Israel’s New Anti-Boycott Law Seen in Personal Terms
By Daniel Estrin
Published July 13, 2011, issue of July 22, 2011
JERUSALEM — The Knesset’s recent vote outlawing any advocacy of a boycott of Israel or the occupied territories and Jewish settlements under its control is seen by some as a mortal threat to democracy. But there are others who see the law in more concrete terms: as a threat to themselves.
The Law to Prevent Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott, passed on July 11, makes it illegal to knowingly publish “a public call for a boycott against the State of Israel.” Anyone who considers himself harmed by such a boycott — say, Israeli olive oil manufacturers in the West Bank — could sue the boycott advocate, and a court could order that person or institution to pay damages.
The full scope of who might fall under this new law’s purview is unclear because of its brief, murky text. But Anat Matar is sure she is one of those who will.
A senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s department of philosophy, Matar is a steering committee member of Who Profits? an Israeli group that publishes a list of companies doing business in the settlements. She is an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — an international movement calling for a boycott of Israel — and has written op-eds promoting it.
“Of course I am threatened” by the law, Matar said. “The question is, what am I going to do?”
Matar recently wrote an article in Mafte’akh, a TAU academic journal of political thought, exploring academic freedom of speech and the BDS movement. She doesn’t think her own university would ever sue her for her support of an international boycott of Israeli academia; the previous rector has had “difficult” discussions with her, she says, but she has never been kicked out of the university. Perhaps the Ariel University Center of Samaria, located in a West Bank settlement, would consider suing her, she speculated.
Matar is less sure of whether her university will be liable for what she wrote in Mafte’akh. Several calls to TAU’s press office on this question were not returned.
Elsewhere, Michael Handelsatz’s prominent op-ed in the July 13 edition of the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz epitomized both the playful defiance and the careful apprehension being expressed by some opponents of the new law. In his article, subtitled “Joining the Boycotters,” he says he hardly set foot in West Bank settlements before the law was passed, but now he’s going to make a point of doing so. But he made sure not to state this outright, instead declaring: “I am purposefully avoiding you-know-what.”
The paper’s publisher, Amos Schocken, said he was planning to speak with the Haaretz’s legal counsel to determine what the paper was now forbidden to publish.
“Of course the newspaper needs to be careful,” Schocken told the Forward. “We will definitely see a difference in the paper… but I am certain that there will be a way to say what needs to be said.”
Haaretz’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Dov Alfon, told the Forward in an e-mail that Haaretz has a few weeks to examine the legal aspects before the law goes into effect.
He added that the law “suddenly puts this side issue right on the top of the agenda, not only for Haaretz but for institutions, organizations and individuals all over the country. I, for example, was against an organized boycott of the settlements, but of course now I’ll have to reconsider my opinion, since the other option is apparently to lose free speech.”
(The Forward has partnerships in print and on-line with Haaretz.)
Ofer Neiman, active with Boycott From Within, an Israeli group that has successfully petitioned such international musicians as Elvis Costello and Santana to cancel performances in Israel, said he was concerned about potential lawsuits by Israeli music producers, who lose money when artists cancel their tours. Shuki Weiss, a major concert promoter in Israel who recently testified in the Israeli Parliament about his losses as a result of the boycott mov
Anat Matar, ” University,” Mafteah, no. 2, 2011
Anat Matar starts her essay with a quote to the effect that “in the conflicted reality of the Middle East, Tel Aviv University stands at the forefront of helping Israel to maintain its military advantage by developing technology for the security establishment. “
This is not entirely surprising as Matar provides a harsh critique of modern university, notably what she calls the “higher order” applied departments such as economic sciences, technology that serve the “power interests” of the state. But, in her view, even the “lower order” departments like philosophy whose goal it is to elucidate the “truth” have failed to live up to their mission. Matar traces the erosion of this vision to the transition of the modern university from an institution that embraces the will to elucidate the “truth” to one that strives to elude the “truth.” She calls this phenomenon “anti-university,” where, in her view, the emphasis is on the procedure as the goal; the procedure of discourse, the procedure of publishing and the procedure of promotion. However, procedures do not promote the “truth” as a critique of the existing order by individuals-as-an outsiders and, more importantly, it banishes the “political” from the academic realm.
After laying her general argument, Matar quotes the Marxist historian Howard Zinn who demonstrated that American capitalist contribution of American universities perverted their mission to seek the “truth.” She finds the same perverting dynamics in Israel where capital has influenced the governing boards of universities. She noted that the 2010 meeting of the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University (TAU) included a roundtable on “Delegitimization of Israel as a Security Threat;” an apparent effort to educate the contributing Board members to the role of TAU faculty to the process of delegitimization.
Matar’s reading of TAU faculty though points to a different conclusion. With 55 contracts, the faculty is heavily engaged in working for the Israeli security establishment, and others have contracts with the American military. Even the “lower order” department such as Middle East contributes to security; as for archaeologists and historians, they support the accepted (read Zionist) “narrative.”
Matar laments the fact that Israeli academics, even in such “lower order” departments as philosophy have lost their ability to elucidate the “truth.” She urges her colleagues to embrace the radical path of deconstructing the accepted narrative, to find the real “truth.” In her view, such a path can be forged only when the university denounces power relations, when it can be sanitized from considerations of power, economy, militarism and the desire to rule. Until such time, the Israeli universities cannot be considered to have real academic freedoms. Matar implies that the situation in the Israeli academy is not different from the one that opened the door to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s.
Given the danger, her suggestion is to radically alter the terms of academic discourse by creating a new discipline of Academic Science. The program would be charged with analyzing the suppression of academic freedom in Israeli universities, provide insights into the extensive network of academics and power elements of the state and allow of activism, including organizing an international academic boycott against Israeli universities.