Israel’s desperate new tactic in fighting the growing academic boycotts

Over the last months, Israeli advocacy groups have been scrambling to delegitimize, demobilize, and debunk the fast growing BDS movement with no success. Through leaked emails between pro-Israel lobbyists and….

Over the last months, Israeli advocacy groups have been scrambling to delegitimize, demobilize, and debunk the fast growing BDS movement with no success. Through leaked emails between pro-Israel lobbyists and Israeli university administrators, as well as through the diligent work of activist scholars communicating with PACBI, we have learned of one strategy Israel and its extensive lobby network are employing to delegitimize the movement, and specifically on the academic front. This strategy seeks to instrumentalize the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the service of the Israeli propaganda war on the BDS movement, by cynically – and quite simplistically — employing the fact that this community uses the various services of the state, such as health, educational, social security and other services, to refute the argument that Israel is an apartheid state.

This desperate move by Israel and its academic establishment reflects the by now mainstream recognition among Israeli academic institutions and government circles alike that the academic boycott of Israel, whether announced or “silent,” and BDS in general are reaching a tipping point, as both former prime minister Ehud Barak and former chief of Mossad Shabtai Shavit have recently warned.

Israel lobby groups are employing three relatively new tactics in this strategy, in addition to the battery of older tactics, most prominent of which remain intimidation and bullying. The first is to collect and disseminate statistics on Palestinian participation in higher education to show how Israeli universities are supposedly “liberal” spaces that do not discriminate against Palestinians, as if mere numbers can cover up the repugnant racist policies and repressive environment that prevail in Israel’s academe. The second is to have Palestinian academics in Israeli universities invite international scholars to boycottable conferences held in Israel. Such a tactic makes it more difficult for international academics to decline these invitations on the grounds that it would hurt Palestinian academics. The third is to ask international scholars to review the works of Palestinian students in Israeli universities. All three tactics are meant to show the international community that an academic boycott of Israel will “hurt Palestinian scholars and students,” first and foremost.

This Israeli strategy is disingenuous at best, racist at worst. Largely plagiarizing apartheid South African propaganda, it sets up the Israeli apartheid state as protective of Palestinian interests, concerned with Palestinian higher education, and worried about the harm a boycott might do to those Palestinians. It plays on the unintended consequences and harm shouldered by Palestinians in order to legitimize Israeli academic institutions. In this scenario, it is not Israel’s multi-tiered system of colonial oppression, but rather Palestinian resistance to oppression, including BDS, that is harming the Palestinians. The benevolent Israeli academia is portrayed as the savior, even the civilizer, of those otherwise uncivilized and hapless “Arabs.”

These tactics must be exposed as deeply racist and challenged in order to effectively support Palestinian citizens of Israel, who may be coerced at times, whether directly or indirectly, to undermine the BDS guidelines and act as a fig leaf to cover up Israel’s apartheid universities. Palestinian failure to do so may invite the full wrath of Israeli institutional power, which today is far more repressive, racist and draconian than ever.

The close to 1.5 million Palestinians who are today citizens of the state of Israel are the indigenous Palestinians who succeeded in being steadfast in their homeland during the well planned and brutally executed campaigns of terror and ethnic cleansing by Zionist militias, and later the state itself, during the 1948 Nakba. Living under a regime of racial discrimination that is institutionalized and legalized by more than 50 racist laws, and that therefore meets the UN definition of the crime of apartheid, Palestinian citizens of Israel have no choice but to utilize whatever – mostly second-class – services they can obtain from the state and its organs. The fact that they are citizens and taxpayers entitles them to these services as a right, not a charity from the state.

Like blacks under South African apartheid, and despite the many differences, Palestinian citizens of Israel face entrenched and systematic racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in every vital domain, including education. In a groundbreaking study in 2001, tellingly titled “Second Class: Discrimination against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools,” Human Rights Watch reveals:

The hurdles Palestinian Arab students face from kindergarten to university function like a series of sieves with sequentially finer holes. At each stage, the education system filters out a higher proportion of Palestinian Arab students than Jewish students. Children denied access to kindergarten do less well in primary school. Children in dilapidated, distant, under-resourced schools have a far higher drop-out rate. Children who opt for vocational programs are often limited to preparation for work as ‘carpenters, machinists, or mechanics in a garage,’ as one school director told Human Rights Watch.”

The gymnastics that Israeli “hasbara” (propaganda) will have to go through to spin the numbers other than what they are will be quite interesting to see. Adalah, a prominent Palestinian human rights organization in Israel, breaks down the number of graduates by degree, field of study and population group, showing how Palestinians are severely underrepresented in academia, with their numbers decreasing with every subsequent degree. The following table tells a sad story:


Engineering and architecture

Sciences and mathematics



Population group

Jews %

Arabs %

Jews %

Arabs %

Jews %

Arabs %

Jews %

Arabs %

First degree









Second degree









Third degree









The report goes on to say that as of 2007, Palestinians made up “1.2% of all academics employed by Israeli universities and colleges in tenured or tenure-track positions, and received on average salaries worth 50% less than those of their Jewish counterparts.”

This is only part of the story as the system of apartheid segregates the Palestinian community through land, marriage, and schooling practices, and seeps into every other facet of life. By the time they enter into academia, Palestinians have already been weeded out of the system. Allowing this small percentage of Palestinians into higher education is, in fact, part of the complex architecture of apartheid practiced by the Israeli state, which plays on these appearances to hide the oppression and appear democratic.

For those who might claim that the boycott harms the few Palestinians at Israeli institutions, PACBI is clear that we call for boycotting Israeli universities and all events and activities organized in or by them, regardless whether those organizing them are Palestinian citizens of Israel or Jewish Israelis. The boycott that we are calling for is institutional and targets the universities, irrespective of the ethnic, religious or any other identity attribute of those charged with organizing activities that violate the BDS guidelines. It would be quite peculiar if Israel were to try to use this non-discriminatory position to claim that the boycott is hurting Palestinians.

Indeed, some aspects of the institutional boycott will inadvertently, not intentionally, hurt individual academics, including both Palestinian and Jewish citizens. This cannot be avoided in any institutional boycott, anywhere. Contrast this to the apartheid South African blanket boycott of all academics and one can see that the Palestinian call for boycott is clearly more nuanced and decisively less injurious to individuals. In any case, in South Africa, the argument that apartheid institutions should not be boycotted because such a boycott would hurt black South Africans was squarely rebutted by the black leadership, trade unions and social movements, who argued, in unison, that the real “hurt” to the black community was coming from apartheid, not the boycott or other forms of resistance against it. If Israel and its apartheid academic institutions were so concerned then they know what they can do to stop “hurting Palestinians”–end the regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. That would, indeed, obviate the boycott.