Against Boycotting Israeli Academics

Boycotting Israeli academics weakens the peace camp in Israel, strengthens the right-wing position, and hardens the hard-liners.

boycotting-israeli-academicsThere are two kinds of criticisms: constructive and destructive. The former aims to build; the latter aims to break.

It is far more difficult to build than to destroy: one bomb can put an end to a year of discussion. Thus, radicals often are those who dictate the course of events.

When it comes to peace in the Middle East, now there are increasing attempts to undermine the peace efforts by delegitimizing the constructive peace efforts. This has been done by calling to ban all Israeli people and its institutions, notwithstanding their position, ideas and agenda; on the Palestinian side, it is done by threatening those who are willing to speak to Israelis.

Recently the American Studies Association has decided to join the anti-Israel camp by issuing its first ever call for an academic boycott. I oppose any decision to boycott Israeli academics. I think this decision is unjust, unfair, and counter-productive. Let me explain.

The decision is unjust because any sweeping decision, by its very nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual for good reasons. It is quite another thing to simply boycott everyone. I oppose general boycotts in principle.

The decision is unfair because it is based on a small, committed and vocal group of members who made boycotting of Israel their life’s mission. They exploit the silence, indifference and inactivity of the majority of association members to pass their unjust resolution which does not represent the views of many, possibly most members.

The decision is counter-productive because it undermines the objectives that the committed group of members wishes to reach. Boycotting Israeli academics weakens the peace camp in Israel, strengthens the right-wing position that prefers land over peace and the promotion of human rights, and hardens the hard-liners.

Israeli academia tends to be liberal

Many of its members belong to the peace camp. Many academics are human rights activists. Many oppose the settlements. Many are for a two-state solution, a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the splitting of Jerusalem, return to the 1967 Green Line, and finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

I have intimate knowledge with Israeli academia. I have been a professor in two universities in Israel and have good contacts with all Israeli universities. I established the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa and served as its director. Since 1985, I have promoted human rights in Israel and for the Palestinians inside and outside of Israel. I received the cooperation and support of many academics in all Israeli institutions. We have tried to influence government decisions for many years, with some success, most notably during 1990-1993, when Israeli academics including myself pushed for negotiations with the PLO and putting in motion the peace wagon. Boycotting academia will work against the peaceful, constructive and liberal elements in Israeli society and will play into the hands of politicians who are trying to downplay the importance of Israeli academia.

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Those who wish to boycott Israel say that Israeli academia is sponsored by the government. This is true. Thus, they deduce, academics are implicit collaborators of discriminatory policies against Palestinians. This claim is as true as the claim that American academics are implicit collaborators in the American government decisions to wage war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world.

Those who wish to boycott Israel blame academics for not being able to influence governmental decisions for the better. Yes, Israeli academics do not have the power they wish to have. But boycotting decision will make them even more powerless. Israeli academics tend to be involved in leftist, peace-seeking politics more than academics in Britain, Canada and the USA, countries I know well. The Israeli government pays attention to its academics to a similar degree that the British government pays attention to its own academics.

Those who wish to boycott Israel undercut academic freedom and betray values we all hold dear: Freedom of expression, tolerance, equality, justice and peace. Sweeping boycott decisions are truly horrible.

Finally, I personally object to sweeping boycotting decisions

But if you insist on boycotting countries, I fail to understand why single out Israel time and again. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is no shortage of injustices and severe human rights violations. How come that of all countries in the world it is only Israel that preoccupies the minds of some vocal members who have little understanding of the situation in Israel?

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2012 puts Israel in 37th place out of 167. This index takes into account, among other things, civil liberties. Granted that Israel has room for improvement, but 130 countries are ranked below Israel. Why don’t you focus your attention on any of those countries for a change? Please see the Index here.

This decision is appalling. Those who promote an Israeli boycott know very little about the relationship between academia and government, and have a dubious understanding of the essence of academic freedom.

I believe in a free exchange of ideas, in being constructive, in creating bridges rather than putting more obstacles to peace. Banning ideas and people only increases rifts and hostility. The only way to peace is through engagement and conversation. We should fight those who wish to dictate the agenda by bans, exclusion and animosity.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, D. Phil., Oxon, is Professor and Chair in Politics; Founding Director of the Middle East Study Group (MESG), University of Hull, www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/me-study-group.aspx; Website: hull.ac.uk/rca; Blog: almagor.blogspot.com; Twitter: @almagor35. Read other articles by Raphael.