Boycott will do nothing to change Israeli policy

April 29, 2005

Rather than leave academics out in the cold, Baruch Kimmerling says scholars should reach out to all colleagues in the Middle East

The Association of University Teachers voted last week to boycott two Israeli universities over their failure to speak out against their Government. Haifa University was accused of restricting the academic freedom of staff members critical of the Government, while Bar Ilan University was named because it has an affiliated college in the occupied West Bank.

The boycott, against "my" Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was dropped as delegates demanded more evidence for the allegation that it had evicted Palestinian families to build dormitories. This decision seems to be a kind of compromise between the Palestinian demands for a blanket boycott of all Israeli higher learning institutions and those who opposed them. However, even this compromise seems to me to be a wretched one and rooted not only in the misreading of the situation of the Israeli academy but also in a gross misunderstanding of the basic principles of academic life and freedom.

A boycott is a coercive and arrogant measure that should be excluded from the academic domain. It reveals a belief in the efficacy of force that is morally identical to the world-view that enabled Israel to oppress the Palestinian people and the Anglo-American troops to invade Iraq. To my knowledge, the AUT did not present a motion to boycott US or British institutions.

I will be the first to admit that Israeli academic institutions are part of the oppressive Israeli state that has committed grave crimes against the Palestinians. I also have to admit that not all the members of the Israeli academy are great humanists or necessarily support self-determination of the Palestinians. Nevertheless, a small but salient minority remains consistently committed to the humanisation and democratisation of various aspects of Israeli society and this was almost the only group that stridently opposed the oppression of the Palestinian people.

The consequences of a successful boycott would have a boomerang effect by cementing the complete dependence of Israeli academic institutions on an increasingly capricious government. Since Limor Livnat's appointment as Minister of Education, the Israeli academy has become the target of a "reconstruction" and "re-education" campaign. This policy was in no way accidental. In Israel today, mass media are generally chauvinistic and unwilling to challenge the Sharon Government. The Israeli academy remains almost the last bastion of free thought and free speech.

Certain scholars have suggested that the boycott should exempt "conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies". Some have offered to co-operate with me while boycotting my institution. However, the very idea of making selections among members of the academy is a horrifying prospect and I hereby pledge not to co-operate with any institution or person who will make such selections, disregarding whether I, myself, am rejected or accepted by them. The crucial point here is that the call for a selective boycott, while wrong in itself, also undermines the logic of making a case against the universities at all.

I can understand British progressive academics who feel strong moral resentment when confronted by war crimes directed against Palestinians and who wish "to do something". Moreover, I can empathise with Palestinian academics who daily witness the destruction of Palestinian academic institutions and the harassment of faculty and students.

But a boycott cannot shorten this miserable situation. Israelis are well aware of the painful consequences of occupation: heavy taxes, poor services, the highest burden of military spending per capita in the world, job losses and the decline in other economic indicators, not to mention the loss of thousands of lives. All these have not moved Israelis towards opposition to the occupation. Do academics think having papers rejected for publication by, say, The British Journal of Gerontology will ?

I am calling on the British and international academic community to strengthen its connections with both the Israeli and the Palestinian academic communities to empower them. Both peoples need a strong academic realm as a part of their civil societies to promote the elements that are able to initiate major social and political changes in the region and inside their own regimes.

Baruch Kimmerling is George S. Wise chair of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published numerous books and articles on Jewish-Arab conflict, the sociology of war and peace, Israeli and Palestinian societies, culture and history.

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