Mona Baker: On the Distinction between Institutions and Individuals

From the archive (legacy material)

Mona Baker | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference (London) | 5 December 2004

[Note: French translation available here.]

Abstract. The debate on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been dominated from the start by the controversy over the distinction between institutions and individuals. Numerous supporters of the boycott have argued either for excluding from the boycott individual scholars who oppose their government’s policies or boycotting only those scholars who actively support the Zionist enterprise. This paper proposes treating the academic boycott as a form of economic boycott, rather than merely a response to the failure of Israeli academia to take a stand against their government’s policies. It argues that focusing on individual positions rather than on research institutions as a major source of prestige and income for any developed state, Israel included, results in an ad hoc, piecemeal approach that is unmanageable as well as largely ineffective in practice. The paper ends by proposing a set of guiding principles for the academic boycott.

The debate on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been dominated from the start by a concern over the distinction between institutions and individuals, with many colleagues who support an institutional boycott proposing a variety of measures to avoid penalising individual Israeli academics, especially those who speak out against their government’s policies. To my knowledge, the issue has not been raised in relation to economic, sports or cultural boycotts. Supporters of an economic boycott do not ask whether the individual hotel workers who are being laid off in Israel are individually for or against the occupation. But we do keep returning to this question in relation to academics affiliated to Israeli institutions.

In order to assess the implications of trying to limit the scope of the institutional academic boycott so as not to affect individuals, we need first of all to be clear about the justification and goals of this specific form of boycott.

Why boycott Israeli Academic Institutions?

The various answers given to this question almost always make reference to the culpability of Israeli academics in justifying and simply tolerating the occupation without speaking out against it. The implication is that if larger numbers of academics in Israeli institutions were to take a firm stand against the occupation, the academic boycott would not be necessary – presumably it would be called off, even if Israeli policies remain unchanged. [1]

But there is another and I think more coherent justification for the boycott that does not revolve around the behaviour of Israeli academics, individually or collectively. One of the most important aims of any form of boycott, as I understand it, is to undermine the institutions that allow a pariah state to function and claim membership of the international community. Israeli academic and research institutions are a major source of prestige, legitimacy and income for Israel. Israel publishes more scientific articles per capita than any other country in the world. [2] Every time a member of an Israeli academic institution publishes an article or speaks at an international conference, unless they start with a disclaimer to dissociate themselves from their government, they automatically confer legitimacy on what the boycott movement regards as a pariah state. Every time a member of an Israeli academic institution publishes an article or a book the entire academic system, that source of income and prestige for Israel, is sustained: assessment and promotion boards can function, web sites of the institutions in question can list the achievements of the relevant member of staff (irrespective of his or her individual attitude to the Occupation) to further the institutions’ international standing, attract students, bid for research funding, and so on.

I would argue that it is ultimately ineffective to single out individual academics in an academic boycott. Precisely because it is a boycott of institutions, not individuals, and institutions do not function because of a number of particularly objectionable individuals nor despite a number of courageous individuals. They function because ALL the individuals who work for them are able to publish, speak at conferences, assess research proposals abroad, and generally maintain a high international profile for themselves and hence for their institutions. Without these activities, for all its academic employees, a university cannot attract students, visitors, post-doctoral researchers, grant money, or manage regular procedures such as promotions, etc.

To my mind, then, an academic boycott is ultimately a form of economic boycott, or should be viewed as such.

Distinguishing between Institutions and Individuals

The overall aims and effectiveness of the academic boycott aside, many colleagues are still at pains to elaborate ways in which the boycott may be limited in scope to avoid penalising individual academics beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Here, two options are available. We could choose to boycott only those academics in Israel who are openly Zionist or otherwise complicit in the actions of their government. So we penalise only the ‘bad’ individuals. Or we could boycott all academics in Israel but exempt from the boycott those who have explicitly spoken out against the occupation. In other words, we could choose to reward the ‘right’ individuals. [3] The main difficulty in both cases, and leaving aside for a moment the effectiveness of this approach, is how we decide who is doing enough to be exempted from the boycott. Or, worse, how objectionable must the practices of a given academic be for that individual academic to deserve being boycotted. Who ultimately decides what ‘objectionable’ is on an individual basis, or who is doing enough to be exempted from the boycott, again on an individual basis? Selecting individuals to boycott or to exempt from the boycott inevitably results in a piecemeal approach that ultimately leaves it up to each individual to boycott whatever individuals they decide are not doing enough on the right side or doing too much on the wrong side. This leads to a very diluted effect of the boycott overall.

Alternatively, it may be possible to collectively decide who is to be penalised for their complicity or who is to be rewarded for their courage and integrity. For this we would need a widely respected institution such as the ANC during the South African boycott. For various reasons, there is nothing approximating this kind of committee in our current context, not least because of the brutality of the Israeli system which makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians to organise any non-violent forum of resistance or set up an organisation like the ANC, which can communicate authoritatively with the outside world and advise us on who should or should not be exempted from the boycott.

Guiding Principles

If we accept, and this is open to discussion, that the purpose of the boycott is to undermine the institutions of a pariah state rather than to penalise individuals for failing to speak out against their government, then this has to be reflected in the form of boycott we practice. I would like to end my contribution by proposing four guiding principles, which also take into consideration obvious facts such as that the academic boycott is not based on nationality and certainly not on religious or ethnic affiliation.

(a) First, the boycott does not target Israelis as individuals. This means that Israelis who work for non-Israeli institutions are not subject to the boycott.

(b) Secondly, the other side of the same coin: the boycott does not distinguish between Jews, Christians or Muslims working for Israeli academic institutions. This means that EVERYONE who works for an Israeli institution, irrespective of their nationality, religion or ethnic origin, and that also includes the few Palestinians working for Israeli institutions, are all subject to the boycott.

(c) Thirdly, where it is possible to make a distinction between institutions and individuals – in other words, where helping or working with an individual is possible without directly supporting the institution that employs them or giving them visibility and legitimacy –, it is important to help and work with individuals in Israel. This may be possible on an informal basis, outside any official forum. Or it may, for instance, involve a publisher selling books to individuals in Israel while refusing to sell to Israeli institutions, a practice currently adopted by St. Jerome Publishing.

(d) And finally, it is important to continue to work with everyone, including individuals affiliated to Israeli academic institutions, in any context or project designed specifically to challenge the occupation. This is a very different proposition from exempting individuals as a reward for their own courage and integrity. It has to do with the content and purpose of the activity in which they are involved at any given time rather than merely their stand on the Occupation. Working with a colleague like Ilan Pappe in the context of this Conference is a good example.


Ultimately, boycotts cannot legitimately set out to penalise or reward individuals. Proposing to exclude from the boycott individual scholars who oppose their government’s policies or to boycott only those scholars who actively support the Zionist enterprise both confuse the goals of an institutional boycott. After all, we do not need a boycott movement to decide, on an individual basis, that we do not like the politics of an Israeli, American, French or Spanish scholar in our field. If we do not wish to work with a particular individual, for whatever reason, we can simply refuse to do so. Refusing to work with an individual, or going out of one’s way to work with and support another, is a question of implementing a personal agenda that can have little impact on the institutions that employ them. A boycott is a non-violent form of action designed to deal a blow to the economic institutions of a pariah state, and to its international prestige and legitimacy. Boycotts are also about causing sufficient consternation, and indeed damage, to the institutions of a democratically elected government to force its people – within and outside academia – to realise how objectionable their outlook on life is, as well as force people in other countries to confront the severity of the problem in question.

[1] See, for example, Tany Reinhart’s ‘Why the World Should Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions’ ( ): “The traditional spirit of the academia is that intellectual responsibility includes the safeguarding of moral principles. What could help to exempt the Israeli academia would be some institutional record of such safeguarding. But there is none. Never in its history did the senate of any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities, let alone voice protest over the devastation sowed there during the last uprising. It is not that a motion in that direction failed to gather a majority, there was no such motion anywhere in the Israeli academia. Even the closure of Al Quds university in Jerusalem last July left the Israeli academia unmoved. If in extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system”.


[3] See, in this respect, Rachel Giora’s comments at the International Video Conference Israel’s Academic Boycott: The Siege of Palestinian Education, organised by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign on 4 March 2003 : “The question of the freedom of speech of the Israelis might be a serious question under different circumstances. Right now what people like me would want to say is that this is a price that we would like to pay because there are some more serious topics and issues to be addressed, discussed and fought for and if this is the price, maybe this is something we have to pay. Those who are in favour of divestment also have to take this into consideration because eventually if we lose our jobs for instance we also lose our freedom of speech. But I don’t think this is something we would like to consider seriously right now because if we weighed this against the miseries and atrocities that the Palestinians have to suffer if this is the price for our fight then we’re ready to pay it” ( .