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 Saturday, September 27, 2003

  ESSAY: Why Israeli Academic Institutions Should be Boycotted

Read HERE FULL Essay by MONA BAKER and LAWRENCE DAVIDSON, "Israeli Academic Institutions:In Defense of the Boycott"

September 18, 2003

Mona Baker is a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester. Lawrence Davidson is a professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Excerpts from the essay by Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson.

Boycotts are age old undertakings. Unlike sanctions, boycotts are most often grassroots means of protest against the policies of governments.

They can be undertaken by ordinary people to defend fellow human beings who are oppressed by governments and armies, and they can be deliberately restricted in scope to cause as little damage as possible to the lives of innocent people.

Thus, from an historical point of view, there is plenty of precedents for the tactic of boycott. And, as in the case of South Africa, public pressure through boycotts can eventually help force governments and organizations such as the United Nations to apply sanctions against a particular regime.

Nonetheless, the boycott against Israel, and in particular against academic institutions, has drawn wide spread criticism. Much of this has come from people who are, to one extent or another, partisans of Israel.

But some have genuine concerns that innocent Israelis are being unnecessarily hurt, or that the boycott is undermining valued principles such as academic freedom and the free flow of ideas.

It is to this latter group that we would like to address the following arguments in the hope of putting them in a context that makes understandable the historical trade-offs inevitably involved in this struggle for justice.

First of all, the academic boycott of Israel is one part of a broader boycott and divestment effort which involves economic, cultural and sports agendas.

The academic boycott specifically is based on several premises.

  • To date, all but a small number of Israeli academics remain quiescent in the face of the violent colonial war their government wages in the Occupied Territories.

  • As a group they have had nothing to say about Israeli violations of scores of United Nations resolutions and the transgression of international law in the form of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This includes not only human rights violations of a general nature, but also, specifically, the systematic destruction of Palestinian education and academia.

  • Nor, as a group have they come to the defense of their very few fellow academics who have been persecuted for publically criticizing Israeli policies against the Palestinians.

  • Educational institutions and their teachers are principal agents in the shaping of perceptions of whole generations as to their country's relations with their neighbors and the world. If, in the midst of extreme practices of oppression such as we have been witnessing in the Occupied Territories, these institutions do not function to analyze and explain the world in a way that promotes justice and reasonable compromise, but rather acquiesce in aggressive colonialist practices, then others may legitimately boycott them.

  • The boycott against Israel has been put forward as a non-violent way by which non-Israelis the world over can express their concern for what is now the world's longest post-Second World War occupation and one of its bloodiest and most ethnic oriented.

    We have asked ourselves what we, outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories, can do to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation and thus, at least help, bring about the beginning of the end of this crisis.

    The boycott is one of our main answer.

    General Objections

    Objections to the Academic Boycott of Israel have not been consistent. They have tended to shift over time. For instance, at the beginning of the boycott there was the call to keep academia, and particularly scientific fields, out of politics. While as an ideal this may be an admirable goal, in reality the bulk of higher education and its academicians never escape politics.

    Israeli educational institutions have followed this pattern. As Shahid Alam, Professor of Economics at Northeastern University in Boston, has pointed out, "through their links with the military, the political parties, the media, and the economy, they (Israel's universities) have helped to construct, sustain, and justify the Apartheid (policies of the occupation).

    In the current context, there are numerous examples of the direct involvement of Israeli academia and academic related professions in promoting and sustaining the oppressive measures of the Israeli government and in violations of human rights and of UN Resolutions.

    In general terms, almost all Israeli academics find themselves actively or passively supporting the occupation by virtue of Israel's policy of universal Jewish conscription. (This is a policy that does not democratize the Israeli army, so much as it militarizes Israeli civilian society).

    Thus, almost all Israeli academics are military veterans and many will do reserve duty in the Territories.

    If they wish to resist serving as part of the occupation forces they can do so by joining the Refusnik organizations. Very few choose to do so.

    More concretely, one can point to the active role taken by Bar-Ilan University in validating courses given by colleges now being established in the settlements.

    And finally, there is the particularly sinister, documented involvement of Israeli doctors in torture.

    The argument for isolating academia from politics was later augmented with the assertion that "in the end the best way to resolve issues is to pursue dialogue, not boycotts."

    But it is precisely because "dialogue" on the Palestinian issue has been historically stifled that the boycott against Israel has become necessary.

    For decades the Zionists have had a near monopoly on the information flow in the West concerning the Palestinian situation. One can still see this in the fact that the vast majority of coverage in the press, magazines, and TV news, particularly in the United States, gives, most of the time, only the Israeli side of the story.

    Those offering the Palestinian point of view are now consistently labeled anti-Semites and supporters of terrorists.

    The Zionists themselves thus seek to maintain an environment that discourages dialogue and makes necessary other, more direct and effective tactics.

    Moreover, 'intellectual exchanges' have been going on between Israelis and the rest of the world since 1948 and with Zionists for longer than that. It has made not a bit of difference to the oppressive and colonialist policies of successive Israeli governments.

    Under these conditions, "dialogue" is unlikely to achieve anything in the future unless, simultaneously, real pressure is applied from outside.

    One of the earliest tactics to silence and discredit advocates of the boycott has been the often used red herring of anti-Semitism.

    The boycott of Israel, including the academic boycott, is inherently anti-Semitic, we are told, 'in effect if not in intent.' It encourages anti-Semitism, even if it does not mean to. This argument is based on a dishonest equating of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and conveniently ignores the mounting crescendo of Jewish voices against Zionist and Israeli colonialist practices.

    It also ignores the fact that not only was the boycott call started by a Jewish scholar (Professor Steven Rose, Open University, UK), but also that many of the supporters of the boycott are Jewish, some even Israeli.

    Indeed, as many Jews have argued, it is current Israeli practices and the Zionist colonial project that encourage and feed anti-Semitic discourse, rather than legitimate means of protest against violations of human rights in Israel.

    Thankfully, the use of anti-Semitism to silence academics who support the boycott has become so discredited that even the Association of University Teachers in Britain has now officially declared its recognition of the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

    Finally, there was the short lived argument that the issues involved in the conflict between Israel and Palestine are very complex, and a boycott reduces them to overly simplistic dueling camps of good and evil. This assertion could not be sustained in the light of UN resolutions and widely documented Israeli violations of international law, and is now rarely heard.

    We now turn to more serious issues concerning the objectives, scope and potential effectiveness of the boycott.

    Consideration of Specific Objections

    Argument 1: Futility. The academic boycott is ineffective, it cannot influence the policies of the Israeli government, and will only harden positions due to resentment over outside pressure.

    In the U.S. the Anti-Defamation League would not be extending time, energy and money, to label the academic boycott effort as the "hijacking of academic freedom"and the Zionists in general would not be rushing to launch a number of anti-boycott petitions. The near hysterical outcry coming from Zionists indicates a high level of insecurity and fear.

    This fear may come, in part, from the awareness that the academic boycott is not just directed at the humanities and social sciences. It incorporates the hard sciences which feed into Israel's high tech economy.

    Some Israelis have already acknowledged the potential of the boycott. Senior Israeli economist Yoram Gabai is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, 8 August 2002, as saying:
    "Faster than expected, we will find ourselves in the time warp of (white-dominated) Rhodesia in the 1970s and South Africa in the 1980s: enforced isolation from without and an isolationism from within....The enormous price of isolation will drag us into withdrawing from the (occupied) territories, either in the context of a peace treaty or without one as a unilateral act."
    The academic boycott is but one component in a broader boycott program that seeks to put pressure on all aspects of Israeli society.

    Unfortunately, and much like white South Africa under apartheid, internally generated Israeli perceptions are so censored and inbred that their ability to understand the consequences of their national policies on the Palestinians is limited. For instance, a majority of Israelis have long believed in the myth of Barak's generous offer.

    As the self-defeating results of the last two Israeli elections point out, a good number of Israelis are literally stuck in a world of their own where positions cannot get any "harder."

    As in the case of South Africa, external pressure is perhaps the only way to move the Israelis to a realization that something is terribly wrong with their outlook and behavior and that there is a need to change both leadership and direction.

    An international boycott targeting all aspects of Israeli society has strong and beneficial symbolic value. Such a boycott raises international consciousness over inhumane and unjust behavior.

    One of the most important achievements of the academic boycott is that it has generated such heated discussion in so many venues (mainstream newspapers, television, student publications, internet discussion lists, etc.) that the negative details of the Zionist enterprise have inevitably forced themselves onto the consciousness of many people, within and outside academia.

    Argument 2: Misguided --The academic boycott targets the wrong people and hurts Palestinians as well as Israelis. It harms collaborative efforts between Israeli and Palestinian universities.

    The assertions that the academic boycott hurts Palestinians and harms collaborative efforts are factually untrue.

    Minor collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian academic institutions in the Occupied Territories have now ceased. This is due to inevitable estrangement and suspicion that has come along with the continuing colonization and occupation of the Occupied Territories.

    Also, Israeli policies forbid the travel of Israeli citizens into the Occupied Territories (except if they are going to and from colonies illegal under international law) and make it extremely onerous for Palestinians in those regions to enter Israel.

    If the Israelis claim that these policies have been made necessary by the Palestinian uprising, we answer that the uprising has been made necessary and inevitable by the Israeli occupation and its brutal nature.

    Part of that brutal nature has been the employment of tactics designed to prevent Palestinian colleges and universities from functioning in any normal manner. These tactics include prolonged shut downs, military raids and travel restrictions that impede students and faculty from reaching campuses.

    No organized protest or resistence to this consistent and prolonged attack on Palestinian academia has come from Israeli academic groups, colleges, or universities.

    As Tanya Reinhart, a Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and one of the few Israeli academics to publically stand against Israeli occupation policies, has observed,
    "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 Israeli academia."
    And even with the shocking escalation in the level of atrocities committed by the Israeli army since the beginning of the second intifada, Israeli academia continues to do practically nothing to bring the facts to public attention.

    There is something obscenely hypocritical in the fact that many of those individuals and organizations (Israeli or otherwise) which have so vocally attacked the boycott, have not raised their voices against the destruction of Palestinian academia and society in general.

    The claim that the boycott "targets the wrong people" is a more complicated one and deserves close consideration.

    The most notable cases of the "wrong people" being hurt are those of the relatively few heroic Israeli academics who have put their careers on the line to stand up against the injustice of their country's colonial policies.

    For example, there are, among others, Ilan Pappe, a professor of Political Science at Haifa University, and Tanya Reinhart, who we quoted above. Both are strong and vocal supporters of justice for the Palestinians and advocates for political reform in Israel.

    Here is what Professor Pappe says about the need for a boycott of Israel:
    "It is a call from the inside to the outside to exert economic and cultural pressure on the Jewish state so as to bring home the message that there is a price tag attached to the continuation of the occupation. Within such a call, it makes no sense for an activist like myself to call on sanctions or pressure on business, factories, cultural festivals, etc. while demanding immunity for my own peers and sphere of activity--academia."
    Professor Pappe understands that he may also be hurt by such a boycott, but he recognizes that the sacrifice is necessary given the horrible situation we now find ourselves in.

    As Pappe indicates, individual Israelis simply cannot abstract themselves from that larger issue. Israel is their country, Sharon is their Prime Minister, the Occupation is their collective sin.

    Those, on the outside, who support the boycott, understand present day Israel for what it really is--a society that has institutionalized discriminatory policies, created de facto first, second, and third class citizenship categories, and has, for over thirty years now, maintained policies of occupation and colonization that have systematically destroyed Palestinian society.

    Argument 3: Academic Freedom--The boycott violates the principle of academic freedom and as such is unacceptable.

    The boycott's impingement on the academic freedom of Israeli scholars has been repeatedly condemned. It has been called "contemptible," " hypocritical," and "an unacceptable breakdown in the norms of intellectual freedom".

    Dena S. Davis, a law professor at Cleveland State University, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education writes that "Academic boycotts undermine the basic premise of intellectual life that ideas make a difference."

    Israeli Zionists have been interacting with the world outside of Israel since 1948. This sharing of ideas with the outside has made NO positive difference in the evolution of Zionist oppression against both Palestinians inside and outside of Israel proper. Indeed, it may very well have prolonged and deepened Israeli injustice in this regard.

    Free communication on the part of Zionists has allowed them to build solid support among American Jews based on racist stereotyping of Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular, as well as the correspondingly gross over-idealization of the Zionist movement and its results.

    Thus, historically, unimpaired 'intellectual life' and 'exchanges across cultures' have led to the corruption of a powerful segment to American Jewry.

    We do agree that the obstruction of the "free flow of ideas" ought to be undertaken only in severe and extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, that is exactly the situation successive Israeli government have brought about.

    Israel's illegal occupation has destroyed 'intellectual life' for the Palestinians. The practice of "exchanging visits" and "talking to each other," such as it has been over the last 35 years, on the part of Israeli academics have not produced the courage or insight to stand up and protest this destruction.

    Israeli academics should be claiming for the Palestinians the same rights of academic freedom they claim for themselves. Their pointed failure to do so makes them subject to the general boycott of Israel that is now evolving as a consequence of Israeli policies.

    The academic boycott of Israel is directed against Israeli institutions, including academic institutions. As a consequence of the boycott , Israeli academics are now having a harder time publishing outside the country, participating in formal exchanges, sitting on boards and international committees, and the like.

    However, this does not translate into a situation where no one will talk to them. And we are in fact anxious to talk to other Israeli academics about what they can do to help end the situation that has brought on the boycott in the first place.

    In effect, far from discouraging Israeli dissent we are allied to it and encourage Israeli academics to act in solidarity and sympathy with their Palestinian colleagues who suffer much worse isolation due to Israeli occupation. When the occupation is dismantled, the academic boycott will be as well.

    Argument 4: Inconsistency--The boycott adherents unfairly single out Israel while ignoring all other military occupations in places such as Tibet, Chechnya, etc.

    How do those who claim that we are 'picking' on Israel know that we also ignore the behavior of the Chinese in Tibet, Russians in Chechnya, etc.?

    For a good number of those who support this boycott the struggle against Israeli occupation is a high priority.

    There are a number of reasons for this.

  • First, many of us, Jews, Muslims, Christians, or non-denominational Americans, Europeans, and Arabs, feel a special affinity for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. We all have emotional, cultural, or religious ties to the Holy Land, even the non-religious among us. What the Zionists seem NOT to understand is that the place their mythology makes special for them, is also special to a lot of other folks based on other interpretations of the same myth and other forms of oral and written tradition as well.

  • Second, just because other nations behave badly does not let the Israelis off the hook. After all, the Israelis now have the dubious distinction of running the longest post-WWII occupation in the world. There is no reason why we, as a movement, should not start with the problem that has persisted longest and then work backwards.

  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can be seen as more important for citizens of the Western nations than other contemporary crises and examples of oppression. This is because Zionist influence spreads far beyond Israel's area of dominion, and now widely influences many of the key domestic agendas in the West.

  • Unlike the Chinese, Russians, and other oppressive regimes, the Israelis and their supporters directly influence the policy makers of our own countries. Thus their actions have import beyond the Occupied Territories and potentially affect the lives of ordinary citizens of most Western nations.

  • In United States, Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media, and the administration of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative advisers see Israel and its aggressive behavior as a model for their own policies. Numerous examples of how this influence is exerted can be found on the web site of the Project for the New American Century.

    Argument 5: Giving Comfort to Terrorists --The boycott of Israel ignores the (alleged) facts that (A) the Israeli army is in the Occupied Territories as an act of self-defense against suicide bombers and other terrorists and (B) boycott efforts only encourage and lend comfort to these terrorists.

    (A) (These) are additional red-herrings that seek to distract attention from main issues. The Israeli army and settlers are in the Occupied Territories to possess "Judea," "Samaria" and Gaza.

      The resulting thirty five years of land confiscation, destruction of crops, houses, and other Palestinian property, the destruction of Palestinian civil society, the construction of illegal colonies, and the importation of 100,000s of illegal settlers are not "acts of self-defense."

      On the other hand, one can reasonably define resistence to these actions on the part of the Palestinians as in fact acts of self-defense. The international community through the actions of the United Nations and the testimony of respected world leaders, has made it quite clear that Israeli occupation constitutes an on-going case of severe injustice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently declared,
      "I have been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about."
      He goes on to condemn the general dispossession of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

    (B) The charge that boycott efforts encourage or lend comfort to terrorists is entirely ad hoc. How do those who make these claims know that they are true? In fact, the boycott, functioning as a manifestation of "world conscience," can "mitigate the Palestinian's deep despair"and hopefully lead to a reduction of violence of both the "colonizer and the colonized."


    Israeli goals in the occupied territories have always aimed at possession and absorption of these lands. Israeli behavior, colonialist and oppressive, follows from this fact.

    One can verify this for oneself by going to any of the human rights organizations that document Israeli policy in the territories, including Israeli organizations, and simply trace the actions of the occupier from 1967 onward.

    However, with the advent of the Sharon government the scale of destruction and brutality has risen to new and shocking levels. As Ilan Pappe has observed, under Ariel Sharon occupation has become "a horror story of abuse and callousness ....The trend is for worse to come, with a sense of an Israeli government that feels it has a 'green light' from the U.S. to do whatever it wishes in the occupied territories."

    The Sharon government was put into power by an overwhelming majority vote of Israelis in the election of February 2001. Sharon received 62% of ballots cast. In the January 2003 election the Israeli public reconfirmed their allegiance to Sharon, his Likud party, and allied right wing parties.

    What this electoral history indicates is that the majority of Israelis are either unwilling or unable to understand the real origins of their own insecurity and the nature of the occupation.

    It is under these circumstances that outside pressure becomes the only viable way of encouraging change in Israel.

    Under normal circumstances one would look to the government of the United States, Israel's ally and patron, to apply the necessary pressure. The U.S. is itself operating under the same delusions as Israel as to the nature of and reasons for the occupation. The prospect of changing the perceptions of the U.S. Congress on this issue is even less likely than dislodging Sharon from leadership in Israel.

    This leaves us with the strategy of a grassroots, international movement to boycott Israel at all possible levels: economic, cultural, and academic.

    We are proud of this effort and convinced of its necessity and just nature. And, as this detailed article attests, we are willing to defend it against all who would question its validity or the motives of its participants.

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