Moral? Maybe. Double edged? No doubt

July 19, 2002

The sacking of two Israeli scholars from the boards of journals as part of an academic boycott highlights the question of whether such actions work and whether they do more harm than good. Caroline Davis reports.

The organisers of the 1986 World Archaeological Congress in Southampton wrote to all South African and Namibian participants to tell them they would not be welcome at the meeting. There had been two states of emergency declared in South Africa, and Indian and African participants were pulling out of the congress. Peter Ucko, former secretary of the WAC and director of archaeology at University College London, says the decision was made after much discussion. "It was an exceptional situation. South Africa was out of control. We, alongside the United Nations and Unesco, thought South Africa was unlike any other atrocities."

A similar argument has been put forward recently for an academic boycott of Israel. As with the case of South Africa, the move has sparked controversy. In 1986, liberal British academics were outraged because the South Africa boycott was against individuals and did not consider academics' political stances. But it gained force across disciplines until, in the UK at least, it became almost total.

One British academic recalls: "People would talk in hushed tones about breaching the boycott. It was like today's de facto boycott of tobacco money."

Ucko says that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela told him that the boycott had played a major role in the fall of apartheid. "It caused huge disarray in government circles. Seeing international academics boycott them rocked officials as they hadn't realised how much the world hated apartheid."

The impact on the country's academic community was huge. In a 1995 article, Neville Alexander, a researcher at Cape Town University, said the boycott had left the country in an intellectual backwoods. South African academics, for example, "were almost completely ignorant of the work that was being doneI on the question of multilingual pedagogy in countries such as Australia, Belgium and Canada".

He warned that "sanctions and boycotts are always two-edged weaponsI Due attention should be paid to the probable effects of a successful campaign so the boycott does not become worse than the disease itself".

Some Israeli academics who might be sympathetic to the aims of a boycott of their country similarly feel that it could have negative results. Baruch Kimmerling, professor of sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, thinks the boycott of South Africa damaged progressive forces and hindered the country's democratisation.

He feels that a boycott of Israel could "cement the dependence of Israeli academic institutions and their members on an increasingly capricious government". But despite these reservations, Israel's closure this week of the East Jerusalem offices of Al-Quds University has forced him to reconsider whether a boycott may now be the only way forward.

For many Palestinians, the issues may be more clear-cut. Lisa Taraki, associate professor of sociology at Birzeit University, Palestine, wants a boycott of institutions but not of individuals. "The academic boycott is part of a campaign of pressure and sends a message to the international and Israeli scholarly community that business cannot go on as usual when a systematic campaign is under way to dismantle the infrastructures of a nascent state and civil society, including research institutes and universities."

In the UK, opinion is split on whether a boycott of Israel is justified. Lecturers' union Natfhe has explicitly supported a boycott. National official Paul Bennett said: "The boycott is a direct concern with what is happening in Palestinian universities. The Israeli army is targeting Palestinian academics deliberately and cynically to destroy what remains of Palestinian civil society."

The Association of University Teachers has backed calls for a moratorium on European funding of Israeli institutions.

The issue of the boycott came to a head recently after Mona Baker, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, sacked two Israeli members from the board of two journals she publishes. Baker was condemned by education secretary Estelle Morris, who said: "Any discrimination on grounds of nationality, race or religion is utterly unacceptable." After pointing out that Baker's publishing company was separate from her university activities, Umist has begun an inquiry into whether she breached procedures.

Many see Baker's action as outside the bounds of an academic boycott, but she says: "I am boycotting Israeli institutions through their representatives, rather than Israelis as nationals. I don't know how else you can boycott an institution."

Acting on a boycott can involve hard decisions. Steven Rose, an Open University professor, together with his wife, academic Hilary Rose, drafted a call to halt European collaboration with Israeli universities. He said:

"How individuals interpret the boycott is a matter for them. No one sits in judgement, it is a moral call not an organisational one."

One person who has thought long and hard about the implementation of boycotts is Igor Primoratz, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. In 1995, he called for an academic boycott of Serbia. He has three criteria for justifying an academic boycott. First, it should be well grounded, with those supporting it certain that most academics in the country either support or do not publicly dissociate themselves from their government's actions. Second, it should be selective. Primoratz argued that it would be unjust to boycott those who have spoken out against their government. Third, it should be impartial, so that if both sides in a conflict are guilty of moral outrages, both sides should be boycotted.

Primoratz, who is on sabbatical at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Melbourne University, says he is undecided about the Israel situation. But as an Israeli academic, he says, it would be silly for him to back a boycott against himself. He asks whether a boycott should include Palestinian academics. "Have they discharged their moral duty to take a stand on suicide bombers, who see themselves as perpetrating violence on behalf of the Palestinian people? Both insurgent terrorism and state terrorism are terrorism and ought to be condemned very strongly."

The issue of academic freedom also comes into play. Should academics be free to take their own stand, does a boycott contravene the principles of academic freedom or is the academic freedom argument a red herring?

The Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards has not taken a stance. Its coordinator and founder, Colwyn Williamson, says: "There is no obvious connection between academic freedom and the question of whether Israel should be boycotted because of its occupation of Palestine."

Other members disagree. Gill Evans, public policy secretary, says: "The weapons we use should be words, and people should be writing and speaking out about the principles they believe to be at stake rather than cutting off communication and turning their backs on institutions or groups, some of whose members may be deeply unhappy about what is being done in their name."

The problem of whom to boycott - should it be blanket, should it overlook those who have criticised the regime - has troubled many. Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, says he regrets signing the open letter that urged governments to exclude Israel from European funding.

And what does a boycott achieve? Lord Desai, director of the Centre of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and long-standing defender of academic freedom, believes academics must engage politically, but he sees a boycott as a poor political tool. "It does not solve political problems, but it does solve the problem of conscience. What else can an academic do? Not a lot! But it does say: 'I am bearing witness to an injustice going on.'" He will not boycott Israel, but he notes that the Israel-Palestine situation is seen as a special case. "The situation is much more contentious than South Africa, and the history of the Jews has been muddled in. There has never been a call for academic boycotts of Britain after human rights violations in Northern Ireland. We have a very good conscience about things that are far away."

The question of whether academic boycotts work and whether they do more harm than good is still an open one. But Ucko is in no doubt that the aims of the WAC's boycott were worthy and that South Africa's universities have been transformed since apartheid's end. In 1985, there were two black people in South African archaeology departments. Both were technicians. This week, Ucko is reviewing a South African archaeological study that is the first of its kind. It is an Iron-Age excavation - which was unthinkable during apartheid because it could have proved that the country had been occupied before the Dutch and British moved in. He says simply:

"Archaeology has moved into modern times."

Additional reporting by Helena Flusfeder

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