Anatomy of a boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Andrew Jakubowicz | Sydney Morning Herald | 8 February 2003

Should a country’s intelligentsia be ostracised because of their government’s actions? Andrew Jakubowicz examines the international call by academics to boycott their Israeli colleagues.
Every morning my computer opens with two email lists – one, from a colleague in Beirut, recounts the latest horrors experienced by the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation; the other, by a colleague in Sydney, recounts the latest horrors experienced by the Israelis in the face of Palestinian terrorism. In the past months, one particular story has appeared in a different guise on both lists – the global debate over the academic boycotts of Israel and the petitions against the boycotts.
These boycotts are the fallout from the initial actions last year of two activists in Britain, Steven and Hilary Rose – he a professor at the Open University, she at the University of Bradford, and both major figures in the radical science movement and its commitment to freedom of thought. Last April, as the intifada deepened and the government of Ariel Sharon seemed to become ever more intransigent, the Roses initiated a letter, published in The Guardian. The original email they sent called on the European Union (EU) not to renew the Framework Agreement giving Israeli universities equivalent status to those in Europe.
The Roses harked back to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, when academics had sought to isolate South African universities and research groups with ties to the government. At times, the boycott had isolated even those South African academics who were opposed to apartheid.
Some agreed with the boycott. Others resented the limitations on intellectual exchange, critical to their own struggle against apartheid. Yet the boycott continued, as did others in sport, business and culture. In toto, these boycotts played no small part in the regime’s decision to allow a transition to multi-racial politics. A powerful precedent but an extremely controversial analogy.
Two questions remain unresolved in relation to the South African case: is Israel the moral equivalent today of South Africa under apartheid? And did the academic boycott achieve anything – or were the economic and sporting boycotts, and other UN moves to isolate South Africa, the effective side of international action?
Regarding the first question: while the radical edge of Zionism has clear racist and exclusionary elements, the huge internal debate and the legitimate dissent within Israel suggests that Israel, as a nation, cannot be compared to South Africa – not the least because there is widespread recognition in Israel of the rights of Palestinians to their own nation. It was, for example, implicit in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
As to the impact of the academic boycotts: while institutions were affected, there was never an attempt to cut off all South African academics from international intercourse with their peers – though, at times, South African passports were not accepted for entry to many countries.
The initial Rose proposal sought support from colleagues for a cessation of EU links to Israeli academic institutions. But, as it circulated further, the email was extended by some signatories to a boycott of all links to any Israeli academics. Some of the early signatories were not happy about this.
Meanwhile, in Australia, two local academics – Dr Ghassan Hage, of Sydney University, and Dr John Docker, of the Australian National University – initiated their own call to boycott Israel and all Israelis. Moreover, the signatories to their petition in May last year (published later in the left-wing journal Arena and as a letter to the editor in a number of newspapers) pledged themselves to a course of action inside their universities. The statement included the following rationale: “How long are we going to look passively at the Israeli crimes of war perpetrated daily and systematically, not as something anomalous, but as a matter of national policy?”
Its signatories called for “a boycott of research and cultural links with Israel. We urge our colleagues not to attend conferences in Israel; to pressure our universities to suspend any existing exchange or linkage arrangements; and to refuse to distribute scholarship and academic position information. We note that while some academics and intellectuals in Israel oppose the Government and some also are involved in co-operative Israeli/Palestinian research projects, the vast majority have either supported the Israeli Army onslaught on the Palestinians, or failed to voice any significant protest against it. The boycott we propose will inevitably also adversely affect those who don’t deserve it, and we regret that this has to happen.”
More than 90 Australian academics from a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences signed this statement (I was not one of them). Some were well-known opponents of Zionism, others had not taken a public position on the conflict. Some were of Arab background, though the majority were not; a small number were Jewish. The universities identified covered about half of Australia’s institutions, including the ANU, Adelaide, Sydney, Monash, Western Sydney (the largest contingent), Melbourne, La Trobe, University of Technology, Sydney, NSW and RMIT.
The academics’ public statement received the full force of editorial hostility in The Australian and The Sunday Telegraph, and a rebuke from the federal minister for Multicultural Affairs, Gary Hardgrave.
The Australian Left has had a difficult relationship with the idea and reality of Israel, ranging from antagonism to warm embracing. The idea of Israel as a refuge for Jews after Nazism, the socialist model of the kibbutz, and the ideal of social democracy in a new land where technology transforms the wilderness underpinned the early positive responses. More recently, the treatment of the Palestinians, the apparently unending cycles of violence, and the images of tanks against stones have interacted with support for struggles for national liberation, to produce widespread hostility. There is also a Western tradition of ambivalence about Jews – deeply, if not subtly, embedded in the cultural frameworks of Christian societies – which is amplified by some immigrants from Arab countries who see Israel as the arch-enemy.
Perhaps this very engagement with Israel generates the levels of frustration – a closeness not matched in relationships with other countries. We have had no public calls to boycott countries such as Russia (in Chechnya, where many thousands of Muslim fighters for independence, and civilians, have been killed), China (over its occupation of Tibet), or Indonesia (in East Timor). Indeed, in the latter case, Australian academics were trying to build coalitions and welcome Indonesian academics into the international community, seeing this as a means of increasing internal debate and democracy in that country.
After the boycott call here, two anti-boycott petitions were started – one in Sydney, the other in Melbourne. In addition, other groups moved to support Israeli academics who opposed the Israeli Government.
I asked a number of the signatories to the Australian boycott call what they had done to implement their commitment. Had they moved motions in faculty meetings, proposed action by university research committees, advocated that specific links with Israeli universities be cut? I found no evidence of any action arising from the boycott – though some signatories said the public statement, in itself, was sufficient to signify to their universities’ executives that the issue is alive and on local agendas.
One signatory said she regretted signing the call to boycott, but was so frustrated with the intransigence and cruelty of the Israeli Government that she was drawn into it. She has not made any public statement of her regret or reversed her position. Another has made a commitment to a research group, in which we both participate, that he will do nothing to impede research links with Israel in spite of signing the boycott call.
These examples may appear a small matter, but a number of significant issues are at stake. The boundary between political condemnation of the Sharon Government and victimisation of all Israeli academics, whatever their political positions, has been crossed.
Last July, the publisher of several private academic journals in Britain, Professor Mona Baker, decided to sack two of her editorial board members because they were Israelis associated with Israeli universities. This was despite their personal opposition to the Israeli Government on the Palestinian question, and their unquestionable academic qualifications. She argues now that their links to Israeli institutions are the issue – not their nationality. Her university – University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology – is inquiring into the sackings, which have been widely criticised by many academic organisations and British politicians. The inquiry itself has been labelled a “witch-hunt” by pro-Palestinian groups.
Then late last year the British editor of the journal Political Geography refused to forward a paper to be reviewed for publication because the authors were Israelis – even though one of them was an Arab and the paper was critical of the Israeli Government. Only after the American editor and the editorial board intervened was the paper sent for review.
In Paris, controversy has engulfed two universities where there were moves to call on the EU to terminate its Framework Agreement exchange with Israel. Demonstrations, calls by ministers, and a huge internet petition have condemned any such action by the universities.
Debate over the boycotts is fully under way in Britain, Europe, North America and Australia. Three groups are joined in uncomfortable alliances on either side. Those supporting the boycotts include Palestinian activists who see the boycott as a weapon of war against Israel; Leftists who see Israel as an American agent in the Middle East and as the sharp end of Western imperialism in the Arab lands; and those who express the same outrage and frustration with the actions of the Sharon Government as my colleague. Also, some may simply be anti-Semites.
Among those opposed to the boycott are right-wing Zionists (including some who may seek the eradication of political Palestine); moderate Jews, and others in Israel and elsewhere, who fear that the anti-Israel rhetoric masks a re-emergence of political anti-Semitism on a global scale; and social progressives who are not Zionists but believe that dialogue is a better way forward than walls of silence between those whose views differ.
The moral and political climate has warmed considerably over the past year. Hostility to Israeli institutions has been mirrored by hostile reactions to academics and programs seen to be pro-Palestinian. In the United States, conservative groups have mounted a campaign to withdraw government funding from Arabist scholars and courses that are claimed to be pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel. There are also moves to suspend government funding of many suspect courses, and to replace them with State Department-funded and approved language and culture courses.
So what does the call for an Australian boycott achieve?
Although it claims to target all Israelis, only Jewish Israelis are likely to be affected. It is unlikely that any of the Australian signatories would move to prevent an Israeli-Arab student coming to their university on exchange, or refuse to deal intellectually with an Israeli-Arab academic.
So, by not clearly thinking through the implications of their tactics, those in the boycott group leave themselves open to perceptions of naivety or prejudice.
What impact will the boycott have? Unless the signatories do something, there is likely to be little direct impact on Israeli public opinion, or on government policy.
The longer-term effects are harder to predict. Calls for a total research and cultural boycott threaten the broader benefit of a global academic community, at a time when the privatisation of knowledge is a major issue in all universities.
While a few Israeli academics support the boycott call, many of those with links to Palestinian scholars do not. Their role in the struggle for a peaceful outcome is undermined by cutting them out of international dialogue.
A boycott that takes the high moral ground but requires little of its advocates undermines the morality of the position they claim – if it costs them little, the underlying moral claims may not be seen as having any real strength.
Many Australians, of whom I am one, share a deep loathing for the violent oppression that is being carried out in the Palestinian territories, and a horror at the violence being loosed on the Israeli people. The boycott signatories who do nothing to advance the specifics of the boycott statement play into the hands of conservatives and radical Zionists, who claim their position is either racist or posturing, and into the hands of those who advocate violence against Israel as the only way forward for Palestinians.
If the boycott signatories will not act in support of their beliefs, they should at least state publicly that they resile from their call to boycott, and thus have the courage, one way or another, of their convictions.
My view is that the boycott is not the way to proceed. Rather, active dialogue with Israeli colleagues over the issues is required – a more time-consuming but intellectually potent process. It would be more useful to identify those parts of the Israeli academic system that participate in the expropriation of Palestinian lands, and critique that role.
Australian universities are under major pressures from political and economic forces that seek to make them more malleable, more reactive to conservative agendas, and less open as arenas for debate.
It is a bizarre twist that a significant part of the intellectual community that claims to defend these values of openness and free discussion now finds itself advocating closure and isolation.
Andrew Jakubowicz is professor of sociology at the University of Technology, Sydney.