After over a month of bombardment by the Israeli state, close to 2000 Palestinians are dead – the overwhelming majority of them civilians. This includes 408 children by the last UN count, a figure which is almost certain to rise as the assault continues, and as survivors sift through the wreckage. 67 have died on the Israeli side – all but three of them IDF soldiers. Gazans have seen their homes and cities reduced to rubble once again. Entire families have been wiped out. This is the third attack by Israel on Gaza after it officially withdrew its forces from the Strip in 2005 (whilst retaining control of the borders, air space and sea, so that the UN still recognises Gaza as occupied territory). In 2008-9, ‘Operation Cast Lead’ killed 1400 Palestinians, injuring 5000. In 2012, ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ killed 103 Palestinian civilians and injured 1,399. These events occur against the background of decades of Israeli occupation and illegal expansion. It is this context, we believe, which makes it so disingenuous to accuse critics of ‘singling Israel out’. As many have persuasively argued over the last few weeks, it is Israel that singles itself out:[i] through its claims to moral impeccability, its celebrated status as a democracy, through its receipt of massive support from the US and other nations, and through its continual abuse of the legacy of the holocaust in order to deflect criticism and to discredit the Palestinian struggle.
It requires systematic confusion, distortion and sometimes outright fabrication to prevent the starkness of these facts and the urgency of the situation from being fully recognised and acted on. In such a situation, we believe, academics – particularly those whose specialism is on political or ethical matters – have a responsibility both to lend clarity to the discussion and to make a practical stand against the acts being obfuscated or denied. Characteristically, perhaps, philosophers have been slow to speak out against the latest attack on Gaza’s civilian population – and when they have spoken, their role has too often been to generate more confusion, more apologetics for Israel’s violence, or an unhelpful distraction from the reality of the events unfolding (although we sense that this is beginning to change).[ii] We believe that any contribution on this issue must resist the abstraction characteristic of so much philosophy, and take the form of clear and concrete interventions. With this in mind, we wish to add our voices to those who, at the request of Palestinians,[iii] have called for
an immediate boycott of Israel: economic, cultural and academic.
As academics, we specifically support an academic boycott, by which we mean a principled refusal to associate with Israeli academic institutions that have not explicitly condemned the occupation. The urgency of this measure is underlined by the fact that, so far, not a single Israeli academic institution has issued such a condemnation, and many have even made their support for the state’s recent actions clear – witness the University of Tel Aviv’s recent offer to waive a year’s fees for students who served in the attack on Gaza, whilst threatening to discipline students for criticising Israeli forces on social media.[iv]
Some argue that a cultural and academic boycott, in particular, unfairly punishes, stigmatises and alienates innocent artists, performers and scholars who have nothing to do with the actions of the state of Israel. However, since the academic boycott is directed at institutions, not individuals, it constitutes no bar to communicating, associating and collaborating with Israeli scholars. In practice, participating in the boycott means not speaking at Israeli institutions; not engaging in joint projects with Israeli institutions; and not accepting funding from Israel or Israeli institutions for any academic activities. None of these measures are a violation of academic freedom, nor are they a bar to dialogue and discussion. Others worry that consistency (that most cherished of philosophical virtues) would demand a boycott of the many, many institutions with links to unjust and illegal regimes and activities. Besides overlooking the several reasons why Israel is a distinctive case, this objection also implies a fundamental misunderstanding of what a boycott is. A boycott is not an attempt to maintain ‘clean hands’, a kind of ethical consumerism with added bite. Rather, it is an act of protest aimed at de-normalizing and de-legitimating an unjust status quo that is resistant to other means of effecting change. A well-publicised academic boycott is the form of action that we as academics are best positioned to take in response to the atrocities occurring in Gaza.
On Saturday, 9th August, over 150,000 people took to the streets in London, as they did last week and the week before, to protest against Israel’s actions and the support given to them by the UK Government. Similar protests have been held around the world,[v] including a demonstration by thousands in Tel Aviv nearly a month into the latest assault.[vi] Demonstrations alone are not enough. There were demonstrations last time Israel attacked Gaza, and there were demonstrations the time before, and the time before that. In recent weeks, several prominent artists, actors and musicians have supported the boycott and spoken publicly against the violence and against the occupation. They have faced the inevitable flack that this generates. We believe that academic philosophers and political theorists – whose job it is to think about politics – have a particular responsibility to take a similar stand, and to take the consequences.
We reiterate that, in calling for a boycott, we are calling for an action against the violent, discriminatory and expansionist policies of the state of Israel, an action which we believe is necessary in order to exert the pressure needed finally to bring an end to the killing, displacement and suffering of the Palestinian people. With the recent centenary of the First World War, we have heard a lot about remembrance, and often heard the words repeated: ‘lest we forget’. In the case of Palestine, however, forgetting is strongly encouraged. The eventual conclusion of this latest session of ‘mowing the lawn’ (a chillingly quaint way to describe the mass killing of civilians), will too easily be seized upon by the media and politicians as an excuse to turn their attention – and ours – elsewhere. Instead of forgetting (until the next massacre), we believe that now is the time to push for boycott, divestment and sanctions, so that what has happened this July (and in 2012, and in 2008-9, and in 1967…) may never happen again.
[ii] See e.g.: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/08/an-open-letter-on-israel-and-gaza-from-notre-dame-philosophy-curtis-franks.html; http://crookedtimber.org/2014/07/27/a-gaza-breviary/
[v] See http://mondoweiss.net/2014/07/worldwide-protest-israeli.html