boycotting Israeli academic institutions

Via Ranjit’s new blog, Cultural Sabotage, I read this article from ZNet. I don’t always find myself agreeing with ZNet on a lot of issues, but they frame the debate in more interesting ways than most “mainstream” publications, which don’t seek to have a debate. What follows below the fold are disorganized first impressions on the topic of academic boycotting of Israel, and is likely to be riddled with self-contradicting statements.

The article is on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and collaborations as a means of pressuring the state of Israel cease its colonialism of the occupied territories. It seeks to address criticisms of the proposed boycott, but at the same time raises more questions. Since I’m not organized enough to provide a tight critique, I’ll start near the beginning:

… and finally, to exclude from the actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies.

This exception to the rule is already a stumbling block — who is make the decision that Prof. So-And-So at the Technion is sufficiently conscientious?

Lisa Taraki’s point is that the Israeli academy’s silence in condemning the worst behaviors of occupying forces, in particular those tragedies which befell Palestinian academics, is more telling than the professed politics of individual academics. To her then, the boycott is focussed on bringing institutional pressure on the Israeli academy to force it to take a stance as a whole. You can argue the merits of this approach, but it is in tune with imposing sanctions on a state whose actions you wish to change, although you can’t carry the analogy too far. It hurts many who are innocent, but may spur the mass into action.

The article’s rhetorical floor is the idea that we must discard the “pervasive exceptionalism” surrounding discussions of Israel. Which means we must take on Zionism head on. This is, I think more appropriate. Until some consensus or decision is reached regarding whether Israel should remain an apartheid state, and that decision is embraced, no further progress can be made. However, most of the discussion is trying to flit about the status quo without discussing the moral implications thereof.

If we accept for the moment that this division is fundamental — that some Israelis believe that preservation of majority Jewish rule trumps other considerations, and some believe that that returning to the pre-1967 borders and the right to return for Palestinians is the only solutions (these are just two views for illustration) — then this boycott may fracture the Israeli academy. I’m not sure how politicized academic institutions are there, but it could lead to some serious turmoil, and it is unclear that Taraki has considered this. She seems to take for granted the proposition that left-leaning academics dominate and that when pushed with sufficient force they will issue the appropriate statements.

For myself personally, I am still not convinced of the appropriateness of this boycott. As a more general principle, I know that I do not want to work with those whose personal politics I find odious. I will have no truck with racists of any sort, misogynists, or homophobes. If that costs me my professional career, so be it, but I don’t want my name associated professionally with bigots. But that is my personal decision, and I’m not sure if I am ready to condemn someone for not succeeding at changing the minds of their peers.


0 thoughts on “boycotting Israeli academic institutions

  1. On the last point – I’m with you. Working with bigots of all stripes is one of the most abhorrent ways to go about solving social problems.

    As far as the boycott itself, I’m not really as interested in the boycott of academia as I am in the overall divestment campaign. From what I can tell, that campaign is supported by a large variety of fairly progressive organization… although I believe there are assholes in that coalition as well.

    Always a problem… always a problem…

    On a semi-related note, remember Osama? I saw him a lot randomly in college. He was a very vocal Palestine liberation activist. He had kind of an odd reputation though 🙂

  2. Sigh. There is not one single Israeli whose opinion would be swayed by an academic boycott. Every single Israeli has other considerations to weigh.

  3. That’s a more important point than any of my concerns. My critique was on purely philosophical grounds, but the pragmatic argument is probably more direct.

    Of course, I do “engineering” that is all about finding the theoretical best performance of systems regardless of silly little things like delay and complexity, so pragmatic arguments tend to filter through my brain slowly.

  4. Indeed, point taken. However, according to this report from Human Rights Watch,

    The Israeli government operates separate school systems, one for Jewish children and one for Palestinian Arab children, who make up nearly one in four of Israel’s 1.6 million schoolchildren. The funding disparities between the two systems are enormous: Palestinian Arab students receive substantially less funding than Jewish students, and they attend schools with larger classes and fewer teachers than Jewish children.

    These are schools for Arab citizens of Israel. If nothing else, this resembles most closely the old US doctrine of “separate but equal.”

    My use of the term “apartheid” was loaded and misleading. However, one can hardly call the current system fair, much as one cannot call the current property-tax-funded school system in the US fair.

    In the context of the academic boycott above, I feel that it doesn’t seek to address root causes effectively, and is probably not going to work anyway.

  5. it’s hard not to call it an apartheid state when it operates upon the idea of ethnic segregation. However noble one may argue the motives to be, the facts remain as such. Separation of groups based on ethnicity and religion (and, arguably, race) enforced by laws dictating who can own land and who cannot, as well as actual walls and barriers, seems apartheid to me.


    definitely agree about the academic boycott, tho.

  6. The reason Israeli Arabs have their own schools is so that they can learn their algebra and history and so on in Arabic. The status quo looks like segregation but the alternative would be to make Israeli Arab kids get their education in a second language, and that would be much worse, not to mention utterly needless. Israeli Arabs are the best-educated group in the Arab world. That they learn under Spartan conditions has nothing to do with it. (That they aren’t taught in school about how Jews have magic powers and the tendency to use them for evil, that, on the other hand, has a lot to do with it.) My oh-so-well-funded Israeli junior high didn’t even put electricity in my classroom for two years, so the gap isn’t as large as you think. And Arab kids who want to go to Hebrew-speaking schools can, and sometimes do. I could rant more.

  7. um, yeah, the evil Israeli apartheid state should become more like the multicultural paradise of the Palestinian authority, where anyone who sells land to a Jew is shot without a trial.

  8. it’s not about whether or not the “evil israeli state” should mimic the corrupt, dysfunctional, autocratic Palestinian Authority – nor did I suggest that in ANY way. I love the fact that any criticism of the Israeli state is IMMEDIATELY skewed to being support for, of all things, the Palestinian Authority. I suppose you also think that critics of Israel universally support the various corrupt Arab autocracies surrounding Israel? Another moronic assumption. Sarcastic mockery doesn’t count as a response to criticism, last time I checked.

    interesting comment about the israeli junior high. is it the case, then, that the gap is nonexistent? or are you saying that it’s just not as extreme as it’s made out to be? and how about the occupied territories – where do they fit into the calculation of the gap?

  9. No, the gap is there, but it is small, and has little to do with what education goes on in the schools. (That unwired classroom was my junior high’s honors class – we didn’t care about lighting, we liked it because it meant 5 seconds after the bell we were playing soccer.) And it’s there largely because schools are locally funded and Arab towns operate on a low-tax-low-service-level basis.

  10. Setting aside the question of the justice of the boycott, for a moment, there remains an independent pragmatic question: Who should the action aim to influence? Omri reluctantly asserts that a boycott will fail to influence Israeli academics. But this prejudges the answer. I submit that a useful action must focus on educating the American public about our governmnent’s crucial role in the situation. Can a boycott of Israels goods, services, and institutions create a teachable moment? If not, what can? This I think is the appropriate pragmatic criterion, not Omri’s.

    As to the justice question, the comparison to apartheid and Jim Crow has much merit. Though the methods differ in detail. One noted example of discrimination in housing, access to credit, civil service, etc. arises through military service requirements. Since Arabs may not serve, a fortiori they may not benefit, citizenship notwithstanding. Jewish national organizations provide another example. Restricted to Jewish clients, these publicly funded agencies account for a significant portion of government discretionary spending and provide a simple mechanism for ensuring Arab areas have at least the second part of Omri’s description “low-tax-low-service.” Legal double standards form a third-class of bias. For example under law Jewish citizens of foreign countries may claim Israeli citizenship, while many palestinians who work within Israel but live in the territories may not.

    Of course, these claims do not address the central issue around which the boycott centers: occupation and the conditions of injustice occurring within the territories, with the support and approval of our government. Here, even Omri’s claim that “other considerations,” presumably security, prevent Israeli from ending the occupation, rings hollow to me. Polls show comfortable majority of Israelis support an end to the occupation and settlements, the numbers differing slightly on how the question is phrased. Last year in fact (Nov 13 2003) former heads of Shin Bet, the equivalent of the CIA, suggested that security is not a barrier. They feel Israel could and should leave the Gaza Strip immediately, and that the main obstacle to leaving the West Bank was not security, but coming up with “a simple economic plan” to compensate 85%-90% of the settlers and perhaps a clash to convince the remaining 10%.

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