Boycotting the Israeli Academy

From the archive (legacy material)

Lisa Taraki | Zmag | 19 August 2004

Calls for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions have generated a great deal of controversy in some quarters, notably among Israeli academics and their supporters in Europe and the United States. The Palestinian voice, the voice of the Palestinian academy and of Palestinian public intellectuals, has not been heard in the raging debates about the boycott. I hope to be able to address some of the frequently raised objections to the boycott, and in so doing, to clarify how we view things from our vantage point in the Palestinian academy.1
The boycott movement was not initiated by Palestinians, although it has widespread support among Palestinian academics. The initial call was made in the UK in April 2002, at the height of the Israeli assault upon Palestinian cities and towns. During this assault, Palestinian governmental and civil institutions–including schools and universities–sustained tremendous losses, ranging from the destruction of facilities and infrastructure to the severe curtailment of operations as a result of long curfews, army raids, and the system of checkpoints that continues to this day. The British initiative was not a call for a blanket boycott of the Israeli academic community, but was a restricted call for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions.2
This call for a moratorium was followed by other initiatives in Europe, Australia, and the US (in the US, divestment campaigns have been the main form of activism). In August 2002, a group of Palestinian organizations in the occupied territories, including the Palestinian NGO Network, issued a statement calling for a comprehensive boycott of Israel, including a boycott of academic and cultural institutions. This was followed in October 2003 by a statement by Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the occupied territories and in the diaspora calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.3
Encouraged by the growing international boycott initiative, a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel in Ramallah in April 2004. The Campaign’s statement of principles was met with widespread support, and has to date been endorsed by nearly sixty Palestinian academic, cultural and other civil society federations, unions, and organizations, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees, the Palestinian NGO Network in the West Bank, the Teachers’ Federation, the Palestinian Writers’ Federation, the Palestinian League of Artists, and many other professional associations. The campaign has also established an advisory committee comprised of well-known public figures and intellectuals. Briefly, the Campaign calls upon international academics to refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions; advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions; promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions; work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations; support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support; and finally, to exclude from the actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies.4
The boycott campaign statement may be an appropriate point of departure for dealing with some of the points raised by critics of the boycott. In particular, I wish to take up claims about the nature of the Israeli academy and the fear that the boycott will hurt the forces of peace in Israel. One Israeli critic of the boycott has claimed that it plays into the hands of right-wing, neo-McCarthyist forces who have stepped up their attacks on “pro-peace” and left-of-center academics and intellectuals in Israel.5 In doing so, I will be underlining what I see as a remarkable aspect of the Israeli and pro-Israeli polemic against the boycott: the tremendous agency with which the Israeli left (academic or otherwise) is invested by its members and supporters. This stems from a self-centered–I daresay narcissistic–worldview, nourished, in my opinion, by the deep-seated and pervasive exceptionalism with which Israel is treated by the world’s powerful and hegemonic institutions. The same exceptionalism that has shielded Israel from censure in world bodies such as the United Nations Security Council through automatic US vetoes is also at work here among apologists for the Israeli academy.
Left-leaning Israeli academics and some of their international allies have argued that the boycott will isolate the forces of peace in Israel and will compromise their ability to fight against the occupation and work for a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli academic David Newman reports that many left-wing Israeli academics are “opposed the boycott on the grounds that it would cause irreparable harm to those who constituted the voice of protest inside Israel, who worked closely with Palestinian academic and human rights organizations, and who promoted joint Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and scientific activities.”6
There are a number of issues that need to be unpacked here. First, it is not clear why the boycott should necessarily delegitimize the forces of peace. This may be the time to ask some uncomfortable questions: do the anti-boycott academics mean that if the Israeli peace forces are provoked they may jump the peace ship? If so, what does this say about their commitment to peace? Another possibility, generally not considered by them, is that Israeli peace forces truly dedicated to an end to colonial rule may actually be encouraged to do more because of the boycott. It is possible, in the words of a pro-boycott Israeli professor in a personal communication, that they will “not feel more righteous when condemned by the world, but more ashamed.” Would not some outside pressure in the form of sanctions and boycotts aimed at isolating Israel in the international arena and rendering it a pariah state help in the process of making people come to terms with the hard facts? May this not spur action on the part of the peace camp rather than demoralize, alienate, or isolate its members? After all, the pro-peace forces in Israel have had several decades’ worth of experience in persuasion, and their dismal record in this regard shows that it is time for some external intervention. In the face of collusion by world powers in the maintenance of the status quo, international civil society should be given a chance to exercise pressure with the tools at its disposal. Boycott is among the few nonviolent tools available to world activists, and must be given the opportunity to prove its potential for effecting positive change in the status quo, as it undoubtedly did in the dismantling of the system of apartheid in South Africa.
This brings us to the issue of the record of the Israeli academy in the fight against Israeli colonial rule over the Palestinians. It has often been claimed that Israeli academics have been at the forefront of anti-occupation activities, and that targeting them and their institutions is at best unfair and at worst unethical or hypocritical. If we examine the record of the most enlightened of Israeli academic institutions (leaving aside the right-wing think tanks, strategic studies centers, and some university departments), we find that there is little that they can be proud of when it comes to their contribution to the struggle against the regime of colonial rule. The question that needs to be asked is what these “progressive” Israeli institutions and their members have done against the system of colonial control? How many of these individuals have written, lectured or otherwise acted against the occupation and racial discrimination inside Israel? How many of them have refused to serve in their state’s colonial army on conscientious grounds? It is worth noting that hardly any of them have worked to pass resolutions in their faculty senates and other academic forums condemning Israeli colonial policy in general and the war being waged on the Palestinians in the past three years, not to mention raise their voices to protest the damage done to Palestinian educational institutions over the years. Whereas the anti-boycott movement is in full force in Israel, with hundreds of academics signing anti-boycott petitions and setting up committees to fight the boycott, the academics who claim they are fighting for their academic freedom are nowhere to be found when it comes to protecting the academic freedom of Palestinians, which has been all but obliterated by the occupation.
I wish to relate a very telling incident involving the Truman Institute, since this institution has been often singled out as a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in research and academic activities in general. In November 2002, several months after the concerted Israeli military attack against the whole of Palestinian society launched in March of the same year, a letter was sent to Palestinian academics by the Truman Institute library offering some library services to “Palestinian scholars captured by the difficult circumstances of wartime” due to the continuing curfews and restrictions on movement. As I said in a letter to the Truman Institute library in response, if concern for Palestinian scholars’ inability to carry out their work was what lay behind this offer, how was it that we had not heard their voice protesting the near-destruction of Palestinian universities through the military system of total control and obstruction of normal life? What, besides providing journal articles, were they doing for the Palestinian scholars “captured by the difficult circumstances of wartime?” Had they asked what was the role of their state, of which their institution is a part, in this war that had kept Palestinian scholars “out of touch” and at home? Why were they not protesting the fact that these colleagues were at home to begin with? Needless to say, I did not receive an answer from the Institute’s leadership. They knew full well that aside from throwing a few crumbs our way they had done nothing for Palestinian academics. For to do so would have meant taking a courageous and public stand against their government’s war on Palestinian civil society, not to mention the decades-long assault on Palestinian educational institutions through repeated closures and the detention and deportation of tens of thousands of students and faculty. The recent killings by the Israeli army of two Palestinian university professors, Dr. Yasir Abu-Laimun and Dr. Khalid Salah (and the latter’s 16-year-old son), did not elicit any condemnation, either from the Truman Institute or any other academic institution or body in Israel.7
From our vantage point here in Palestine, we consider the Israeli academy as a whole to have been complicit in the perpetuation of colonial rule over the Palestinians, either actively (as in the case of certain scholars directly involved in colonial rule such as Menahem Milson, Shlomo Gazit, and Moshe Ma’oz), or else passively, through its silence. We do not have a catalogue of this active complicity; assembling that promises to be an eye-opening exercise if it were to be undertaken systematically and comprehensively. Suffice it to say that Israeli academics have been at best uncaring about the deeds of their colleagues actively in the service of the colonial machine. For example, very few professors of medicine have raised their voices over the years to protest the corruption of the medical ethics they teach their students when their former students and colleagues have been implicated in the torture and mistreatment of Palestinians in Israeli jails. Hardly any law professors have challenged the system of “justice” meted out to Palestinians in Israeli military courts since 1967. Nor have we heard from the professional associations of physicians and lawyers on the way their professions have been used by the military and the intelligence services in the service of the occupation (many military prosecutors and judges are reservists; it is quite likely that, in the many years since 1967 when the military courts have been in existence, some or many of them may actually have been academics). On the contrary, the vast majority of Israeli academics have hardly said a word in public by way of censuring colleagues in the service of the colonial apparatus or espousing racist opinions cloaked in scholarly language (just as an example, there has been no public outrage by Israeli philosophers and their association at the work of Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher, who provides an “ethical” defense of the government’s assassination policy).
The role of Israeli academics and their institutions in maintaining the system of apartheid against Palestinian citizens of Israel by buttressing its ideological scaffolding hardly needs to be mentioned here, and is a vast topic that cannot be dealt with adequately in this short space. But it is clear that academic disciplines such as history, archaeology, demography, psychology, and sociology have always been highly politicized in Israel, and there has been very little public censure of racist and ethnocentric theses, findings, and positions espoused by scholars. For example, very few academics providing think tanks, political parties and the government with ammunition on the “demographic question,” itself a racist construct, have been called to task by their colleagues in the Israeli academy. Writing about “demographic balance” and “the demographic threat” is a routine and normal preoccupation among many academics, and hardly raises an eyebrow in the Israeli academy for its horrific implications, not least for what it says about licensed racism in dealing with the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The silence of the organized scholarly community on the pronouncements of scholars justifying ethnic cleansing and extreme measures by the army is remarkable. Aside from condemnations and critiques from a handful of critical scholars, I know of no position adopted by an academic body, university senate, or other representative or professional group criticizing or censuring academic work in the service of colonial or racist policies.
In short, it is clear that the Israeli academy–as an institution–has failed miserably in upholding the ethical principles which the status of its members as scholars and intellectuals demands of them. As such, we believe that academics have no special immunity, and cannot be treated differently from Israeli workers, growers, businesspeople, and manufacturers negatively affected by economic and trade boycotts. I am mentioning these sectors in particular since for some left-leaning Israeli academics, economic and trade boycotts are understandable and perhaps even permissible, while academic boycotts are regarded as immoral and self-defeating. But we believe that Israeli academics have not as a group distinguished themselves as fighters for the cause of justice. I may add that some of them, admittedly a handful, are supportive of sanctions and boycotts against their institutions, and are aware that the funding for their research and the training of their students will be hurt by the withdrawal of outside funding. It should also be made clear here that we know of many Israeli scholars and intellectuals who have devoted their life work to the struggle against the occupation. We encourage all Palestinians and their supporters to work with these courageous individuals.
The last point I wish to take up is the claim that the boycott hurts joint Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in research and other academic pursuits. Let me point out here that most Palestinian universities have a policy of non-cooperation with Israeli institutions, and thus the scope of joint projects is in reality very limited. Those projects, where they existed, were severely compromised after the eruption of the intifada in late 2000, when for practical and political reasons many Palestinian partners in joint projects terminated their involvement in them. It is important to note here for those who do not know that not all funds for Palestinian research come without a price tag; support from many European, American and other international foundations and governments is available only if Israeli and Palestinian scholars enter into partnerships. Palestinians view such schemes as highly political, aiming at politicizing research by luring Palestinian (and Israeli) scholars into joint projects with the promise of funds and prospects for publishing and scholarly advancement. We believe that if international funding institutions are really interested in developing the scientific and research capacity of Palestinian institutions and scholars, they should offer direct assistance and not politicize their support. We are happy to note, however, that many respectable foundations in the United States, Canada, and in Europe appreciate this and have steered clear of politicizing research by stipulating joint projects with Israelis.
I will end this discussion of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation with an excerpt from an open letter issued by Birzeit University in the West Bank in February 2004 and addressed to members of the European Parliament debating ratification of a scientific and trade agreement between the European Union and Israel: “[C]ooperation between Israeli and Palestinian Universities is either not possible or is at the absolute minimum. That lack of cooperation is a direct result of the political situation and it is hoped that the international community would understand the dynamics of the relations between the occupier and those who are under occupation. Within these dynamics, cooperation is neither encouraged nor welcomed. This is not bigotry or prejudice, but a position dictated by the severe realities of military occupation. It is not a position that is taken uniquely by the Palestinians. During most, if not all military occupations, people under occupation steered away from cooperating with the occupier or its institutions — whether they are civil or governmental. It is within this context that Birzeit University and most other Palestinian universities do not find it appropriate to cooperate with Israeli institutions.”8
While we encourage our colleagues abroad to expand their boycott of the Israeli academy, we extend our hands to those Israeli academics and intellectuals who find it possible to join us in the fight against the system of colonial rule and apartheid. Only when the colonial apparatus has been dismantled can we meet as equals and engage in the normal business of institutional academic collaboration and cooperation.
1. Lisa Taraki is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and teaches sociology at Birzeit University in Palestine. The Campaign can be reached at,4273,4388633,00.html.
3. The text and list of signatories can be viewed at
4. The statement can be seen at
5. David Newman, “The Threat to Academic Freedom in Israel-Palestine,” Tikkun, July-August, 2004 (
6. Ibid.
7. See Haaretz, April 30, 2004 and July 24 July, 2004 (
8. The letter can be viewed on the Birzeit University website: