The British Academic Boycott of Israel: The Logic of Sanctions Dawns

From the archive (legacy material)

Gabi Baramki | Al-Ahram Weekly | 8 June 2005

On April 22, an important psychological barrier was shattered when the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) decided to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities because of their “complicity in the racist and colonial” policies of Israel. At its annual meeting, the AUT also voted to circulate the Call for Boycott issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) among all its branches. The Palestinian Call is supported by almost 60 of the most important unions, professional associations and educational institutions in Palestine, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees and the umbrella organization of Palestinian NGOs in the occupied West Bank (PNGO).
As expected, the Zionist campaign against the boycott has intensified dramatically, resorting to the now familiar tactics of misinformation to promote the fictional view of Israeli universities as liberal havens for those who champion Palestinian rights. Supporters of the boycott are also accused of anti-semitism, in spite of the fact that many of the most active supporters of the boycott are progressive Jews opposed to the Occupation.
On May 26, the Zionist lobby in Britain succeeded to in reversing the AUT motions on the basis of misleading arguments. One such argument is that the boycott would harm a number of cooperative projects already in place between Palestinian and Israeli universities. But these projects, where they exist, disregard the specific and authoritative call by the Palestinian Council of Higher Education for “non-cooperation in the scientific and technical fields between Palestinian and Israeli universities”.
Palestinians academics have largely rejected these ‘cooperative’ projects because they lend legitimacy, perhaps unintentionally, to Israeli policies of oppression, including continued expropriation of Palestinian land, expansion of settlements, building of the Apartheid Wall, indiscriminate killing of innocent people, demolition of homes and destruction of agricultural land, not to mention the suffocating siege designed to separate Palestinians from other Palestinians as well as from their sources of livelihood, medical services and educational institutions, in a clever attempt to force them out of their land gradually, without attracting international attention.
One of the most important achievements of the short-lived AUT boycott and the media coverage it has attracted is that they have exposed and undermined the longstanding policy of exceptionalism towards Israel and the tendency to treat it as a country above international law, a country that cannot be questioned or held accountable for its actions. Palestinian academics have consistently drawn attention to the similarities between Israel and Apartheid South Africa and have called on the international community to subject Israel to the same sanctions it applied to South Africa in the eighties. Despite the undeniable differences between the two situations, the racist policies applied in both are sufficiently similar to warrant using the same remedy, so to speak. International boycotts, divestments and sanctions remain the most powerful weapon available to Palestinian non-violent resistance.
The AUT boycott decision comes less than a year after the historic ruling against the Apartheid Wall by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, which also called on the international community to adopt concrete measures against Israel. The AUT motions, despite being overturned, together with the growing divestment movement among mainstream churches in the west may then be seen as the first practical response to this international development, a response that translates the ICJ decision into tangible measures.
However, for the new strategy of boycott to become genuinely effective, it must be extended to cover all academic and cultural institutions in Israel, since they all actively perpetuate the Occupation and the oppression of our people. The boycott must also extend to the economic domain, which is key to the success of this campaign, as well as professional, sports, trade union and other fields. Only when the boycott is firmly established as a fact on the ground in these areas will we be able to press for international diplomatic sanctions judiciously and effectively.
Concerning the claim by critics of the AUT boycott of Israeli academic institutions that it is contrary to the principles of academic freedom, we can only wonder whether Palestinian academics are even considered part of the community whose academic freedom must be protected. Clearly, only the academic freedom of Israelis is of concern or matters at all to those who have put forth this argument. Appealing to lofty notions of academic freedom and the importance of safeguarding the unfettered flow of ideas without having the moral courage to recognize the reality of Israeli oppression and colonization is hypocritical to say the least.
With occupation, all freedom is stifled, including academic freedom. Access of Palestinian academics and students–indeed, of the population at large–to education and health facilities and jobs is cruelly and intentionally impeded by Israel’s military siege, its apartheid wall and the hundreds of checkpoints that litter the Palestinian landscape. This much has been well documented by respectable Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. In response to this and other grave and systematic violations of Palestinian human rights committed in the last four decades of military occupation, Israeli academic institutions have not only remained silent, but have contributed to sustaining the occupation through research and “academic” services to the military and security establishment in Israel. This is what constitutes complicity. This is precisely why we have called for boycotting these institutions.
One crucial wall has fallen. It is time to bring down the rest.
* The writer is former Acting President of Birzeit University, Palestine