Why are colleges “civil” to Israel?

Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation by Nick Riemer, Rowman & Littlefield (2023)

Australian scholar Nick Riemer explains the focus of his new in-depth study of the academic boycott of Israel by saying that “almost everything in the politics and culture of higher education works against academics boycotting Israel.”

Indeed, the obstacles presented by that culture are what’s mainly addressed in Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation as he delves into the history of the academic boycott.

Academics, especially in the United States, have been denied work or tenure because of their advocacy for Palestine, a story presented in We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics – an anthology of testimonials from repressed scholars published in 2017 but still relevant today.

Riemer describes the origins and early successes of the academic boycott, predating the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS with the formation of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) a year earlier.

Even earlier, in 2002, Riemer notes, “several hundred European academics and researchers called for a moratorium on European funding of Israeli cultural and research institutions.” By year’s end, the University of Paris 6, now part of the Sorbonne, called for cutting off the European Union’s research agreement with Israel.

Other victories followed, including the University of Johannesburg in South Africa severing ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University in 2011. Numerous academic associations adopted pro-BDS resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Ideology of the academy

But unlike the BDS movement against apartheid South Africa, which resulted in many US universities actually divesting from companies doing business with the country, nearly all Western universities and colleges have resisted calls from faculty and students to cut ties with Israel.

Riemer locates many of the reasons why, including university links to the military-industrial complex. But he reserves most of his critique for the dominant ideological narrative of “academic freedom” and the “civility” and “collegiality” reasons given for maintaining ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Riemer notes that from its beginning, PACBI called for the boycott of Israeli institutions, not individual Israeli scholars.

This provision, recognizing Israeli academics who oppose the occupation, differed from the academic boycott call issued in 1958 by the African National Congress – a blanket boycott of both institutions and individuals. Objections were rarely raised about the issue of “academic freedom” when it came to boycotting apartheid South Africa.

Riemer documents numerous examples of academic freedom being denied to Palestinian scholars, rarely acknowledged by hypocritical Western academic institutions.

Israeli troops routinely impose checkpoints outside university entrances, raid Palestinian campuses and arrest and imprison students. Movement restrictions prevent many Palestinian students from studying or teaching abroad or even in other parts of Palestine, and international scholars are restricted from teaching in the West Bank and Gaza.

As of 2022, Israel announced that it would vet all applications from foreign academics to teach at West Bank universities after a long history of limiting the number of foreign academics and refusing entry and re-entry. Israel’s numerous bombing campaigns in Gaza have not only disrupted education for long periods but have often targeted university campuses and buildings.

Outside Palestine, examples abound of “academic freedom” being denied to scholars who lost their positions due to their advocacy for Palestinian rights, such as Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita and Cornel West, to name only a few.

More recently, the effort by Israel and its proxies to impose the highly flawed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism on campuses – conflating criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry – has resulted in numerous cancellations of scheduled talks, courses and film screenings in direct contradiction to most notions of academic freedom.

Riemer goes beyond the issue of censorship by asking why academic culture values not just civility and collegiality but actually negates the boycott by elevating thinking above acting. In contrast to the famous quote from Karl Marx, Riemer seems to be saying that for most academics, the point is to just interpret the world, not to change it.

The later chapters of Boycott Theory delve into this and related questions, such as those related to free speech and the right, both morally and politically, to disrupt hate speech aimed at reinforcing “the murderous practices of Israeli apartheid.” Riemer also discusses the role of intellectuals, asking can there be theory without practice, and what are the differences between solitary and collective intelligence.

Riemer couches some of these ideas in provocative phrases, such as the need for “groupthink” and “anti-intellectualism.”

Unfortunately, as intriguing as some of his ideas are, the author fails to convey them in an expository way by explaining the concept in detail, presenting the evidence for it and disrupting contrary claims. As a result, the reader is left unconvinced.

Tactic vs. strategy

Is there a need for a “theory of boycott,” as implied by the book’s title?

There is, but the author’s frequent description of the boycott as a tactic neglects its chief importance as a strategy.

The African National Congress regarded boycott, divestment and sanctions as one of the “four pillars” of South Africa’s liberation struggle, giving it a place of importance equal to its other strategic methods: armed struggle, political mass struggle and clandestine underground struggle.

The BDS movement has become a strategic component of the Palestinian liberation struggle not only because it has united Palestinians (polls show that more than 80 percent of Palestinians support BDS), but also because it has given people around the world a way to support that liberation struggle on a global scale.

It has also been the chief vehicle for changing the once-dominant belief that Israel is a democracy deserving of support, to an insurgent narrative that Israel is an apartheid state and that apartheid must end.

It is an idea that has become a material force. After all, ideas – once they’re grasped by a mass of people – can become a force in their own right.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is active in the Demilitarize Portland2Palestine campaign.