Why Academic Boycott – A reply to an Israeli comrade

by Tanya Reinhart, Tel Aviv, May 17, 2002 Dear Baruch Kimmerling, Last week, you published in Ha’aretz a moving letter defending the freedom of expression of a group of Israeli….

by Tanya Reinhart, Tel Aviv, May 17, 2002

Dear Baruch Kimmerling,

Last week, you published in Ha’aretz a moving letter defending the freedom of expression of a group of Israeli professors, including myself, who signed a European petition calling for a moratorium on European support to the Israeli academia. Here is what you wrote:

«  »The Coordinating Council of the Faculty Associations [of the Israeli universities] issued a public statement, which appeared in Ha’aretz on May 6, denouncing the call of scientists in Europe and North America to declare a boycott on the Israeli academia, following… supposed war crimes that the State of Israel committed in the occupied territories.

As someone who acted immediately and actively against this boycott, because I saw this as a blatant violation of academic freedom, which is the essence of academic research and teaching, I was shocked by this statement. The shock stems from the content of the document, which not only denounces the boycott, but also denounces that minority of the Israeli academic personnel that support the proposed boycott.

For precisely the same reason that one should oppose the boycott, one should oppose the denouncement of academic members who think differently. Instead of insisting on the freedom of speech and thought of all its members, the council launched an attack on this freedom…. I demand the immediate resignation of those responsible for this outrageous public statement. » »

In the present climate in Israel, it is comforting, and far from trivial, to hear voices still defending old fashioned ideas like freedom of speech. For this reason, I appreciate your letter. Nevertheless, I would like to explain here why your defense still leaves me utterly unmoved.

Nevertheless, I would like to explain here why your defense still leaves me utterly unmoved.

Background on the Academic Boycott

First some background on the academic boycott. An accurate description of the events that set the Israeli academia roaring was given in an Ha’aretz article by Tamara Traubman: « The first time that the international scientific community imposed a boycott on a state was during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The second time is being considered at present, and now the boycott is directed against Israel and its policy in the territories. Several manifestos calling for the imposition of a boycott, on various levels, have been published in recent days by professors from abroad…The first…was initiated by a pair of British researchers, Professors Hilary and Steven Rose of Britain’s Open University. The manifesto suggests that European research institutes stop treating Israel like a European country in their scientific relations with it, until Israel acts according to UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (Israel enjoys the status of a European country in many European research programs). Over 270 European scientists, including about 10 Israelis, signed the manifesto. Although it is the most moderate of the boycotts being formulated these days against Israel, the manifesto aroused a great deal of anger in the Israeli scientific community… »(Ha’aretz, April 25, 2002, « he Intifada Reaches the Ivory Tower »)

We can distinguish three forms of the academic boycott. The first is part of a larger cultural boycott — cultural events in Israel have been boycotted for quite a while. In the academic sphere, the boycott is on any cooperation with institutional events of the Israeli academia in Israel. This means that scholars cancel participation in conferences and official academic events (e.g. some refuse an honorary degree offer). [1]

This form of boycott is already a fact. The reason is that it is the easiest step for individual scholars to take on their own. It is not always easy to distinguish between those canceling participation in events of the Israeli academia for safety reasons and those who are boycotting, but the phenomenon is quite large, as Traubman reports: « The most obvious expression of the isolation of the Israeli scientific community is the refusal of researchers to come here…’Whereas in the past Israel held many international congresses, says Gideon Rivlin, the chair of Kenes International, the principal organizer of such congresses, today there are no longer any international congresses in Israel.’ … ‘Until 2004,’ adds Rivlin, ‘all the congresses in Israel have been canceled’… Brain researcher Prof. Idan Segev…from HU [Hebrew University, Jerusalem], says that scientists tend to refuse to come not only to scientific congresses, but also for joint research projects as well. ‘At a conference abroad a short time ago, I met a friend with whom I’ve been working for many years; every year he comes to Israel for a few weeks to work with me,’ says Segev. ‘This year he told me openly, `I can’t come, the moment I arrive, I am taking a political step.’ For them it’s like going to South Africa’. » (Ha’aretz, ibid.).

The second, and more recent form, is economic sanctions on the Israeli academia. This extends the other forms of economic pressure which have been observed for a while: Consumer boycott; canceling European contracts with Israeli computer companies (http://www.israelinsider.com/channels/politics/articles/pol_0138.htm); and the divestment movements in the US academy, where scholars and students in Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard, and MIT call on their universities to divest from US companies doing business in Israel, as means of pressure on these companies not to help Israel’s economy. (See Harvard/MIT Petition, Princeton Divestiture Petition). While these actions target various aspects of the Israeli economy (industry and agriculture, electronics companies, etc.) the academic boycott targets the research funds of the Israeli academia, thus applying direct economic pressure on the academia, as a central (and collaborating) part of the state of Israel.

As Traubman reports, « Members of prestigious scientific bodies, such as the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, have condemned Israel’s actions in the territories, and criticized their Israeli colleagues for their indifference to the situation of Palestinian researchers, and the damage to academic institutions in the Palestinian Authority. According to Israeli diplomatic sources, steps to have Israel join several large European projects have been postponed until further notice — for example, accepting Israel as a member of a particle acceleration project at the CERN laboratory in Geneva. The contacts that began behind the scenes have been halted at this stage… » (Ha’aretz, ibid.).

The specific academic petition which ignited the fury of the Israeli academia, falls within this second type of boycott [2]. This is a call for economic sanctions on the Israeli academia in general, and not for full boycott of ties with individual Israeli academics.

The third form of the academic boycott, however, extends it also to this most severe stage — practiced in the South-Africa boycott — of complete international isolation of individual Israeli scholars. It prohibits any contact with them — invitations to conferences abroad, research collaborations, publications, editorial boards, etc. [3]

Among the supporters of academic boycott, opinions are divided about the third form of boycott. At the individual level, many Israeli academics oppose the occupation and Israel’s brutality in the territories. A large minority of them is actively involved, like you, Baruch, in a daily struggle against all these. Furthermore, among the goals of academic boycott is to encourage the Israeli academics to take a more active part in struggle and resistance. For this, it would help if we feel part of a large international community, sharing this cause, rather than completely isolated from it. Personally, I support the first two forms of academic boycott, but not the third form of individual boycott.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that if the economic-institutional boycott is successful and research funds to the Israeli academia are cut off, this will effect individual researchers, including not only you and me, but also students and young scholars who are supported by research grants. This is the logic of sanctions — they are meant to hurt the political and economic system, and in that process, they inevitably hurt all segments of the targeted society. In South Africa, the Blacks were among the first to suffer from the boycott. Still they pleaded with the West to continue.

Why boycott

The model of boycott followed here is, indeed, that which was formed in the case of South Africa. Just a few years ago, in 1993, the whole world celebrated when the Apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed after 50 years of brutal discrimination and oppression. This change did not come about on its own. It was the outcome of a long and painful struggle of the blacks in South Africa. But the anti-Apartheid movement, throughout the world, also had an enormous impact.

The struggle was directed at governments on the one hand, and directly at corporations doing business with SA, on the other. There were protests and demonstrations demanding that an arms embargo be imposed. The pressure on corporations to divest, targeted specific corporations with product boycotts accompanied by demonstrations, stockholders speaking at meetings (churches who owned stocks, could get a few people in), and much more.

Following this pressure, in 1977 the UN Security Council imposed limited sanctions on South Africa. Their impact was, in fact, limited as long as the great powers –primarily UK and US — found ways around them (like getting Israel to provide arms, military training and oil to SA.). But during the eighties, the big corporations were beginning to move out of their SA ties anyway, due to the protest and turmoil it generated. Suddenly, there was a heavy economic price for the continuation of Apartheid.

This was combined with another aspect of pressure — cultural boycott and social isolation: South Africa was kicked out of international sports; professional and academic organizations did not cooperate with South-African organizations; there was a ban on conferences and cultural events. All these helped. South Africa was forced to change. [4]

I have no doubt that you supported the South Africa boycott. Where we may differ is in the question whether the Israeli case is sufficiently similar. I believe that even much before its present atrocities, Israel has followed faithfully the South-African Apartheid model. Since Oslo, Israel has been pushing the Palestinians in the occupied territories into smaller and smaller isolated enclaves, promising, in return, to consider calling these enclaves, in some future, a Palestinian ‘state’ — a direct copy of the Bantustans model. (For a detailed description of the early Apartheid stages, see my article in Ha’aretz Magazine, May 27, 94, The Era of Yellow Territories).

Unlike South Africa, however, Israel has managed so far to sell its policy as a big compromise for peace. Aided by a battalion of cooperating ‘peace-camp’ intellectuals, they managed to convince the world that it is possible to establish a Palestinians state without land-reserves, without water, without a glimpse of a chance of economic independence, in isolated ghettos surrounded by fences, settlements, bypass roads and Israeli army posts — a virtual state which serves one purpose: separation (Apartheid). « We are here and they are there » — behind the fences, as Barak put it.

But no matter what you think of the Oslo years, what Israel is doing now exceeds the crimes of the South Africa’s white regime. It has started to take the form of systematic ethnic cleansing, which South Africa never attempted. After thirty-five years of occupation, it is completely clear that the only two choices the Israeli political system has generated for the Palestinians are Apartheid or ethnic cleansing (‘transfer’). Apartheid is the ‘enlightened’ Labor party’s program (as in their Alon or Oslo plan), while the other pole is advocating slow suffocation of the Palestinians, until the eventual ‘transfer’ (mass expulsion) can be accomplished. (« Jordan is the Palestinian state », is how Sharon put it in the eighties.). [5] Even those who can swallow ‘made in Israel’ Apartheid, cannot just watch silently as Sharon carries this second vision out.

Given that the US backs Sharon, no UN resolution has any force. This was made perfectly clear by the latest shocking example in which Israel managed to defy the resolution regarding a search committee for the events of Jenin. The only way left to exert pressure on Israel to stop is through the protest of people around the world, including use of the most painful means of boycott. As an Israeli, I believe that this external pressure may save not only the Palestinians, but also the Israeli society, which is, in fact, not being represented by the political system. In a recent poll, 59% of the Jewish Israelis support immediate evacuation of most settlements, followed by a unilateral withdrawal of the army from the occupied territories. But with no external pressure, no political party will carry out this will of the majority.

Why the Academia

I am not sure whether your objections to the moratorium on research funds to the Israeli academia, which we called for, is because you object to any divestment or boycott moves, or whether you think the academia should be exempt. Many Israeli academics hold the latter view, so I suppose it is also yours. You say in your letter that the reason you « acted immediately and actively against this boycott » is « because I saw this as a blatant violation of academic freedom, which is the essence of academic research and teaching. » This is a very peculiar use of the concept of academic freedom. What is under consideration here is your freedom to access international research funds. You seem to view this type of freedom as an inalienable right, untouchable by any considerations of the international community regarding the context in which its funds are used. But it is not. The traditional spirit of the academia, no matter how much of it is preserved in daily practice, is that intellectual responsibility includes the safeguarding of moral principles. The international academic community has the full right to decide that it does not support institutions of societies which divert blatantly from such principles. You had no problem accepting this when South Africa was concerned.

The only question is whether there is anything about the Israeli academia (as an institution, unlike individual resisting academics) that could exempt it from the condemnation and pressure of the international community. Let us turn to the broader arsenal of the arguments used to argue that. You find yourself here in large company. The Israeli academia, which was not so impressed with mere condemnations and the ongoing ban on official academic events in Israel, got on its feet when its freedom to access international funds was at stake. In a matter of days, they organized a counter petition (to the British petition above), which has gathered thousands of signatures. Dr. Ben Avot, one of the organizers of the counter petition « says that ‘the signatories come from a wide array of opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ranging from members of [the right-wing] ‘Professors for National Strength’ to people who are usually identified with the left, such as Prof. Baruch Kimmerling' » (Traubman, Ha’aretz, ibid.).

A basic principle that the counter-petition you signed is based on, is that science should always be separated from politics. It is this line which enabled the Israeli academia to live in peace with the occupation for thirty five years. Never in its history did the senate of any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities, let alone voice protest the devastation sowed there during the last uprising. (Such resolution would be a violation of the sacred principle of separation — more examples of this below.) If in extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system. But as we saw, it is precisely this principle, and the collaboration that it entails, which the international community is now condemning.

Interestingly, the principle of separation of science and politics never applies when what is at stake is defending the interests of Israel. The powerful Israeli scientific lobby managed to arrange an editorial in the central scientific journal Nature, which repeats faithfully the arguments of this counter petition (‘Don’t Boycott Israel’s Scientists’, Nature 417, 1, May 2, 2002).

What are these (‘non political’) arguments? One is that « A unilateral boycott of Israeli academics unfairly identifies Israel as the only party responsible for the violent shift in Israeli-Palestinian relations and ignores ongoing attacks against innocent Israeli citizens. Such a one-sided perspective is contrary to academic standards of truth-seeking » (Israeli counter-petition). « …Should we also boycott Palestinian researchers because the Palestinian Authority has not done enough to prevent suicide bombers? » (Nature editorial). Well, this is precisely what people of conscience no longer buy. Basic human values and standards do not place equal responsibility on the oppressor and the oppressed, when the oppressed tries to rebel. Even when we strongly condemn the means used by the oppressed, this does not exempt the oppressor. I take it for granted that you, Baruch, place the responsibility for thirty-five years of occupation and Apartheid on the Israeli governments, and not on the Palestinian people. I assume that you just did not bother to read the petition you signed.

But the next set of arguments is probably the heart of the matter for many. The Israeli academy views itself as liberal, democratic, and sensitive to issues of human rights. Hence « to boycott Israeli academics would endanger the democratic values and respect for human rights this community works hard to foster » (Israeli counter-petition). Most importantly, the academy views itself as promoting values of coexistence and peace by means of a « meaningful dialogue » with its Palestinian colleagues: « European programs have provided important frameworks for Middle East scholars to meet… to discuss academic topics of mutual interest, and to build informal interpersonal ties, thus helping to counter years of accumulated misunderstanding and animosity. » (Ibid.). Hence, boycotting the Israeli academia will harm its devoted work of reconciliation and peace.

Nature’s editorial is even more enthusiastic about this peace endeavor. « Science is less political than other issues, and is a bridge for peace. That is what Leah Boehm, then chief scientist at Israel’s science ministry, enthusiastically told Nature in 1995. Then, Israeli and Palestinian researchers were optimistic that the peace process would cause funds to flow to joint Arab-Israeli projects from the international community, reinforcing peace by contributing to dialogue, and boosting research in the region… » Hence, Nature concludes, « the world’s scientific community » should « jump at » the opportunity to support the Israeli academia, and thus, « encourage Middle-East peace. » Even Nature must admit that « subsequent events have left these noble aspirations in tatters. » But it calls on the scientific community to help the Israeli academia (with research funds) to renew the spirit of these wonderful years of dialogue. (This is emphasized further in Nature’s second editorial of May 16)

It is typical and revealing that in proving the contribution of the Israeli academia to dialogue and peace, this editorial of Nature cites only Israeli (and one American) scholars. The Palestinian perspective is, apparently, irrelevant. If it were, a very different perspective on that golden era of Oslo and ‘peace’ would emerge.

Here is a fragment of a report of Sari Hanafi, Associate Researcher at the Palestinian Center for the Study of Democracy [6]. It was written before the Palestinian uprising, and describes an event of 1998/1999:

«  »In end of 1998, the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute called the Palestinian University of Al-Quds (based in Jerusalem) to cooperate with it in order to organize an international conference, in August 1999, entitled ‘Moral Philosophy in Education: The Challenge of human Difference’… The pros [for accepting the invitation] were supported by two arguments: first, the cooperation could help persuade the Ministry of Education to recognize Al-Quds University, taking into account that non-recognition is purely political; the second argument is related to the first: it consists of trying to convince the Ministry of Interior to not expel the administration and the main building of the university outside of Jerusalem (as announced once by an Israeli official). In fact, these two arguments show that the romantic view of cultural cooperation between two civil societies hide all the power imbalance between the two societies — between an occupied and occupying people: ‘We are here to put apart divergence and talk on science, philosophy and education far from politics’, as argued by the President of the Spinoza Institute…

However between May and August 1999, a serious incident happened: the Ministry of Interior of the Barak government withdrew the Identity Document of Musa Budeiri, a director of the Center of International Relations in Al-Quds University and a resident of East Jerusalem. Native of Jerusalem, his family has lived there for hundreds of years, under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule. He was given a tourist visa, valid for four weeks, and was told that he would have to leave Jerusalem by August 22 — Musa Budeiri is one of thousands of other Palestinians in a similar situation. They all have the same problem: they are subject to the threat of being turned into ‘tourists’ in their birthplace. 2,200 Jerusalem ID cards of families (roughly 8,800 individuals) were confiscated between 1996 and May 1999 (according to the Israeli ministry of Interior)…

In the opening session, Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, contrary to his habit, gave a very moving speech concerned exclusively with the case of Musa Budeiri and his family. To outline the roots of the Budeiri family in this city, he discussed a manuscript on Jerusalem history written by Musa’s father, which has never been edited. Sari Nusseibeh, pioneer of the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, finished his speech by saying that he is torn morally by these events, adding that the Israelis should not expect to conduct further dialogue with Palestinians, as the latter are increasingly becoming tourists [in their land]. If almost all of the participants were moved, the organizers were not. The president of Jerusalem Spinoza Institute commented on Nusseibeh’s speech saying that ‘there is some military problems’ between Israelis and Palestinians which have not yet been resolved, while the rector of the Hebrew University asked Nusseibeh where he can find the Budeiri manuscript, as the Hebrew University would like to have it!!

Finally the organizers of the conference refused to send the Minister of Interior a petition in favor of Budeiri, signed by the majority of the participants. The argument used was that there is a separation between the academic sphere and the political one, and as scholars they cannot take a position. » [6]

This event took place in the days of peaceful Apartheid. As for the present situation of Al-Quds University, Nature finally acknowledged in its May 16 issue that, « Al-Quds University claims that Israeli soldiers badly damaged laboratories and other buildings at its campuses in El Bireh and Ramallah. The university has asked the Israeli government and the international community to send fact-finding missions and to help rebuild its infrastructure » (Declan Butler, European correspondent, Nature 417, 207, 16 May 2002)

As the most decisive argument for why no moratorium on research funds should apply, the Israeli counter petition and its echo in Nature point out that this will harm the Palestinian academia. « Many European-funded programs have explicitly aimed at enhancing scientific cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab scholars…Freezing Israeli access to, and participation in, such programs would…damage these important frameworks and undermine the benefits to research » (Israeli counter petition). This theme is further developed and emphasized in the more recent Nature editorial of May 16.

Regardless of what the facts are about this « energetic scientific collaboration, » this is the standard colonialist argument. The colonialists were always certain that they are bringing progress to the natives. Here is what Prof. Rita Giacaman of Birzeit University told me about the matter: « Several individually linked projects began with Israelis since the Oslo accords were signed, mainly because Europe and the US were luring scientists with the carrot of money in a money starved environment, in exchange for being used as ‘evidence’ for peace and equity having been achieved, when the stick never stopped hitting Palestinian infrastructure, institutions, political processes and academic life. It thus placed us in the political arena, using us to show peace that does not exist and equity that exists even less. Many of us Palestinian academics chose not to get involved in such academic cooperative relations with Israelis and continued solidarity activities [with Israelis], aimed at changing the political reality instead -the root cause of the problem. .. Anyway, the issue is not about Israeli scientists helping out. This is like taking away the right of villagers to till their land and then giving them some food-aid instead. The issue is ending occupation and allowing Palestinian to develop their institutions, including scientific ones. » (Personal communication, May 2002).

If continuing support to the Israeli academia is what the Palestinian academia considers best for its future, we should hear it from them. What I hear from my comrades in the Palestinian academia is only a full and unequivocal support for the boycott.


[1] French and Australian petitions are calling also for avoiding any other institutional cooperation, such as serving in promotion procedures of the Israeli universities, though the French call declares that they will continue individual ties with Israeli scholars.

[2] Here is the full text of the British petition that we signed, which was published in The Guardian (London) on April 6, 2002, with the first 120 signatures:

« Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. The major potential source of effective criticism, the United States, seems reluctant to act. However there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe. Odd though it may appear, many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. (No other Middle Eastern state is so regarded). Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League. »

[3] A resolution along these lines was taken by the British Teacher’s union Natfhe, reported in EducationGuardian.co.uk, April 16, 2002, and is proposed also in a US petition – boycotts@teacher.com, BoycottIsraeliGoods@yahoogroups.com).

[4] The information regarding the anti-Apartheid movement was provided to me by Noam Chomsky.

[5] For more details on these two poles in Israeli politics, see my articles, ‘Evil Unleashed’ and ‘The second half of 1948’.

[6] Sari Hanafi, « Palestinian Israeli People to People program as a mechanism of conflict resolution », lecture delivered at the 18th conference of the General International Peace Research Association (IPRA), August 5-9, 2000, Finland. (hanafi@p-ol.com)

Tanya Reinhart (July 1943 – March 17, 2007) was an Israeli linguist who wrote frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Reinhart was a former professor of linguistics and literary theory at Tel-Aviv University. She was also a guest lecturer at Duke University
and at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and ended her international career as Global Distinguished Professor at New York University (NYU).