Why Academic Boycotts?

12.19.12 5:15 PM ET

Writing in these pages recently, Sigal Samuel suggested that academic boycotts of Israel often have the counterproductive effect of shutting out those who seek to change the status quo. Yes, there are academics in Israel who seek to challenge various aspects of their government’s policies, and Professor Dan Avnon, whose request to spend his fellowship at my Centre I declined, may be one of them. His involvement with the Metzilah Centre suggests this aspect of the case may not be as clear-cut as Samuel suggests, which warrants further investigation, but that is a secondary point.

The main point is this: Palestinians have all the arguments on their side. Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory contravenes the universally accepted principle of the inadmissibility of land seized by force. The settlements breach the obligation on occupying powers not to bring about transfers of population in the territory they control. The World Court declared Israel’s so-called Separation Barrier illegal in an advisory opinion in 2004. Israel’s military checkpoints violate the Palestinian human right of free movement in their own homeland. The indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on Gaza constitute a war crime. The siege on the Strip is justified in public as essential for Israel’s own security, but officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv were told its true purpose: “to keep the economy of Gaza on the brink of collapse,” according to a cable disclosed by Wikileaks. That’s a collective punishment, proscribed by the Fourth Geneva Convention and therefore another war crime.

As far as the vast majority of qualified and political opinion is concerned, all these points are clear and well accepted. So how come nothing ever gets done about it?

Many governments that should know better simply turn a blind eye to these abuses—extending favourable trading terms here, exchanging high-level diplomatic contacts there. It’s left to us in civil society, therefore, to make the running.

With what aim? Prospects for peace with justice in the Israel-Palestine conflict are doomed for as long as the parties exist in such a state of profound imbalance. Within Israel, militarism trumps peace advocacy because it seems a cost-free option. Why bother with difficult, unpredictable efforts to reach agreement with the Palestinians, when they can just be fenced off instead? In sending a clear signal of unacceptability for Israel’s oppressive behaviour, BDS represents a long-term investment in peace, by gradually evening up the imbalances.

Universities are part of this equation because they are complicit, at an institutional level, with militarism and illegality. They do this in obvious ways: lending their academic auspices to military colleges and training facilities, developing weapons systems and so forth. But there are less obvious ways, too.

Technion University in Haifa, for instance, is home to the Samuel Neaman Institute, which in 2009 published the Neaman Report on public diplomacy, commissioned by the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry. This is a research report, which recommends ways to present and promote Israel’s image abroad, in response to the perceived “problem” of international public opinion about the conflict with the Palestinians.

One of its recommendations is to identify “beneficial clients” of public diplomacy including “educational organizations.” There is a significant risk of continued academic cooperation, of the kind provided for by fellowships at universities outside Israel, being seen as a form of this public diplomacy, based on attempts to “change the subject” away from Israel’s breaches of international law and treatment of Palestinians.

Israel’s own peace movement is not presently strong enough to effect change, mainly for the reasons given above, and it is wrong to expect the Palestinians to wait until it is.

Yes, other countries abuse human rights, as they did during the 1980s, when we boycotted South Africa—efforts that were vindicated as a new nation grew from the ashes of apartheid. We took up the BDS call issued by Palestinian civil society, in solidarity with their struggle for self-determination; for rights, freedoms and dignity. And I am confident we will ultimately be vindicated in that, too.