Boycotting Academia (Part I)
Adrian Grima - 07/06/2005
The Apartheid Wall in Qalandia
A year ago, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), supported by nearly sixty of the most prominent academic, cultural, professional associations and trade unions in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza issued a statement to fellow academics, intellectuals and activists in the international community. They asked them “to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to oppression.” Adrian Grima assesses the support for the campaign and where it may be heading.
The Colonial Narrative
The call to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions is tricky business, not least because many, not only in Israel, believe that opposition to the occupation should be articulated in “different and less ludicrous ways,” using channels that do not destroy “the breeding ground of progressive and constructive intellectual debate.”
But Omar Barghouti, one of the coordinators of the boycott campaign, does not mince his words: “Almost all Israeli academic and cultural institutions are supportive of their government's policy of military occupation, denial of the fundamental rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their properties and the racial discrimination policies against Israel's own Palestinian citizens. If this is not political complicity in the crimes of their state, what is?”
“And despite all that, they will all claim innocence and being ‘non-political.’ Dance, music, poetry, science then become abstract entities that are divorced from the reality of oppression. That's what they would like you to believe.” In the South African case, Europeans and indeed most of the world eventually boycotted everything South African: academics, athletes, gold, fruit, musicians and poets. “The world felt then that this was the most effective, non-violent form of resistance to apartheid. They were right. They brought down the racist regime.”
Many argue that the same applies to Israel. Of the very few options for non-violent struggle available to Palestinians, boycott, says Barghouti, “must be the most influential. Israel relies entirely on the US and Europe for its economic, academic, scientific and even cultural survival.” Apart from the false claim of being ‘apolitical,’ Barghouti claims that Israeli organizations and individuals often use “tactics of intellectual terror” against their opponents, particularly Europeans, by labelling them anti-Semites. But the fact that many progressive Jews around the world, including “a tiny but very courageous minority of Israelis,” are now supportive of boycott “counters such an accusation.” People who oppose Israel's racism and colonialism, he argues, “do not do so out of a generalized hatred for Jews, but out of concern for human rights, international law and the need for justice as the best means of achieving real and sustainable peace.”
Ilan Pappe, a senior lecturer in the department of political science at Haifa University and the chairman of the Emil Touma institute for Palestinian studies in Haifa, writes that “the boycott on academia is part of a growing boycott that isn't reported on - of Israeli products, Israeli singers.” He believes that the boycott has reached academia because academia in Israel “chose to be official, national.” According to Pappe, research carried out by Prof. Yehuda Shenhav has found that out of 9,000 members of academia in Israel, only 30-40 are actively engaged in reading significant criticism, and a smaller number, just three or four, are teaching their students in a critical manner about Zionism and so on. Academia has chosen to be the official Israeli propaganda.”
The Qalandia Checkpoint
A Comprehensive and Consistent Boycott
On 7 July 2004 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), supported by nearly sixty of the most prominent academic, cultural, professional associations and trade unions in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza issued a statement to fellow academics, intellectuals and activists in the international community. They asked them “to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to oppression.” One of the campaign coordinators, Lisa Taraki, argued that the widespread support for the campaign among the Palestinians showed that the initiative was “highly representative of the views of major sectors in Palestinian civil society.”
In a poll conducted by the Birzeit University Union of Faculty and Employees in May 2005, approximately two thirds of the University’s academics, researchers and administrative staff objected to joint Palestinian-Israeli academic cooperation projects. A large majority believes that such projects “benefit the Israeli side far more than the Palestinian side.” Most staff members polled also believe that such projects “harm Palestinian interests.”
Lisa Taraki believes that boycott is among the “clearest and least violent tactics in resisting occupation and injustice at an international level.” Rami G. Khouri has argued in the Beirut Daily Star that compared to the two options currently available to the Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation and injustice, namely (a) political engagement via the U.S., (b) military resistance and terror attacks against Israeli troops and civilians, the third option of (c) civil, nonviolent resistance and confrontation, now represented by the boycott of Israeli cultural and educational institutions, is a real and powerful alternative. Khouri hails the South African churches' endorsement of the PACBI boycott as “significant, given that the global sanctions movement against South Africa was the mother of all boycotts.” The columnist suggests that this boycott may prove to be an effective diplomatic and political strategy that could lead to a comprehensive, permanent peace with Israel” and avert a “third Palestinian intifada.”
The boycott promoters call on those who want to contribute “to the struggle to end Israel's occupation, colonization and system of apartheid” 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 at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions; (3) Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions; (4) Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies; (5) Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations; and finally to (6) Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.
According to Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain, both Palestinians and Israelis will benefit from a boycott. Twenty years ago, 496 British academics responded to an appeal from the African National Congress leaders in exile after two academics were served with banning orders. They signed a letter calling for an academic boycott of South Africa. “Today, some in the new generation of British academics feel they cannot accept Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, the policies that brought the wall, and a new generation of children suffering like those South African children whose wounds of mind and body never healed.”
Israeli Occupation Forces at Damascus Gate
Anti-Semitism in a Tenuous Twilight Zone
Many, like Yossi Alpher, have argued that “The notion of boycotting Israel's universities, where freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry are enshrined in a democratic country, is repugnant.” He claims that “Israeli universities, including Bar Ilan and Haifa, made strenuous efforts over the past four-and-a-half years to welcome their Palestinian colleagues and offer them a forum for presenting their views.
However from the point of view of the campaign, offering Palestinians “a forum for presenting their views” has little to do with what the boycott is all about. The point is whether Israeli academic institutions are active against the occupation. In April 2005, Uri Avnery of the Israeli Peace Bloc Gush Shalom wrote to Bar Ilan University, which has associated itself with a college in the settlement called Ariel whose creation is “a severe violation of international law, specifically of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” to tell its administration: “You brought the boycott upon yourselves.”
Yossi Alpher believes that in general, “the boycott is aimed against the most liberal sector in Israeli society.” Referring to the initial AUT decision to boycott two universities, Alpher states that “Israeli academics, almost as one, reacted with disgust at the antics of their British colleagues, which in any case have little immediate effect on much of anything. Anyone who has studied the history of boycotting Israel - I'm referring primarily to the so-called ‘Arab boycott’ that began after 1948 and dissipated around the 1980s - knows that nothing creates more solidarity among Israelis and Israel's supporters than the impression that Israel is being singled out unfairly for its transgressions.
Rather than focus on the key issue of widespread passive or even active support for the occupation by Israeli academic and cultural institutions, denial of the naqba, and discrimination against Palestinians within Israeli society, some of those who oppose the boycott sadly and inevitably revert to labelling the promoters of the boycott as anti-semites. “Whether one likes it or not,” wrote Yossi Alpher, the academic boycott “inevitably” brings us into “the tenuous twilight zone between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.”
An AUT delegate from the Open University, Steven Rose, “born and bred an orthodox Jew, from a family whose members died in the holocaust, from a Zionist household, a would-be volunteer for Israel in the 1967 war,” has spoken passionately in support of the PACBI boycott. Proposers of the boycott, he has said, “are accused of being or opening the door to anti-semitism. I have spent my life as an anti-racist and fighting against anti-semitism and I reject the charge as contemptible.” He is the secretary of Bricup (British Committee for Universities of Palestine), an organization of UK based academics set up in response to the Palestinian Call for Academic Boycott that “stands against the smearing of critics of Israeli state policy as ‘anti-semites’ or ‘self-hating Jews.’”
In his impassioned speech at the AUT council meeting Steven Rose addressed the objections raised against the boycott: “We are accused of denying academic freedom – an odd charge not used when earlier AUT boycotts were called. But tell that to the Palestinians whose academic freedom, whose rights to education, whose very human rights, are every day trampled on by the occupying regime, with its check points, walls, curfews, arbitrary closures, house demolitions, collective punishments.” He urged his AUT colleagues to see for themselves the day to day restrictions on their fellow Palestinian academics, who cannot receive academic journals, whose access to research equipment is restricted and who often are even blocked from going to give their scheduled lectures by “an all-powerful Israeli soldier at a check point.”
On the key issue of whether the Israeli academic community has protested against the above-mentioned injustices, Steven Rose claimed that “The Israeli academic community, so careful of its own academic freedom, is silent, complicit. As for the three universities we have been called upon to boycott, the case of Bar-Ilan is clear. It is illegal under the EU directive of March of this year to have any dealings with it whilst it maintains its links with its subsidiaries in the occupied west bank. You cannot repeal the boycott of Bar-Ilan and remain within the law. In the case of Haifa its practices, amply documented, come very close to institutional racism. And the Hebrew University squats on occupied Palestinian land.”
Despite the lifting of the boycott by the AUT Special Council, Omar Barghouti, was positive: “Boycott has been solidly placed on the agenda in the west and no one will remove it easily. Plus, the taboo surrounding criticism of Israel or comparing it to South Africa has really been shattered.” The PACBI noted that many years separated the ANC’s 1956 call for the boycott of apartheid and the actual implementation of meaningful sanctions. “Israel’s ability to continue its criminal oppression with impunity has suffered an arguably irrecoverable loss. In short, Israel has become boycottable in the minds of many around the globe.”
Just before the AUT u-turn, the PACBI received the critical endorsement of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), representing millions of people, and of more than a hundred South African academics, including Dennis Brutus, John Pampallis, Adam Habib, Judy Favish, and Steven Friedman. “Today,” wrote Hilary Rose and Steven Rose in the UK Times Higher Education Supplement, “leading figures from the South African struggle - from the non-violent Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Ronnie Kasrils, ANC intelligence minister - agree that the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation is even worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid.” Adrian Grima