In 2016 UCU Scotland congress passed a motion calling on the union to host a seminar looking at the issue of a boycott of Israeli universities. The seminar, the motion stated, was to consider both the pros and cons of a boycott. After the seminar, the union was to produce a report:
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On 16 November the union held the seminar, with speakers presenting arguments for and against a boycott, followed by a discussion. Branches were invited to ask their members to register to attend the event and in the end some ten people participated. Dr Alastair Hunter, a former president of UCU Scotland and honorary research fellow (Theology and Religious Studies) at Glasgow University outlined the ‘cons’ and Professor Emeritus Jonathan Rosenhead, LSE, and chair of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, the ‘pros’.
The papers presented, which the speakers had a chance to update and amend after the seminar and following the discussion, are appended after this report. It is important to note that, as the seminar took place in the context of legal advice UCU holds that it would be unlawful for the union to support a boycott, neither paper represents UCU policy and were produced by the speakers to facilitate the event. UCU is grateful to both speakers for their considerable outlay in time and effort to make the seminar possible.
Professor Rosenhead presented his argument first, with Dr Hunter speaking second. The speakers’ papers give a thorough run through of the arguments made in support of the positions the speakers had been asked to present. As indicated the papers are appended but a summary of the issues considered in each contribution follows:
“Professor Rosenhead’s paper began by outlining a number of recent incidents in Israel/Palestine that he said had dramatised the impact of Israeli policies, in particular on academics and cultural figures, before seeking to define what a boycott is and looking at the history of boycotts, including in South Africa. He then moved on to detail some of the aspects of Israel’s general and specific policies that had motivated the call for an academic boycott. These, he said, explained why Israel was not being ‘picked on’, and the boycott was not motivated by antisemitism. He denied that research or teaching by any academics would be directly affected, as the boycott was of institutions, not individuals; as a result academic freedom was not infringed. Finally, Professor Rosenhead stated that the boycott had been requested by Palestinian civil society, and had received international support from celebrated scientists and academic associations.”
Dr Hunter, speaking second, similarly to Professor Rosenhead, began by defining what a boycott is before asking why focus an academic boycott on Israel when there are other countries worthy of attention. Addressing the point that many Palestinians themselves support a boycott he sought to identify other people whose calls for boycott have been overlooked. The paper also considered the question of Israel being accused of being an apartheid state or illegitimate before also considering the impact of religion on the question. Dr Hunter then looked at similarities with South Africa, before considering the motivations behind the call for a boycott. He then raised practical issues around an academic boycott, including arguing the difficulties in maintaining a distinction between boycotting individuals and institutions. In the conclusion the paper outlined the view that, as a matter of principle, an academic boycott is wrong, and that the exchange of knowledge is a good, and to isolate academics on the basis of nationality is wrong.
Following the presentations from the speakers there was a general discussion, with all attendees participating. The discussion touched on a number of issues including the value of working with individual academics who are employed by Israeli universities and whether calls for an academic boycott relate to individuals or the institutions; if a boycott is not the answer then what steps could be taken should people be minded to do so; whether if UCU were in the future to support a boycott it would be something that UCU members would support in any event; whether if UCU members participated in a boycott and faced action by their employer the union would be able to support them; the role of cultural boycotts; whether UCU’s position is relevant on the basis that academics do not take to being told what to do or not do; the importance of international solidarity; and the status of UCU’s legal advice.
The following papers are those submitted by the speakers. They are presented here in the order that the presentations were given, with Professor Rosenhead’s first and Dr Hunter’s second.
The Case for Academic Boycott – Professor Jonathan Rosenhead
[Note: since the seminar was held there have been a number of developments that are highly relevant to its topic – in particular the UK government’s promulgation of a ‘definition’ of antisemitism that foregrounds criticism of Israel, and the UN Security Council’s resolution on the illegality of Israel’s settlements. Events continue to move fast.]
At the time of the seminar some current and recent events in Israel/Palestine were:
* Poet Dareen Tatour was under house arrest in Israel – for a poem. She was previously held in prison, and is facing a trial which could lead to her spending years there. The first lines of her poem are
Resist my people, resist
In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows
And carried the soul in my palm
for an Arab Palestine
Her case has been taken up by English PEN
who concluded that she has been targeted for her poetry and activism, and called for her immediate and unconditional release.
* Palestinian Circus artist Mohammad Abu Sakha, who performed in 2015 at the Edinburgh Festival, had been in ‘administrative detention’ (ie imprisonment without charge or trial) for a year. As the Washington Post put it
“The Palestinians say Mohammed Abu Sakha is a circus clown. Israelis say he’s an active member of a terrorist organization”.
* Al Quds University astrophysicist Professor Imad Al-Barghouti was arrested in April. For his first months in prison he was held in administrative detention, but then (quite unusually) the judge at the military court ordered him to be released. Instead the authorities kept him inside long enough to bring charges – of incitement on Facebook
. The legal wrangles about this procedure were convoluted, but he was eventually released in November after nearly 7 months in prison.
* In late October Salih Al-Khawaja, secretary of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, was detained. On November 9th he was brought to court, but kept blind-folded
throughout the proceedings. He had not been allowed to consult his lawyer, nor was he allowed to do so at the hearing. It is reported that he had been interrogated 27 times while in prison, and appeared to be suffering from sleep deprivation.
* Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights commented “As a candidate, Trump presided over some of the most anti-Palestinian language to ever make it into a political party’s national platform. He has committed to recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and believes that Israel’s settlements are not an obstacle to peace, much less illegal.” Trump was endorsed for President by the Ku Klux Klan, who have also praised his choice as chief strategist of Stephen Bannon. Bannon and his estranged wife clashed over where their daughters should be educated – she has said that “he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews”.
The issues around international support for Israel, and of the relevance and meaning of antisemitism will both re-emerge in the discussion of boycott.
What is boycott?
Boycott is a non-violent collective strategy available to those who individually are weak. It draws its name from Captain Charles Boycott, a tyrannical land agent who in the later 19th century oppressed his Irish tenant farmers. By combining to deny him all services the community made his position untenable.
The same tactics though in different circumstances were used in the 1950’s in the celebrated Montgomery and Alexandra bus boycotts. Subsequent developments in the mid-20th century led to consumer boycotts (Californian lettuces and grapes, Nestle) on behalf of oppressed groups. Most celebrated of all was the campaign of comprehensive boycott against apartheid South Africa, to which I will return.
In all these later cases the campaigners tried both to recruit people to the boycott, and to use the campaign to change more peoples’ understanding of the unjust system they were highlighting.
A campaign of this sort may be able to inflict economic and reputational damage on a particular corporation to the point where it prefers to change its practices. But it cannot, by itself, ‘bring down’ an entire national economy; and a fortiori academic boycott cannot aspire to this. The objective, the rationale and the mechanism of boycotts are necessarily more subtle and indirect.
In summary, the optimistic trajectory for an effective non-violent approach involves 3 interlocking approaches: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. The Palestinians call this BDS. All 3 were in evidence in the campaign against South African apartheid, though the significance of their role in the negotiated end of that regime, as compared with mass mobilisation, armed struggle and underground operations, is contested.
The South African example
The projected sequence, for which the South African experience provides some support, is that, first, boycott, practiced by individuals world wide, helps to transform the accepted view in civil society. As a result the boycotted country gains an unattractive and indeed unsavoury reputation, and becomes seen as an unsafe place to do business. International firms gradually reduce activity, cut links, withdraw capital. In parallel the boycott and divestment campaigns, by affecting civil society views, start to transform what governments feel they can and must do in relation to the pariah nation, and various forms of national or international sanctions are imposed.
In South Africa this cycle took about 25 years. The Palestinian BDS campaign is now in its 12th year.
Boycott then is not a quixotic gesture. It Is not, or not only, an expression of moral repugnance. It is a non-violent political strategy. Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom explains:
“In some cases it might be correct to boycott, in others it might be unwise and dangerous. In still other cases another weapon of political struggle might be preferred….all depending on the actual conditions at the time.”
The basic facts about Israel’s oppressive policies towards Palestine and the Palestinians are now quite well known (though the full Byzantine intricacies are not). Some current examples were given at the start of this piece. But to summarise, the charge sheet includes
- military occupation now extending over close to 50 years
- settlement building and transfer of Israeli population in many hundreds of thousands into the occupied territories, both contrary to international law (and, since the seminar, condemned by the UN Security Council)
- refusal of the right of return to Palestinian refugees, contrary to the Geneva Conventions
- continuing ethnic cleansing
- systematic discrimination against Palestinians in pre-1967 Israel
- extreme violence including, but not limited to murderous assaults on civilian populations in Gaza. Since the year 2000 over 9000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military.
Israel generally attempts to justify these measures citing security concerns. Yet It is Israel’s denial of rights to millions of Palestinians, indeed its attempt to extinguish the very notion of a Palestinian nation, that is the mainspring of the deadly interlocking mechanism over which they preside.
The situation of the Palestinians is more intractable than that of the non-whites in Apartheid South Africa. In both cases the dominant ethnic group had/has a virtual monopoly of power. But both geographic scale and population balance, as well as the deployment of far more sophisticated technology, favour Israel’s control project. This makes the provision of outside support a more crucial factor in achieving self-determination for the Palestinians.
Throughout this period Israel has continued to receive from the US and most of the countries of Europe including the UK unstinting political support, a diplomatic shield at the United Nations, and copious financial aid – the US routinely supplies $3 billion annually. That is why so many people, groups and religious organisations have concluded that, given the moral and practical failures of our governments, it falls to civil society to help redress the balance.
Is Israel being picked on?
Opponents of the BDS campaign often argue that this is simply picking on Israel. There are nations whose records of human rights violations puts Israel’s in the shade; why do the campaigners not target them? The conclusion of these critics, sometimes explicit but often just allowed to hang in the air, is that the reason for this selectivity can only be antisemitism, whether conscious or not.
This argument crumbles as soon as a modicum of logic is applied to it. There are two main lines of argument. First, let us assume (though implausibly) that it is possible to array all countries ordinally, from best to worst, on a malefactor scale. Assume also (though highly far-fetched) that this ordering is consensually agreed. The general implication of the ‘don’t pick on…’ argument would be that no country could be targeted for negative interventions so long as there was any nation lower down the list that wasn’t receiving similar treatment. That would be a great rule for letting whole swathes of pariah states off the hook. ‘You are not organising against Kazakhstan, so you have no right to inveigh against North Korea’.
But in any case that is not the way it can or should work. There is no single metric for evil. If one were developed it would not be consensual. The decision to become politically involved in causes whether domestic (benefit sanctions, or grammar schools), international (Israel, or Iran), or global (climate change, or arms trade) is inevitably personal, based on many influences of family background, lived experiences etc. An added justification for ‘selecting’ Israel is that, as was the case in South Africa, boycott has been requested by the most representative organisations of the population under the cosh.
The second confusion of the “Why pick on…” argument is that boycott is, as Mandela observed, a tactic or strategy, not a principle. We don’t organise a boycott to show our abhorrence of the targeted country’s policies (though it may serve that fun'ction also). If North Korea were my primary target, academic boycott as my method of campaigning would be rather ineffective. I would have nothing not to do. Likewise for a cultural or commercial boycott of North Korea – the links to be severed or constrained do not carry traffic in any quantity. An example from the 1970’s reinforces this point – the Pol Pot regime’s horrendous atrocities in Cambodia were contemporaneous with the period of struggle against apartheid, yet no one suggested boycott as an appropriate way of organising against it.
For South Africa in its time and Israel now, boycott is a potentially feasible strategy. These were and are countries deeply enmeshed in our cultural and intellectual circles and in our business dealings. That is their strength. It also makes them potentially vulnerable to and therefore sensitive to boycott.
Lurking sometimes just below or bobbing around on the surface in this “why pick on Israel?” argument is the idea that you/we wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t antisemites. That argument has been regularly deployed by Israel’s supporters ever since BDS was launched. Generally this rather transparent strategy of ‘play the man, not the ball’ has gained little traction – until recently. However the eruption of a moral panic about epidemic antisemitism on the UK left has created a new situation.
I have written about this development here
at some length. In brief I have argued that this new normal has been achieved by a convergence of interests between enemies of Corbyn and friends of Israel. (Corbyn has a long record of support for Palestinian rights.) A sophisticated media operation combined with a complaisant media has made rampant left antisemitism into an apparently unchallenged narrative.
There is a reality disconnect here. Antisemitism is always vile and vigilance is always advisable. But in the UK it is low historically, or indeed by comparison with either other European countries or other forms of domestic racism. Despite having been in the Labour Party around half the time since 1961, I have not in that time encountered a single antisemitic incident, and my Jewish identity is clear to any but the highly unobservant. This experience is also reported by other Jewish party members sympathetic to Palestine. The Chakrabarti inquiry
did report concerns submitted by some Jewish members about a hostile atmosphere, but these seem to have related not to racial slights, but to discussions about Israel.
One can understand that Jews who identify with Israel may find fierce criticism of that country disturbing. Yet political debate should not be censored to avoid discomfort. Timothy Garton-Ash’s ‘robust civility’
offers a path through this troubled terrain. We must avoid the ‘I am offended’ veto on political discussion that needs to take place.
Antisemitism is, following both Klug and Feldman
, ” a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are “. Zionism is a political philosophy and programme which may be, and indeed is, supported by both Jews and non-Jews, and is pursued by Israel through specific policies. To be an anti-Zionist is a political position, not an irrational personal prejudice, and anti-Zionism is not per se
antisemitism. Boycott as a policy, addressing as it does a political objective, is in a different category – it has nothing to do with ‘Jews as Jews’.
It is worth recalling the attempt made in the courts in 2012/3 to have UCU’s discussions and conclusions on academic boycott ruled as antisemitic. This was thrown out
by the panel with what can only be described as contumely.
What sort of boycott? or What about academic freedom?
The most common erroneous criticism of the academic strand of the boycott movement is that it violates academic freedom. This is continually relayed by some of those who have been involved in the debate long enough to know that it is untrue.
The academic boycott asked for by Palestinians
and advocated by all organisations promoting it is an institutional one. Any Israeli academic’s scholarly activity will be virtually unaffected. S/he may continue to collaborate with any of us without impediment, attend international conferences, undertake joint research, publish in international academic journals. The boycott does not
advocate or support the denial of a platform to Israeli academics.
Academic boycott is always a voluntary activity, carried out by individuals. Very occasionally academics in the UK and elsewhere have gone beyond the terms of the Palestinian call and have claimed this as part of the boycott movement. Of course any academic has the perfect right to choose what they work on, who they work with, and who they don’t. But selectivity based on Israeli nationality is not accepted as part of the international boycott movement.
The difference that boycott makes is in what boycotters will not do. I will not give lectures at an Israeli university, attend a conference located there, write references for its appointment or promotion processes, participate in joint research where an Israeli university is involved as a formal partner, and so on.
Not only does this policy not target the work of individual academics, it is patently not an antisemitic policy either. Teachers at Israeli universities are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim (albeit in small numbers). They may be Israeli or foreign. None is targeted: there is no individual boycott.
There will of course be indirect effects on Israeli academics, consequent on the boycott-induced reduction in academic activity at their institutions. There is evidence
that this effect is already causing concern among Israeli academics. As a result the accidental or serendipitous international personal connection will reduce in frequency. But this can hardly be classed as a reduction in academic freedom.
What have Israeli academics done to deserve this?;
It is sometimes claimed that Israeli academics are the Palestinians’ best local friends. This is in fact a doubtful proposition. Whatever their inward thoughts may be about, for example, the outrageous restrictions
on the academic freedom of their Palestinian colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza they tend to keep quiet about it in public. A locally-organised petition
asking for restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian academics which was emailed to the personal addresses of all nine thousand Israeli university faculty in 2008 attracted just 407 signatures.
But of course the boycott is not addressed to Israeli academics, except via their citizenship of Israel. Should Israeli universities start to become part of the resistance movement(!) there might be pressure to relax the academic boycott. But fundamentally academic boycott is a component of and makes sense as part of the general BDS strategy, whose ‘B’ is a boycott of the whole of Israel. That is, we boycott Israeli universities because they are in Israel, not because they are universities.
There are those who think that boycott should target only Ariel University, the only Israeli tertiary educational institution actually in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But it is not only the occupation which is objectionable; and in any case after nearly 50 years of occupation it becomes unrealistic to make a clear distinction between it and pre-1967 Israel. It is one integrated system. The Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy put it this way
Every Israeli organization, institution or authority is somehow involved with what’s going on beyond the Green Line. Every bank, university, supermarket chain or medical institution has branches, employees or clients who are settlers. The settlements are an all-Israeli project and the boycott can’t be limited to them, just as the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa couldn’t be limited to the institutions of apartheid. There everything was apartheid, and here everything is tainted by occupation.
Support for academic boycott
There is widespread and growing support for academic boycott, including at the highest level. Both Peter Higgs who won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on what is known as the Higgs boson, and the late Sir Tom Kibble (who died last June) whom many thought should have shared it, have expressed support for it. Stephen Hawking famously declined an invitation to a conference in Israel, after consulting Palestinian academics. At a less stratospheric level, over 700 UK-based academics have signed up to the Academic Commitment on Palestine
which supports the academic boycott. The Annual Congress of UCU has voted repeatedly and by increasing majorities to ask members to consult their consciences about their links with Israel, and to inform members about the call for boycott.
The boycott is international. Its Palestinian centre is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI
). In the UK the main advocate of academic boycott is the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP
), but equivalent organisations exist in Belgium (BACBI), Canada (Faculty for Palestine), France (AURDIP), India (InCACBI), Ireland (Academics for Palestine), Norway (AKULBI), United States (USACBI) and a number of other countries. In the United States several influential academic associations, with memberships of up to several thousand, have voted by large majorities in favour of academic boycott. In June 2016 the American Anthropological Association failed to join them by a margin of only 39 in a vote of almost 5000.
Israeli government ministers, and indeed the Israeli President, have for some time given boycott, and more specifically academic boycott, as one of the two ‘strategic threats’ to Israel. (The second one was an Iranian atomic bomb.) This ‘threat’ presented by boycott needs to be interpreted. It is a threat to the continuation of business as usual. It is a threat to the continuation of Israel’s domination over a captive population of over 5 million. It is a threat to the continuation of discrimination against the Palestinian population within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It is a threat to Israel’s refusal to activate the internationally recognised right of refugees displaced in conflicts to return. In short it is a threat to Israel’s ability to continue to refuse to negotiate with the representatives of the Palestinian people an end to the subjugation of their rights.
We do have a clear clash of principles – the principle of academic freedom, and those many principles which Israeli policies violate which academic boycott can help to realise. The impediment to academic freedom is marginal at most, the potential benefit to a just world order immense.
On the Fitness for Purpose of Academic Boycotts – Dr Alastair Hunter
It’s worth starting by clarifying our terms. At the most general level, the boycott as a political tactic takes different forms and its effects vary depending on who deploys them. They can be economic, social, sporting or academic. They can be deployed locally, nationally, or internationally. The participants may be individuals, institutions, or governments. And their success rate is highly variable, with perhaps the most effective being at the two extremes: very specific local action with high participation on the one hand, and concerted multi-governmental action on the other. Specifically: (1) the eponymous action against Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of Lord Erne, who attempted to evict tenants in a time of famine in Ireland in 1880. The response from the Irish Land League was to impose ostracism on him. The success of this initiative led quickly to his name becoming a synonym for such actions; and (2) the coalition economic boycott of Iran the effects of which arguably contributed to the successful resolution of the threat posed by its nuclear enhancement programme. Clearly there is a huge area for scholarly debate here, which would require several books rather than this brief presentation. One interesting body of such scholarly work is that of Lee Jones of QMU who has written incisively on the effectiveness (or not) of the various boycotts of South Africa, and on the practical weakness of BDS in relation to Palestine (not, I should emphasise, from a hostile perspective).
Our immediate subject is the academic boycott as a tool, and in particular its putative use against Israel. I will have something to say in due course about such boycotts; but first I must comment on the rather over-zealous emphasis on the sins of modern Israel in world where few regimes have clean hands, and many are guilty of equally bad or worse abuses. China and Tibet, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the arms trade, Russia and Ukraine, Turkey and the Armenians (historically) and the Kurds today … and so on. While individuals feel passionately about specific causes, the imperative to turn such feelings into actions at institutional level needs to be much more clearly identified than the current boycott movement achieves: Why Israel? Why not X? An argument sometimes made is that there is no point in a boycott unless it can be seen to have some chance of success. Thus the US, which is a major supporter of the Israeli government, is arguably a logical target if there is a real desire to put pressure on Israel. Unfortunately no-one can come up with a suitable campaign, and in any case potential boycotters are too dependent on the States for a campaign to be advisable. Other offending states are ruled out on similarly opportunistic grounds.
Clearly, if every instance of state aggression were to be seen as a potential boycott situation we would quickly reach a reductio ad absurdum in that the whole world might end up in mutual (and mutually self-defeating) boycotts! In the end, it seems that Israel is targeted ‘because we can’. One other distinguishing feature is that the call for boycotts comes from the Palestinians, who are directly subject to Israeli rule (whatever the presence that Gaza and the West Bank are autonomous entities). This is plausible – but other boycott calls have been ignored in recent years, such as that of the Falun Gong in China for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics . Voices are also raised regarding boycott action against Turkey, not least for its attacks on the freedom of its academic and universities, but no-one seems much inclined to respond. It is perhaps ironic that while one boycott has the stated aim of restricting academic freedom, there is no effective action where such freedom has been clearly constrained . Moreover, Turkey would seem to be a suitable target under the pragmatic conditions already mentioned.
I reject the lazy claim that Israel is an apartheid or racist state, without in any way losing my right to deplore its policy of settlements and erection of dividing walls. I also reject the claim that Israel is somehow ‘illegitimate’ and should be erased from the map (which is still the effective argument of some boycotters and implied in Hamas policy). If legitimacy were to be a serious criterion for the survival of political entities, there would be no resolution short of chaos. I for one would be demanding the immediate return of Carlisle and Berwick to Scottish rule; but I suspect Norway would have something to say about the Orkney and Shetland Islands!
A complicating factor is the quasi-religious fervour which informs the campaign; for unlike other boycotts of recent times, the focus of this one centres firmly (I would argue) on the competing claims of two communities perceived to have both religious and ethnic features: Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. The fact that numbers of Palestinians are not Muslim, and Israelis not Jews , is largely glossed—as indeed is the dubious character of the assumptions made regarding ethnicity—with the result that the language of the boycott campaign can all too easily segue into anti-Semitism through a careless identification of ‘Israel as a state’ with ‘Jews as a people’. In part the problem lies in the hardly surprising fact that, while modern Israel is a secular state, albeit one that operates with an underlying structure of Jewish customs, festivals and beliefs , there is undoubtedly a vociferous and influential element within Israel which sees the modern state as being in direct continuity with, and fulfilment of, the promises supposed to have been made by Yahweh to ancient Israelites. Most perniciously, these promises are used to justify the seizure of Palestinian land and property in the name of this religious belief—and it has to be admitted that elements in government in Israel have either actively or tacitly endorsed these actions, though usually by claiming the fig-leaf of security. I should make it clear here that Israel has a perfectly legitimate security need, faced as she undoubtedly is by neighbours whose acceptance of her very existence is at best lukewarm, and by some who regularly deploy violence against non-combatant citizens to make their point. The regular firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel is a case in point. But whether such hostile activity justifies, for example, the settler movement is dubious to say the least.
The South African Parallel
Discussing the academic boycott of South Africa – where in addition there was widespread international and governmental agreement that the apartheid policies of the regime were abhorrent – Jonathan Hyslop
provides a nuanced historical account based in part on his own experiences, and concludes that ‘it had no important political effect in undermining apartheid and … may have had a minor negative impact on post-apartheid society.’ He identifies many problems which quickly arose in practice, and notes the emergence of internal support for a ‘selective boycott’, but that too proved problematic not least because of the impossibility of identifying appropriate criteria for selective exemptions. In the end the ineffectiveness of the academic boycott was beneficial in that openness to external influences enable real changes of mind and attitude in the white population. However, Hyslop notes a countervailing unfortunate consequence of the ‘effect of boycott on the boycotters’, namely that
the politics of the boycott engendered a situation where academics approached the South African question primarily as moralists. In doing so, they largely abandoned the contribution they could have made as intellectuals to the creation of South African democracy. To this day, it damages their ability to engage with the country.
He concludes by citing Kant’s idea of ‘universal hospitality’, and reflecting that Kant’s words must provoke us to think about whether the abandonment of that cosmopolitan right of hospitality in one place on the globe can be a useful contribution to overcoming the transgression of rights in another. If we do believe that scholarship is more than a job, that ideas do make a difference in human affairs, that the clash of ideas is essential to change, then it is difficult … to understand how stemming the flow of people and ideas assists us toward a better world. The great achievement of South Africa’s present is surely that it is an attempt at sharing the earth, to which nobody has a greater right than another. My experience of the South African boycott makes me doubt whether a refusal of academic hospitality is a means to bring about the conditions for that kind of sharing.
It may even be that the most effective intercultural event of the whole Apartheid era was Paul Simon’s much-condemned decision to work in South Africa with black musicians to make the classic album Graceland. This was undoubtedly controversial; but equally it achieved something lasting which transcends the time and circumstances of its happening .
There are, of course, complex motivations behind the urge to boycott, many of which are secondary to the ostensible aim of ending a perceived injustice though the isolation of the supposed ‘rogue state’. Thus, implicit in much of the rhetoric around the various calls to boycott Israel is a condemnation of those of the in-group who do not participate in the process, and a presupposition of the moral superiority of those conforming to the call. Intellectual or moral rejection of the use of the boycott are equally seen as craven and immoral.
The morality of calls to boycott Israel is questionable though not, of course, in terms of the right of any individual to take non-aggressive action in the interests of a firmly-held conviction. But that is not an absolute right, as recent cases where medics who wished to boycott abortions, or registrars who wanted to boycott same-sex civil ceremonies have found to their cost. When it comes to a matter of institutional action, wider concerns must be considered, and it is not safe for individuals to take action on the assumption that the institutional boycott call will cover them. Refusal of what are seen to be the human rights of Israeli citizens could well become a legal issue; and in terms of common justice, the rather random refusal of platforms to legitimate academics, theatrical performers and others on the grounds of their nationality comes very close to a breach of one of the fundamental clauses of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights:
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Part of what is offensive to me as an academic about the workings of the academic boycott of Israeli (and by extension of Jewish) scholars and public figures is its randomness. The application of a ‘hidden boycott’ by the rejection of papers for spurious reasons, or the refusal to share information vital for research, or self-censorship whereby Israeli scholars avoid researching obviously Israeli issues or feel the need to use ‘less Jewish’ names on their work. Of course, open discrimination is offensive too, but at least it is honest, as in the case some years ago when Jewish scholars were removed from the editorial board of a Manchester journal.
It is often argued by those who support the boycott that it is targeted at institutions, not individuals; but this is a distinction, however well-intended, which is often ignored in practice and which is contradictory when the rights and freedoms of the individual academic are inextricably bound up with her or his institution. The scholar whose application for a visiting professorship in Sidney was rejected ‘because he was Israeli’ might justifiably see this not as targeted institutional action but as direct discrimination in breach of Article 2.
Thus the academic boycott, far from working towards the noble end of a political change of heart in Israel (presumably accompanied by a corresponding rethink by Hamas? Is one permitted the parallel?) – far from leading to a political new way succeeds only (a) in stifling individual academic freedom, (b) in selective discrimination against individuals in breach of their human rights, and (c) in seeking de facto censorship of an entire range of opinion for no reason other than that it differs from or opposes that of the boycotters. No-platforming, far from a defence of human freedom, constitutes a form of censorship in advance which runs counter to the whole Enlightenment tradition which underpins international academic discourse. Again, claims that ‘no-platforming’ is not an official part of the BDS programme are hard to credit in the context of the actuality of censorship in many boycott-supportive institutions.
Is there a difference between individual and institutional action with regard to the academic boycott of Israel? That it is illegal for UCU as an institution has already been affirmed in legal advice taken by the union. But what about individual action based on conscience? The issues in such instances are more ambiguous. If I personally refuse to read the work of Israeli scholars, or to attend sessions at a conference where they are presenting, or collaborate with Israelis on a research project – that’s probably safe; however it may be rather ineffective, achieving little more than personal satisfaction at having maintained a principled position. We might take it up a stage – is it OK to try to persuade colleagues (informally) to share my boycott actions? Maybe: I don’t profess to be knowledgeable on the law, but it would seem unreasonable to suggest that such activity was in breach of human rights. The problems come in, clearly, where you attempt to persuade a more formal group (your research team, your student union, your employer, your trade union) to take the same action in their official capacity. Obviously individuals may choose to run the risk of prosecution, perhaps seeing that as a price worth paying in the interests of a long-term aim. But it is not open to public bodies to run such risks, a point of importance when determining effective policies in support of the legitimate ambitions and rights of the Palestinian people.
While I have tried to set out the limitations of academic boycott as a means of effecting change, and have explained why I think it raises more problems (both for the individual and institutions) than it can ever solve, I want to emphasise in conclusion that my main objection to it is a matter of fundamental principle: the exchange of knowledge is a primary good, the ability freely to share information, opinions and research is undeniable, and the isolation of academics for no other reason than their nationality is an offence to human rights.
Timothy Garton-Ash Free Speech: ten principles for a connected world. Atlantic Books, London, 2016
Thus Julian de Medeiros (
The status of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens is often claimed to be second-class. Certainly the existence of different categories of citizenship is a problematic aspect of Israeli civil society, as is the ‘right of return’ granted in principle to all Jews. The corresponding ‘right of return’ claimed by Palestinians is an understandable rhetorical response.
That Israel prioritises Jewish religious holidays does not per se invalidate the claim any more than the similar favouring of Christian traditions invalidates the broadly secular nature of the USA and the UK. See online at
Ibid., p. 1.
Ibid., p. 5.
There is a useful summary of the issues in a Guardian article marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of