There are some apparently plausible reasons not to sign up to the Academic Commitment. We don’t think they hold water, and give our arguments below.
There is one key point about the Commitment that needs to be emphasised – it is not a commitment to sever contacts with individual Israeli academics. It follows the call for supportive action from Palestinian civil society in that it exclusively targets institutions.
What critics say:
There are any number of countries which have done far worse things, killed far more innocent civilians. Why pick on Israel?
This argument looks hollow after the destructive and disproportionate violence inflicted on Gaza in 2021, killing mainly civilians, including children. It looks even less convincing as pro-Israeli rhetoric in the face of the continuing attempts to expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem (an extension of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the West Bank, preparatory to its annexation by Israel). It is an argument that evaporates when confronted by the fact of apartheid in Israel – the institutionalised racial discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel, and against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.
A key reason for academics to make this commitment is that for Palestine, as was the case in South Africa, we have a call for boycott from those who are suffering oppression. Palestinian civil society has chosen this non-violent strategy to bring pressure to bear on the powerful and unaccountable, and asked us to support them.
The magnitude and duration of the injustices experienced by the Palestinians at the hands of Israel are extraordinary. The repeated murderous attacks on the besieged Gaza Strip are only the most overt manifestation of these policies. More entrenched are ethnic cleansing, illegal colonisation, racism, torture, imprisonment of children, the denial of statehood. The Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has described this catalogue of oppression as politicide, ‘a process that has as its ultimate goal the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity’.
At the time of writing, Syria has had its foreign assets frozen, Zimbabwe faces embargoes on international loans and arms imports, and the US and EU have imposed an array of sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses. Israel’s special treatment to date has consisted in its impunity. One of the aims of our campaign is to put pressure on our governments to remove the diplomatic defence system that has protected Israel from the UN-backed sanctions that otherwise would have been in place years ago.
Why on earth target Israel’s universities, of all institutions?
What critics say:
Israel’s policies are not decided by the universities. They are decided by politicians, by the country’s government. They are implemented by the IDF, and Israel’s judicial system. Why make the universities carry the can for something that is nothing to do with them?
Israel has been illegally occupying Palestinian land and settling it for close on 50 years. This has effectively become an integrated system, with not only Palestine’s land, but also its water and its natural resources diverted to and exploited by Israel. A significant proportion of its agricultural produce is grown in the Occupied Territories. Israeli workers (including academics) live in the illegal settlements. Israelis, including academics and students, serve in the IDF reserve, called up whenever (for example) an attack on Gaza is to be launched. Much of Israel’s most advanced industry is oriented towards the security needs of the occupation; and the resulting high-tech products, lab-tested in Gaza, swell Israel’s exports.
The universities are not isolated from this integration into the occupation, nor do they struggle to stay clear of its contamination. Haifa’s Technion is entwined with Israel’s armaments industry, and provides it with much of its technically trained recruits. Tel Aviv University’s Review (Winter 2008‐9) boasted of 55 ongoing research projects for the IDF and the Ministry of Defence. Part of the Hebrew University is built on 800 acres confiscated from its Palestinian owners, while Tel Aviv University is built over the site of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis. Most Israeli universities offer special privileges (eg preferential entry, accelerated progress, access to dormitory accommodation) for IDF veterans (from which Palestinians are automatically excluded). Many run tailor-made courses for security organisations such as Shin-Bet.
Gideon Levy powerfully characterised the complicity of Israel’s institutions (including its universities) in his 2006 article in Haaretz:
Everything is tainted: institutions of justice and law, the physicians who remain silent while medical treatment is prevented in the territories, the teachers who do not protest against the closing of educational institutions and the prevention of free movement of their peers, the journalists who do not report, the writers and artists who remain mum, the architects and engineers who lend a hand to the occupation’s enterprises – the settlements and the fence, the barriers and bypass roads and also the university lecturers, who do nothing for their imprisoned colleagues in the territories, but conduct special study programs for the security forces.
Why antagonise Israel’s academics?
What critics say:
Israel’s academics are more sympathetic to Palestinian rights than most Israelis. Their work often challenges the status quo. Why antagonise them with actions like these?
There are forthright supporters of Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination, in Israel’s universities, as indeed there are in many sectors of Israel’s population. We salute and support their courageous stand. They are regrettably few, however, and those who actively support Palestinian rights are isolated figures within their peer groups. Internationally celebrated academics have been hounded into exile for their political views, unprotected by effective support from their colleagues.
Many liberal academics do bemoan the occupation at least in private and to international visitors. They are certainly apprehensive about the effects of the rising tide of academic boycott, and also tend to deplore the overt violence which erupts as a direct consequence of Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights. Few, however, have taken the step of aligning themselves with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians. As just one indicator, no body of academics, in any department or discipline or university, has ever issued any statement in support of their Palestinian equivalents just a few miles away whose academic freedoms are being consistently violated
In a situation as extreme as that of Israel, with death, dispossession and humiliation being dispensed just a few minutes’ drive from Israeli academics’ own front doors, public silence is complicity.
Isn’t this just antisemitism in action?
What critics say:
Antisemitism, a very specific form of racism, is a centuries-old phenomenon deeply embedded in western societies. Doesn’t the movement to boycott Israel provide an ideal and apparently legitimate channel for both underground and explicit antisemitism to find expression?
In the aftermath of horrendous events in a number of European countries there has been a growing awareness that antisemitism has not been exorcised by the trauma of the Holocaust. It is precisely this renewed evidence of antisemitism as a continuing thread in our society (thankfully incomparably weaker than it was across all European countries in the first half of the last century) that gives us a double responsibility. First, to be alert to any manifestations of this pernicious malaise, and to take steps to counter them. And second, not to make inappropriate claims of antisemitism to score points in political debate.
The Palestinian organisations whose call motivates this campaign, PACBI and the Boycott National Committee, are both explicitly anti-racist, clear that Jewish people do not stand proxy for the Israeli state, whatever many Zionist leaders may assert. Omar Barghouti, a leading figure in PACBI, put it this way in his address to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Annual General Meeting in London in 2012:
BDS [Boycott Divestment and Sanctions] is a universalist movement that categorically opposes all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This is not negotiable. We should never welcome racists in our midst, no matter what.
The clear intention of many allegations of antisemitism is to deflect criticism of Israel, to intimidate critics and to silence serious debate. As just one instance among many, consider the case of the distinguished British scholar of antisemitism, Oxford academic Brian Klug. He was invited to give the keynote address in November 2013 at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, at a conference on antisemitism in Europe today. A dossier with 17 individual contributions was launched, with maximum publicity, in a bid to strong-arm the museum into dis-inviting him. Klug’s crime? To analyse and authoritatively undermine the charge that criticism of Israel equals antisemitism.
The link between the hyping of antisemitism and the impulse to support Israel surfaced directly in summer 2014. Amid the uproar over Israel’s sustained assault on Gaza a new organisation, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, was set up. Its first target was the Tricycle Theatre in North London which had requested the Jewish Film Festival which it hosted to decline financing from the Israeli Embassy. CAA’s leaders soon had the ear of the Home Secretary Teresa May. The motivation of its first chair, Gideon Falter was, he has said, his outrage at what he saw as the “deliberate stifling” of Israel’s case in the British media. So – their campaign was motivated not by concern about antisemitism, but by a desire to defeat Israel’s critics. Previously, as a student at Warwick, Falter says he spent his time “fighting Israel’s corner” – campaigning against twinning with the Palestinian Birzeit University, and against a student union motion to boycott Israeli goods
There are a very significant number of active Jewish members in all the pro-BDS organisations in the UK and other countries. Membership by Jews of such organisations is sufficient to have the label of ‘self-hating Jews’ pinned on them by those who wish to discount their views.
There is a danger that fears of being thought an antisemite can deter genuine defenders of Palestinian rights, even when they understand the efficacy and legitimacy of actions such as this Academic Commitment as a tactic. A Jewish supporter of BDS set out to allay such fears during one high-profile campaign, writing: ‘Human rights abuses do not become excusable because committed by Jews. The very idea smacks of a kind of twisted, reverse antisemitism.’
What about the Holocaust?
What critics say:
Surely those contemplating actions like these should recall the special circumstances of the Holocaust, which demonstrated to the whole world the need for a state where Jewish people would be safe.
Nothing in a people’s past – not even the horrors of the Holocaust – can be used to justify or excuse crimes against another people. Furthermore, many Jews reject the Zionist argument that Jewish salvation lies in separation from the rest of humanity. They do not believe that Jews in Israel are safer than those elsewhere, or that Jews in the world are safer because of the existence of an exclusivist Jewish state occupying land that does not belong to it. On the contrary, the attempt to drown out the cogent criticisms of Israel with cries of ‘Holocaust’ and ‘antisemite’, by implicating all Jews in Israel’s crimes, stokes hostility against them.
Given their own relationship to the British state, are academics in this country in any position to make demands on their Israeli counterparts?
What critics say:
UK academics signing the Academic Commitment accept funding from their own state, which invaded Iraq (for instance). Yet they adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude in urging severing all contacts with their Israeli colleagues. This is a clear case of double standards.
First, this is not a question of severing contacts with individual Israeli academics – the PACBI call is targeted exclusively at institutions. Only those activities that involve the organisational participation of Israeli universities are affected.
The main response, though, is that all boycotts are selective, but this does not mean that they are morally tarnished. When the world responded (slowly at first) to the call to boycott apartheid South Africa, it was, in one sense, applying a double standard. It boycotted the South African regime, but not the USA, which was engaged at the time in violent sometimes secret wars in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Was it hypocritical for an artist who refused to perform in the Bantustan enclave of Sun City to play in Las Vegas? Only if one takes an entirely abstract view of ethics.
In South Africa, a movement of the oppressed was appealing to the world to take action to isolate and weaken the oppressor. How could an artist, or an academic, turn down that appeal on the grounds that the rand and the dollar were equally blood-stained currencies?
If the demands of ‘consistency’ lead to the claim that nothing can be done unless and until everything is done, then passivity is bound to be the result. This, in relation to Israel, is surely what the critics intend.
Isn’t Israel quite different from South Africa?
What critics say:
Everyone agrees that the boycott of South Africa was morally justified, but Israel isn’t South Africa. It doesn’t have apartheid. Palestinians in Israel have a vote, and some even hold high office.
People draw parallels between Israel and South Africa because of this common feature: the existence of a dominant group, defined along racial lines, that monopolises effective power and maintains it through a network of administrative controls backed up by racially- oriented legislation and brutal enforcement. In 1973 the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. ICSPCA defines the crime of apartheid as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group … over another racial group … and systematically oppressing them’. More than 30 years later, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor John Dugard (himself a South African), concluded that ‘elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law’.
In Israel, there are colour-coded identity documents and vehicle registration plates, settler-only roads, checkpoints, aerial drone surveillance and of course the apartheid Wall – all of which make it easy to identify a person in the wrong place. Town planning controls are deployed to keep Jewish areas free of Palestinians, or to dislodge them from areas of intended Jewish expansion. Schools in Palestinian areas are kept starved of funds to ensure
a sub-standard education, and the curricula prevent children from learning about their own history and cultural heritage. The settler-only roads divide the Palestinian West Bank into overcrowded and impoverished bantustans.
There are differences, of course: one is that the basic Israeli imperative has always been quite distinct from apartheid South Africa’s – Israel wants to get rid of Palestinians, whereas the South African apartheid regime wanted to keep black people for their labour.
Won’t actions like this just harden Israeli attitudes?
What critics say:
Even if your campaign proves ineffective, it is still likely to be taken by Israelis as evidence of world hostility, with an antisemitic undertow. The probable outcome will be a still more aggressive stance on peace negotiations, and towards the Palestinians.
There is no doubt that successive Israeli governments have moved (even) further to the right. However, at least until recently, polls showed a substantial majority of ordinary Israelis favouring a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, even though doubting that it would be achieved. The problem is that to achieve peace would require Israelis to make significant material concessions and, at present, Israelis would rather keep the status quo than make the sacrifices (of land, of control, of identity) needed to come to terms with Palestinians and their reasonable aspirations.
The solution has to be for Israelis to realise that actions have consequences. Boycott alone will not achieve that. Boycott is a step on a path which will in turn take in the withdrawal of investments, the cessation of new investment funds, and the imposition of trade and other sanctions by nations and by international bodies. Each step prepares the way for the next. Intermediate steps may produce a hardening of attitudes. That is what happened with apartheid South Africa, but in the end the inability to borrow on international financial markets and the increasing isolation of white South Africa brought even the intransigent Afrikaners to the negotiating table. Israelis and their governments need the same incentives.
Why not concentrate on supporting Palestinian universities?
What critics say:
The Academic Commitment is so negative. Why not concentrate on positive support for Palestinian academics?
These are not two competing alternatives. The arguments for ending business as usual are, we believe, cogent. And nothing in the academic boycott of Israel conflicts with supporting Palestinian universities.