The Academic Boycott of Israel
From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
Document prepared by Mona Baker
The academic boycott is part of a comprehensive civil society programme of boycott and divestment aimed at exerting international pressure on Israel . Some colleagues who support an economic boycott of Israel find the idea of an academic boycott unacceptable, for various reasons. Some of these reasons are addressed below. On the whole, however, as Ilan Pappe (an Israeli scholar) puts it, 
it makes no sense to call on sanctions or pressure on business, factories, cultural festivals etc., while demanding immunity for [our] own peers and sphere of activity – the academia. This is dishonest.. In fact it makes more sense to try and affect the economic, political, cultural and academic elites on the way to a policy change. The socio-economic realities are such that if you affect the life of the wealthy and influential, you get results, not if you add misery to those who are already deprived and marginalized.
Opponents of the academic boycott argue that it is a form of censorship and that it inhibits freedom of speech. This argument conflates boycotts (historically the weapon of the weak and one means of non-violent protest by civil society against grave violations of human rights) with censorship and sanctions, both of which are drastic measures applied by powerful governments and institutions to suppress dissent and penalise those who do not share their values or political agendas. Example: the current US ‘Tading with the Enemy’ law prohibits US publishers from publishing works (including journal articles) by authors in a range of countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, North Korea (and until recently Iraq ), unless they first obtain US government approval. This censorial ruling applies to (and is applied by) ALL US publishers, and yet no academic has called on their colleagues to boycott American journals and publishers in return.
Boycotts have never killed or maimed anyone. Sanctions against Iraq between 1990 and 2003 killed an estimated 400,000-800,000 Iraqi children (Seattle-Post Intelligencer, August 7, 2003). Sanctions against Hamas (mistakenly referred to as ‘boycotts’) have already killed and destroyed the lives of thousands of innocent people in Gaza in one of the worst examples of collective punishment in recent history. Academics who support these sanctions, and there are many, are never penalized by their colleagues for doing so.
2. Academic Freedom
Boycotts admittedly restrict the academic freedom of individual researchers. However, as Martin Haspelmath (Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie) puts it,
while science boycotts do indeed violate the principle of free scientific interaction (just as economic boycotts violate the principle of free trade), . their only purpose is to fight the violation of even higher ranking principles. (Discussion on the Linguist list, 10 April 2003)
The academic freedom argument is inherently biased: it privileges the freedom to speak and publish for Israeli academics while ignoring or at least seriously downplaying the loss of not only academic freedom but also basic freedoms for Palestinian academics. Palestinian academics can’t even reach their classrooms on most days, let alone have the luxury of publishing in international media or attending international conferences. There is nothing to stop academics working for Israeli institutions from publishing their work freely on the web, or publishing it without their institutional affiliation, if what they are interested in is the exchange of ideas (rather than achieving promotion for themselves and legitimacy for their institutions).
Those of us who support the boycott believe it is moral and reasonable to impose temporary measures that restrict some aspects of academic life in Israel in order to secure the fundamental human rights of millions of Palestinians, whether or not they are academics.
Opponents of the academic boycott have repeatedly argued that it is a futile gesture. Counter arguments include the following:
- Israeli academia has strong links with the military,  with political parties and think-tanks, with the media, with financial organizations, and sending a powerful message to Israeli academics through the boycott campaign will ultimately reverberate through other sectors of society, including political decision makers.
- Israeli academic and research institutions are among the most important sources of legitimacy and income for Israel . Israel publishes more scientific articles per capita than any other country in the world. In other words, where academic prestige is concerned, Israel punches well above its weight. Academic prowess is to Israel what sports prowess was to South Africa .
- The futility argument ignores the immense impact that the boycott, especially the academic boycott, has already had on public opinion. Perhaps more than anything else, it has raised awareness of Israeli crimes to unprecedented levels. This awareness is necessary to create the right political climate for change.
4. Dialogue, Undermining Calls for Peace on Israeli Campuses
Another argument against the boycott has been that it antagonises Israeli academics who want to defend Palestinian rights and that it is utlimately more effective to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israelis and the international community. Counter arguments:
- The international community has had unrestricted dialogue not only with Israeli academia but with the entire Israeli society for over 50 years. What has that dialogue achieved? Has it not simply emboldened Israel and Israeli academia to ignore or continue to abuse Palestinians on a daily basis?
- Decades of Palestinian-Israeli dialogue have not produced any concrete results. Israeli society has been drifting steadily to the right, and it is clear to Palestinian academics and intellectuals that pressure, and not persuasion, is more likely to be effective in bringing about a change in Israeli attitudes. The historical record shows that oppressed peoples have never ‘persuaded’ their oppressors to give up domination through dialogue. Such exchanges can only help bring prople together after the cause of the conflict is removed: colonialism and apartheid in this case.
- It is not clear why the boycott should undermine rather than support Israeli academics who are genuinely interested in campaigning for Palestinian rights. After all, the boycott sends a clear message that international society is just as outraged as they are at the behaviour of their governments. Lisa Taraki, a Palestinian lecturer at Bir Zeit University , thus asks: Do the anti-boycott academics mean that if the Israeli peace forces are provoked they may jump the peace ship? If so, what does this say about their commitment to peace?
5. Why Israel?
- Israel is openly, officially, institutionally racist, and built on a racist ideology. It does not just inherently privilege one religious and ethnic group in all aspects of life, but actively seeks to destroy a specific ethnic and national group. It is (a) an apartheid , colonial settler state, and (b) actively engaged in ethnic cleansing.Some relevant facts to illustrate: land defined as owned by the State of Israel can be leased only to Jews;  a complex system of segregation operates on West Bank roads, with many designated ‘for Jews only’; the Israeli ‘Law of Return’ applies to Jews anywhere in the world (who often maintain several homes in California, etc. as well as in settlements on Palestinian land) while the right of Palestinians to return to their homes and land is vigorously denied.
- Israel uses a mixture of terror and population control to ensure its racial purity – in ways that are comparable to 1930’s Germany and to Apartheid South Africa . 
- Israel engages in gratuitous, sadistic violence against Palestinians. As Michael Neumann, a Jewish Canadian scholar puts it,
by the mid-1970s, Israel ‘s crimes were no longer the normal atrocities of nation-building nor an excessive sort of self-defense. They represented a cold-blooded, calculated, indeed an eagerly embraced choice of war over peace, and an elaborate plan to seek out those who had fled the misery of previous confrontations, to make certain that their suffering would continue.
Israel, he concludes, “stands out among other unpleasant nations in the depth of its commitment to gratuitous violence and nastiness”.
- Israel is a serious threat to its neighbours, as has been proven beyond doubt in its recent attempt to pulverise and destroy Lebanon.
- Unlike any other oppressive regime engaged in ethnic cleansing and gratuitous violence, Israel is routinely, obscenely rewarded for its crimes by the international community. It continues to receive billions of dollars in aid (including specifically military aid from the US), has preferential trade agreements with many European countries, and has just signed a new EU agreement that allows its academics access to considerable European funds, even though it is not a European country, by any stretch of the imagination. In this context, civil society must step up its actions against Israel rather than remain complicit in rewarding it for its war crimes and ongoing programme of ethnic cleansing.
6. Palestinian Support for the Boycott
Palestinian civil society has unequivocally and consistently called for a boycott of Israeli institutions since October 2003. The PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott was issued in 2004. In July 2005, the Palestinian community issued a more comprehensive call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. The PACBI call is supported by over 60 Palestinian academic, cultural and other civil society federations, unions and organizations, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees, the Palestinian NGO Network in the West Bank, the Teachers’ Federation, the Palestinian Writers’ Federation, the Palestinian League of Artists, and many other professional associations.
The onus is not on supporters of the boycott to defend their position, but on those who oppose it and seek to penalise them to offer a viable alternative and demonstrate their commitment to be as vocal in condemning Israeli war crimes as they are in condemning those who seek to effect change through boycotts.
The campaign to boycott Israel is gathering considerable momentum, with trade unions and even the Green Party in the US and UK joining academic bodies in passing motions that support all forms of boycott: economic, cultural, academic, sports (See links below). As in the campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa , individuals and associations that take anti-boycott positions prematurely at the start of the campaign may find themselves isolated as the movement (inevitably) gathers more support in the months and years to come.
Motions in support of the boycott (Apart from UK’s University College Union):
- Irish Congress of Trade Unions (for both Northern and Southern Ireland)
- Northern Ireland ‘s biggest trade union, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance
- UNISON, the UK ‘s second largest trade union (of health professionals)
- The UK ‘s Green Party
- The US Green Party
- The National Union of Journalists, UK
- Aosdána (Irish Artists Association) See also: http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/ireland/2007/0329/1175003412845.html /
- CUPE ( Ontario division of Canada ‘s largest union) See also: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3256307,00.html
- Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)
- Canadian Union of Postal Workers (April 2008) See also http://www.labournet.net/world/0804/cupw1.html
Useful Documents & Sites
Palestinian Call for Boycott (26 October 2003)
Palestinian Call for Boycott (9 July 2005)
Global BDS Movement (see section on academic boycott)
Independent Jewish Voices (see list of signatories to appreciate the significance of this group)
AUT Academic Boycott of South Africa (Motions Passed) (for purposes of comparison with current campaign)
‘Worlds Apart’ – a two-part detailed report on apartheid practices in Israel, By Chris McGreal ( The Guardian , 6 & 7 February 2006: http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1703244,00.html / and http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1704037,00.html
What’s So Bad About Israel? By Michael Neumann, in Counterpunch , 6 July 2002
The Ivory Tower behind the Apartheid Wall By Margaret Aziza Pappano, The Electronic Intifada, 25 July 2007
 Israel has turned most of the land, including land in the West Bank , into state-owned land.
 “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land ; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa . I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” (Desmond Tutu, The Guardian , 29 April 2002 )