Blogs > HNN > Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Latest Boycott Vote Against Israeli Academic Institutions

Jun 2, 2007 4:31 am

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Latest Boycott Vote Against Israeli Academic Institutions

Almost two years ago to the day the British Association of University teachers voted to support a boycott of Irsaeli academics and institutions as a way of protesting the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. In response to that vote, I wrote the following blog post:

Yesterday, another group of British academics voted to support a similar measure in response to the even more desperate situation that has evolved on the ground in Palestine since the last vote. Much of my thinking in the previous post still holds, I believe today, but here are some preliminary thoughts on the new vote, which I hope to elaborate on as soon as I can find a copy of the actual text that was adopted.

1. Claims that the boycott is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish are nonsense. The number of Jews and Jewish Israelis who support the boycott belie such a claim, and few if any of the British academics who've publicly supported the boycott have any history of expressing bigotry against Jews. And certainly the claim by Professor Uriel Reichman, President of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, that that the British boycott is"a modern reformulation of Judenreine" a German expression used by the Nazis meaning areas that were emptied of a Jewish presence, is scurrilous. Moreover, it would be nice to know what all the academics who are opposing it on free speech grounds are actually doing to stop the brutal forty year occupation by Israel, whose scope and ferocity remain impossible to fathom even when you experience them first hand.

If you think the boycott is a bad idea, fine. But before we can debate the boycott idea we need to know what exactly was voted on. I have had a hard time finding the actual text of the resolution that was passed on June 30, but I believe this is the actual text, available at, with my comments in italics after each section:

Paragraph 45, Middle East

In3 Composite: Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (University of Brighton, Grand Parade; University of East London, Docklands) Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.This is an understatement; in fact is has come as close to destroying the fabric of Palestinian society as is possible without succeeding completely in that goal.

Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students. This is certainly a legitimate position. Anyone who has regularly visited Palestinian universities understands what Palestinian students and academics go through on a daily basis. Israel's actions constitute systematic violations of international law in this regard, and deserve widespread condemntation.

Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. This phrase, I would assume, is one of the most inflammatory of the bunch. Yet it is undeniable that the Israeli academy as a whole--that is, institutionally--has been complicit in the occupation. The movement back and forth of mid-level and senior military and intelligence personnel from active duty service to academic institutions, which I've witnessed first hand during my affiliations with Isareli universities, is a major contributor to the normalization of the occupation within Israeli society, especially among educated Israelis, almost all of whom have served in the army (which has the highest rate of active/combat service of any army in the world). It is worth asking what those who oppose the boycott think should be done about this relationship. Do they think it's okay for people involved in systematic violations of international law to move in and out of academia without censure or sanction? I, for one, do not, although I am doubtful whether a blanket boycott on all academic institutions--and what does 'institutions' mean, universities as a whole, schools, departments, individual professors or students who actively participate in the occupation through their work for the government?--will achieve the desired goal.

But we as a professions need to ask, At what point do the professional activities of students, faculty and/or staff outside the university disqualify them from the privilege of being members of the"academy." If someone raped a person or committed murder or similar heinous crimes, or was centrally involved in planning or executing policies which clearly violate international law, I doubt there's be much of a debate over stripping them of their rights to participate in the scholarly life of the community. So why should participation in the systematic violations of innumerable international laws be responded to any differently? Come to think about it, Why the hell hasn't John Yoo been fired from UC Berkeley? In fact, How did someone who believes that the President and not the Congress has the power to declare war ever graduate from, never mind get hired at, an elite law school? And why hasn't the faculty gone on strike and refused to teach as long as he remains their colleague?

Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic. "Cannot" be construed? That's clearly nonsense. Of course it can be construed that way, with good reason, depending on who's doing the criticising. I however have not seen evidence that any significant number of people who voted for this resolution fit that description. But there are certainly many scholars and activists world-wide, and in the UK, who are anti-Jewish (which is very different from being anti-Zionist or even anti-Israel).

Congress instructs the NEC to

-circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion; Fine, let people see the call and decide for themselves whether it should be supported.

-encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions; I would think that this should be supported by all scholars--but not just for Israel. Instead it should, as I argue below, be the basis for afiliations with institutions world-wide. We should all be far less tolerant of the immoral actions of our colleagues.

-organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists; Anything that can get Palestinians out of the hell of Palestine is a good idea, both for their own mental health and to educate others on how bad the occupation actually is. Of course, one could say that it would be a good idea to invite Israeli academics on the front lines of combatting the occupation as well. Certainly they deserve a break from the struggle too, and their stories are at once fascinating, depressing and inspiring. But it's undeniable that the resources at the dispoal of Palestinian scholars are so few compared with Israelis, who regularly travel around the world to conferences, that the focus should be on Palestinian scholars while ensuring that Israeli scholars who don't have the institutional support or resources to travel also have some acces to these funds. In this regard, I would just point out that some of the greatest lessons I learned about apartheid were from the great Afrikaaner--that is, white--playright, poet, artist and essayist Breyten Breytenbach; and there are many Breytenbachs in Israel who's stories are as crucial to dismantling the occupation's master narrative as their Palestinian comrades.

-issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.Well, what's the guidance? It's been five years since the first Palestinian calls for boycott went out. Haven't they formulated them yet?End text of resolution

These would seem to be the main articles of the resolution. You're free to oppose them, but I would like to ask, What do you plan to do to help stop the occupation in place of a boycott, other than offering meaningless blather about the importance of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to negotiate a"real" peace, or" creating a better understanding of these complex issues," as one British Jewish official exclaimed? The realities of the occupation are not at all complex; in fact, they're as clear as day for anyone who actually looks at the reality on the ground. And since if you're an American that reality is being subsidized by your tax dollars it would be nice if all those who are opposed to the boycott, especially academics--that is, people who get paid to be smarter than the rest of the population--would offer a meaningful alternative that could help compel an end to the occupation, and the violence and hatred it has bred.

2. However, the boycott and disinvestment drive are far too narrowly conceived and shortsighted to achieve their goal. Israel's occupation is not historically unique or unprecedented, although it is clearly among the worst occupations in the world today. Focusing purely on Israel will never work in the US and European public sphere because accusations of anti-Semitism, however unfounded, will trump whatever arguments are made in support of the boycott because of its selective focus on Israel.

3. More important, it is impossible to separate Israel's occupation from the larger system of which it is a part and which it helps perpetuate. Quite simply, the Israeli occupation is necessary for the fifty-year old system of dictatorship, war, and huge profits for oil and defense industries to continue. The US could end the Israeli occupation tomorrow if the US government decided it was in the interest of the economic and political establishment to do so, but it is clearly not in their interest that the occupation end any time soon; just as it is not in their interest to end the Iraqi occupation soon (Bush's declaration yesterday that he'd like Iraq to follow South Korea's model and allow the US access to bases for half a century should have been the biggest story of the year in this regard because it finally sets the record straight on US intentions--which are never to leave unless forced to by a mass, and unmanageable insurgency). Rhetorical calls for freedom, democracy and justice aside, the current system continues to enrich and empower everyone with a stake in its perpetuation--Jew, Arab/Muslim and Christian alike--which is why it won't change any time soon.

4. What's more, the American-led occupation of Iraq, which could never have happened without the active support of the British government, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and done hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to Iraq, destroying the country in much the same way Israel has destroyed much of Palestinian political life. China's genocide in Tibet has, sadly, been even more successful and lethal than Israel's occupation of Palestine. The same logic that leads people to boycott Israeli institutions should lead to a similar call to boycott American, British and Chinese institutions, and government funding, until their occupations end--How about the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association vote to urge their members to stop applying for NIH grants until the last US soldier is out of Iraq (don't hold your breath for this to happen...).

And there is little reason to stop there, as many other countries are similarly guilty of crimes on a massive scale. Russia is certainly a good candidate. And how about Iran considering the arrests of academics on the ludicrous charge of being CIA agents? Shouldn't we be supporting our fellow academics? (Then again, cutting ties between Iranian scholars and their foreign colleagues seems to be the government's goal, so perhaps this is a good time for some constructive engagmenet on our part.)

5. Only a uniform policy by scholars in the US and Europe--and indeed, all democratic countries--against all forms of occupation and oppression will be able to win wide enough public and institutional support to enable, as part of a larger strategy, the kind of boycott of Israeli institutions called for in yesterday's vote. But this would necessitate American and European scholars accepting our own role in perpetuating the system so many of us rail against daily, and doing something proactive, and potentially damaging to our own research or careers more broadly, to help change this dynamic, rather than merely boycotting people and institutions that most of us have little if any relationship with or stake in to begin with.

There are many brave Israeli scholars who have declared their willingness to sacrifice their own professional and scholarly interests to for the sake of challenging their country's occupation of Palestine. Let's see if the British and American supporters of the boycott are willing to show a similar level of moral integrity about their own countries' sordid foreign policies, and the role of the universities that pay their salaries in perpetuating this ignoble state of affairs.

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More Comments:

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 6/6/2007

i think you missed the point of the piece. i do NOT support the boycott of Israeli scholars or institutions that this blog refers to. what I do support is scholars acknowledging that our work often has profound ethical implications, and that as a profession we need to be much more proactive in not serving as handmaidens to government or corporate policies that violate the basic principles of contemporary civilization as acknowledged--legally, one should point out--by the signatures of most countries of the world to documents such as the UN Charter and the Declaration of HR, etc. American and British no less than Israeli institutions of higher learning and research have played crucial roles in mapping out and supporting many of the seemingly intractable problems the world faces today. We as employees of these institutions have a choice to make as to whether we want to change this dynamic.
i can think of few issues more relevant for visitors to this site to discuss and debate.

Don M. Cregier - 6/4/2007

Prof. LeVine has an undeniable right to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and to "blog" about it in the appropriate place, but this piece is political propaganda and doesn't belong in a website presumable committed to the search for historical truth.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 6/2/2007

the idea that israeli academia is somehow outside of the occupation is a well-worn one that is just not true. the 'problem' is that it is equally true that israeli scholars are also likely the most progressive group in society. the latter is used to demonstrate the former, which is not logically valid, but politically useful. nevertheless, i would wonder what opponents of the boycott would be saying if what we were talking about was an arab country that was ruthlessly persecuting jews, stealing their land, forcing them to live in ghettos, preventing them from going to school, etc. and of course, in response, jews were engaged in acts of violence including terrorism, to try to stop the abuses by the government. would they still be opposed to a boycott on the grounds of academic freedom or because jews were also using violence and terror to stop the unjust situation? or would they want to use every means at their disposal to cahnge the larger dynamics even as they condemned the actions of a small minority of jews that gave into violence as the only way to free themselves of that oppression?

Richard Silverstein - 6/2/2007

on this subject. The boycott is a sledgehammer while a scalpel would be a better tool. But since the sledgehammer seems to be the only tool available under these circumstances, it may have to do.

There is so much utter hypocrisy written on this subject. Have you seen Brad Burston's Haaretz column in which he has the balls to claim that Israeli academia as a class has bravely opposed the Occupation at great risk to itself.

In addition, you may've heard of the case of Yigal Arens being disinvited fr. a Ben Gurion Univ. conference because IDF, Mosad & Shin Bet intelligence analysts didn't like his outspoken opposition to the Occupation. And the BGU conference planners acceded to their demand & Yigal was history.

How can Israeli boycott opponents make the argument that academia & the politics of the Occupation have nothing to do w. ea. other?? Clearly they do or Yigal would be at the conference when it begins this wk.