Should academics be exempt from boycott policies?

September 13, 2012
Sarah Benton

Academic boycotts, science and hypocrisy

By Steve Caplan, Occam’s corner, hosted by the Guardian
September 12, 2012

Science is an international affair – the attempt to boycott Israeli academics and scientists is both hypocritical and counterproductive

I am a scientist and a citizen of the world. Born in the US, raised in Canada, trained in Israel and back again in the US. Now this is not a particularly unusual story. Even in Israel, as a graduate student, I encountered other graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and principal investigators from around the globe. In my own graduate lab in Israel, there was a Chinese-born woman who trained in the US and had been living and working as a senior investigator in Israel since the mid-1970s. Science is an international affair.

During the nine years that I’ve managed my own humble laboratory in Omaha, Nebraska, here in the heartland of the US, my lab has employed atheist Jews (yes, me), Chinese atheists and Christians, Hindus, Greek Orthodox and other denominations of Christians, Muslims and more – in all, people from over half a dozen countries and four different continents. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been anything but mutual respect for different cultures, religions, races etc in my lab.

I therefore feel compelled to comment on the attempts, largely based in the UK, to inflict a so-called “academic boycott” on universities in Israel. As a scientist, I like to get my facts straight, so that I can make proper interpretations and conclusions. In reading about the history of the word “boycott”, I learned that it is named after one Charles Boycott, a land agent in Ireland who managed an estate and evicted tenants who demanded a reduction in rent during a year with a poor harvest. The community then began to shun Mr Boycott, and thus the term was coined.

To the best of my knowledge, aside from the attempts to isolate and boycott Israeli academics in recent years, the only other academic boycott was initiated on South African academics in the 1960s.

Publicly, the idea to boycott Israeli academics was first put forth in 2002 in a letter to the Guardian initiated by two British academics:

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. [Steven and Hilary Rose,  6 April 2002]

So why is this wrong, hypocritical, and completely contrary to the stated purpose?

Far be it from me, a long-time proponent of peace and compromise in the Middle East, to be satisfied with the current 2012 Israeli government. As an admirer of the late Israeli prime minister Itzhak Rabin – who so courageously fought for the Oslo accords and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – I mourned his assassination but continued to believe that a peaceful outcome was near.

Many Israelis were justifiably horrified when Palestinian leader and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Rabin on the White House lawn. Despite my own misgivings – seeing Arafat, a terrorist who took pride in acts of murder on women, children and civilians being awarded a prize for peace – I nevertheless thought that the intention was good. Would a Nobel Prize winner ever abandon his newly found prestige and return to use terror as a weapon? No, I thought – but I was wrong.

While I do not want to dwell incessantly on the history of this long and convoluted conflict, it’s impossible to fairly appraise today’s situation without even a cursory glance in the rear-view mirror. After all, the call for the boycott mentions UN resolutions that Israel has violated. So let us briefly examine the context of these resolutions.

The modern state of Israel was created following the 1947 vote at the UN for partitioning the land into two parcels: Israel and an Arab state. What happened after the UN vote? Both sides, Arabs and Jews, were unhappy about the UN decision. However, the fledgling Israeli entity accepted the deal, whereas the Arab side vowed to push the Jews into the sea.

Since this time, the conflict has been extremely complex. As Israel grew into a stronger entity, making poor choices about settling largely Palestinian-populated lands conquered after the 1967 war, Europeans began to view the Palestinians as victims. While this is certainly true, it is not a simple black-white/aggressor-victim situation. There have been serious attempts by Israeli leaders to arrive at a solution, most notably prime minister Rabin in the 1990s prior to his assassination. The Palestinian return to the use of terror (rather than more effectively taking up civil disobedience) demonstrates that they are as much victims of their own failed leadership, as they are of Israeli transgressors.

I promised not to dwell too deeply on historical claims, but suffice to say that this conflict is no simple matter. At the very least both sides bear a good degree of responsibility for the current situation. So what of the boycott? Why is it wrong and harmful?

First, the boycott is aimed at the very segment of the population that is most supportive of the two-state solution. Israeli academics, scientists and non-scientists, have always been overwhelmingly in favor of peace and compromise with the Palestinians. Leaders of the Peace Now movement, a group that consists of Israelis who are determined to arrive at a peaceful two-state solution through compromise and the return of land conquered in the 1967 war, come from Israeli academia and include a large number of academic scientists.

Moreover, Israeli universities are entirely independent of the Israeli government, and do not serve as government mouthpieces. Just as the Israeli judiciary has had many run-ins with the Netanyahu (Israel’s prime minister) and current Israeli administration – striving to maintain its independence – such has been the case with Israeli universities who find themselves facing off against the government and consistently being attacked by the latter for left-wing elitism. Almost every day brings new examples to light, as when only this past weekend, it was reported that the government tried to close Ben Gurion University’s department of political science for being too left wing.

Perhaps the icing on the cake comes from the following anecdote: the complete academic freedom given to Israeli academics has ironically led to a situation where a small number of Israeli professors have actually voiced their own support for being boycotted! If that’s not the best reason why such a boycott is ridiculous, then I must be missing something.

As for hypocrisy, have academic boycotts been leveled at Syria? At Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women? At countries run by brutal dictators? Why not? I’m not implying support for any academic boycott, but if one were to support such a mechanism, wouldn’t these clearcut cases of oppression rate these countries higher up on the boycott list than Israel?

As a scientist, I belong to an international community of researchers with common interests and goals across the globe. Excluding someone because of his or her government’s views is both wrong and counterproductive.

Steve Caplan is a principal investigator and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Why a boycott of Israeli academics is fully justified

The majority of Israeli academics do little to support the rights of Palestinians, and their institutions are complicit in the occupation

By Ben White, Notes and theories, dispatches from the science desk, Guardian
September 12, 2012

Steve Caplan believes that calls for the academic boycott of Israel, part of the wider Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign, are hypocritical and counterproductive. Leaving aside his Israel advocacy “talking points” version of history, Caplan’s argument has three significant flaws.

First, his only really substantive case against the boycott as a tactic is the claim that it is “aimed at the very segment of the population” – those in academia – who back Palestinian statehood and “compromise”.

But the assertion that Israeli professors are particularly supportive of Palestinian rights is made with scant evidence. Emphasising that “as individuals they are not being boycotted”, Israeli activist Ofer Neiman tells me that “the overwhelming majority of university professors do not act as dissidents. The best they will do is opine, and very softly. Very few of them use their enormous privileges – those that do are the exceptions.”

Indeed, as an article in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz last month reported, even self-defining “leftist” academics who vote for Labor or Meretz are happy to teach at the college in Ariel, an illegal West Bank settlement.

These are the “progressives” who apparently support Palestinian rights, a distortion of reality similar to Caplan’s praise for Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, the former Israeli PM’s “permanent solution” – as he told the Knesset shortly before he was assassinated – meant giving Palestinians “an entity which is less than a state”, with “united Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital and “the establishment of blocs of settlements” in the West Bank.

A second problem with Caplan’s piece is the omission of a key part of the argument for a boycott: the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in an occupation where violations of international law and human rights are routine.

A 2009 report, “Academic boycott of Israel and the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in occupation of Palestinian territories” did an excellent job of documenting ways in which “Israeli academic institutions have not opted to take a neutral, apolitical position toward the Israeli occupation but to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies toward the Palestinians.”

As Sara Hirschhorn, who is actually an opponent of the boycott, put it in an op-ed for The Times of Israel:

“The entire nation is complicit in the occupation, and there is no safe haven in the libraries and laboratories within the Green Line … Israel’s educational network – regardless of the political persuasions of faculty – is already entrenched in the occupation.”

One example is the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a university with an international reputation for research – and strong ties with the Israeli military and arms manufacturers.

Technion’s scientists have developed a remote-controlled bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes, with the university offering “tailored” programmes to the “IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and Ministry of Defense”.

Technion also has a close relationship with companies like Elbit Systems – a drone manufacturer targeted for divestment around the world due to its involvement in “violations of international humanitarian law”.

Finally, it is revealing that Caplan also omits to mention that it is occupied and colonised Palestinians who are asking for a boycott as one tactic in a campaign for basic rights.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched in 2004, and helped to start the BDS campaign the year after. PACBI urges a boycott to be applied in ways such as refraining from “collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions”. It is nothing to do with, as Caplan incorrectly claims, “excluding someone because of his or her government’s views”.

As with South Africa, those suffering under policies of segregation and forced displacement are urging boycott campaigns as a means of ending Israel’s impunity and realising their basic rights.

BDS makes the link between Israeli crimes and a response to them: the kind of nonviolent, grassroots campaign that has long been used to challenge injustice. Academia is not exempt.

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer, and human rights activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. His new book, with a foreword by MK Haneen Zoabi, is ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’. His website is Ben White .

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