is drop of hope in an ocean of indifference.

Our determination was much stronger when we were trying to rid South Africa of apartheid. Collective resignation in the face of criminal actions in certain societies only pushes a solution farther away and encourages the worst repression. What is being done to the Chechen people also merits mobilisation around strong measures against Russia, instead of the constant professions of friendship offered to Vladimir Putin’s government.

Demanding that the EU-Israel Association Agreement not be renewed, or that its renewal be an opportunity to pressure Israel to radically change its policies, is only a first step towards an approach that conforms to the human rights we claim to uphold. How can we invoke human rights texts against repression, against racism or anti-Semitism, in whatever situations these scourges appear, if in a case where human rights texts are at the core of a concrete agreement we do nothing? Those who protest against the Paris-VI motion, while brandishing fear of anti-Semitism, should ask themselves this question.

Monique Chemillier-Gendreau is Professor of International Law at the University of Paris-VII-Denis-Diderot

The above is an EI translation of an article which appeared on page 14 of Le Monde on 8 February 2003 under the headline “A propos d’un pseudo-boycott.”

Related Link

  • Israel’s academic freedom defended while Palestine’s is destroyed, by Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 10 January 2003