|The academic boycott: Post-mortem?|
- Colman Altman
Mark Twain: The reports of my death were highly exaggerated.
The issue of boycott (academic, cultural, economic) of Israel has not been removed from the international agenda with the latest AUT resolution, it has only been postponed until the next round. The ongoing and relentless
Israeli onslaught on the occupied territories will inevitably, again and again, arouse international grassroot reaction and pressure on Israel.
After the rejection of the boycott resolution by the AUT, the secretary of the British National Association of Jewish Students declared (Haaretz, 27.5.05) that "people in Israel don't understand the situation here. They believe that this was a temporary matter that will disappear, but this was
part of an anti-Israel wave which will only gather strength". The 'alef' list has been left in a state of uncertainty on the issue, due primarily to
the unfortunate positions adopted by some friends and allies on the list, and with the hope that in the next round the AUT resolutions will reflect greater political understanding I offer my own (belated) comments on the
heated discussion over the last month or two.
The boycott model was South Africa which, like Israel, disregarded numerous UN resolutions, and the UN, mainly due to U.S. pressure, was unable or unwilling to apply sanctions.
1. The South African model
"The South African boycott began as a grassroots movement initiated by individuals and independent organizations. It grew slowly but steadily until it finally became an absolute boycott of products, sports culture,
academia and tourism" (Tanya Reinhart, Yediot Aharonot, 4.5.05). Ran Greenstein has pointed out that "in SA the pressure from outside came on the back of a successful internal movement, and further that external pressure helped, no doubt, but it would have amounted to very little without the internal movement". But what was the role of the external pressure and how was it created? Or again, howcome the leader of the SA government, de Klerk, handed over power to the ANC without violence,
without bloodshed? Many years ago I posed this question to an ANC activist. Her response was that SA had become ungovernable, the country was in a state of economic collapse (caused largely by the economic boycott), there
was political chaos, the police could not control the uprest. As Ran has claimed - internal and external pressure. But the economic boycott was not
born, fully fledged from the head of Jupiter. It developed together with the general boycott - academic, cultural, sports. De Klerk, the man who had relinquished power, has declared: "Isolation played an important role - for
example South Africans are keen sportsmen. Being excluded from international competition such as the Olympic Games had a profound effect.
Scientific isolation also played an important role in mobilizing the academic world towards becoming politically active..".(Haaretz Supplement,
16.5.03). Ran's comment: "To use de Klerk as a witness on what motivated activists is highly problematic: in that period he was a kind of Limor Livnat of South Africa". But, in fact, de Klerk is not making a sociological analysis. He is telling us indirectly what motivated him to
relinquish white rule in South Africa.
Ran Greenstein (in response to Mark Klein) writes: "...apartheid is dead and gone, but there is no evidence of any SPECIFIC contribution to that outcome that was made by the academic boycott." In a similar vein, he
asks Ilan Pappe (on the academic boycott against Israel), "...what is the added value of the academic boycott? I fail to see one, and none of the supporters of the boycott has managed to show any such value". How in fact
does one measure the SPECIFIC contribution of an academic boycott? I doubt whether one can separate it from the overall boycott in order to measure
its specific contribution. It was an integral part of the slowly developing boycott campaign and its application contributed to the overall boycott. I don't know how such an assertion can be proved, one can only rely on the
evaluation of leading activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. The South African political activist and poet, Dennis Brutus, who played a major role
in the suspension and expulsion of SA from the Olympics in 1970, and who spent long years in the campaign to organize an anti-apartheid boycott, declared recently (Int. Socialist Review, No. 41, 2005) "Facile arguments
against the [academic] boycot of Israel are familiar to me. They were the same or similar to the arguments used against the anti-apartheid activists...I have no hesitation in supporting the call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. While I believe in a comprehensive boycott, I applaud the recent decision of the UK based AUT as a step in this direction." Ronnie Kasrils, ANC activist (of Jewish origin) and presently a minister in the South African government recalls (Guardian,
25.5.05) how 20 years ago ANC leaders in exile called for an academic boycott of SA, to which some 500 British academics responded. Kasrils declares that the boycotts and sanctions ultimately helped liberate both
blacks and whites in SA. Palestinians and Israelis will benefit from this non-violent [academic boycott] campaign that the Palestinians are calling for". Ran responds (to James Bowen, 25.5.05) that [Kasrils' background]
"does not make him particularly knowledgeable about the specifics of the Israeli system, or the best way of fighting it". But it certainly makes him knowledgeable of the specifics of the SA system and the relevance of the
academic boycott against apartheid SA whose efficacity Ran disputes. And a third voice quoted on alef in support of the academic boycott against SA is that of Desmond Tutu, subsequently Chancellor of the University of the
More recently, (addressing the news item that SA is about to renew its defense ties with Israel), Ran remarks: "Here is something to get agitated about, rather than the bogus issue of academic boycott..." On the same day
(1.6.05) there appeared a short news item in Haaretz with the heading:
"Netanyahu will lead the campaign against the academic boycott of Israel".
Netanyahu is reported as saying that "the attempt to boycott the Israeli academy...is a boycott declaration against the entire state of Israel". So it appears, Ran, that not only Dennis Brutus, Ronnie Kasrils and Desmond
Tutu don't consider the issue to be bogus. Even Netanyahu doesn't.
It seems to me that Ran Greenstein also underestimates the importance and potential of the anti-occupation forces in Israel. He writes (alef, 10.5.2005) "In SA the pressure from the outside came on the back of a successful internal movement - it was not a substitute for it. If the
conditions in Israel are different in this respect (and I believe they are), why don't we stop using the SA example for purposes of legitimation...?" An interesting, and relevant, comment may be found in the
editorial leading article in Haaretz (2.6.05): "...Israel has not yet tried out the only solution that would be acceptable to the Palestinians, to the majority of Israelis and to the whole world: the solution of withdrawal
from the occupied territories and dismantling the settlements [!!!]. I could add, on the basis of five years of vigils in Haifa under the slogan:
"Get out of the occupied territories together with all the settlers!", that the reaction of the passerbys, which was hostile five years ago, has changed dramatically and is today supportive on the whole and encouraging
(I expect that in Jerusalem or Sderot the reactions could be different).
Don't underestimate the 'internal movement' in Israel, Ran.
To what extent the academic boycott of SA was directed against individual academics or only against institutional contacts and funding, is not clear cut. In the years of the boycott I participated in at least three
international scientific conferences at which papers were presented by scientists from SA. Business as usual! On the other hand a friend, an archeologist, tells me of a conference in England in which she participated
in which all papers from SA were disqualified, and that the American delegation withdrew its participation in protest.
2. Boycott of individuals?
In their letter to the Guardian (20.4.05), Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki on behalf of the Palestinian [Bir Zeit] Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, write "The Palestinian call for boycott targets
Israeli academic institutions, not individuals". However, in their original appeal, 7 July 2004, which the British AUT decided to circulate officially as part of their boycott resolution, the Palestinians call to:
1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions...including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
3. Promote divestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
4. Exclude from the above actions...any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies;
In other words the proposed boycott does in fact apply to individuals, excluding only the good guys [but who decides who are the good guys?].
In April 2002 Profs. Steven and Hilary Rose initiated a petition calling for "a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opened serious peace negotiations..." Steven Rose subsequently declared "I will attend no scientific conferences in Israel, and I will not participate as referee in hiring or promotion decisions by Israeli universities or in the decisions of Israeli funding agencies. I will continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli colleagues on an individual basis". But Rose's colleagues interpreted the academic boycott otherwise. Mona Baker, editor and owner of two professional journals (The Translator, and Translation Studies Abstracts) dismissed two Israeli members from the editorial boards of the journals. She wrote "however much I respect you [both] personally...I can no longer live off cooperating with Israelis as such, unless it is explicitly in the context of campaigning for human rights in Palestine".
(We remark that one of the two, Dr. Miriam Shlesinger, had chaired Amnesty International's Israeli branch (1993-1994), and was actively involved in pro-Palestinian activities). Steven Rose himself does not appear to have
protested against Baker's interpretation.
Another incident in the aftermath of the petition: a paper submitted in 2002 by Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion and Asad Ghanem of Haifa to the British journal Political Geography was returned unopened with a note that
the journal could not accept a submission from Israel.
My comments: a boycott against individual academics in Israel (or South Africa) is not only patently unjust, it is politically counter-productive (thus far I can agree with Ran Greenstein). It divides the (liberal)
academic community, leading to counter petititions, mutual recriminations and in-fighting (as we saw after the recent British AUT resolution on academic boycott), rather than uniting and mobilising them in the direction
of widening the boycott and warning the establishment that there will be a price to be paid for continued occupation and repression. The unfortunate strife within our own ranks (the 'academic left') is further evidence of
it. When the initiative is finally rejected it discredits the overall strategy of boycott (economic or whatever). As for the universities that are boycotted I repeat Miriam Shlesinger's remarks to Mona Baker: "The
[boycott]petition gives yet more ammunition to the the tremendously strong powers in Israel who repeat: 'The world is against us. We have to look after our own. You left-wing ... academics are weakening us and should be
But academic boycott directed against academic institutions, as formulated for instance in the recent Bir Zeit initiative - aside from its targetting of individuals - has the potential of mobilizing public opinion
to support a more general boycott. It is part and parcel of a more general campaign. In the U.S. the anti-apartheid movement started essentially as a student movement, and in the second wave the trade unions, churches, black
community organizations and others participated with pressure growing until the U.S. Congress adopted the Anti-Apartheid Sanctions Act in 1986 which
stopped investments and loans to South Africa. This played an important role in the process which made SA ungovernable. Such a snowballing boycott
campaign against Israel in the U.S. is at present inconceivable, although the calls for divestment from Israel adopted by many church organizations
and student bodies, the demonstrations calling to stop the sale of Caterpillar house-demolishing bulldozers to Israel - are straws in the wind. (But they are significant despite the overall increase in foreign investment in Israel in the last year.) Academic boycott of Israel,
especially in Europe, is widespread. The number of international conferences in Israel is down to an all-time low. Already in 2002 Prof. Paul Zinger, outgoing head of the Israeli Science Foundation, reported that
for the first time some 25 overseas scientists had refused to referee Israeli research proposals. The World Council of Churches in Geneva has called for divestment from Israel. There is a partial boycott of Israeli
products by the public in French and German supermarkets, and television reportage in Europe from the checkpoints and separation wall is very
critical of Israel. The snowball is still small but gathering strength.
3. "Why only us, why don't they boycott themselves?"
I have collected here some of the pearls of the anti boycott-Israel arguments.
Neve Gordon: "Israel could not carry out its policies without support of the US. Should we boycott the U.S. universities too? Why is Israel singled out?"
Shlomo Sand (Haaretz, 3.5.05): "...I believe there have been no domestic British efforts to boycott any faculties, departments or research institutes that are cooperating with the British Defense Ministry [because
of their invovement in Iraq]. They have not yet boycotted American universities that have given aid to the U.S. occupying army...They should think twice before imposing a selective...boycott [on Israel]".
Baruch Kimmerling (Haaretz, 17.5.05): "...when I ask them why they do not declare a boycott against the U.S. or on themselves [because of the invasion of Iraq] they are quite embarrassed..."
My comments: The arsenal of weapons or responses available to the anti-war, anti-occupation, anti-globalization...movements is wide and diverse. One
chooses one's weapons in a particular situation according to their efficacity and relevance to that situation. Sometimes strikes by workers are justified and lead to a successful outcome, but in different circumstances a strike may be tactically unwise and counter-productive.
With the internal opposition to the occupation still weak (but growing), and the external support of Israeli policies very strong, the choice of weapons against the occupation is not easy. One such weapon is boycott - economic, cultural, academic, sports, military. A boycott of Israel could be productive, a boycott of the U.S. could (and would) be counter-productive. Kimmerling has declared (alef, 30.4.05) : "I can understand and even support an academic boycott in the framework of a total and global economic, political and cultural boycott until Israel withdraws to the 1967 lines. This was the real SA model that was indeed utile and succeeded." The trouble is that there is no global commander-in-chief who gets up in the morning and declares "I hereby declare a total and global
boycott against Israel until it withdraws from the occupied teritories!"
after which Kimmerling would discard his reservations and join the ranks of the boycotters. The boycott movement is launched by independent organisations, teachers unions, church organisations, sports clubs. The growth of the movement is sporadic, with one initiative strengthening
another. This was the dynamics of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. In summary, if you oppose the small and concrete steps which could ultimately lead to a total and global boycott of Israel until the occupation ends, but make declarations of support of such a total boycott -
then regrettably your pious declarations must be taken with a pinch of salt. Furthermore, Kimmerling calls on the international community (The Times Ed. Suppl. 29.4.05) "to strengthen its connections with both the
Israeli and Palestinian academic communities...", connections which would certainly not lead to the total and global boycott which Kimmerling advocates.
4. The selective AUT boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan UniversitiesThe AUT boycott resolution of 22.4.05 called to officially circulate [i.e. to endorse] the Call for a Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel issued
by Birzeit University which had been signed by 60 PA academic unions and NGOs (see above). The call excludes from the sanctions, as mentioned
earlier, any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies. It calls to boycott Haifa University because it allegedly violates academic freedom [Ilan Pappe's
evidence is noted], and Bar-Ilan University because it supervises degree
programs at the Israeli College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank.
The targetting of individuals because of their place of work carried over the same negative features as the original Steven and Hilary Rose petition (as understood and implemented by Mona Baker), which we discussed
earlier. It was unjust, divisive, aroused the opposition of most Israeli (and not only Israeli) liberal, anti-occupation academics instead of mobilising them into a united anti-occupation front. My main criticism of
Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart and others who supported the original petition of Steven and Hilary Rose was that they underestimated the importance of the anti-occupation forces in the academy and the Israeli left, and saw no
great loss that they were alienated by a boycott that targetted individuals. Their point of view was that nothing could be expected from the academe, and that only shock treatment from outside would avail. Ilan Pappe (Haaretz Supplement, 6.5.05) says: "There is no chance whatever that in the State of Israel a meaningful movement will arise that will put an end to the occupation...The only thing that can stop Israel is pressure from outside."
The other two items in the resolution were no less problematic: the academic boycott of the Universities of Haifa and Bar-Ilan. Instead of an overall academic boycott against all academic institutions because of the
occupation and against the occupation that could become part of a much wider anti-occupation movement (as favored by Pappe himself) the resolution
confines itself to two universities because of violation of academic freedom and for sponsoring an Israeli college in Ariel in the occupied territories. Somebody has asked: "...and if Teddy Katz's research thesis were accepted and Bar-Ilan withdrew its sponsorship of Ariel, would there
no longer be a reason for sanctions?"
How then are we to judge the AUT boycott resolution?
Yehudit Harel considers the resolution to have been "better than nothing".
Lev Grinberg considers the step to have been counter-productive, to have depoliticized the debate and because of its predictable defeat to have led
to its deterioration into "anti-zionism=anti-semitism" propaganda, and to have reduced the chances of an effective and legitimate political, economic
and cultural boycott of Israel to be adopted in the future. But James Bowen (26.5.05) writes: "If the AUT boycott is withdrawn [today], the unofficial
boycott will continue...The lesson will simply be that more groundwork is needed, more teach-ins on campus to show our colleagues the lies of the
Zionist"left". The truth is like a brushfire. It smoulders and bursts into flame in unexpected places. The Zionists are busy stamping it out whenever
it comes to the surface but..."
...and how should we react to a resolution like that of the AUT?
The AUT decision had its positive side. Haim Baram (MEI, 29.4.05) notes that "the decision has sent shockwaves through Israel's educated strata and
severely dented their sense of self righteousness". The fact that after the rejection of the AUT resolution Netanyahu himself is leading a campaign against the academic boycott of Israel indicates how serious are the
official concerns about the next round (in fact, the report in Haaretz is sub-titled "Universities fear additional attempts to declare boycott of Israel are expected in the near future"). Joshua Schwartz, Academic
Secretary of the newly formed "International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, Bar-Ilan", hastens to inform the world in the official website of
Bar-Ilan University, that the BIU connection with the College of Judea and Samaria "is negligible and soon to be non-existent". We also learn from him
that Representative Henry Waxman has urged [the well known academic freedom activist] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to sever all ties with
schools and professors who abide by the AUT academic boycott. The BIU has also established a special "website for academic freedom", on which one
finds two petitions against the boycott, one of which Baruch Kimmerling urged members of the alef list to sign. The AUT decision has certainly put
the universities and the authorities on the defensive.
My comments: The boycott resolution was problematic in that it targetted two universities for their misdeeds, rather than the whole Israeli academic establishment as part of an overall boycott campaign against the occupation. It targetted Israeli academics as individuals, leading to a
world-wide split in the progressive academic community. It was, and remains, our duty to explain the harm caused by politically ill-judged resolutions, in order that in the (inevitable) next round these mistakes will not be repeated. We could not have supported the resolution as it
stood, but should have abstained from joining the Zionist campaign against the boycott. I think that this was the stand taken by most members of 'alef'. In the American APSA petition titled "Oppose the Blacklist of
Israeli Academics", there were only three signatories, members of the alef list, in the first 350 signatures - that of Kimmerling, Tuvia Blumethal and David Bartram. Strange bedfellows. But what a pity that an ill-formulated
resolution should have led to such alliances. Let us be wiser in the round(s) to come.