Against the Israeli Academic Boycott

Against the Israeli Academic Boycott

“Among the Judenrat wannabes is your old friend and mine, Neve Gordon,” wrote a Haifa University professor in one of his articles.



“Among the Judenrat wannabes is your old friend and mine, Neve Gordon,” wrote a Haifa University professor in one of his articles. “Gordon,” the professor continued, “is a fanatic anti-Semite from the monochromatic (Red) Department of Politics at Ben-Gurion University.” The contemptuous adjectives did not, however, satisfy the angry professor, so in another commentary he urged his readers to harass me. Some obediently complied.

This type of assault is not altogether exceptional. During a casual encounter with a university official, I learned that the administration has been receiving incensed letters from abroad by people who have read newspaper articles in which I criticize Israel’s neoliberal monetary policies, the ongoing discrimination of its Palestinian citizenry and, most important, the government’s draconian policies in the occupied territories. Some of the letter writers were unhappy with the fact that an Israeli academic institute continues to employ me, and they are even considering stopping their annual donations to the university.

Ironically, intolerant reactions of this kind–whether articulated within Israel or abroad–are a reminder that in Israel, academic freedom still exists, much more so than in many other countries. They also suggest, however, that this freedom should never be taken for granted and that it is currently being challenged.

Unwittingly, American and European supporters of the academic boycott against Israeli universities are aiding this attack. They certainly have not taken into account some of the realities inside Israel, particularly the internal offensive against the universities as well as the anti-intellectual atmosphere that has colonized the Israeli public sphere.

Among the many reasons why one should reject the academic boycott, critics have highlighted the boycotter’s double standard. It is not only that some of the boycotters come from countries that are also responsible for much oppression and suffering, but, perhaps more important, Israel could not carry out its policies without the ongoing support of the United States, which has, for example, recently promised Sharon $12 billion in direct aid and loan guarantees.

While this line of argument exposes some of the biases informing the academic boycott movement, there are two other important reasons why a boycott of Israeli universities is misdirected.

The first argument is the one already alluded to: Israeli universities continue to be an island of freedom surrounded by a stifling and threatening environment. In the past two years the Israeli media, which was once known for its critical edge, has been suppressing critical voices, and in a number of electronic media outlets specific regulations have been issued, such as restrictions on live interviews with Palestinians. This dangerous trend is likely to become even more pronounced now that the right wing has garnered a considerable majority in the Israeli Knesset.

The second argument, the one most often ignored by outsiders, has to do with the fact that in the past year and a half Israeli universities have been under an unprecedented assault by the Sharon government. The Minister of Education, Limor Livnat, is trying to radically change the structure of higher education, including the way universities are governed and managed. She would like to strip power from the faculty senates and transfer it to boards of trustees in which professors are barred from membership. An academic boycott will only strengthen Livnat, and in this way assist the destruction of academic freedom in Israel.

When I explained these points to pro-boycott colleagues in Britain, they replied, “It isn’t you, but rather your institute that will be punished for not taking an institutional stand on the illegality of the occupation.” Yet it is precisely the institute that enables Israeli professors–regardless of their political affiliation–to voice their views, suggesting that an assault on the university is in fact an assault on its faculty.

To fight the anti-intellectual atmosphere within Israel, local academics need as much support as they can get from their colleagues abroad. A boycott will only weaken the elements within Israeli society that are struggling against the assault on the universities, and in this way will inadvertently help those who want to gain control over one of the last havens of free speech in the country.

Editor’s Note: In April 2002, following Israel’s military operation in the occupied territories called Defensive Shield, the first calls for institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities appeared in England and in France. A British petition called for a freeze on European Union contracts with Israeli universities as long as Israel continues its present policies in the territories. What started as an initiative of a few academics has recently become a formal resolution of a French university–Paris VI. Simultaneously, a number of Israeli professors have encountered trouble publishing articles in certain academic journals, a few have been asked to step down from editorial boards and others from international doctoral committees.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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