Questioning the Israeli Boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Ur Shlonsky | The Nation | 6 March 2003

Geneva, Switzerland
I would like to respond to Neve Gordon’s piece, “Against the Israeli Academic Boycott” (Feb. 14). Like Gordon, I am opposed to an academic boycott of Israeli universities precisely because it singles out academia. Unlike Gordon, however, I don’t see any valid justification to exclude universities and research institutes from a general boycott of Israeli goods and services.
The driving force behind the rapidly developing boycott movement is the frustration that many people in the West feel about the almost total indifference of their governments to the ongoing Israeli war against the Palestinians, and about the unperturbed legitimacy that Israel continues to enjoy in Western political circles. Since governments are not willing to stand up and put pressure on Israel, a variety of independent, grassroots initiatives have sprung up. They share the aim of delegitimizing Israel and its official institutions, penalizing it economically and isolating it politically.
I recently received an invitation to speak at a scientific conference at Ben Gurion University (BGU). I declined the invitation on two grounds. The first was that I practice the boycott and as such I do not buy Israeli avocados and beauty products or participate in events organized by an Israeli academic institution. My second reason for declining the invitation was that I know perfectly well that if the situation were reversed–that is, if I, my family or my people were being trampled by Palestinian guns, barely surviving under curfew, prevented from attending school or going to work, isolated internationally and clamoring for support and solidarity–I would feel a surge of resentment toward any foreign academic traveling to, say, Bir Zeit University as a guest of a scientific conference. Talk about the “apolitical” nature of such a conference would strike me as a lame excuse for indifference.
Gordon advances two arguments in favor of leaving the universities out of the boycott. First, he argues that the boycott harms academic freedom and serves those who would like to stifle it. Second, he claims that Israeli universities are bastions of freedom and therefore constitute the wrong targets.
To take up the second point first, it seems to me fairly well established that only Jews enjoy real freedom in Israel, and only Jewish students and faculty are really free in Israel’s universities. Arab students are subject both to institutional discrimination and to the more or less usual racism which permeates Israeli society. The former includes the near absence of financial aid, the absence of Hebrew-language assistance (which is provided to Jewish immigrants), no housing assistance and no official recognition of Arab student bodies. Finally, Arabs’ liberties of expression and congregation are substanially more restricted than those accorded to Jews or Jewish bodies.
When I taught at Haifa University in the late 1980s, I was appalled by the existence of a two-tier grade system, with different standards for Jews and Arabs. I distinctly recall my department chair pressuring me (I was untenured) to give a B+ to a Palestinian student, explaining that while she agreed that the student’s work was not worth the paper it was written on, “she is only an Arab girl who wants to be a teacher.”
I also remember many discussions with my Arab students about the dehumanization they were subjected to (“dehumanization” was their term). They pointed out to me that the overwhelming majority of Jewish professors had no interest in their origins (e.g., from the North or the South of the country, from a village or a town), that they were simply “Arabs.” Jewish students, on the other hand, were not simply “Jews.” They were religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardic; from a city, a kibbutz or a moshav; Russian or native-born, etc. The Arab students found particulay insulting the fact that many professors made no efforts to learn their names or were unable to distinguish last names from first names.
It is quite revealing, I think, that the voice of Arab academics employed by Israeli institutions is completely absent from the debate over the academic boycott. Let me venture the hypothesis that many Arabs in Israeli universities are afraid to take a public position on this issue, since they know they will be putting their jobs at risk. If this hypothesis is valid, or even partially valid, than all the talk about freedom in Israeli universities is just propaganda.
Consider, finally, the argument to the effect that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions harms academic freedom and provides grist for the mill of the Limor Livnats of the world (Livnat is Minister of Education). Let us agree on one thing: In a boycott situation, there is a price to be paid. For example, agricultural workers in Israel risk losing their jobs as a consequence of a drop in sales of Israeli agricultural goods. Academics also pay a price, but it is, frankly, a very low price because, crucially, their salaries are not at risk. What is at risk are invitations to foreign conferences, research funding, etc. These undeniably limit some academic activities, but can they be considered limitations of academic freedom? I cannot see how a boycott prevents an Israeli researcher from, for example, publishing his or her research through the myriad channels available today, namely the Internet, domestic Israeli publications, through teaching, seminars, colloquia etc. Does one have to be a professor with frequent invitations to lecture in the United States in order to be free?
Finally, efforts to stifle dissident voices in Israel are likely to increase as the country becomes more and more isolated internationally. Being in favor of the boycott, however, does not mean that we sit back while Haifa University tries to fire a professor because he stood up for a student who revealed another 1948 massacre (I am referring here to charges that were brought and later dismissed against Professor Ilan Pappé). On the contrary, the movement will only get stronger if it combines institutional boycott with support for individual scholars–particularly those who, like Neve Gordon, have the courage to dissent.