Boycotting Academia

Part One | The Colonial Narrative

Babelmed | 07/06/2005

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 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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]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.”[4]

Lisa Taraki believes that boycott is among the “clearest and least violent tactics in resisting occupation and injustice at an international level.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]

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.”[10]

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.[11]

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.”[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14]

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.”[15]

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.”[16]

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.[17] “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.”[18]


[1] Adrian Grima and Jack Arbib, “Adoring Bread. Adrian Grima interviews Jack Arbib. Part 2,” Babelmed, June 2005, http://www.babelmed.net/index.php?menu=165&lingua=en.

[2] Meron Rappaport, “Alone on the Barricades,” Ha’aretz, May 6, 2005, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArtVty.jhtml?sw=Ilan+Pappe&itemNo=572912.

[3] “Palestinian Academics Call for International Academic Boycott of Israel.” Statement, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel , 7 July 2004, http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/news/article178

[4] “Poll: Birzeit University Faculty and Employees Say No to Joint Palestinian-Israeli Academic Schemes,” http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/downloads/pdfs/survey_pressrelease.pdf.

[5] “Palestinian Academics Call for International Academic Boycott of Israel.”

[6] Rami G. Khouri, “Seeking alternatives to a third Palestinian intifada,” The Daily Star, Monday, May 30, 2005.

[7] Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain, “Both Palestinians and Israelis will benefit from a boycott,” The Guardian, Wednesday May 25, 2005.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,1491645,00.html

[8] Yossi Alpher, “A boycott that verges on anti-Semitism,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), Monday, May 23, 2005, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_ID=10&article_ID=15298&categ_id=5

[9] Alpher, “A boycott that verges on anti-Semitism.”

[10] “You brought the boycott upon yourselves – Gush Shalom letter to Bar Ilan University,” http://list.haifa.ac.il/pipermail/alef/2005-April/002952.html.

[11] Alpher, “A boycott that verges on anti-Semitism.”

[12] Alpher, “A boycott that verges on anti-Semitism.”

[13] Speech delivered when the Special Council of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the United Kingdom convened on May 26, 2005, to reconsider the motions to boycott two Israeli universities passed less than a month before at its regular annual meeting on April 22, 2005. Text available at http://www.bricup.org.uk/.

[14] Bricup (http://www.bricup.org.uk/) believes that “Especially in the current climate of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, boycott is among the clearest and least violent forms of action in resisting occupation and injustice at an international level. An academic boycott is a weapon to be used selectively and only under clearly defined conditions.”

[15] Speech delivered at the AUT Special Council.

[16] PACBI, “Boycotting Israel Put High on the Agenda,” 25 May 2005, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article3881.shtml.

[17] PACBI, “Boycotting Israel Put High on the Agenda,” and “Palestinian Call for Academic Boycott Receives Extensive South African Endorsement,” 19 May 2005, http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/php/art.php?aid=19065.

[18] Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, “Sanctions can work…,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 May 2005, http://www.thes.co.uk/current_edition/story.aspx


Part Two | I Dare Say It Now

Babelmed | 09/06/2005

What Jewish and Palestinian activists, from Avraham Oz, Oren Ben-Dor, and Beate Zilversmidt, to Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki are saying about the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

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,[1] 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.”[2] A long list of British academics have taken a similar position.[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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.[9] Those who have politically opposed the colonization of Palestinian land in any public form “have also remained in a depressingly tiny minority.”[10]

Tricky Business
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.”[11]

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.[12] 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.”[13] Framing it within an official call, and using it “selectively and only under clearly defined conditions,”[14] 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.

[1] “Avraham Oz,” http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/php/authors.php?auid=4987

[2] http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0018971.html

[3] “Boycotting Israeli academics,” The Guardian, April 19, 2005, http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/worldwide/story/0,9959,1463130,00.html.

[4] Avraham Oz, “A Middle East Update, 26 May 2005: Naqba Commemoration; the AUT boycott,” http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0019624.html

[5] Oren Ben-Dor, “To Create It, an Academic Boycott is Needed. Academic Freedom in Israel is Central to Resolving the Conflict,” CounterPunch, May 21/22, http://www.counterpunch.org/bendor05212005.html.

[6] The article, “From Budrus to Bil’in — to Boycott,” by Beate Zilversmidt is also available here, http://otherisrael.home.igc.org/boycott.html.

[7] Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, “Why we ask for a boycott,” The Guardian, Wednesday April 20, 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/comment/0,10551,1463752,00.html.

[8] Barghouti and Taraki, “Why we ask for a boycott.”

[9] 352 faculty members from a number of Israeli universities have written an open letter to express their “appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories.” “Open Letter from Faculty Members,” http://www.seruv.org.il/UniversitySupportEng_Print.asp.

[10] Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, “The AUT Boycott: Freedom vs. ‘Academic Freedom,’”
The Electronic Intifada, 31 May 2005, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article3895.shtml.

[11] Tanya Reinhart, “Why Us? (On the academic boycott),” Yediot Aharonot, May 4, 2005, http://coalitionofwomen.org/home/english/articles/tanya_r_h_40505. Translated from Hebrew by Mark Marshall. See also http://www.let.uu.nl/~tanya.reinhart/personal/. See also Tanya Reinhart, “Academic Boycott: In Support Of Paris VI,” February 04, 2003, http://zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=22&ItemID=2961.

[12] Quotes from “Adoring Bread. Adrian Grima interviews Jack Arbib. Part 2,” Babelmed, June 2005, http://www.babelmed.net/index.php?menu=165&lingua=en.

[13] Meron Rappaport, “Alone on the Barricades,” Ha’aretz, May 6, 2005, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArtVty.jhtml?sw=Ilan+Pappe&itemNo=572912.

[14] Bricup at http://www.bricup.org.uk/.

Adrian Grima


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