Lisa Taraki: The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

From the archive (legacy material)

Lisa Taraki | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

[Note: French translation available here.]

Abstract: This presentation discusses how Palestinian academics and intellectuals conceive the academic and cultural boycott of Israel both internationally and locally, and what they ask from academics, artists, writers, and public intellectuals across the world. After outlining the statement of principles embodied in the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, the presentation takes up some of the issues arising from the Palestinian call, particularly the issue of Palestinian-Israeli academic and artistic collaboration and “dialogue”.   It draws attention to some common misconceptions about such collaboration, discusses the consequences of the politicization of research and artistic production, and urges recognition of Palestinian autonomy by providing direct support to Palestinian institutions without Israeli mediation. The presentation ends with a critical consideration of some arguments against boycott put forward by left-leaning Israeli academics and intellectuals, and calls for a recognition of these arguments as the product of decades of a pervasive Israeli exceptionalism that has allowed Israel to set the terms of debate and escape censure and condemnation.

I would like to discuss, in the short time available here, how Palestinian academics and intellectuals conceive the academic and cultural boycott of Israel both internationally and locally, and what they ask from academics, artists, writers, and public intellectuals across the world.
The Palestinian boycott campaign was launched in Ramallah in April 2004, building upon the momentum generated by the first call to boycott issued in the UK in April 2002, subsequent boycott and divestment initiatives in Europe and the US, and the successful call for boycott issued by Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the occupied territories and in the diaspora in October 2003. The Campaign’s statement of principles has generated widespread support among Palestinians in the occupied territories, and has been endorsed by tens of federations, unions, associations and organizations comprising academics, artists, writers, human rights activists, and public intellectuals. The Campaign has also established an Advisory Committee of well-known public figures in Palestine.
In addressing itself to the international body of academics and intellectuals, the Campaign appeals to them to refrain from participation in any form of academic 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 from Israel by international academic institutions; advocate the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations; support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israelis as an explicit or implicit condition for such support; and finally, to exclude from the actions against Israeli institutions conscientious Israelis opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies.
The Campaign also addresses itself to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and calls for a boycott of all forms of Palestinian-Israeli academic or artistic collaboration, with the exception of activities and relations serving the Palestinian national struggle and aimed at fighting all forms of Israeli oppression, provided that such activities do not require or lead to relations of dependence and the renunciation of Palestinian national rights.
I would like to take up a few of the issues arising from the Palestinian appeals, especially those around which there may be some lack of clarity.
One of these has to do with what we ask from our international supporters concerning Palestinian-Israeli collaborative projects, especially in research.   It has often been claimed that support for Israeli research capabilities—through initiatives such as European scientific and technical cooperation agreements with Israel—can also be construed as support for Palestinian research capacity, since under these agreements Palestinian and Israeli researchers can pursue common projects.   In addition, many international, European, and American foundations and grant-giving bodies make funds available for Palestinian-Israeli research collaboration. What is not very well known is the conditionality of such research support; invariably, the availability of funds to Palestinians (as well as to Israelis) requires the formation of Palestinian-Israeli research teams. The same applies to projects of an artistic and cultural nature, where Palestinian-Israeli collaboration is a condition for getting funds.
How do we view these projects and the assumptions and arguments surrounding them? First, it should be said that conditioning support to Palestinian researchers by requiring partnering with Israelis is nothing but a crude example of the politicization of research, no matter how noble the intentions of those sponsoring such projects may be.   Luring fund-starved Palestinian academics in such a manner can be seen as a form of political blackmail, again regardless of the intentions of the sponsors. We believe that if international funding institutions are sincere about their intention of developing the scientific and research capacity of Palestinian institutions and scholars, they should offer direct assistance and not politicize their support.
Second, support for joint Palestinian-Israeli research or cultural collaboration inevitably results in enhancing the legitimacy of Israeli institutions as centers of excellence, without doing much to strengthen the research capacity of Palestinian institutions. In view of the actual policy of non-cooperation with Israeli institutions practiced by most Palestinian universities and research centers because of the rejection of collaboration with the occupier, whatever benefit that may accrue to Palestinians is individual in nature and thus of little consequence in institutional terms. The only tangible and positive impact of such collaboration is the enhancement of the Israeli academy’s reputation and legitimacy, in addition to the naturalization of the Israeli presence in the Palestinian landscape. It goes without saying that regional research collaboration, enthusiastically promoted by some international agencies and Israeli academics and often pursued in the framework of “Middle Eastern or “Mediterranean” funding schemes has the main effect of normalizing the Israeli presence in the region and granting legitimacy to Israeli institutions.

We believe that direct support for Palestinian institutions makes a positive statement recognizing the autonomy of Palestinians.  This is especially important to us in view of a reigning ethos that permits Israeli “sympathizers” with the Palestinians to set the terms and limits of how the world can assist the Palestinians. You are no doubt familiar with the argument many Israelis on the “left” have put forward against the academic boycott and for the encouragement of Palestinian-Israeli collaboration in fields from academic research to artistic expression.
This brings me to a “cause” that may, on the face of it, be worthy of support by friends of the Palestinians. Many academic meetings, research projects, and other academic and semi-academic forums where Palestinians and Israelis are brought together are said to advance the cause of mutual recognition and even reconciliation between the two warring peoples. As in the case of research collaboration, we may legitimately ask what the net gain is for the Palestinian cause for justice from participation in such activities. We may get an answer to this question by noting that the most ardent supporters of such encounters and activities are not Palestinians but rather “peace camp” and left-leaning Israelis, that is, those Israelis who do not reject outright contact with “the enemy” on the other side. It is clear to us that this is the best expression of the dominant ethos where all agency is invested in Israelis in matters related to activism around the cause of Palestine, since it allows them to determine the nature of the conflict and authorize what can be done to resolve it. While this pernicious ethos denies Palestinians a voice, it also gives credibility to the idea that the “conflict” between Palestinians and Israelis resides (mostly? partly?) in the realm of perceptions where dominant stereotypes of the Other obstruct real understanding and the possibility of reconciliation. A virtual growth industry has been flourishing around this idea for some time now, and its unquestioned assumptions, in my opinion, have fostered a false and distorted picture of the nature of the conflict and ways to bring justice to Palestinians. I would urge our international friends to examine the assumptions behind such activities, and to always ask the question, “who is the main beneficiary of this kind of activity: Israelis who need validation and recognition as peace-seekers, or Palestinians who are in need of justice? I think we must challenge the assumption that reconciliation can be an outcome of an exercise in righting or deconstructing perceptions; to us, reconciliation can come only after Palestinian rights are restored and a just settlement has been achieved.
It may be appropriate to emphasize here that we do not advocate a boycott of all joint Palestinian-Israeli conferences, meetings and actions. On the contrary, where ending the occupation and bringing justice to Palestinians is the main reason behind convening an activity, we actively encourage participation and exchange of ideas. We would encourage our international supporters to do likewise, and not waste their energies on activities that can at best be characterized as naïve. That some Palestinians continue to participate in such activities is an indication of the difficult work ahead of us, both internationally and on the home front.
At the end, I wish to go back to the point about Palestinian autonomy and agency. While my colleague Omar Barghouti will be examining and countering some of the main arguments against boycott put forward by supporters of justice in Palestine, I will only urge all of us here to recognize similar arguments by left-leaning Israeli academics and others as the product of decades of a pervasive Israeli exceptionalism that has allowed Israel not only to set the terms of debate but most importantly to escape censure and condemnation. Despite their best intentions, these Israeli academics are actively collaborating in the reproduction of this exceptionalism when they claim that the boycott will isolate the forces of peace in the Israeli academy, strengthen the right, and even push the academy into the bosom of the state due to increased financial dependence on it as a result of boycott. They also display an astounding lack of perspective when they claim that the boycott undermines the academic freedom of Israeli academics. I propose that the uncomfortable questions we must address to them are these: why should it be assumed that the interests of an admittedly small minority of Israelis must be safeguarded at all cost and held above any and all other considerations? Is the preservation of the “academic freedom” of left-leaning Israeli academics a cause with intrinsic merit, no matter at what cost that sacred freedom is enjoyed? What is really meant by academic freedom here?   Is it the freedom of uninterrupted access to research funds, sabbaticals, and all the other trappings of scholarship? Is this attitude not a manifestation of a narcissistic self-centeredness that has allowed Israelis, from both right and left, to conflate their interests with those of the rest of us?
Israeli arguments against the boycott and claims about its dangers ring particularly hollow to Palestinian academics.   Robbed of their most basic freedoms, they should not be expected to be particularly sensitive to pleas emanating from the Israeli academy about the preservation of academic freedom or the imminent danger of an assault upon the left. We think that Israelis, academics or otherwise, cannot have a special claim to certain rights under the pretext that denial of these rights will compromise their ability to fight the occupation and oppression. As far as we are concerned, the Israeli academy has no special standing amongst the other organs of the Israeli state, and its historic collusion—directly and indirectly–with the colonial apparatus has been amply demonstrated.  What Palestinian academics and intellectuals want from colleagues the world over is a recognition and appreciation of these considerations and of the principle that Israel should be granted no special status among nations, no matter how much immunity it enjoys in the corridors of world power.