Ilan Pappe: The Meaning and Objectives of the Academic Boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Ilan Pappe | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

[Note: French translation available here.]
When I first heard of the initiative to collect signatures for a boycott petition (initiated by Hillary and Stephen Rose in London) I did not hesitate and added my name. I was also convinced that the hundred to hundred and fifty Israeli academics who usually add their names to petitions and initiatives against the occupation and in support of the ‘refusniks’, would do the same. This turned out to be a naive presumption. Apart from three other active members of the local faculties, the rest produced a variety of excuses and refused to join the petition (that in fact did not even call for a boycott but for a moratorium on Israel’s preferential status in the EU).
Why did I sign? Here is the gist of my attempt to explain myself inside and outside Israel. I have been a political activist for most of my adult life. In all these years, I believed deeply that the only way to change the unbearable and unacceptable reality in Palestine was to work from within, to be involved in an attempt to persuade the Jewish society – to which I belong and into which I was born – to change its governments and policies. The balance of power in Palestine ever since 1948, and particularly since 1967, convinced me that, as in the case of other colonialist powers, the change from within the occupier’s society was a key factor in altering an oppressive situation on the ground. In our particular case study, it meant that only a new initiative on the Israeli side could open the door for meaningful negotiations over a comprehensive solution to the Palestine question.
Ever since 1987, the outbreak of the first Intifada, I began doubting the effectiveness of the option from within. I still believe that final reconciliation can only be effected by a direct dialogue between the two peoples. It is only through education and persuasion that a comprehensive settlement will be worked out: one which will enable the Palestinian refugees to return and the two peoples of the land to share it within an agreed political structure based on mutual recognition and universal principles of equality and justice. But any significant move towards such reconciliation effort cannot even be contemplated without an unconditional, immediate and total end of the Israeli occupation. Moreover, whereas the final features of a solution should be negotiated from within, there is little hope of ending the occupation through negotiations or a dialogue with the occupying power. We have tried it in the past; it failed with dire consequences.
Such negotiations were ‘Peace Accords’. These became futile as means of ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The so called peace process was based on the assumption that a measured transformation of the occupier’s mentality and policy could be affected. In turn, the delusive diplomatic maneuvers played into the hands of the Israeli occupiers. This meant that the most brutal occupation in the second half of the twentieth century was kept alive, and will be probably sustained in the future, while the world will talk the windows of peace opportunities that opened after Arafat’s death. An event that will not contribute to the end of the occupation, since the occupying power has been absolved from any meaningful pressure to change its oppressive policies or to give up its future plans of ethnic cleansing and destruction.
For people who are not, like myself, Jewish citizens of Israel, the hesitations and internal debates may seem spurious. But they are not, for us. Any decision to give up, or to downgrade, the importance of internal struggle for ending the occupation, means a further self alienation from our own society. And yet a small number of people like myself, a tiny minority that grows steadily if not impressively, have reached the conclusion that since the action from within would not work, that it can only be the action from without that has a chance of success. And this action can only take the form of boycott and divestment.
I concluded my original and initial reaction to the boycott initiative in the following sentences: ‘The closing of the public mind in Israel, the persistent hold of the settlers over the Israeli society, the in-built racism of the Jewish population, the de-humanization of the Palestinians and the vested interests of the army and the industry in keeping the occupied territories, means that we are in for a very long period of callous and oppressive occupation’. Alas two years have passed since these words were written and the destruction is wider than dreaded and the Israeli evil has reached even higher levels of savageness and inhumanity.
So this was my reasoning. But it was obviously not shared by the vast majority of those within the Israeli academia who regarded themselves as belonging to the progressive anti-occupation peace camp. Why did they not sign; moreover, why did they come so forcefully against my own signature? My first inclination was to attribute this position to their fear of losing their posts or damaging their promotions. But I suspected there were deeper reasons that do not only explain the refusal to sign, but in fact clarify paradoxically why the academic boycott is going to be effective. The academia in Israel is the window shop of the Jewish society’s moral and cultural self-image. The academics in Israel are closely and almost integrally associated with the army, the political system and the industry. Rather than being a critical agency vis a vis these pillars of the society it has become one of them – culpable as they are in sustaining the occupation mainly by providing moral and ‘scientific’ explanations for the oppression in the occupied territories. This academia is, on the other hand, almost totally dependent on the Western academia for its financial and scholarly survival. Subsidies and a peer review that is exclusively in the hands of the Western academia characterize a long-standing collaboration between the local campuses and the Western academia.
With the passage of time, I became even more convinced of the validity and utility of the boycott strategy. There seemed to be two main advantages to the boycott campaign I failed to see at first sight. The first was born out of the heartening reaction around the world to the idea. This indicated that after a long period of passivity and inaction a new avenue was found to express external support and solidarity beyond the International Solidarity Movement and its valuable work. It was as if there was no need for a proper ANC – given the dismal condition of the PA and as a result of the PLO – in order to have an effective anti-Apartheid movement of solidarity. The quest for such an avenue intensified given the support by the Quartet and regional powers such as Egypt to the charade of peace on the ground.
But with the assurances and convictions, some apprehensions surfaced. The boycott is a tool and not a vision or even a wholesome strategy. Its main purpose is indeed to serve as the highway on which we can now travel in order to maximize our efforts against Israeli occupation and oppression. At the same time we should not forget that we are not all clear or agreed upon the final destination of this highway; worse we are not totally sure about the drivers in the leading seat. Who exactly is our ANC? What is the Palestinian equivalent of the South African campaign of equal votes and opportunities? How does the prospective campaign fit in with the armed struggle and resistance on the ground? In short, we may have found the right tactics, but we are still probing in the dark about the strategy.
The host of questions raised above leads me to conclude that we should continue the boycott and divestment effort while tuning in to the overall effort of re-mobilizing and redefining the Palestinian struggle, in terms of leadership and objectives, so that our particular campaign does not become a distinct and isolated endeavor.