At 70, Israel more than ever deserves a cultural and academic boycott

Israel’s deportation of a law professor and conviction of a Palestinian poet underscore wrong-headed objections to BDS

Recent events have highlighted why the continuing refusal by many Western academics and artists to take up the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel is so wrong-headed.

Opponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement argue that such penalties harm, rather than assist, solidarity with Palestinians.

That, for example, was the conclusion of the 18,000-strong Modern Language Association (MLA) in the United States when it rejected a boycott motion last year. Academic freedom was presented as paramount and a route to dialogue with Israeli scholars that could influence Israeli society for the better.

It is also claimed that Israel’s arts community is largely progressive and that continuing cultural engagement will bolster voices expressing solidarity with oppressed Palestinians.

But in reality, the space in Israel for academic dialogue, as well as cultural freedom, is shrinking rapidly. And the few Israeli academics or artists who are taking a stand on behalf of Palestinians are more isolated than ever before.

Over the next few days, Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the dispossession of their homeland that they describe as “the catastrophe”. But with the conflict still unresolved after many decades, the signs are not only that Israel fully deserves an academic and cultural boycott but that without such external pressures the oppression of Palestinians will intensify.

No welcome for law professor

It emerged last week that two human rights activists – one a prominent legal scholar – were barred entry to Israel. They were due to lead a delegation of lawyers and academics assessing the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied territories.

Katherine Franke, a law professor at New York’s Columbia University, was among four of the group detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. She was deported after a lengthy interrogation during which she was shouted at and accused of lying.

Franke found herself falsely characterised as a leader of the BDS movement. She and Vincent Warren, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, posted on Twitter a photo of themselves under an airport “Welcome” sign, with the caption: “Don’t let the ‘Welcome’ sign fool you. It doesn’t apply to #humanrights.”

Earlier this year, Israel’s police minister, Gilad Erdan, issued a blacklist of 20 organisations accused of supporting BDS whose leaders were barred from entering Israel.

But in fact, the evidence cited by airport officials came from another source: two far-right websites, the Canary Mission and Amcha, that seek to damage the reputations of students and academics in the United States who have taken public positions critical of Israel.

It was for this reason that Franke observed: “The [Israeli] government is essentially outsourcing their security to rightwing trolling websites.”

It is bad enough that Israel is relying on bullying, virulently anti-Palestinian groups to determine which foreign academics will be allowed into Israel to conduct dialogue with Israeli academics and community leaders.

But, given that Israel also controls the entry points into the occupied Palestinian territories, these same hate groups are also deciding whether overseas academics will be able to meet and work with Palestinian academics and civil society leaders.

Critics barred entry

There is nothing new about this policy, though the trend has gotten significantly worse in recent years. Israel has long denied visas to professors and students hoping to teach in the West Bank and Gaza. Two famous US Jewish scholars, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, were barred from entering the occupied territories in 2008 and 2010 respectively.

Significantly, neither supports BDS – the pretext now claimed by Israel for banning academics. But both have spent years arguing for a two-state solution – opposed by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu – that would give Palestinians the power of self-determination and end Israel’s oppressive rule.

Israel has also denied entry to Richard Falk, a Jewish American professor of international law who served as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights abuses faced by Palestinians. All this, of course, comes on top of Israel’s ever more stringent restrictions on the freedoms of Palestinians, including university staff, and repressive policies towards Palestinian institutions of learning.

While BDS opponents worry about the potential harm Israeli academics would suffer from a boycott, they ignore the fact that Gaza’s universities, for example, have been cut off by Israel from contact with the outside world for a decade. Academics there are little more than prisoners, their knowledge and skills atrophying as the blockade denies their institutions research tools and they themselves are prevented from attending conferences and postings overseas.

Now Israel is compounding these restrictions on Palestinian scholars with equally harsh measures against overseas academics trying to break the isolation of colleagues in the occupied territories.

Selective academic freedomc

Israel is not defending itself from a supposed BDS threat, but making it as difficult as possible for experts to conduct research into Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights. It does so because it is worried that such studies will have two consequences.

First, they will provide the ammunition needed by war crimes investigators, such as those at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, to bring Israelis to trial in the future.

That was the lesson learned by Israel from the UN fact-finding mission led by Richard Goldstone, a former Jewish South African judge. His report concluded in 2009 that Israel had committed extensive war crimes during its military attack on Gaza a few months earlier.

And that is why Omar Shakir, the local director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which monitors Israel’s human rights abuses, had his work permit revokede this week and has been ordered to leave. Again, Israel used the pretext of a support for a boycott to justify the decision.

Second, Israeli officials are worried that, if reputable scholars come face to face with the reality of Israel’s system of oppressing Palestinians, they will advocate for the Palestinian cause and strengthen international solidarity movements like BDS, especially on campuses.

Effectively, Israel wants to be selective about academic freedom. It encourages the kind of research and dialogue that allows Israeli universities to remain at the forefront of profitable scientific, technological and medical research. But it does not want scholarly freedom of a sort that enables foreign researchers to witness and document Israel’s abuses of Palestinians to audiences outside. It wants the occupation to remain largely invisible.

Scholarly hypocrisy

Even more problematic for those opposed to BDS, the Israeli research that is so in demand from overseas institutions depends in many cases on abuses of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Israel’s so-called hi-tech industries are mostly a lucrative collaboration between Israeli academia and the army.

Israeli universities regularly cooperate with the military, turning the occupied territories into giant open-air laboratories in which it is possible to test weapons, as well as surveillance and biometric technology, develop crowd control and cyber warfare, study a supposed “Arab mentality”, and reinterpret international law.

Joint projects with Western academic institutions make them indirectly complicit in these human rights abuses.

That is why Columbia University not only has vigorously opposed BDS in the past, but had nothing to say about Israel’s abuse of the academic freedoms of Franke, one of its faculty.

Franke told the New York Times that her law school dean’s chief of staff had said the university “would not get involved in defending” her because there were “pro-Israel centres” at the law school.

The university president, Lee Bollinger, meanwhile, has just returned from a visit to Israel for preliminary talks about a joint project to establish a global centre in Tel Aviv committed to the “exchange of people and ideas”.

The hypocrisy of Western academic institutions should not need underscoring. They have been building ties with Israel on the back both of Israel’s ever-intensifying violations of Palestinian academics’ rights and of ever-tightening restrictions on foreign academics who wish to show solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts.

Solidarity moves suppressed

They do so with an Israeli academia that has shown it is prepared to offer no institutional support to Palestinian colleagues.

This month, Evelyn Fox Keller, an 82-year-old scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accepted the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University – on condition that she could donate the prize money to Israeli human rights groups.

She criticised academics in Israel for failing to show solidarity with Palestinians. “They don’t want to and don’t have a voice. … None of the universities in Israel have a will [to speak out].”

Worse, Israeli university heads not only fail to speak up, but actively seek to suppress solidarity with Palestinians.

Ben Gurion University’s president, Rivka Carmi, cancelled an award from the politics department for the whistleblowing Israeli soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence in 2016. She justified the move on the grounds that the organisation was “outside the national consensus”.

And last year, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem cancelled a conference on Palestinian prisoners, apparently bowing to rightwing political pressure.

In February, Israel’s Higher Education Council raised no protest as the Netanyahu government brought under its auspices for the first time three academic institutions located in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Shortly afterwards, the same council rubber-stamped a new code of conduct intended to silence the few Israeli academics who have dared to speak out against the violation of Palestinian rights.

The paradox is that Western academic organisations like the MLA, in shunning the BDS movement, have preferred to ally themselves with Israeli universities that persecute not only Palestinians but dissident Israeli academics.

Poet convicted

The justification for a cultural boycott is no less clear-cut. This month, an Israeli court convicted Dareen Tatour, a 36-year-old Palestinian poet with Israeli citizenship, of incitement to violence and support for terrorism.

She had already endured two and a half years of jail and harsh house arrest – denied access all that time to computers and phones – while the wheels of Israel’s legal system turned slowly. Now, she risks a sentence of up to eight additional years in prison.

Poetry invariably exploits complexities of language and ambiguities of meaning. But over the protests of scholars of the Arabic language, the court relied on translations of Tatour’s poetry by an Israeli policeman.

In schoolboy fashion, he translated the Arabic word “shaheed”, which for Palestinians refers to any victim of Israeli oppression, to the reductive notion of a “terrorist”.

“It is not a trial, it is a theatrical play,” Tatour said of the legal proceedings.

A handful of Israeli literary figures, including the noted author A B Yehoshua, have protested at the unprecedented move to jail a poet, something they noted that even the most repressive regimes usually avoid doing.

A Hebrew literature professor, Nissim Calderon, warned: “What begins by undermining the freedom of a Palestinian poet will surely continue by undermining the freedom of Israeli poets.”

Demands for artistic loyalty

The attack on Tatour is part of a much wider campaign of intimidation and surveillance of social media that is almost exclusively targeting the free speech of Palestinians, including artists, both in the occupied territories and Israel.

But more traditional venues for art are also under relentless attack. Most Israeli artists and cultural institutions have already been cowed by a nearly decade-long campaign of threats to funding from successive Netanyahu governments.

The culture minister, Miri Regev, a former military censor, has in recent years all but nationalised the arts in Israel, forcing cultural producers to submit to the government’s far-right agenda.

Arts companies must now declare that they are willing to perform in the settlements to receive public grants, and those that do earn bonuses. Funding bodies, meanwhile, are under growing pressure to vet projects for “anti-Israel bias”.

Chen Tamir, the curator of Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art, told the New York Review of Books recently: “Public funding here is being manipulated to become a mechanism of censorship.”

Theatre shuttered

Palestinians in Israel, a fifth of the population, receive only three percent of the government’s culture budget. The al-Midan theatre in Haifa, Israel’s only publicly subsidised Palestinian theatre, has been shuttered after one of its plays incensed Regev.

Last year, organisers of a theatre festival in Acre effectively closed it down to prevent the performance of a play about Palestinian prisoners.

The play’s author, Einat Weizman, has reported that the hate campaign against artists like herself – “from people who wanted to kill me and rape me” – has moved from social media to the street. She now needs to be escorted in public.

But such artists are the exception. As Palestinian actor Lamis Ammar noted recently: “Most Israeli art, at the end of the day, serves to justify Israeli wrongdoing, instead of addressing and eliminating it.”

Goodwill from Brand Israel

While Israel is crushing artistic dissent at home, it is busy exporting a depoliticised Israeli culture as part of a programme known as “Brand Israel”. Israel’s aim is to encourage overseas audiences to overlook its role in oppressing Palestinians by, paradoxically, emphasising a vibrant, tolerant, multicultural society that in reality does not exist.

Western popular culture, like the Eurovision Song Contest, whose finals will be held this weekend in Portugal, are plundered as ways to raise goodwill for Israel. Participation in the contest falsely suggests not only that Israel is physically part of Europe, but that it adheres to Europe’s multicultural, liberal-democratic norms.

Israel’s entry this year, Netta, the bookies’ favourite to win, is the epitome of good-time plastic pop, and repeatedly references a Western cultural icon – Wonder Woman – that has recently been “Israelised” by actress Gal Gadot.

Similarly, this month, Israel hosted the major European cycling race Giro d’Italia, the first time the competition has been staged outside Europe.

An Israeli “culture” funded by the Israeli government permeates international film festivals, overseas theatre tours and art exhibitions. Celebrity chefs, restaurants and food manufacturers introduce Westerners to a healthy “Israeli cuisine”, much of which – like falafel, hummus and salads – has been appropriated from Arab and Palestinian heritage.

Normalising the abnormal

All of this is normalising the highly abnormal – Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine.

It is further evidence of Western complicity not only in Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinians, but in its continuing efforts to assist Israel in making Palestinians disappear, in transforming them into a non-issue.

For 70 years, Israel has been expanding a process of cantonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, while Western leaders have turned a blind eye
That has to stop – and it won’t as long as Israelis face no financial or even psychological penalties for refusing to end the oppression of Palestinians.

For 70 years, Israel has been expanding a process of cantonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, while Western leaders have turned a blind eye. In fact, through economic, diplomatic and military support, Western governments have actively abetted Israel in dispossessing Palestinians.

At the very least, academics and artists ought to be taking a lead, objecting to the complicity of their own governments and finally finding their voice to support an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.