Thomas Blom Hansen: Why I Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

[This essay originally appeared on Anthropology News as part of an exchange on the boycott and anthropology]

By Thomas Blom Hansen (Stanford U)

I came of age politically as an anti-apartheid activist in my native Denmark during the late 1970s. We campaigned for a comprehensive boycott of South Africa. The UN General Assembly had recommended this since the 1960s but effective international sanctions were repeatedly blocked by the US, the UK and France in the Security Council as late as 1988—two years before Mandela was released from prison. Regardless, the campaign gathered force as many countries imposed sanctions and trade embargoes on South Africa. In 1986, the US Congress finally passed legislations that boycotted South Africa in a range of fields.

Many forget the odds we were up against at the time. We were called radicals, unbalanced, one-sided, agents of Soviet style communism, and supporters of “terrorist organizations” like the ANC’s armed wing, Umkonte we Sizwe. We were told that there were two sides to this conflict; that we should go and see for ourselves (many of us had in fact been to South Africa which made us even more committed to our cause); and that people of color in South Africa lived better lives than the majority on the African continent.

We called for a boycott because we saw the systematic dispossession of an entire people—robbed of their land, history, livelihood, political rights, dignity, life and future—by a powerful and wealthy state, with the strongest military on the African continent, backed by major Western powers.

Did the boycott campaign work? Yes, it contributed to the gradual erosion of the apartheid regime’s legitimacy and standing in the world. It is hard to find anyone today that would admit to have ever supported apartheid, or to have opposed a boycott of South Africa.

Did it hurt and inconvenience people in South Africa? Yes, it did in many fields, including many of the South Africans of color whose interests and future we were vested in. However, most of the progressive civic, religious and political organizations in South Africa strongly supported the boycott. Most South Africans of color deeply appreciated these efforts. It made them feel less forgotten by the world.

The boycott movement included calls for boycott of academic institutions, scholars, book contracts, research collaborations, academic visits, conference participation and much else. These measures were applied to all institutions and scholars in South Africa. The history of this academic boycott has been summarized in a thoughtful study by Lancaster and Haricombe. They conclude that the boycott gradually, symbolically and indirectly isolated South African academics and undermined the credibility of the regime. See a summary here.

I had grown up with the heroic story of the rescue of Danish Jews during the war, and the special relationship between Denmark and Israel was a part of our lives: visiting school classes, cultural events, lectures by eminent scientists, music performances, Israeli produce in our shops, and a steady flow of young Danes spending time in progressive kibbutz communities. In our worldview at the time, Israel and South Africa belonged to two very different categories. South Africa was the last bastion of colonialism, brutally dominated by a culturally unsophisticated and provincial white community. Israel, by contrast, appeared as a more cosmopolitan democracy full of vigorous debate and critiques of the consolidating occupation of Palestinian territories. Although the occupation clearly violated international law and the human rights of Palestinians, and although Palestinian organizations called for action against Israel, a full-scale boycott did not appear as an appropriate action at the time.

This perception of Israel and Israeli policies has not changed among many liberal minded people across the world. But events in the occupied territories in the last two decades have been so grave that this stance must be re-evaluated: the systematic expansion of settlements and theft of land across the West Bank, the undermining of the Oslo Accord, the undermining of the Palestinian Authority, the building of the wall, the military destruction of life and infrastructure in Gaza in successive campaigns, the routinized harassment of Palestinians by the IDF, the demonization of Israeli Arabs as an enemy within . These are only some of the most glaring acts of state violence against an entire category of people.

Israel of today is different from the rosier picture I, and many others, grew up with. Its economy and society is more militarized and securitized than ever before. The political landscape is dominated by political formations that range from belligerent majoritarianism to the outright racist. An earlier rhetoric of co-existence and peace in the political mainstream has given way to a shrill rhetoric of danger and fear. Even moderate critics of Israeli state policies are shouted down as self-hating Jews, or, more commonly, as simply anti-semitic.

I cannot help but compare this with the shrillness and aggressiveness of the apartheid regime in the 1980s as it grew ever more isolated in the world. Dignified men of the cloth like Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak were depicted as blood-thirsty agents of world communism! That was every bit as absurd as Netanyahu’s recent statement that that the BDS campaign in effect amounts to support of ISIS….!

Today, it is no longer just political organizations like the PLO that calls for boycott of Israel. The current BDS movement responds to calls from a range of Palestinian civil society organizations, professionals, and academics who after years of attempts at collaborating with Israeli counterparts have reached an impasse. Their inevitable conclusion is that only comprehensive global boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at the aggressive policies of the state of Israel can begin to change the desperate situation of millions of Palestinians.

I want to support this effort because what I see now, is so close to what I saw in the 1970s—to repeat my formulation: “an entire people robbed of their land, history, livelihood, political rights, dignity, life and future—by a powerful and wealthy state, with the strongest military in the region, backed by the major Western powers.”

I want to support this effort from where I stand, think and work. I believe that an academic boycott of those Israeli institutions that are actively engaged in efforts that supports the continued occupation of Palestinian territory is the only way forward. It may not change Israeli policies, and yes, it may appear as merely ‘symbolic’ as the defenders of Israel’s policies never fail to tell us. However, as any anthropologist will know, symbols and symbolic action are at the heart of human life and can change things, albeit often slowly and indirectly—just as the academic boycott of South Africa worked slowly, symbolically and indirectly.

Joining an academic boycott of selected Israeli institutions is for me first and foremost an appropriate way of supporting our embattled Palestinian colleagues at their financially deprived and marginalized academic institutions. It is also a way of communicating to our Israeli colleagues in the academy that we are not afraid of taking a clear stand on this issue and that we would encourage them to do the same. In the 1980s South Africa, draconian emergency laws curtailed what academics and others could say and do in the public. No such strictures apply to Israeli academics. Yet, surprisingly few have come out in solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues, or in open protest against the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli state.

To all those who argue that ‘yes, BDS was appropriate in the case of South Africa, but not in the case of Israel’, please take a moment to consider what actually happened in South Africa in the apartheid years, and what is actually happening today in Gaza and on the West Bank. Rather than dismissing this comparison as intrinsically unfair and even anti-semitic, as is often alleged, it behooves us as scholars and academics to look at the facts, the death toll, the structures of deprivation, the daily humiliation, the theft of land, the legal frameworks and much else. Let us have a real conversation, and let us use our resources as anthropologists and scholars to develop a truly informed debate that enables us to understand and properly assess what has been happening in Israel and Palestine for many years.

I would also ask my colleagues who are in two minds about the issue to take a moment to study the facts of the actual academic boycott of South Africa. It was pretty sweeping and blunt, it did not discriminate between institutions and it was targeted at inconveniencing individual scholars as well as whole professions. The current proposal for boycott measures against Israeli institutions by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Institutions is much less blunt than what was ever applied to South Africa, much more precisely targeted, and much less aimed at individual scholars

As Sheldon Adelson in his Las Vegas hotel persuades Republican presidential hopefuls that BDS is the next big threat against Israel and Jews across the world, it may be a good time to take a fresh look at the facts on the ground.

It may also be a good time to listen to the fast growing and truly progressive organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace that actively supports BDS.