Vote ‘no’ to boycotting Israeli academic institutions

Kay Lees, LLB Law

The BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), calls for international support to help achieve its goals of boycotting Israeli academic institutions and academics in order to chastise Israeli treatment of Palestinians— from human rights violations to the marginalisation of academics and activists.

Taking into account the conflicts over the past year and the various international human and territorial rights violations that the Israeli government has been committing against its neighbours and minority inhabitants, many are calling for BDS tactics once again to put international pressure on the Israeli government to change their stance on such matters. Israeli institutions receive funding and recognition from many foreign governments, and it is proposed that by stopping international recognition and funding, the Israeli government will be put under pressure to reform.

SOAS is holding a referendum to discuss the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the upcoming months. The question is whether an academic boycott is the most effective way of putting pressure on the government; will the boycott make much impact, and more importantly, do the potential problems outweigh the benefits? Are there other ways that the international community can put pressure on Israel without the “collective punishment” of Israeli academia?

The Association of University Teachers (AUT) and National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) have attempted to initiate boycotts of Israeli academic institutions in the past, but faced condemnation and backlash from Jewish groups and Jerusalem-based universities and their presidents. Jewish academics have pointed out how extensive discussion and criticism of the Israeli government’ actions have taken place within the academic field. Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh of al-Quds University says: “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 favour of seeing us as equal.”

The NATFHE had also attempted to boycott Israeli academics that did not speak out against their government in 2006, noting Israeli apartheid-like policies (towards Palestinians in particular), calling on its members to exercise “moral and professional responsibility.” The argument against boycotting institutions has also been raised by several Nobel laureates, who say that doing so would limit academic freedom. As Frank Wilczek of MIT points out: “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.”

The Universities and College Union (UCU)—a merger between the AUT and NATFHE—has attempted to hold various academic boycotts over the years. Its annual congress held in 2009 passed a resolution to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions by a large majority. Despite this, many professors and academics still had their doubts. UCU discussions held in 2010 and 2011 once again yielded no results.

In 2013, Stephen Hawking joined the ranks of academics calling for a boycott of Israeli academics. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement, thanked Hawking for his participation and hoped that his actions would rekindle the “kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa”. Academics have made comparisons between South Africa and Israeli boycott movements before, due to the discriminatory nature of Israeli treatment towards Palestinians, such as the establishment of Jewish-only settlements. However, is it over-simplifying the successes of the academic boycott on South African institutions? George Fink’s 2002 article in Nature magazine criticises this comparison by arguing that apartheid was not terminated by the boycott of the world’s academic communities, but by “two pivotal and interrelated political events”—the imposition of strict economic sanctions in South Africa by the US and thus the scrapping of the Separate Amenities Act in 1989.

Casting that doubt aside, whilst prejudice and discrimination towards any group of people is abhorrent, should the Israeli government’s actions be likened to apartheid policies? It is easy to lump oppression and prejudicial governments into one category, but it should be pointed out (hopefully not to SOAS students) that Israel and South Africa do not share the same historical and cultural background, and the reasons for their discrimination towards another group do not stem from the same roots. Therefore, asserting that it “worked for South Africa” does not guarantee that the Israeli government will react in the same way.

In 2009, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology rejected the academic boycott, stating that cooperating with their Israeli counterparts and listening to their views on the conflict can be critical for studying the underlying tensions and may even lead to a solution in the conflict. Intriguingly, according to Tammi Rossman-Benjamin in The Case Against Academic Boycotts in Israel, the main proponents in the boycott at American university campuses are in the humanities and social science departments (49% and 37% respectively), while only 7% associated with departments in engineering and natural sciences support it.

SOAS is clearly not a science-based school, but for those institutions that are dependent on research and analysis in the scientific fields, Israeli researchers and collaborators are very useful. Their universities are consistently ranked in the top 50 in the world for disciplines such as Computer Science, Chemistry, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, and their IT and weaponry databases are unparalleled, due to internationally recognised intelligence and military sectors. It can be suggested that perhaps one of the reasons the boycotts failed the first few times is due to scientific and medically strong universities unwilling to compromise their research and collaboration positions with major Israeli players.  Aside from internal opposition by university boards and union members, it certainly may be an answer as to why previous attempts towards pro-boycott movements have never extended past the declarative stage, and may be why it will be difficult for them to do so in future boycotts.

The potential violation of academic freedom is also a concern. Should politics and academia overlap? As pointed out earlier, many opponents of the act were clear about defending Israel’s academic freedom and highlighted the fact that ostracising individuals and refusing to engage them is counter-productive. It would also affect the learning of students within the institutions or countries that have boycotted Israel, such as those who take a gap year or wish to study abroad. The British National Postgraduate Community has opposed the boycotts, stating that it runs contrary to their objective, which is to advance the education of postgraduate students in the UK.

Boycotting will not only cost the Israeli scientists a significant portion of their funding, but may also lead to less exchange of knowledge between the scientific community. In 2003, an article in The Guardian emphasised that the academic ban would only harm progressive Israeli academics campaigning against the government.

Further, academic boycotts are difficult in the sense that it is never entirely clear what is actually being boycotted. Would it affect current academics on expert panels, who are doing research, or who sit in international organisations? Would it affect international conferences, Israeli researchers and their papers, and existing ties with Israeli universities?  Whilst economic and political bans are clearly targeted at the GDPs and economies of nations, academic bans are simply symbols expressing the disapproval of the international community, and thus may not have the effect intended. Restricting the flow of ideas is not a long term solution, but a short term one.

Whilst recognising the fine line between limitations on academic freedom and the potential problems that may arise from it, such as anti-Semitic individuals who use the boycott as a guise, for instance; it doesn’t change the fact that obstacles facing this boycott are inevitable. In terms of solutions I, unfortunately, have none; I have simply pointed out the flaws that resulted from previous movements, and the issues that may arise from the boycott. That being said, one of the best things about studying at SOAS is the opportunity we are given to openly discuss alternatives, meet with learned individuals and come up with creative ideas to allow ourselves to learn about important issues. Humanitarian crises must be addressed, no doubt, but how they are addressed should be up for discussion.

Post Author: SOAS Spirit