I would like to respond to Neve Gordon’s piece, “Against the Israeli Academic Boycott” (Feb. 14). Like Gordon, I am opposed to an academic boycott of Israeli universities precisely because it singles out academia. Unlike Gordon, however, I don’t see any valid justification to exclude universities and research institutes from a general boycott of Israeli goods and services.
The driving force behind the rapidly developing boycott movement is the frustration that many people in the West feel about the almost total indifference of their governments to the ongoing Israeli war against the Palestinians, and about the unperturbed legitimacy that Israel continues to enjoy in Western political circles. Since governments are not willing to stand up and put pressure on Israel, a variety of independent, grassroots initiatives have sprung up. They share the aim of delegitimizing Israel and its official institutions, penalizing it economically and isolating it politically.
I recently received an invitation to speak at a scientific conference at Ben Gurion University (BGU). I declined the invitation on two grounds. The first was that I practice the boycott and as such I do not buy Israeli avocados and beauty products or participate in events organized by an Israeli academic institution. My second reason for declining the invitation was that I know perfectly well that if the situation were reversed–that is, if I, my family or my people were being trampled by Palestinian guns, barely surviving under curfew, prevented from attending school or going to work, isolated internationally and clamoring for support and solidarity–I would feel a surge of resentment toward any foreign academic traveling to, say, Bir Zeit University as a guest of a scientific conference. Talk about the “apolitical” nature of such a conference would strike me as a lame excuse for indifference.
Gordon advances two arguments in favor of leaving the universities out of the boycott. First, he argues that the boycott harms academic freedom and serves those who would like to stifle it. Second, he claims that Israeli universities are bastions of freedom and therefore constitute the wrong targets.
To take up the second point first, it seems to me fairly well established that only Jews enjoy real freedom in Israel, and only Jewish students and faculty are really free in Israel’s universities. Arab students are subject both to institutional discrimination and to the more or less usual racism which permeates Israeli society. The former includes the near absence of financial aid, the absence of Hebrew-language assistance (which is provided to Jewish immigrants), no housing assistance and no official recognition of Arab student bodies. Finally, Arabs’ liberties of expression and congregation are substanially more restricted than those accorded to Jews or Jewish bodies.