Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
By Paul de Rooij
On Dec. 5, some 270 academics from around the world convened in London to discuss the implementation of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the severing of cultural links with Israel.
The aim of the conference was to refine the arguments, clarify the rationale, and determine how to act next. Participants considered it an important step toward convincing large numbers of academics to heed a call for an academic boycott.
Support for the boycott is motivated by the terrible conditions created by the Israeli occupation and continued dispossession of the Palestinians. Furthermore, the failure of governments to effectively pressure Israel so that it will comply with international law means that it is up to civil society to act. As Lawrence Davidson, a professor of history in the U.S., stated: "Governments in the West, left to themselves, do not have the will to sanction Israel for its illegal occupation of the occupied territories and its violent destruction of Palestinian society. Therefore, an international grass roots movement must be organized to educate significant parts of the Western populations on the nature of Israeli behavior, and simultaneously build pressure on Israel to change its ways, and governments to act to encourage this change./" Boycotts, a quintessential nonviolent form of protest, are seen as a key tactic to force Israel to end the occupation and in general obtain a modicum of justice. Academics in particular see the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a way they can contribute to this struggle.
Israeli professor of history Ilan Pappe called on his academic colleagues to "boycott us." This may seem an odd recommendation coming from an Israeli scholar-indeed, someone likened Pappe's call to a "turkey voting for Christmas"! Pappe explained his action, however, by arguing that change will not come from within, that external pressure is essential for Israel to change. Although Israeli academics may be more liberal than the population at large, Pappe didn't believe that demand for change would come from this quarter. If Israeli academics actively were working for change, he explained, then the
boycott might be seen as counterproductive. It was clear from several
presentations, however, that Israeli academic institutions are part of
the problem. Support for the boycott also came from a handful of
academics in Israel, some Israeli academics working abroad, and a
significant number of Jewish academics.
A large number of Palestinian academics and intellectuals called for
the boycott in April 2004, and Prof. Lisa Taraki of Birzeit University
clarified what Palestinians hoped to obtain from this action. She
warned against substituting genuine solidarity with Palestinian
academics with offers of funds conditional on Israeli partnership.
European Union funding agencies in particular have implemented
such arrangements, she said, but this has resulted in a "false
solidarity." Joint Palestinian-Israeli research projects, she
elaborated, "inevitably result in enhancing the legitimacy of the
Israeli institutions as centers of excellence, without doing much to
strengthen the research capacity of Palestinian institutions." And,
Taraki concluded, "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." She cautioned
conference participants against accepting such conditional
arrangements as substitutes for a boycott.
A portion of the conference dealt with drawing lessons from the
boycott against apartheid South Africa. It took years to implement
this boycott and to overcome the arguments leveled against it. The
South African academic boycott proved to be effective, however,
and an important contribution to the collapse of apartheid. The same
arguments made in favor of the academic boycott against South Africa
apply now-and even more so. Since Israel's version of apartheid is
more extreme than that of South Africa in the 1970s, it is clear that
the arguments for the boycott are more relevant today.
Mona Baker, a British professor of translation studies, set out
principles of who and which institutions should be boycotted. This is
an important issue, because the boycott must avoid the appearance
of discrimination and the risk of dilution due to individually chosen
exceptions. The proposal was to cast the academic boycott as an
economic boycott "to undermine the institutions that allow a pariah
state to fu'nction and claim membership of the international
community." When considering a boycott of, say, tourism to Israel,
Baker noted, "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
When cast as an economic boycott, therefore, an academic boycott
implies that all academics at Israeli institutions should be
boycotted, and Israeli academics working abroad would be exempted.
Similarly, non-Jewish academics at Israeli institutions also would be
boycotted. Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian dance company director
and doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, addressed the common
arguments raised against the academic boycott. He, too, observed that
there were no genuine attempts by Israeli academic institutions to
make a difference or bridge the divide. Israeli academics were deeply
involved in the implementation of the Israeli brand of apartheid, he
noted, and the legal profession was particularly complicit in this.
Finally, addressing the claim by opponents of the boycott that it will
hurt those opposed to the occupation, Barghouti made it clear that
such a group was a small minority in the universities. Thus, he
concluded, it didn't make sense to suspend the boycott because of
a handful of individuals.
In the coming months several activist groups will push for divestment,
economic boycotts and an academic boycott of Israeli academic
institutions. Because it seems, on the face of it, to conflict with
values such as academic freedom and freedom of speech, the latter
tactic will encounter most opposition, and opponents of the boycott
may attempt to diminish the responsibility of academics for crimes
committed by their state. In 2005, we will witness the overall call
for the academic boycott gathering momentum, and this will undoubtedly
trigger a sharp and violent reaction. The London conference was meant
to prepare advocates of the boycott with the arguments with which to
address their colleagues, and the means to answer any objections.
Several of the conference papers can be found here: