Academic Boycott against Israel? Umberto Eco misses the point

PACBI | 10 July 2010 | This opinion piece has a story behind it. When Umberto Eco’s harsh opinion piece against the cultural boycott of Israel appeared in the Italian….

PACBI | 10 July 2010 |

This opinion piece has a story behind it. When Umberto Eco’s harsh opinion piece against the cultural boycott of Israel appeared in the Italian newspaper L’espresso [1], PACBI decided that a rebuttal was in order. Two PACBI members contacted the newspaper through an Italian colleague to ask that a rebuttal be published in the newspaper. After much negotiation and many emails exchanged with one of the editors, the rebuttal was pared down to a bare minimum, and the newspaper agreed to publish it on 2 July 2010 in the letters section of the paper [2]. However, it transpired that the published version had been further cut down, and that the identities of the authors had not been included. This is indeed a sad commentary on the state of press freedom in Italy, where influential figures are allowed freedom to defend Israel and its criminal acts while those with opposing views are not accorded the space to express their opposition to these views.



On 14 May 2010, on the pages of L’espresso [1], Umberto Eco attacked the growing efforts in Italy in support of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), arguing that « any political position, any polemic against a government, should not involve a whole people and an entire culture. » We agree. But how is that relevant to the debate on the merits of an academic boycott against Israel? Our campaign has consistently targeted Israel and its complicit institutions, not individuals.

One of the most important lessons learned from the global struggle against apartheid South Africa is that refusing to deal on a business-as-usual basis with institutions that are complicit in grave and persistent human rights violations is not only justified; it is an ethical duty for conscientious intellectuals the world over. By colluding in policies that are contrary to international law and infringe fundamental rights, institutions become responsible and therefore accountable. All Israeli academic institutions, without exception, fall into this category, making a call to boycott them imperative in the struggle for upholding Palestinian rights and ending Israel’s occupation and system of racial discrimination that fits the definition of apartheid in the UN Convention for the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

At a time when Israel is flouting international law with utter impunity, attacking civilian ships carrying humanitarian relief to 1.5 million Palestinians suffering under years of an illegal Israeli siege, killing and injuring scores of unarmed aid workers and other activists, the silence of the Israeli academy is louder than ever. This is quite predictable, though. At no time in their history have Israeli academic institutions, professional associations, or unions of academics condemned the occupation. They never voiced any opposition to repeated Israeli military closures of Palestinian universities, sometimes for four consecutive years, let alone to the denial of the UN-sanctioned rights of the Palestinian refugees. When Palestinian students were detained during the first intifada (1987-92) for carrying textbooks or lecturers arrested for conducting « clandestine » classes, the Israeli academy remained shamefully silent, and Israeli academics for the most part continued propagating a deceptive image of Israel as an enlightened « democracy. »

Israel has, in fact, imposed a strict siege upon Palestinian institutions of higher education for the past three decades. That these institutions have survived and are flourishing is a testimony to their determination and perseverance to resist in their own way an oppressive military regime bent on silencing the voice of the Palestinian academy. In Gaza, Israel imposes a blanket academic boycott, among other forms of siege, preventing almost all scholars from entering or leaving the Strip. The latest manifestation of the siege on Palestinian universities—boycott, in fact– was the disdainful and arrogant Israeli act of denying entry to renowned scholar Noam Chomsky to speak at Birzeit University.

Understanding the entrenched collusion of the Israeli academy with the structures of oppression in that country, prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe stated as early as 2005 that « the boycott reached academia because academia in Israel chose to be official. » [2] Citing research by a fellow Israeli academic that revealed 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, » Pappe concludes, « academia has chosen to be the official Israeli propaganda. … Academia is Israel’s most important ambassador in making the claim that we are the only democracy in the Middle East. »

During Israel’s war of aggression on Gaza in 2008-2009, when more than 1400 people, predominantly civilians, were killed; thousands of homes were destroyed along with tens of schools and UN shelters, hospitals and clinics were targeted and the largest Palestinian university was bombed by F-16s, the Israeli academy was not just a « neutral observer. » Several universities contributed actively to the war crimes committed against Palestinians.

For instance, Tel Aviv University (TAU) directly collaborated in developing weapons and military doctrines that were used in Israel’s massive aggression against Gaza, a war that was condemned by the Goldstone Report and the UN General Assembly as constituting war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. [3]

Other universities in Israel fared no better. A study [4] commissioned by the Israeli Alternative Information Center (AIC) documents myriad facets of academic complicity in Israel. Ariel College is built on occupied Palestinian territory, making it an illegal « academic » colony. So is one of the two campuses of the Hebrew University, built in occupied East Jerusalem, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Technion plays a key role in developing weapons systems used against Palestinian civilians. In fact, institutional complicity with Israel’s security and military establishment is the norm in the entire academy, which takes pride, openly, in this partnership.

Even speaking out for the most basic demands of academic freedom for Palestinians is opposed by an overwhelming majority of Israeli academics. Expressing « great concern regarding the ongoing deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, » four Jewish-Israeli academics in 2008 drafted a petition [5] calling on their government to « allow students and lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories …. » Although the petition was sent to all 9,000 plus Israeli academics, only 407 signed it – slightly over 4%.

Despite this widespread complicity, PACBI has consistently made a clear distinction between targeting institutions and individual academics; we rejected the latter, focusing all our energies on an institutional boycott. This stems from our opposition, on principle, to political tests or « black-listing. »

Inspired by the South African struggle for freedom, PACBI and the increasing number of academic boycott campaigns around the world believe that the Israeli academy should not be automatically exempted from the boycott, especially when its role in whitewashing and perpetuating war crimes is beyond doubt.


[2] Meron Rapoport, “Alone on the Barricades” (interview with Ilan Pappe), Haaretz. 6 May 2005