Academic boycott of Israel

The principle of ‘academic freedom’ and the obligations of higher learning
institutions: An examination of the arguments surrounding the academic boycott
of Israel

Samah at teach-in

Samah Sabawi speaking at QUT Brisbane (circa 2010)

Abstract: Inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the Palestinian campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a call in 2004 urging academics and cultural workers around the world to boycott ‘all Israeli academic and cultural institutions’ in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle ‘to end Israel‘s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid’ (PACBI 2009). In the years that followed, the movement for an academic boycott of Israel rattled universities around the world. Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books called it ‘one of the major geopolitical, civil rights issues of our time’ (Hahn 2014). The debate around academic boycott often centres around the concept of ‘academic freedom’ on one side and the ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ obligations of higher learning institutions on the other. Those opposing the boycott claim it infringes on the basic principle of academic freedom; the free exchange of ideas across national and international divides and the right of scholars to share their views without discrimination based on their national origin or ethnicity (Fish 2013). Advocates for the boycott argue that all freedoms are essentially linked and are therefore not absolute, and as such, the value of academic freedom cannot be seen apart from other human rights such as the right to education, the right to equality, the right to live free of discrimination, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of political affiliation (Barghouthi 2013). This essay will explore the debate surrounding the academic boycott of Israel, especially the principle of ‘academic freedom’ and the perceived roles and responsibilities of academic institutions in relation to controversial ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ issues.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) Worker Solidarity - Arab Unity - Palestinian Victory
In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution during its tenth Emergency Special Session to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the ‘legal consequences arising from the construction of the wall being built by Israel inside the Palestinian Territory’ in relation to the Fourth Geneva Convention and ‘relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions’ (ICJ 2004). Article 92 of the UN Charter describes the ICJ as ‘the principal judicial organ of the United Nations’, making it the highest judicial authority in the world. Responding to the request by the UNGA, the ICJ voted fourteen to one calling the construction of the wall by Israel inside the Palestinian Territory ‘contrary to international law’ and reminding the member states of the UNGA that they are ‘under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall’ (ICJ 2004). In doing so, the world’s top court advised the international community that it is obligated under international law not to normalize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and not to recognize the route of the wall, which cuts deep into Palestinian territory as the de facto border of Palestinian areas. The ICJ advisory opinion also reminded all States that are party to the Fourth Geneva Convention of their obligation to respect the Charter and international law and to ‘ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law as embodied in that Convention’ (ICJ 2004).
Palestinians hoped that this powerful and clear advisory opinion from a high reputable world body, the ICJ, would compel action by the international community and lead them to pressure Israel to freeze its building of the wall in and around Palestinian communities and to stop the expansion of settlements. But this scenario never materialized and business continued as usual with Israel building its wall and its settlements and the International community who were advised of the illegality of this action, looking the other way.
A year after the ICJ issued its advisory opinion, Palestinian civil society held a flurry of meetings to discuss possible next steps. The result of these meetings was a statement that would trigger a global movement, calling on the people of the world to apply Boycott Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until Israel complies with its obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) toward the Palestinian people (BDS Movement 2005). More than 170 groups representing the full spectrum of Palestinian civil society including unions, NGOs, agricultural groups, faith groups and political parties endorsed the statement which referred to the ICJ advisory opinion as one being added to the countless UN declarations and resolutions calling on Israel to comply with international law and/or highlighting its violations of it, but lacking the mechanism needed to force Israel into compliance. The statement echoed the widespread thinking of Palestinian civil society that they were at a critical point in their struggle where they needed practical tactics that would succeed where world governments have failed.
Modelled on the South African struggle to end apartheid, the 2004 BDS call became the impetus of the birth of a Palestinian lead non-violent civil resistance grass roots movement based on international law and the universal declarations of human rights. The stated aim of this movement is to empower people around the globe regardless of their ethnicity, faith or nationality, to become active participants in the Palestinian struggle to: end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, demand full equality for Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenships, and call on Israel to comply with its obligations under international law toward the Palestinian refugees’ right of return (BDS movement 2004).
The Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is a critical component within the BDS movement. In ten years since its formation, this campaign made significant headway. In 2013, a group of 20 leading academics, including Noam Chomsky, successfully convinced world-renowned theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, to boycott an Israeli conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, prompting Hawking to pull out citing support for the academic boycott (Rose & Rose 2013).
Also of significance last year were several milestone votes passed in support of boycott by major academic bodies and student unions around the world. Most notable was the vote by the 5,000 members American Studies Association (ASA) in favour of the boycott, making the ASA one of three American scholarly groups to support academic boycott, the other two are the elected council for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies (Inside Higher Ed 2014). The UK campaign for academic boycott also drew attention last year when the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) passed a motion supporting action by the International Union Of Architects to suspend the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) from its world body (Sherwood 2014).
According to the PACBI website, the movement to boycott Israel has also been gaining strength and scoring ‘victories’ by successfully passing divestment resolutions and motions on university campuses around the world (PACBI 2014). This past year motions in favour of boycott were passed at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the University of New Mexico, Columbia University and Barnard College, King’s College London, the University of Southampton, Sussex University, the university of Sheffield, Ryerson University, York University, The University of Windsor the National University of Galway amongst many others (PACBI 2014).

Defining the Parameters of ‘Academic Freedom’



In 1966, a history professor at Rutgers University made a controversial statement. Eugene Genovese declared he does not ‘fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam’ and that he in fact ‘welcomes’ such victory (Genovese, cited in Black 2007, p 483). His statement prompted a huge controversy as academics and pundits deliberated on what society should deem permissible speech within the boundary of academic freedom.
President Richard Nixon weighed in on this argument in his address at Rochester University stating that ‘academic freedom should protect the right of a professor or student to advocate Marxism, socialism, communism, or any other minority viewpoint — no matter how distasteful to the majority’ (Nixon, cited in Black 2007, p. 483). Nixon’s support for the right to freedom of speech was within clear limitation, drawing the line at ‘favouring an American opponent in a shooting war’ (Black, 2007, p.483). But many academics disagreed with Nixon’s line giving their support to Genovese’s right to express freely his viewpoint with no limitation. This case became known as an important landmark in the fight for academic freedom. Many argue that the fact that Genovese survived and did not lose his job at the university was an indication that the space for freedom of thought and expression in academic institutions in the US was in fact expanded. Conrad Black argued that it was after the Genovese Affair that college professors began to believe that they could voice criticism ‘with various aspects of American society’ without fear of suffering any consequences as a result (Black 2007, p 483).
While the Genovese affair may have highlighted one side of academic freedom; the freedom to express dissent, the right of academics to speak freely on all matters of interest is still being negotiated on campuses around the world. Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman is Associate Professor of English at An Najah University in Palestine. She believes there is ‘censorship’ within academic institutions, that lead to least two professors, Dr. Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University and Joseph Massad of Columbia University, to suffer grave consequences and lose their jobs for criticizing Israel in their research (Knopf-Newman 2008). Knopf-Newman calls on academics to rethink the notion of ‘academic freedom’ and see it more as ‘a privilege rather than a right’ in order to foster a constructive debate within academic institutions and to promote a healthy environment to conduct research freely.
Some academics have insisted this is precisely why they oppose the boycotts. They claim that boycotts against Israel will create an unhealthy environment that could stifle the process of free research. American literary theorist and legal scholar, Stanley Fish, argues that ‘academic freedom’ is about ensuring that scholars are able to pursue their research freely and that the academic boycott against Israel hinders this process (Fish 2013). But According to Palestinian academic and founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI) Omar Barghouthi, there is nothing that stops Israeli scholars from pursuing or publishing their research, teaching or participating in international forums as long as these activities are not linked to Israeli institutions, all that the boycotts do is cause them the ‘inconvenience’ of finding independent funding ‘instead of relying on Israeli state or institutional funding’ (Barghouthi 2014). This is reinforced within the guidelines of the campaign for academic boycott published on the PACBI website (2009) which states that individual academics in Israel who still wish to work with Palestinians are welcome to do so, so long as they work on projects not funded by an Israeli institution with the purpose of normalizing Israel’s policies of occupation. It was also made clear when the American Studies Association voted to join the academic boycott. The ASA’s president Curtis Marez, highlighted the fact that the boycott was ‘limited to institutions and their official representatives’ and does not ‘target individual academics’ (Marez cited in Hanley 2014). In fact, the ASA also announced its plans to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together at its national convention in 2014 (Hanley 2014).
Regardless of how it may or may not impact individual academics, Stanley Fish still opposes the boycott on the ground that the doctrine of ‘academic freedom’ does not give scholars the right to be ‘watching out for human rights violations and taking steps to stop them’ as he believes that this falls outside of the charge of ‘the academy’ and ‘the doctrine of academic freedom’ (2013). Stanely Fish expresses a common view in academia, one that sees the definition of academic freedom as limited and as separate in its scope from human rights and social issues that take place outside the walls of higher learning institutions. Such common view may explain the silence of Israeli academics who have for a long time acted as bystanders to the conflict. Author Neve Gordon (2014) offers a vivid account of his days as student of philosophy in Israel’s Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in the late 1980s. Gordon describes sitting in class while the first Palestinian uprising was raging in the streets in Arab East Jerusalem, he remembers hearing gun shots and seeing the clouds of tear gas in the valley below where the Israeli army tried to crush the unarmed protesters with brutal force. Gordon summed up the scene in one sentence. ‘While the Palestinians fought for their liberation, we continued our classes on Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and G.E. Moore’ (Gordon 2014).
The Role of Israeli Academic Institutions 031010_0741_Palestinian1.jpg
There are those who argue that academics do not have sufficient political power to instigate this kind of change. Rodin & Yudkin (2011) are amongst these voices who believe that academics are not as ‘critical to the survival of regimes’ like others in ‘trade, armaments and finance’ and therefore cannot pressure the regime into changing. They argue that the boycott will only impede the scientific progress and research capacity of higher learning institutions, as it did in South Africa, where they claim the academic boycott did not have a role in ending apartheid but contributed to the ‘backwardness’ of South Africa’s academic institutions (Rodin & Yudkin 2011).
There are many who would disagree with this logic and argue that it ignores the role of academic institutions both in Israel today, and in South Africa during the apartheid era. Salim Vally, a Professor of Education at the University of Witwatersand in South Africa, insists that universities in South Africa ‘played a critical role in reproducing the structural inequalities and injustices that were found in that society’ (Vally, cited in Knopft-Newman 2008).
Supporters of the academic boycott agree. They believe that Israeli academic institutions ‘either benefit from, or participate in, Israeli government actions that violate Palestinian rights’ (Bisharat 2008). They offer many examples of the deep ties between Israel’s military establishment and its academic institutions. Tel Aviv University, is built in part on land belonging to a Palestinian village once destroyed by Israel in 1948, it plays a significant role in developing technological support for the Israeli military and arms industry and is home to the Institute for National Security Studies, a military planning centre (PACBI 2012). Israel’s leading institute for scientific research, Technion is known for designing military weapons and for its partnership with Israel’s largest private weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems (PACBI 2012). Hebrew University in Jerusalem expands over 800 acres of illegally acquired land that belongs to private Palestinian owners (Bisharat 2008). Bar Ilan University has set up a campus inside an illegal settlement in the West Bank (Gordon 2014). Haifa University sponsors scholarships for army veterans and in 2010 won an Israeli army tender to train students at the army’s College for National Security for MA studies (PACBI 2012).
Based on these links, an argument can be made that the academic support for the ‘ideological apparatus’ in apartheid South Africa also exists today within Israel’s higher learning institutions (Vally, cited in Knopft-Newman 2008). This renders the argument made by Rodin & Yudkin (2011) in regards to the lack of power academic institutions have as inaccurate. Israel’s academic institutions are powerful as they provide the state with the science, the military training, the weapons, and the strategic know-how that in effect maintains the regime. This makes Israel’s academic institutions an effective target for pressure and for change.

Academic Collaboration and Dialogue palestine_blue-sky-over-bethlehem
There are those who believe change is more likely to come through dialogue and collaboration than through boycotts. They argue that boycotts are counterproductive. They weaken academics who ‘are often among the most liberal voices within their society’ and interfere with their ability ‘to oppose the abuses that may have given rise to calls for a boycott’ (Rodin & Yudkin 2011). But as Vally (Cited in Knopft-Newman 2008) argues, even those considered ‘liberal’ academics and institutions, still have close ties to the state, receiving funding and in return providing the ‘scientific, commercial, and intellectual bases’ that enables the state to function. Other academics like George Bisharat (2008) argue that while there are some liberal Israeli academics that do voice criticism of Israeli policy, a greater majority of them don’t. Instead they provide Israel with the state of the art ‘expertise in demography, psychology, strategic studies, history, anthropology, and other fields that have assisted the state in its control of Palestinian populations’ (Bisharat 2008).
The late Israeli academic Tanya Reinhart, former professor of linguistics at Tel-Aviv University highlighted the collective silence on the part of Israel’s academia when it comes to the way Israel sabotages Palestinian education. Reinhart was frustrated by the fact that not one Israeli university ever passed a resolution protesting Israel’s assault on Palestinian education and academic freedom. She argued that when there are ‘extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles’ if an academic institution remains silent, than‘ it collaborates with the oppressing system’ (Reinhart 2003).
According to a report by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural organization (UNISCO 2010) during the winter of 2008-09, Israel bombed and totally destroyed six Palestinian university buildings and ten schools, partially damaged 16 Palestinian university buildings and 262 schools, killed 250 Palestinian students and 15 teachers and injured 656 Palestinian students and 19 teachers. This prompted evolutionary Israeli biologist Eva Jablonka of Tel Aviv University to campaign with some of her colleagues to issue a statement defending Palestinian academic freedom. Of the 9,000 Israeli academics asked to sign this petition, only a handful of 400 responded (Fisch et al 2009).
Still, despite this history of scarce opposition within Israel’s academia to the violations of the basic human rights of Palestinians, Rodin & Yudkin (2011) insist that cross collaboration, not boycott, between people who are in conflict with one another will provide for ‘an impetus to, the breakdown of hostility’, because they believe boycotting only isolates the state or the organization that is being boycotted and inadvertently locks it out of reasoned discussion that may inspire change. This position is often echoed by Israeli and other academics who oppose the boycott. The Dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben Gurion University David Newman warned that the boycotts threaten to destroy ‘one of the very few spaces left where Israelis and Palestinians actually do come together’ (Newman, cited in Booth & Sherwood 2013).
But how significant and how effective is this space in reality? There are very few Palestinians who still believe in the virtue of collaboration and dialogue with Israel (Kalman 2014). One of them is Palestinian academic Mohammed S. Dajani, the director of the American studies at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Dajani holds the view that what Palestinians need is ‘more dialogue with the other’ and he blames the persistence of the occupation on a lack of trust between Palestinians and Jews (Dajani, cited in Kalman 2014). But Dajani’s views are not shared by the majority of Palestinians who since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, suspended all joint projects with Israeli institutions (Kalman 2014).
There was a time when a great number of Palestinian academics did engage with Israelis in countless dialogue initiatives, which sprung in the aftermath of the announcement of the Oslo peace process in 1993, so many they became known as the ‘peace industry’ (Giacaman 2009). Omar Barghouthi (cited in Mustafa 2009) founding member of PACBI, spoke of the opportunities that were given to those who participated in this ‘industry’, such as financial gains, trips to Europe and accommodation in fancy hotels, but in the end, he argues, none of those initiatives produced any results on the ground because they were ‘morally flawed’ as they were based on ‘the false premise’ that the reason the conflict persists is ‘mutual hatred’ and therefore all that was needed to end it is ‘therapy or dialogue between those two equivalent, symmetric, warring parties’ (Barghouthi, cited in Mustafa 2009).
For a great many Palestinians, the conflict is not between two people who ‘hate’ each other and need to build measurements of ‘trust’ as Dijani proposes (Dijani, cited in Kalman 2014), but is a colonial conflict between an occupied people and those who occupy them. They resist simply because the Israeli settlements continue to expand on their land, they continue to lose resources to Israel’s occupation including minerals and water, they suffer under the military occupation of Israel which interferes with every aspect of their daily lives, they are denied basic rights including the right to citizenship and they, like others before them throughout history, refuse to exist within a system that discriminates against them. For those advocating for the rights of Palestinians to live free of such oppression and discrimination, learning the lessons of history is crucial. They believe that change didn’t happen in South Africa ‘through academic dialogue’; it happened when the people of the world united in ‘ protest, resistance, and an international boycott’ (Lubin 2013).

Stifling Academic Debate in the name of ‘Academic Freedom’

amber dances the dabke at opening night of palestinian days film festival1

Amber dances the dabke at opening night of palestinian days film festival – Brisbane

While the campaign for academic boycott grows, the pressure from the political right also grows as opposition to the boycott tries to align the definition of ‘academic freedom’ with democratic liberal values that need to be ‘balanced’ and regulated (Buttler 2006). Various legislative and institutional initiatives have been proposed to either enforce a ban on academics or academic institutions who support boycotting Israel, or to make it expensive for them to do so by threatening to cut off their funding. Judith Buttler (2006) warns, these initiatives confine the definitions of democratic ideals within a limited realm of what these groups view as ‘balanced’, leading to anti-democratic surveillance and regulations.
In the United States, Maryland state Senate and House committee hearings are currently deliberating an anti-boycott legislation bill that would ‘prohibit spending public funds for travel or membership fees on academic groups that boycott Israel’ (Kane 2014). The primary target of this legislation will be the American Studies Association because it has voted in favour of the academic boycott. The American Studies department at the University of Maryland is one of many academic institutes that pays annual fees to the ASA, and through that, their names lend it creditability and legitimacy which the anti boycott campaign wants to ensure is eradicated.
Delinda C. Hanley (2014), news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs detailed in an article just how the pro Israel group Stand With Us along with pro Israel college alumni and donors launched a campaign to pressure US college presidents to take a stand against the ASA, withdraw their membership and publicly denounce the organization. According to Hanley, 134 members of the House of Representatives in the US denounced the ASA vote, and a New York State Senator introduced new legislation that would ban funding to any academic institute that is affiliated with the ASA. This mounting pressure has caused more than 200 university presidents to condemn the ASA vote without seeking input from members of their faculty. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University explained that the presidents were eager to put a stop to the academic boycott ‘while it’s still in its’ infancy’ (Trachtenberg, cited in Hanley 2014).
The tactic of silencing debate was evident when even though the British Medical Journal (BMJ) voted against the boycott, they were still subjected to attacks by pro Israel groups. According to the editor of the BMJ, Fiona Godlee, the overwhelming responses the BMJ received were not focused on the merit of the boycotts or academic freedom; rather they were mostly critical of ‘allowing the debate to take place’ (Godlee 2007). In other words, those who spoke against the academic boycott while often citing ‘academic freedom’ were the ones most determined to silence the academic debate on this issue. So much so, they accused anyone of allowing the debate to take place of being on the side of boycott, Godlee observes this ‘assumption of an alignment with one side of the argument’ just because you allow a debate to take place, does not happen when debating any other issue (Godlee 2007).
Rodin & Yudkin (2011) suggest another form of control to move the choice of boycott away from individuals and even institutions and hand it over to an outside authority who can decide who is boycottable and who is not. They argue that applying boycott should be based on a ‘most severe first’ criteria to be decided by an independent authority. In other words, only those who sit on top of a list of ‘moral evils’ in some type of ‘ordinal ranking of gravity’ should be boycotted. A special institutional authority should be created according to Rodin &Yudkin (2011) to decide which cases are on top of this moral gravity list. Such institutional authority ‘would gain its legitimacy from operating procedures designed to ensure its impartiality, fairness and epistemic reliability’ (Rodin & Yudkin 2011). This suggestion may be appealing for advocates of Israel who have for long objected to the academic and other forms of boycott using the line of defence that Israel is not the worst human rights offender in the world, so why singly it out?

Hysteria and False Allegations palestine book 1
George Bisharat (2008) observes that whenever this discourse begins to take place, the focus shifts away from Israel’s violations and zooms in on the possible motives of those who are supposedly singling it out, accusing them of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy. For example, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer asserted that the ASA’s decision was not based on anything to do with human rights and everything to do with anti-Semitism (Krauthammer, cited in Hanley 2014).
As for the idea of ‘worst first’, Bisharat (2008) argues that this was never before a criteria for boycott, if it were, the Pol Pot regime would have been a better candidate for boycott than apartheid South Africa. Bisharat explains that boycott would not have worked with Cambodia because its ties to the West were not strong enough to make a boycott effective, the same could not be said of South Africa during its apartheid era, or Israel today. He points to how important Israel’s image is to the west and how deep its ties run with western culture and economy, to make the case that this is why boycott against Israel can be very effective to pressure it to cease its violations of Palestinian human rights.
Unfortunately, much of the public discussion about the academic boycott and its impact on ‘academic freedom’ is at times riddled with dishonest allegations that have given way to the rise of hysterics and fear mongering within the public sphere. For example, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted against a boycott Israel resolution that was previously passed by the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) based on their belief that boycotts cause damage ‘to the ideals of academic freedom’ because they exclude ‘conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their states colonial and racist policies’ (AAUP in Butler 2006). This would make sense if the resolution they opposed didn’t specifically target two Israeli institutions of higher learning and not individual Israeli academics. But as Butler (2006) notes the AAUP association acted on the basis of a false allegation that those calling for boycott have in fact made up lists of academics to boycott, even though the only lists that do exist according to Butler, are the black lists questioning the integrity of academics who are critical of Israel. Those lists were drafted by pro-Israel groups lead by David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, Campus Watch, and the online journal FrontPage, and are posted on the Internet (Butler 2006).

Conclusion Return to Palestine
During the rise of the anti-apartheid movement which lead to the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, it became clear that many around the world believed that ‘academic freedom’ could not be privileged above all other values. This was expressed in the overwhelming support of the anti-apartheid boycott movement and the 1980 UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/35/206E: 98th plenary meeting) which called on states to ‘take steps to prevent all cultural, academic, sports, and other exchanges with the racist regime of South Africa’.
Palestinian civil society, in its call for the non-violent resistance strategy of BDS, including the call for an academic boycott, has shown that Palestinians have learned from the lessons of history. The onus is now on Academics and academic institutions to also draw from the lessons of history and to ensure that a healthy space is provided for a constructive public discourse on this issue; a discourse that must take into consideration both the context of past and present civil rights struggles, as well as the harsh realities that Palestinians endure every day under Israel’s military occupation. For a growing number of academics and academic institutions, it is clear that the moral obligation to refuse ‘free academic interchange’ with those who violate, or are part of a system that violates the human rights of others far outweighs the principle of ‘academic freedom’.

Samah Sabawi

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