Boycotting Israeli institutions and boycotting Israeli individuals

From the archive (legacy material)

Irene Brugel | Jews for Justice for Palestinians | 8 December 2004

The conference on Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles at SOAS on December 5th showed that there is quite strong support for a ‘comprehensive’ boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In commenting on part of the discussion I want to make clear that I regard the question sanctions against Israel as a question of strategy and tactics, of what would best further the aim of ending the occupation and bringing justice to Palestinians, not one of principle, still less an issue of how far Israel does, or does not, resemble apartheid South Africa. I am fully in support of the aim of the new organization, British Committee for Palestinian Universities BRICUP to support Palestinian Universities, and was disappointed that there was relatively little consideration at the conference of how Palestinian students and academics could be directly supported.
BRICUP itself is in favour of individuals refusing to collaborate with Israeli institutions, or refereeing papers coming from such institutions but does not advocate a comprehensive boycott of every Israeli academic. Rather it argues that they should be supported where they work for self-determination and academic freedom for Palestinian academics, reflecting the boycott call by Palestinian academics and NGOs which seeks to exclude ‘any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racial policies’.
However, the way Mona Baker interpreted a boycott of institutions at the conference is rather different, but drew almost no criticism, appearing to be supported wholeheartedly by Ilan Pappe and Nur Masalha and the majority of participants. Here I want to raise some issues with regard to her interpretation of a boycott of Israeli institutions. She was, in effect, arguing for no distinction at all to be made between different people employed by Israeli Universities, and made no demands on Israeli academics or academic institutions. These were to be regarded simply as arms of the State, as legitimate targets in exposing Israel as a pariah State.
The argument was a mix of moralism and pragmatism
1. To distinguish ‘good’ Israeli academics from bad implies privileging academics above other people adversely affected by boycotts. In this analysis ‘pro-Palestinian’ academics have no more right to be protected from international actions against a pariah State than ‘pro-Palestinian’ hotel keepers or orange growers. The problem with this argument is of course that the academic boycott focuses on academics because of their intellectual position in a society, not just any other set of workers. In my view it is perverse to deny that their actual intellectual stance matters. If ideas are irrelevant, why boycott academics in particular? A better approach might be to target Israeli professionals directly implicated in the occupation: lawyers; psychologists; planners; engineers etc, since they help sustain the brutality.
2. Israeli academics are employees/ agents of the State. Ilan Pappe added that they had all been in the Israeli army and hence boycotting them was justified. Presumably he, too, and the other pro-boycott Israeli academics have also been in the army, but are somehow immune from its influence. At the same time Mona Baker tried to argue that an academic boycott was in effect an economic boycott because Israel gained economically from its academic enterprise, and that academia was therefore of no particular ideological significance.
3. There was no agreed arbiter (like the ANC) to decide who was sufficiently critical of the Israeli Government not to escape the attribution of sustaining a pariah State. Though why the NGOs and Palestinian academics who made the call for a boycott should be disregarded as a potential source of advice was unclear. If they have the status to make the call on behalf of Palestinian society as a whole, they must also have the status to offer advice on how any sanctions might be applied in practice.
The upshot of the call for a comprehensive boycott was that any Palestinian who works for an Israeli University would be boycotted alongside Jewish Israelis. Here the argument for a comprehensive boycott ignores huge differences between academics; some have considerable power and choice about whether or not to work abroad, others scrape a living at the margins of academia and are far from being agents of the State. A call for a comprehensive boycott ignores this as well as any distinction based on their actions and beliefs. So Nur Masalha, chairing this session of the conference, could at one and the same time commend the works of Lev Grinberg on the Israeli genocide of Palestinians and advocate that it be banned outside Israel under a comprehensive boycott regime.
Baker, Pappe and Masalha want to distinguish between academic writings, which would be boycotted and political articles that wouldn’t, ignoring the fact that academic publication outside Israel is what gives the research of Grinberg, Pappe, Yiftachel and others weight. I fully appreciate Ilan Pappe’s taunt that it hardly matters in world historical terms if something is or is not published in an academic journal. But if academic publication is irrelevant, then why bother to boycott publication by Israelis in external journals?
Here differences in status among Israeli academics are pertinent. To get security as an academic in Israel it is necessary to publish outside Israel. By denying publication to those on the Left as much as those who actively support the State, we would be undermining their position. The problem is not the scale of individual sacrifice (though it should be set against the possible gains, if this is to be effective politics), but of the importance of maintaining critical voices within academia. Or does that not matter?
The other upshot of Mona Baker’s argument was that Israeli academics working abroad would not be boycotted. Fine, but how are they to get outside, if we are boycotting their applications to external Universities? Again this reflects the failure to appreciate that the position of younger academics without international status is very different from that of those with an established reputation.
Mona Baker’s position would therefore seem to be incoherent. She wants to avoid any spectre of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, using institutional affiliation as the criteria. That might seem neat and simple to administer, but that is an illusion. Does it, for example, apply only to employees of State-funded Universities in Israel, or to students making applications to study elsewhere? Wherever you draw the line there will be a need for discretion, and such discretion, messy though it may be, should be built into any sanctions policy or else we face the possibility that the whole policy will backfire. Instead of getting the message about Israeli human rights abuses across to the world at large and helping to bring an end to the occupation, we end up distracted in defending difficult cases in the media.