Sunday, May 22, 2005

Thoughts on Boycotts

Here is the link to the motions passed by the Assocation of University Teachers in Britain (AUT).

The key points:

1) general endorsement of the notion of a total boycott of Israeli academia
2) a specific boycott against the University of Haifa in response to the treatment of Ilan Pappe
3) a specific boycott against Bar-Ilan University in response to Bar-Ilan’s links with the College of Judea and Samaria.
4) deferral of the question whether to specifically boycott the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
5) general endorsement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with a program of outreach to Palestinian academics and a rejection of the idea of outreach to Israeli academics.

#1 and #5 are pretty appalling: generalized boycotts seem inimical to academic freedom and to the whole notion of an academic community.

Here, I can only echo what the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has said.

As for #3,4,5 the charges against Haifa, Bar-Ilan, and Hebrew University seem spurious. Haifa and Bar-Ilan have mounted vigorous defenses of their actions: See here and here.

But even if the charges were true, would such a broad-brush boycott be warranted?

Remember that the AUT motions call for adherence to the Palestinian call for a boycott which includes the following actions:
i. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
ii. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
iii. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
iv. Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies;
v. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
vi. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

(Item iv--as many have noted--is quite ridiculous because it sets up an ideological text for Israeli academics to be exempted from being boycotted. And who decides what constitutes “[opposition] to their state’s colonial and racist policies”? Would an Israeli academic who has spoken out in opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza--as many have--but who has also spoken out against the boycott be caught in some kind of Catch-22 logic and not be exempted from the boycott?)

The argument often made against this sort of thing is that Israel is being singled out. Everyone should remember that this is not an argument meant to defend the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or the actions of the Israeli government in general. You can’t justify Israeli policy with the schoolyard argument that “Billy did it too but the teacher caught me so I shouldn’t be punished.”

This argument does point out the hypocrisy of some of Israel’s opponents and the extent to which anti-Israel politics with little nuance have become something of a sine qua non in leftist circles. (And that general situation is frustrating to those of us who generally sympathize with the political left, oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and have significant social, academic, and familial ties to Jewish Israelis. But that’s another story).

What the argument is really saying is this: sometimes Israel (qua government) does bad things. When it does bad things, it should be condemned. But many wish to punish Israel in a disproportionate way. In other words: Billy and I both pulled Jane’s hair but I was expelled and Billy got a time-out. The reasonable inference: the teacher has it in for me. Fairness dictates that Billy and I get the same punishment.

This brings me back to my original question. Even if the charges against Haifa, Bar-Ilan, and Hebrew University are true, is a broad-based boycott a reasonable response?

Apparently when apartheid was extended to South African universities in the 1960s and when two academics were banned by the South African government, the most the AUT called on its members to do were 1) protest this and 2) refrain from taking jobs at South African universities. See here for the text of this resolution and for comment. (And here for more discussion of the whole matter.) Yes, it is true that many other forms of boycott against South Africa in general and South African academia in general emerged in the 1970s and 80s, but the question before us is the behavior of the AUT and the specific Israeli situations to which they wish to respond. Thus, the AUT’s first--and only?--resolution on South African academia seems relevant.

Now let us imagine that Ilan Pappe’s troubles with his colleagues in Haifa could be deemed comparable to banning in apartheid-era South Africa (an idiotic comparison if one knows anything about the two situations). Let’s also imagine that Bar-Ilan’s links to a junior college in a West Bank settlement could be deemed comparable to the removal of black students from South African universities (remember that there are Arab students--and professors--at Israeli universities). And let us imagine that the AUT wished to hold Israeli academics accountable in the same way they held South African academics accountable in the 1960s. Then the resolution ought to go something like this:

We, the (undersigned) professors and lecturers in British universities:
1. Protest against the treatment of Professor Pappe.
2. Protest against the practice of occupation and the involvement of Israeli universities in it.
3. Pledge that we shall not apply for or accept academic posts in Israeli universities which involve themselves in the occupation of the West Bank or the Gaza strip.

Now (a) assuming the allegations against Haifa and Bar-Ilan were true and (b) pretending that the situation was comparable to the events of the 1960s in South Africa and (c) imagining that this were the restrained and reasonable response of the AUT to this hypothetical situation, I would--in this alternate reality--feel no reason to condemn the AUT’s actions.


In regard to (a): the allegations seem spurious.
In regard to (b): the situations are in no way comparable.
In regard to (c): I think the differences between the two resolutions speak for themselves.

Thus, I join with thousands of academics around the world who have rightly condemned the AUT’s actions.

I have linked to ENGAGE in my links column. This is a blog run by a group within the AUT campaigning to revoke the boycott resolution at a special meeting in a few days. The postings there and the material they link to present the case against the boycott and shows up the idiocy of the boycott supporters.

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