Let me begin by stating that any successful academic boycott imposed upon Israeli institutions of higher education will assuredly have an impact on the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and teachers, at least in terms of its expression beyond their national borders. Is this acceptable? After all, other teachers and scholars who obviously have a stake in academic freedom, will have to cooperate with the boycott if it is to have an impact. As one of those academics, my answer to this question is that it is not only acceptable but absolutely necessary — and for the following reasons:
1. Academic freedom is an ideal, and ideals if they are to be responsibly adhered to, must be judged against their consequences in real life situations. One of the major real life situations we are dealing with here is the fact that Israeli academic institutions and personnel have been intimately involved for nearly 40 years in their country’s systematic destruction of Palestinian educational endeavors (and thus Palestinian academic freedom) within the Occupied Territories. And even longer, if less dramatically, as regards the Arab-Israeli community within Israel proper. The vast majority of Israel academics have either been silent, or active participants in this process.
The passive aspect of this complicity with the occupation has been commented upon by Tanya Reinhart, formerly a professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University. She tells us that “Never in its history did the senate of a any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities, let alone voice protest over the devastation sowed there [in the OT]….It is not that a motion in that direction failed to gather a majority, there was no such motion anywhere in Israeli academia.” And then there is Professor Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, who estimates that the number of Israeli academics who have “raised their voices against occupation” is “roughly 100 out of 9000.” And many of these, like Pappe himself, are subject to harassment by university administrators and social ostracization by their peers.
In terms of active collaboration with the occupation the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has noted that “Israeli research institutes, think tanks and academic departments have historically granted legitimacy to the work of academics who advocate ethnic cleansing, apartheid, denial of refugee rights, and other discriminatory policies….Collaboration and cooperation with the intelligence services, the army, and other agencies of the occupation regime is part of the routine work of the Israeli academy.”
Thus, with the passive or active assistance of the vast majority of Israeli professorate, Palestinian education at all levels in the Occupied Territory is often brought to a near standstill by closures and roadblocks while its teachers, students, and physical structures suffer repeated assaults by Israeli military and settler paramilitary forces. All of this is documented at, among other places, Birzeit University’s Right2Education website.
Given this context, there is no evidence that the “free flow of ideas” enjoyed by Israeli academia over the last 40 years has ameliorated the systematic attack on their Palestinian peers in any way. Indeed, as we will see, it may in fact have helped abet that attack. Many Israeli scholars and teachers have spent a lot of this time trying very hard to deny what is going on in Palestine by questioning the existence of the Palestinians as a national group while simultaneously helping to create the justifications for a process of dispossession that has solidified Palestinian national consciousness and driven some Palestinians to radical violence. Only in the recent past has the Palestinian side of this tragedy been made available in any widespread fashion to the outside world.
Yet to a great extent the damage has been done. The decades long Zionist monopoly on the flow of information on the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy allowed the Israelis to build solid support among Americans and others based on the racist stereotyping of Arabs generally and the Palestinians in particular. Thus, not only has academic freedom and other forms of free exchange not humanized the Israelis, it has led to the corruption of a good number of people in the West, particularly American politicians.
Now, after 40 years, a growing number of academics are reacting to this inhumane state of affairs. We are insisting that the situation we are in now, as regards academic freedom, is a perverse one. Essentially, in order to maintain the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and teachers we are asked to acquiesce in their direct or indirect abetting of the destruction of, among other aspects of Palestinian life, Palestinian academic freedom. We will not do this. I suggest to you that the only way to avoid this predicament (which essentially turns the ideal of academic freedom against itself) is to qualify this principle, and make it a corollary of academic freedom that it can not apply to those who systematically and consistently deny it to others. In order to do this in as fair and consistent a way as possible, the present academic boycott movement is aimed at halting all cooperation with Israeli academic and research institutions rather than any particular list of individuals.
2. A precedent for the acceptance of such an academic boycott was established when just such an effort was made as part of the overall, worldwide boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Israel’s own apartheid policies have been noted by such reputable observers as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, and documented by such organizations as Amnesty International, Israel’s own human rights organization, B’Tselem, and even, on occasion, the U.S. State Department. Analysis of Israeli state actions, policies, and cultural imperatives as they operate on both sides of the Green Line, but especially in the Occupied Territories, reflects a purposeful and systematic violation of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid (approved by the UN General Assembly in 1973 and coming into force in 1976). It is therefore reasonable that a tactic that may well have hastened the demise of one apartheid state be applied against another apartheid state.
3. The fact that Zionist influence spreads far beyond Israel’s area of dominion and now influences many of the policy making institutions of western governments, and particularly that of the United States, makes it imperative that Israel’s oppressive behavior be singled out as a high priority case from among the many other oppressive regimes that may be candidates for boycott. In other words, unlike the Chinese, the Russians and other such governments, the Israelis and their supporters directly influence the policy makers of our own countries and this often makes our governments accomplices in Israel’s abusive policies. This being so, prioritizing Israel for boycott (academic and otherwise) is not hypocrisy, but rather necessity.
In conclusion, Israel’s academic community cannot be allowed to proceed as if it has nothing to do with the destruction of Palestinian society, including its academy and academic freedom. Given their direct and indirect complicity in this criminal process, the placing of temporary limits on the freedom of 9000 Israeli academics is a necessary price that must be paid in the struggle to restore the fundamental rights of millions of Palestinians.
Lawrence Davidson is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester Pennsylvania. This is the text of a talk delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in Boston on November 19, 2006. The talk is reprinted with permission of the author.