Academic boycotts of Israel
Proposals for academic boycotts of Israel have been made by academics and organisations in Palestine, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries to boycott Israeli universities and academics. The goal of proposed academic boycotts is to isolate Israel in order to force a change in Israel's policies towards the Palestinians which proponents state to be discriminatory and oppressive, including oppressive to the academic freedom of Palestinians.
The proposals have been opposed by many scholars and politicians, who describe the campaign as "profoundly unjust" and relying on what they consider to be a "false" apartheid analogy with South Africa. Opponents state that the boycotters apply "different standards" to Israel than other countries, that the boycott is "counterproductive and retrograde" and that the campaign is antisemitic and comparable to Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in the 1930s. Despite these oppositions, academic boycott initiatives have been undertaken, with limited success outside the Middle East.
- 1 The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
- 2 United Kingdom
- 2.1 Guardian open letter, 2002
- 2.2 Mona Baker, Miriam Shlesinger and Gideon Toury
- 2.3 Association of University Teachers
- 2.4 National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education
- 2.5 University and College Union
- 3 United States
- 4 Canada
- 5 Australia
- 6 Criticism
- 7 South Africa
- 8 Israel
- 9 See also
- 10 External links
- 11 References
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was launched in Ramallah in April 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals. According to PACBI, "all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights."
Guardian open letter, 2002
The idea of an academic boycott against Israel first emerged publicly in England on 6 April 2002 in an open letter to The Guardian initiated by Steven and Hilary Rose, professors in biology at the Open University and social policy at the University of Bradford respectively, who called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel. It read:
|“||Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. The major potential source of effective criticism, the United States, seems reluctant to act. However there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe. Odd though it may appear, many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. (No other Middle Eastern state is so regarded). Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.||”|
By July 2002, the open letter had gained over 700 signatories, including those of ten Israeli academics.
In response to the open letter, Leonid Ryzhik, a senior professor in mathematics at the University of Chicago, led a rival web-based petition that condemned the original's "unjustly righteous tone" and warned that the boycott has a "broader risk of very disruptive repercussions for a wide range of international scientific and cultural contacts". By July 2002, the counter petition has gathered almost 1,000 signatories.
Mona Baker, Miriam Shlesinger and Gideon Toury
Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester in England and a signatory of the 2002 open letter, decided in early June 2002 to remove two Israeli academics – Dr. Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University, a former chair of Amnesty International, Israel; and Professor Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University – from the editorial boards of the journals Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts that Baker and her husband publish.
Manfred Gerstenfeld claims that Baker offered to allow the academics to remain on the board only on condition that they leave and sever all ties with Israel. Baker claims to have never made any such statements. Her views are articulated on her web site.
Mona Baker's email to Prof Toury read:
- Dear Gideon, I have been agonising for weeks over an important decision: to ask you and Miriam, respectively, to resign from the boards of the Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts. I have already asked Miriam and she refused. I have 'unappointed' her as she puts it, and if you decide to do the same I will have to officially unappoint you too.
- I do not expect you to feel happy about this, and I very much regret hurting your feelings and Miriam's. My decision is political, not personal.
- As far as I am concerned, I will always regard and treat you both as friends, on a personal level, but I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances.
Prof Toury replied:
- I would appreciate it if the announcement made it clear that 'he' (that is, I) was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli.
In response to a barrage of negative mail, critical media attention, and a denunciation from Tony Blair, Mona Baker told a reporter from the Daily Telegraph:
This is my interpretation of the boycott statement that I've signed and I've tried to make that clear but it doesn't seem to be getting through. I am not actually boycotting Israelis, I am boycotting Israeli institutions. I am convinced that long after this is all over, as it was with the Jews in the Holocaust, people will start admitting that they should have done something, that it was deplorable and that academia was cowardly if it hadn't moved on this.
She also clarified her position on her web site where she stated that she had received a large amount of hate mail, which is "now a common tactic of the Zionist lobby" and that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians "justifies relatively extreme measures such as academic and cultural boycotts."
Association of University Teachers
On 22 April 2005, the Council of Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott two Israeli universities: University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. The motions to AUT Council were prompted by the call for a boycott from nearly 60 Palestinian academics and others. The AUT Council voted to boycott Bar-Ilan because it runs courses at colleges in the West Bank (referring to Ariel College) and "is thus directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories contrary to United Nations resolutions". It boycotted Haifa because it was alleged that the university had wrongly disciplined a lecturer. The action against the lecturer was supposedly for supporting a student who wrote about attacks on Palestinians during the founding of the state of Israel. Some aspects of the student's research had been falsified (see this page) and the University denied having disciplined the lecturer. Union members claimed that Staff and students [of Israeli universities] who seek to research Israel's history in full are often "victimised".
Condemnation and backlash
The AUT's decision was immediately condemned by Jewish groups and many members of the AUT. Critics of the boycott within and outside the AUT noted that at the meeting at which the boycott motion was passed the leadership cut short the debate citing a lack of time. Specifically, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Union of Jewish Students accused the AUT of purposely holding the vote during Passover, when many Jewish members could not be present.
The presidents of Jerusalem-based al-Quds University and Hebrew University issued a joint statement condemning the boycott effort as unproductive towards ending the "shared tragedy" but rather could prolong it:
|“||"Bridging political gulfs – rather than widening them further apart – between nations and individuals thus becomes an educational duty as well as a functional necessity, requiring exchange and dialogue rather than confrontation and antagonism. Our disaffection with, and condemnation of acts of academic boycotts and discrimination against scholars and institutions, is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and equality between nations and among individuals.||”|
One of the university presidents, Sari Nusseibeh of al-Quds University, continued: "If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals [...] If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach." He acknowledges, however, that his view is a minority one amongst Palestinian academics.
The British National Postgraduate Committee also voted to oppose the boycott. Project officer Andre Oboler said that the boycott "runs contrary to our objective, which is to advance in the public interest the education of postgraduate students within the UK".
Cancellation of boycott
After the backlash and condemnation – both internal and external – members of the AUT, headed by Open University lecturer and Engage founder Jon Pike – gathered enough signatures to call a special meeting on the subject. The meeting was held on 26 May 2005, at Friends Meeting House in London. Supporters of rival positions gathered on the streets outside this meeting. Pro-boycott demonstrators called for the AUT to maintain its course against what they described as ""unbelievable pressure", while anti-boycott demonstrators suggested that the decision had been influenced by anti-Semitism , and argued that the AUT's integrity was being threatened by a group of "leftwing extremists". At the meeting the AUT membership decided to cancel the boycott of both Israeli universities. Reasons cited for the decision were: the damage to academic freedom, the hampering of dialogue and peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians, and that boycotting Israel alone could not be justified.
National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education
In May 2006, on the last day of its final conference, National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) passed motion 198C, a call to boycott Israeli academics who did not vocally speak out against their government.
- "The conference invites members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals, and to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies."
- "The conference notes continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices. It recalls its motion of solidarity last year for the AUT resolution to exercise moral and professional responsibility."
The resolution was dismissed by the AUT, the union into which the NATFHE was merging into.
Overall four attempts were made to pass pro-boycott motions at the annual conferences of the University teachers, especially following its reorganisation as the University and College Union in 2008. Threatened by legal action on the one hand, and opposed by all University heads on the other, these never went beyond the declarative stage.
A group of eight Nobel laureates denounced the policy before it was passed, suggesting that it would limit academic freedom. Frank Wilczek of MIT was critical of the measure: "The primary value of the scientific community is pursuit of understanding through free and open discourse. The clarity of that beacon to humanity should not be compromised for transient political concerns."
Brian Klug makes this criticism of the NATFHE motion:
- "In short, the intention of the Natfhe motion – what it seeks and why – is obscure. But even if the policy and rationale were clear and unambiguous, there is a deeper problem with motions of this sort that prevents them from attracting a broad base of support: they rely on the false (or limited) analogy implied by the word 'apartheid'. This is not to say that there are no points of comparison, for there are – just as there are in a host of other countries where minority ethnic and national groups are oppressed. Nor is it even to say that the suffering experienced by Palestinians is less than that endured by 'non-whites' in South Africa: it may or may not be (although I am not sure how to do the sums). But as I have argued elsewhere: 'The validity of the analogy does not depend on a catalogue of atrocities, however appalling'."
The Association of Jewish Sixthformers (AJ6) issued a press release expressing dismay and concern "about the affects [sic] of any boycott on Jewish and Israeli Sixthformers." Specifically, AJ6 pointed to "partnerships and exchange visits with Israeli schools and colleges may be under threat", that "Jewish students who study in Israel during their Gap Years are worried that teachers may refuse to provide them with references for these programmes."
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement which condemned the motion explaining:
- "It is profoundly unjust for academics in the only democratic country in the Middle East – the only country where scholarship and debate are permitted to freely flourish – to be held to an ideological test and the threat of being blacklisted because of their views. No one would expect a British or American professor to have to withstand such scrutiny of their political views. Yet, when it comes to Israel a different standard applies".
The British government, through Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Lord Triesman, issued a statement that the motion was "counterproductive and retrograde" although the British Government recognized "the independence of the NATFHE."
Paul Mackney, the general secretary of NATFHE, was sent over 15,000 messages from boycott opponents.
Response to criticism
Mackney, the general secretary of NATFHE and who opposed the motion as passed, is quoted after the fact by the Guardian:
- "The ironic thing, is if we had put this to delegates a couple of weeks ago, before the international pro-Israeli lobby started this massive campaign emailing delegates and trying to deny us our democratic right to discuss whatever we like, it probably wouldn't have passed. People feel bullied, and what we have seen is a hardening of attitudes. All they achieved was making the delegates determined to debate and pass the motion."
Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt, reporting for the Guardian, conducted an analysis of "whether the campaigns against such boycotts are actually motivated by concerns for academic freedom, or whether they are using the universalist ideal to stifle critical discussion of Israel." They describe their findings this way:
- "Through discussions with anti-boycott campaigners and a trace of the most common emails (not necessarily abusive) sent to the union and handed over by Natfhe, we found the vast majority of the tens of thousands of emails originated not with groups fighting for academic freedom, but with lobby groups and thinktanks that regularly work to delegitimise criticisms of Israel."
University and College Union
On 30 May 2007, the congress of the University and College Union (created by the merger of AUT and NATFHE) voted (by 158 votes to 99) on Motion 30, which called for the UCU to circulate a boycott request by Palestinian trade unions to all branches for information and discussion. It called on lecturers to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions." This position is considered to be anti-semitic by some Jewish organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Motion 30 as amended:
- Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.
- Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.
- Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.
- Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.
- Congress instructs the NEC to
- circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
- encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
- organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
- issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action;
- actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinian educational institutions and to help set up nationally sponsored programmes for teacher exchanges, sabbatical placements, and research.
In September 2007, delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference voted to condemn the UCU's "perverse" decision. They called for University and College Union members to reject the proposal and continue to engage in "the fullest possible dialogue" with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.
Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, Columbia University said, "As the president of an academic institution dedicated in large part to the preparation of teachers, I believe that universities and all centers of learning must be allowed to function as safe havens for freedom of discussion, debate and intellectual inquiry, standing apart from national and international politics and partisan strife. Only thus can they continue to produce scholarship that informs the policies and laws of democratic societies and stand as islands of hope in a frequently polarized world. ... Teachers College welcomes dialogue with Israeli scholars and universities and stands with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in expressing solidarity with them by inviting UCU to boycott us, as well."
Japanese physicist Shin-ichi Kurokawa of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan, wrote to the general secretary of UCU. He said the proposed boycott "clearly violates" Statute 5 of the International Council for Science.
In 2008 an internal controversy over the University and College Union's proposed academic boycotts of Israel arose. During August 2008, one UCU member, Jenna Delich, forwarded a link to an editorial on the news website Sott.net to a private UCU activists' email discussion list comprising some 700 people. The editorial, written by Joe Quinn, entitled 'Racism, not Defence, at the heart of Israeli politics' strongly condemned Israeli government and military treatment of Palestinians, specifically during the 2006 Israeli military operation code named "summer rain".
The link, however, was not to the original publication of Quinn's editorial on the Sott.net web site but to its re-publication of on the website of former Ku Klux Klan member and white supremacist David Duke. Quinn claimed that no permission had been asked or given for the re-publication.
David Hirsh, a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College and founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel, became involved in the controversy when, in August 2008, he obtained a copy of Delich's message to the activists' list and posted it on his Engage website. Hirsh commented that the UCU was now circulating links to Duke’s website on behalf of Delich.
Hirsh, also a University and College Union member, had been banned from the UCU activists’ email list in November 2007 for breaching rules of confidentiality.
Delich quickly clarified that she had not realised who David Duke was and stated that, while strongly against racists and anti-semites, she maintained her support for the views expressed in Quinn's editorial.
Developments in early 2009
A joint open letter by a group of academics was published in The Guardian on 16 January 2009. The letter called on the British government and the British people to take all feasible steps to oblige Israel to stop its "military aggression and colonial occupation" of the Palestinian land and its "criminal use of force". It suggested this should start with a programme of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (the BDS movement).
There has been a great deal of discussion concerning the links between the calls for boycott and a growth of anti-semitism in the UK, and on British campuses in particular. While organisations such as Engage or the SPME argue that widespread anti-semitism is at the root of the problem, some academics dispute this and say that it is a self-defeating argument. This was particularly the position taken by a representative of Israel's universities in the UK, Professor David Newman who, while countering the attempts at academic boycott, did not see all such activity as being inherently anti-semitic. Newman, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, focused his activities on strengthening scientific and academic links between Israel and the UK, and was influential in creating the BIRAX research and scientiric cooperation agreement between the two countries – an agreement which was promoted by successive British Ambassadors to Israel, Tom Philips and Matthew Gould, and which has been funded, amongst others by the Pears Foundation in London.
Neither was the counter-boycott campaign helped by a small number of Israeli academics who also supported the boycott. Most notable amongst these was Professor Neve Gordon, a professor of Political Science at Ben-Gurion University, who published a column in the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 2009, supporting boycott activity against Israel for as long as the country continued with its policy of occupation. This led to demands for his dismissal by many of the university supporters and donors in the USA, and resulted in a lively debate about the limitations of academic freedom amongst Israeli academics.
2009 Boycott Resolution
At the UCU annual congress held on 27–29 May 2009, the union again passed a resolution to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions by a large majority. Delegates stated that Israeli academics were complicit in their government's acts against Palestinians. However, the vote was immediately declared invalid as UCU attorneys repeated previous warnings that such a boycott would likely trigger legal action against the union. The union also overwhelmingly rejected a resolution urging them to examine the trend of "resignations of UCU members apparently in connection with perceptions of institutional anti-Semitism."
Tom Hickey, from the University of Brighton, put forward one of two motions calling for lecturers to "reflect on the moral and political appropriateness of collaboration with Israeli educational institutions". Martin Ralph, from the University of Liverpool, called for a boycott, disinvestment and a sanctions campaign against Israel. He also suggested that a new conference be held to determine how the boycott could be legally implemented.
Camilla Bassi, from Sheffield Hallam University, opposed the boycott, stating that it would "not help anyone" and would be "part of an anti-Jewish movement." She also stated that: "It is a recipe against all Israelis when we need links between Israeli and Palestinian workers." Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Leadership Council and joint head of Stop the Boycott, sharply criticised the boycott proposal, stating that: "Whether you are a trade unionist wanting a powerful union or whether you are a long-standing campaigner for peace, it is clear that the UCU has taken leave of its senses. There is the potential for this union to play a remarkable role at this hugely crucial time. If the UCU was a serious union representing their members they would be working to involve Israelis and Palestinians in each other's destiny."
Later that year, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology rejected the academic boycott of Israel, stating that being able to cooperate with Israeli academics, and hearing their views on the conflict, is critical for studying of the causes of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and how it can be resolved.
At its annual 2010 conference, UCU members voted to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and sever ties with the Histadrut (Israel's organization of trade unions). Tom Hickey, from the University of Brighton, who introduced the motion, stated that the Histadrut had supported "the Israeli assault on civilians in Gaza" in January 2009, and "did not deserve the name of a trade union organization." An amendment to this motion, which sought to "form a committee which represents all views within UCU to review relations with the Histadrut" and report back in a year, was defeated. The UCU's boycott motion invoked a "call from the Palestinian Boycott National Committee” for “an isolation of Israel while it continues to act in breach of international law" and calls to "campaign actively" against Israel’s trade agreement with the European Union.
At the same conference, UCU members voted to disassociate itself from the EMC working definition of anti-Semitism on the grounds that the definition of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights stifles debate and is used to deflect criticism of Israel.
The union's abrogation was sharply criticised by leaders of Jewish organisations in the UK and Israel, including Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (the Board); Paul Usiskin, chairman of Peace Now UK; Oliver Worth, chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students; Dan Sheldon, Union of Jewish Students; and Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, who said: "After this weekend's events, I believe the UCU is institutionally racist."
The Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) wrote to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to express its concern, while a letter of protest was sent to UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt from Mick Davis (chair of trustees of the JLC), Gerald M. Ronson (trustee of the JLC and chairman of the Community Security Trust (CST)), Vivian Wineman (president of the Board and chair of the Council of Membership of the JLC) and Sir Trevor Chinn CVO (vice-president of the JLC). Wineman, also wrote to university vice chancellors asking them to consider whether maintaining a normal relationship with UCU was compatible with their requirement to "eliminate discrimination and foster good relations" with minorities. Representatives of the JLC, the Board and the Community Security Trust appealed to government ministers David Willetts and Eric Pickles to support a formal EHRC investigation into the decision, and Ariel Hessayon, a lecturer at Goldsmiths University, resigned from the UCU in protest at the union's abrogation of the EU definition.
Sally Hunt responded that the UCU remained opposed to antisemitism and asked for a meeting with Jewish leaders to help write an "acceptable" definition of anti-Jewish prejudice. The union and its branches have held a number of events to commemorate Jewish suffering during WWII.
In July 2011, UCU was given notice of the intent of a Jewish UCU member to sue the union for breach of the Equality Act 2010. The case was filed under the Equality Act with the Employment Tribunal in September 2011, and is expected to be heard in the summer of 2012. In March 2013, the Jewish member's complaint was rejected in its entirety.
In May 2013, Stephen Hawking joined the academic boycott of Israel by reversing his decision to participate in the Jerusalem-based Israeli Presidential Conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres. Hawking approved a published statement from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine that described his decision as independent, "based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there." Professor Noam Chomsky and Professor Malcolm Levitt were among a group of 20 academics who lobbied Hawking to undertake the boycott, based upon a belief that a boycott is the proper method for a scientist to respond to the "explicit policy" of "systemic discrimination" against the non-Jewish and Palestinian population. Hawking's decision was met with mixed reactions as public statements of support and statements of condemnation emerged following the announcement.
Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement, stated, "Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking's support for an academic boycott of Israel. We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa." Palestinian academic Samia al-Botmeh's response was also greatly appreciative: "I think it's wonderful that he has acted on moral grounds. That's very ethical and very important for us as Palestinians to know and understand that there are principled colleagues in the world who are willing to take a stand in solidarity with an occupied people." The Boston Globe labeled Hawking's boycott a "peaceful protest."
Professor Malcolm Levitt, of Southampton University, supported Hawking, stating that: "Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable. As a scientist, the tool I have available to prevent the normalisation of that situation is boycott." Tom Hickey, of the University of Brighton and a member of the UCU's executive committee, also praised Hawking, stating that "It is brave of Hawking for the straightforward reason that someone who has his prominence will be targeted for vilification. If he can do that then all of us should think of doing it. This isn't about targeting Israeli scholars but targeting the institutions."
Writing for British newspaper The Daily Mail, Douglas Murray stated, "Let us be clear. Such a boycott is an on-going attempt to demonise, delegitimise and ultimately destroy the world’s only Jewish state and our closest cultural and security ally in the region. That Hawking should add his name to the boycott is shameful." The chairman of the conference Israel Maimon was also vocal about Hawking's withdrawal. He called the boycott "outrageous and improper" feeling that it was particularly inappropriate for Hawking. He went on to assert that "Israel is a democracy in which all individuals are free to express their opinions " and argued that a boycott prevents dialog.
Author Ian McEwan was critical of Hawking and of the boycott movement in general, arging that "Israel-Palestine has become sort of tribal and a touchstone for a certain portion of the intellectual classes. I say this in the context of thinking it is profoundly wrong of the Israeli government not to be pursuing more actively and positively and creatively a solution with the Palestinians. That's why I think one wants to go to these places to make the point. Turning away will not produce any result."
Until April 2013, no American school had ever divested from or imposed an academic boycott on Israel despite strong boycott campaigns. Former President of Harvard University Larry Summers has called Israel-boycott efforts "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” In 2007, nearly 300 university presidents across the United States signed a join statement denouncing the boycott movement. In 2010, a group of 15 American university professors launched a campaign calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) voted to boycott Israeli universities and academic institutions. It was joined in December by the American Studies Association (ASA). In a vote in which 1,252 of its 5,000 members participated, 66% voted in favour of a boycott. The reasons given were "Israel's violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.
Many universities and prominent scholars criticized this move. Brandeis University, Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University and Kenyon College decided to withdraw from the ASA. The American Council on Education, an umbrella organisation of 1,800 institutions, the American Association of Universities which represents 62 schools across the US and Canada, and the American Association of University Professors all condemned the boycott.
Ninety-two university presidents including of Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Duke, Stanford, Boston, Columbia, Chicago, New York University, Dartmouth College, Wesleyan, Florida, University of Miami, Western Kentucky University ,Connecticut and Washington, condemned the boycott and distanced themselves from the ASA.
Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said that “academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas" and that a boycott was "a direct threat to these ideals". Former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers stated that Israel was being unfairly singled out when other countries’ human rights records were far worse. The president of Kenyon college dismissed it as a "geopolitical tool", endorsing the decision of its American Studies program to secede as an institutional member of the ASA. The president Wesleyan university deplored this "politically retrograde resolution", describing it as an irresponsible attack under the guise of phony progressivism.
Israeli officials and the ADL reacted by stating that political and academical debates should not be mixed, and both accused the ASA of discrimination against Israel and "Orwellian antisemitism".
Haaretz reported in 2009 that a group of American professors had joined the boycott call in the wake of the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict:
- "While Israeli academics have grown used to such news from Great Britain, where anti-Israel groups several times attempted to establish academic boycotts, the formation of the United States movement marks the first time that a national academic boycott movement has come out of America."
The group's name is "U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel."
The campaign was founded by 15 academics who are mostly based in California, but, according to David Lloyd, a professor of Irish literature and post-colonial studies at USC, it is "currently expanding to create a network that embraces the United States as a whole."
The Columbia Palestine Forum (CPF), which was formed at Columbia University in March 2009, maintains that Israel is an apartheid state and advocates boycott and divestment efforts against Israel. The group has called for increased disclosure of university finances to establish that Columbia funds are not being used towards "maintenance of the Israeli occupation and human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank," and advocates divestment of university funds from any companies that profit from what it describes as the "continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the maintenance of illegal Israeli settlements and the walls being built around Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."
CPF outlined its demands to a university representative during a demonstration on 5 March 2009. On the previous day, it held a panel discussion featuring multiple Columbia faculty members who have been supportive of the group. Gil Anidjar, a religion professor, advocated boycott as an appropriate "exercise of freedom," while anthropology professor Brinkley Messick indicated that Columbia President Lee Bollinger had agreed to meet with the faculty to discuss the demands for divestment. One CPF member described the group's goals in a 3 March article for Columbia's newspaper, stating that "by divesting from companies that do business with the occupation, we can put global pressure on the Israeli government to end it."
One of the strongest advocates of the boycott campaign is Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University, who is on the advisory board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. Dabashi supports boycott efforts targeting both Israeli individuals and institutions:
"The divestment campaign that has been far more successful in Western Europe needs to be reinvigorated in North America – as must the boycotting of the Israeli cultural and academic institutions… Naming names and denouncing individually every prominent Israeli intellectual who has publicly endorsed their elected officials' wide-eyed barbarism, and then categorically boycotting their universities and colleges, film festivals and cultural institutions, is the single most important act of solidarity that their counterparts can do around the world."
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann said in January 2012 that the university "has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel." She said that the school was not a sponsor of a BDS conference taking place on campus in February 2012.
Opposition from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
In March 2009, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reiterated its opposition to any academic boycott of Israel (or any other country) but added that discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict should be encouraged. AFT President Randi Weingarten stated that:
"We believe academic boycotts were a bad idea in 2002 and are a bad idea now. Academic boycotts are inconsistent with the democratic values of academic freedom and free expression... We want to make clear that this position does not in any way discourage an open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or of ways to resolve it. However, we expect that such a discussion would not be one-sided and would consider the behavior of all the relevant actors. An academic boycott of Israel, or of any country, for that matter, would effectively suppress free speech without helping to resolve the conflict."
Jewish presidents of American universities
The Forward published, in January 2012, an article about Jewish presidents of universities, saying that "many college presidents" see BDS as a "red line" and that "presidents who were previously disinclined to speak out against anti-Israel activity on campus in the name of preserving open dialogue found themselves publicly opposing the movement."
In January 2009, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees brought forward a proposal to ban Israeli academics from teaching at Ontario Universities. CUPE-Ontario leader Sid Ryan stated, "we are ready to say Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general." Ryan subsequently said, "Academic freedom goes both ways. What we are saying is if they want to remain silent and be complicit in these kinds of actions, why should they enjoy the freedom to come and teach in other countries like Canada?" CUPE's national president, Paul Moist, issued a statement declaring his opposition to the motion and saying, "I will be using my influence in any debates on such a resolution to oppose its adoption."
Shortly after its original statement, CUPE removed its call to boycott individual academics from its website and replaced it with statement that called instead for a boycott "aimed at academic institutions and the institutional connections that exist between universities here and those in Israel." Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for CUPE local 3903 at York University, told the Toronto Star that his group will begin to advocate for York to sever financial ties to Israel.
Some observers have questioned what practical effect any CUPE resolution will have since the 20,000 university workers represented by CUPE Ontario include campus staff but almost no full-time faculty.
The University of Western Sydney’s Student Association (UWSSA) formally affiliated to the “Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel” in February 2009, following a request from PACBI. The President of the UWSSA, Jacob Carswell-Doherty, later stated that “We have no interest in hearing the Israeli viewpoint. Our agenda is to persuade the university administration to implement the terms of the boycott.”
Proposed academic boycotts of Israel have been the subject of contentious debate. Some issues that have been highlighted are:
- Are academic boycotts of Israel ethically justified?
- Would they be an effective and positive agent of change?
- Are there overriding issues of academic freedom?
- Are the proposals a cover for anti-Semitism?
- Is Israel being unjustly singled out?
A prominent Palestinian academic, president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, has argued against academic boycotts of Israel, telling Associated Press "If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals... If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach." He acknowledges, however, that his view is a minority one amongst Palestinian academics.
Comparisons to academic boycotts of South Africa
The academic boycott of South Africa is frequently invoked as a model for more recent efforts to organize academic boycotts of Israel.
Some invoke the comparison to claim that an academic boycott of Israel should not be controversial based on a misconception that the academic boycott of South Africa was uncontroversial and straightforward. The reality, at the time, was very different. The effort was the subject of significant criticism and contentious debate from diverse segments. Andrew Beckett writes, in the Guardian, on this frequent mistaken comparison: "In truth, boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection, have their controversies and injustices."
Others, such as Hillary and Stephen Rose in Nature, make the comparison and argue for an academic boycott of Israel based on a belief that the academic boycott of South Africa was effective in ending apartheid. George Fink responds to this claim in a letter to Nature:
|“||The assertion [...] that the boycott of South Africa by the world's academic communities 'was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa' is a deception. Apartheid was actually terminated by two pivotal and interrelated political events. First, the United States Congress, on 29 September 1986, overrode President Reagan's veto and imposed strict economic sanctions on South Africa. Second, F. W. de Klerk was elected president of South Africa on 14 September 1989. Two months later (16 November 1989), de Klerk announced the scrapping of the Separate Amenities Act, then, on 11 February 1990, freed Nelson Mandela from prison. The rest is historical detail.||”|
In 2010, the Senate of the University of Johannesburg recommended cutting off all links with Ben-Gurion University in Israel because of the country's policies. The scientific agreement, which focused on cooperation in water research, had only been signed in the previous year. Prior to making a final decision, the university sent a senior delegation of its faculty on a fact finding tour to Israel in January 2011.
Accusations of antisemitism
Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz argue that despite a small number of Jews who have supported boycotts, the boycotts themselves are antisemitic, using their anti-Zionism as a cover for "Jew hatred". They compare the boycotts to the 1222 Canterbury Council sharply limiting Christian contact with Jews, and Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in the 1930s, as well as Arab League attempts to economically isolate Israel and refrain from purchasing "anything Jewish."
Harvard President Larry Summers "blasted" the boycotts as "antisemitic":
“[T]here is much that should be, indeed that must be, debated regarding Israeli policy...But the academic boycott resolution passed by the British professors union in the way that it singles out Israel is in my judgment anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent.”
Summers had previously argued that a proposed boycott was antisemitic "in effect, if not intent". This position was criticized by Judith Butler, in an article entitled "No, it's not anti-semitic". Butler argues the distinction of effective anti-semitism, and intentional anti-semitism is at best controversial. "If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be ‘effectively anti-semitic’, we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-semitic enterprise. No label could be worse for a Jew, who knows that, ethically and politically, the position with which it would be unbearable to identify is that of the anti-semite."
Successful campaign to boycott Ben-Gurion University
The campaign for the boycott of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) launched the first public campaign for academic boycott against Israel in South Africa.
On 5 September 2010, a nationwide academic petition was initiated by academics supporting a termination of a partnership agreement between the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and BGU; a long-standing partnership dating back to apartheid era relations between the two institutions. Well-known academics such as Professors Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Mahmood Mamdani, Antjie Krog and Achille Mbembe are signatories to the academic petition, which is also backed by Vice-Chancellors from four universities in South Africa.
Amidst widespread public attention, both within South Africa and internationally, the campaign to boycott BGU quickly gained momentum and within a few days more than 250 academics had signed the petition, stating:
“The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception, by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation."
On 26 September 2010 Archbishop Desmond Tutu released a letter through the Sunday Times, under the heading “Israeli ties: a chance to do the right thing”, supporting the academics. The Nobel Laureate’s position in favour of the boycott was accompanied by an appeal that: “The University of Johannesburg has a chance to do the right thing, at a time when it is unsexy.”
Former South African cabinet minister and ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils also came out in support of the boycott call and wrote in the Guardian: “Israeli universities are not being targeted for boycott because of their ethnic or religious identity, but because of their complicity in the Israeli system of apartheid” and that "The principled position of academics in South Africa to distance themselves from institutions that support the occupation is a reflection of the advances already made in exposing that the Israeli regime is guilty of an illegal and immoral colonial project."
Decision to set conditions on Ben-Gurion University
Against the backdrop of the publicly supported campaign, UJ’s highest academic body (Senate) voted on Wednesday, 29 September 2010 "not to continue a long-standing relationship with Ben-Gurion University in Israel in its present form" and conditionally terminate its Apartheid-era relationship with BGU.
A fact-finding investigation conducted by the University confirmed BGU's links with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and complicity in the Israeli occupation. Accepting the recommendations of the report, the University committed itself to end any research or teaching relationship with Ben-Gurion University that has direct or indirect military links; or in instances where human rights abuses are identified. The University has stated that if BGU violates any of the conditions agreed on by Senate or UJ’s stated principles, which include “solidarity with any oppressed population”, the relationship will be terminated completely after 6 months.
Within hours of the University of Johannesburg's decision to conditionally terminate its links with Ben-Gurion University, major South African universities began looking into their own ties with Israeli universities.
Wits University vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa told journalists that he was not aware of "any formal links – a memorandum of understanding [MoU] – between Wits and Israeli universities". Three hours later, Wits university’s spokesperson confirmed that it "has no formal ties with any Israeli university, according to our database".
The University of Cape Town followed suit shortly afterwards stating that: "There are no institution-level partnerships with Israeli universities." The University of Pretoria, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Stellenbosch University have since confirmed that they have no formal partnerships with institutions in Israel.
Wits SRC adopts academic boycott of Israel
On 20 August 2009, Israeli Professor Neve Gordon wrote in an Los Angeles Times editorial that he had decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement. He stated that Israel had become so right wing and 'an apartheid state' that he felt he had no choice but to support this course of action.
Dr Gordon faced intense national and international criticism. In response, the Jewish Voice for Peace organization circled a petition to "Defend academic freedom. Defend the right to talk about boycott, divestment, and sanctions."
According to the petition:
|“||We are protecting here more than one person and one job. Help us protect the ability to talk openly about the Israeli occupation and about nonviolent options to address it, such a boycott, divestment, and sanctions.||”|
- Academic boycott of South Africa
- Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
- Disinvestment from Israel
- Economic and political boycotts of Israel
- International Academic Friends of Israel
- New antisemitism
- Sanctions against Iranian scientists
- Academic freedom
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In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for 'why things go wrong'."
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