Boycotting Academia (Part II)
Adrian Grima - 09/06/2005
Inside occupied East Jerusalem
Avraham Oz, a professor in the Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of Haifa and prominent peace activist who has attracted the label of “Merchant of Menace” by right-wing Zionists, is against the boycott. Oz argues that in the month in which the AUT boycott on his University was in place, the boycott made a lot of noise about itself, and it had the contrary effect of enhancing “the feeling of persecution by most Israelis - including those who oppose the occupation.” He urged his international colleagues to “Protest against the persons directly asking for reproach. Or, better still, do something positive about helping and supporting the Palestinians in every way possible.” A long list of British academics have taken a similar position.
A Redundant and Pointless Boycott
In his reaction to the AUT’s decision to revoke the boycott written on the day when he took active part in a “very powerful” commemoration of the naqba, Avraham Oz wrote that he wholeheartedly believes that only “strong and effective pressure on Israel from the outside will make clear to its leaders and citizens alike that the road we hit is leading to total disaster, both morally and pragmatically.” But he sees the boycott as “redundant and pointless.” He believes that “to eradicate the injustice, evil and atrocities perpetrated by my country in the name of security, while persisting the occupation of another nation and thwarting its justified aspiration for self-determination as a free, equal and prosperous one among the family of nations,” Palestinians and Israelis of good will must “join forces” and leave “rift, separation, ‘disengagement,’ and alienation to those evil and corrupt forces whom we all wish to overcome.”
Avraham Oz believes that academics and their young students should focus on how they can use “joint research, experiment, and artistic creation, to coexist peacefully, to strive together for a better world, while courageously commemorating and investigating past evils in order to learn how not to repeat them.” He argues that they should preserve their “fighting energies for bringing down the ideological lies which have become a substitute for humanist values in our society, whose living symbol is an occupation zone, irrationally defended and upheld by corrupt, greedy financial imperialists and their political lackeys.”
On the other hand, Oren Ben-Dor, “an ex-Israeli, who happens to be a British academic,” argues that “the academic boycott is central to starting the process of Israeli self-examination that is a core prerequisite to a resolution of the conflict.” He denounces “the denial and marginalisation of the Other's story” that “is continuing to this day in Israeli academic institutions” and claims that “an academic boycott is needed to create the academic freedom which is needed to overcome naqba-denial.”
Beate Zilversmidt of Gush Shalom sees the academic boycott in its larger context. She argues that despite “the non-violent persistence of Palestinians” and “the solidarity of young, and sometimes old people, from Israel and from all over the world,” the Palestinians cannot defend their land and their rights without help from the international society. “And from nobody else but the normal people” is quick intervention to be expected. “After many hesitations,” she writes in The Other Israel (May 2005), “I dare to say it now: I am in favor of an international boycott.”
Angelica Livne' Calo' and Samar Sahhar (Photo J. Arbib)
A Boycott in the Context of Colonial Oppression
In “Why we ask for a boycott,” Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki tackle the objection by “some well-meaning academics” that joint Palestinian-Israeli academic activities can somehow “make peace more attainable.” The campaign coordinators argue that “joint projects are not apolitical - they deliberately disregard the context of colonial oppression and deceptively imply the possibility of achieving peace and reconciliation without addressing the root causes of conflict.” The only joint projects that ought to be encouraged, they argue, are those that contribute to resisting injustice. The Palestinian call for boycott targets Israeli academic institutions, not individuals. “It remains a morally and politically sound, non-violent and justified response to Israel's unrelenting colonial oppression.”
The anti-apartheid sanctions were mainly triggered by the advisory opinion of the international court of justice in 1971, which denounced South Africa's illegal occupation of Namibia. When the ICJ issued a similar advisory opinion in July 2004 condemning Israel's colonial wall and occupation regime, Palestinians, Arabs and progressives hoped people of conscience the world over would adopt similar punitive measures against Israel to bring about its compliance with international law. “The recent decision by the World Council of Churches to “give serious consideration to economic measures” against Israel to bring an end to its occupation of Palestinian territories is most inspiring in this regard.”
Barghouti and Taraki claim that Israeli academic institutions are “all implicated in their state's racist and colonial policies by providing the practical and ideological support necessary for the maintenance of the occupation.” They provide “consultancy services to the military and security establishment and sponsor research that justifies ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial killings, racial segregation and land expropriation.” No Israeli university body has “publicly censured academics producing racist work under the guise of scholarship.”
“Not only do most Israeli academics defend or justify their state’s colonial narrative, they play a more active role in the process of oppression.” According to Barghouti and Taraki, almost all of them obediently serve in the occupation army’s reserve forces every year, thereby participating in, or at least witnessing in silence, crimes committed with impunity against Palestinian civilians. Since the beginning of the illegal Israeli occupation in 1967, “very few academics” have conscientiously objected to military service in the occupied territories. Those who have politically opposed the colonization of Palestinian land in any public form “have also remained in a depressingly tiny minority.”
Inside occupied East Jerusalem
The Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions that support the occupation of the Palestinian people and the Israeli colonial narrative is tricky business, partly because those who support it know, like Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University and the University of Utrecht, that “the global Israeli lobby has tracked down, one by one, those who have declared support of the boycott, and have tried to make their lives miserable.”
But perhaps the trickier part of it is that it will sometimes be difficult to boycott the institution without hurting those who support the cause but disagree with the boycott. A Jewish academic recently told me that she had again refused to collaborate with an Israeli academic institution because she supports the boycott call, but she had also made an exception for a person she knew because she felt that if she had boycotted her too, she would have “betrayed” her. Many, I suspect, have found themselves in that situation and have had to make difficult, if different choices.
The call may also have the undesired effect of discouraging, or indeed creating new obstacles for those, on both sides of the apartheid wall, who believe there are other, “less ludicrous” and more “constructive” ways of tearing that wall down. It is true that the boycott is aimed at institutions that have passively, or even actively supported the illegal occupation, but it is also true that brave individuals within those institutions have gone against the grain and they need all the support they can get. In the short term, as Avraham Oz has shown, they may feel doubly wronged; in the longer term, perhaps, as the South African example has shown, their brave and conscientious choices may be vindicated.
The key issue is that it is the Palestinian people themselves, those who have experienced the ethnic cleansing of their villages in the naqba and the daily illegal occupation of their homes, villages and cities, together with the many betrayals of their cause, who have made this call. Moreover, it is undeniable, as Pappe has publicly argued, that “the boycott on academia is part of a growing boycott that isn't reported on.” Framing it within an official call, and using it “selectively and only under clearly defined conditions,” can make it more effective. And it has the potential, as South Africa has shown, to bring about an end to the violence in a non-violent way. Adrian Grima