The case for an academic boycott of Israel
A reply to a Baruch Kimmerling
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.
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, "The 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'."
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
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.
www.princetondivest.org/apartheid.htm). 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.
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,
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
(www.peace-now.org/Campaign2002/PollMay2002.rtf). 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 (www7.huji.ac.il/euroisrael2002/).
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
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
"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
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. (www.pjpo.org/,
(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
"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 - firstname.lastname@example.org,
(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'
'The second half of 1948', indymedia.org.il/article/10850
(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. email@example.com)
Tanya Reinhart is a Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University
Want to help spread quality independent journalism?
Donate to NileMedia and watch us grow.