Israeli university boycott: How a campaign backfired

From the archive (legacy material)

Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt | The Guardian | 20 June 2006

Following a heart attack earlier this year, Paul Mackney, then general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), was lying in hospital last month flipping through emails on his Blackberry. A proposal calling on the lecturers’ union to encourage an academic boycott of Israel had just been made public, and flooding his inbox were messages accusing him, among many things, of being a “Bin Laden-oriented supporter of Islamic terror and propaganda” and an “ultra anti-semitic Nazi”. Later, at the union’s annual conference, he leaned over during a debate to show the most recent: “Subject: Jew Hater!” it read. “It’s nice to hate Jews and single them out for everything! It’s called ANTI-SEMITISM you disgusting piece of shit.”
Mackney was sent over 15,000 messages from boycott opponents. At least 50,000 more were sent to other leaders of Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers, which passed a similar motion last year. Petitions with more than 17,000 signatories were sent to the union. While much of the criticism was well formulated and respectful, there was something troubling about the massive international campaign.
Mackney’s family gave shelter to Jewish refugees during the second world war. He has campaigned on behalf of Jewish members for policies for those who do not want to work on the Jewish Sabbath. He opposed the boycott, speaking out passionately against it just before the votes were counted at the conference late last month.
But, he said, a reasoned debate was made extraordinarily difficult by an aggressive campaign involving tens of thousands of activists. “The ironic thing,” Mackney said despondently after the motion was passed, “is if we had put this to delegates a couple of weeks ago, before the international pro-Israeli lobby started this massive campaign emailing delegates and trying to deny us our democratic right to discuss whatever we like, it probably wouldn’t have passed. People feel bullied, and what we have seen is a hardening of attitudes. All they achieved was making the delegates determined to debate and pass the motion.”
After a month covering the debate for our respective newspapers, we are inclined to agree. Most delegates displayed more passion in their outrage at the heavy-handed tactics used to affect the union’s decision than they did in their support of the rather divisive resolution. It passed with only a 53% majority. The campaign served the exact end it sought to avoid.
This is not to criticise the desire of the boycott’s opponents to affect the decision. Natfhe was debating a proposal calling on British lecturers to boycott Israeli colleagues who do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from “Israeli apartheid policies”. The motion contained provocative judgments of the Israeli academy and called for a curtailment of Israeli academic freedoms. Why shouldn’t those who value such freedoms and those who support Israel and its academy lobby members of the union?
The pickle is trying to determine whether the campaigns against such boycotts are actually motivated by concerns for academic freedom, or whether they are using the universalist ideal to stifle critical discussion of Israel.
We have found much more evidence of the latter. Through discussions with anti-boycott campaigners and a trace of the most common emails (not necessarily abusive) sent to the union and handed over by Natfhe, we found the vast majority of the tens of thousands of emails originated not with groups fighting for academic freedom, but with lobby groups and thinktanks that regularly work to delegitimise criticisms of Israel. We spoke to a number of these groups about their aims and the extent of their campaigns against the boycott.
The main Israeli anti-boycott organising group is the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which claims to have a network of hundreds of American and European academics. With few exceptions, its principal work is to defend Israeli academic freedoms.
In the US, home to the vast majority of those organising against the boycott, one major campaigner was the American Jewish Congress, for which academic freedom is not the central aim. AJC supporters could go to the website, type in their name and an email would be sent on their behalf – 5,480 individual emails were sent to each of five union leaders in this manner.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews also held a website-based email campaign, yielding 5,015 individual emails to each union leader.
The only US organisation whose mission is explicitly related to education is Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a Zionist organisation working on US campuses “to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-semitic and anti-Zionist slanders that poison debate”. The group organised a large petition and appealed to its 6,000 supporters to email a letter to union leaders. Mackney received more than 4,000.
This is not to say such groups do not have a right to counter criticisms of Israel. It is simply to argue that advocacy of academic freedom is not the motivation behind the anti-boycott campaign, and the mission statements of the organisations behind it – all of which involve pro-Israeli advocacy, rather than academic freedom – do not match their rhetoric.
Campaigners have used academic freedom as a tactic in a political campaign seeking to redirect public discussion away from the question of the complicity of the Israeli academy with the occupation and discrimination in Israeli universities (a debate they are likely to lose) towards academic freedom (a debate they are likely to win).
They have so far succeeded, dominating the debate by questioning the morality of a boycott. Campaigners have argued it will hinder the international academic cooperation that has aided the peace process.
They have criticised the problematic precedent set by a UK union boycotting Israeli academics who do not publicly subscribe to the beliefs of that union. They ask why Israeli academics should be singled out for rebuke while those working under regimes with equal or worse human rights violations go unquestioned.
Many boycott supporters engaged with these arguments. Some pointed to incidents in which the union took a stand against human rights violations all over the world; others agreed that a boycott is discriminatory, but argued the boycott of South Africa was both discriminatory and necessary. For the most part, the boycott’s advocates admitted it would infringe on academic freedom, but argued that the international community cannot be expected to protect the academic freedom of one group of people when it is dependent on – and often aids in – the suppression of the overall freedoms of other groups, academic and otherwise.
There are merits to both arguments. What is disappointing is that, while there is a robust public debate over academic freedom and the discriminatory nature of boycotts (the primary arguments of the opponents), serious consideration of the makeup and operations of the Israeli academy (source of the primary arguments of its supporters) has been largely absent.
About 9% of Arabs are accepted for university studies in Israel, compared with about 25% of the children of Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin) and about 16% of the Mizrahim (Jews of north African or Middle Eastern origin). The percentage of Arabs in university faculties is about 1%.
While individual Israeli academics have spoken up in defence of academic freedom in the occupied territories, not one institution has officially condemned injustices related to the occupation: not when in Operation Defensive Shield the army sowed destruction on Palestinian campuses, or when students are arrested on their way to university, and hundreds cannot reach their classrooms because of the separation wall or the other restrictions on movement. Under Israeli occupation, all 11 Palestinian universities have been closed at some point, often for years at a time.
What are flourishing in Israeli universities are special programmes for the security forces and centres for security studies, in which the focus is not on academic analysis of the security apparatus, but on finding academic justification for its activities.
Surely all this should be included in a global debate on the academic freedoms of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Tamara Traubmann is a journalist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Benjamin Joffe-Walt writes for the Guardian