London Conference, a Prelude to Academic Boycott of Israel

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Paul de Rooij | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs | January/February 2005

On Dec. 5, some 270 academics from around the world convened in London to discuss the implementation of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the severing of cultural links with Israel. The aim of the conference was to refine the arguments, clarify the rationale, and determine how to act next. Participants considered it an important step toward convincing large numbers of academics to heed a call for an academic boycott. Support for the boycott is motivated by the terrible conditions created by the Israeli occupation and continued dispossession of the Palestinians. Furthermore, the failure of governments to effectively pressure Israel so that it will comply with international law means that it is up to civil society to act. As Lawrence Davidson, a professor of history in the U.S., stated: “Governments in the West, left to themselves, do not have the will to sanction Israel for its illegal occupation of the occupied territories and its violent destruction of Palestinian society. Therefore, an international grass roots movement must be organized to educate significant parts of the Western populations on the nature of Israeli behavior, and simultaneously build pressure on Israel to change its ways, and governments to act to encourage this change.” Boycotts, a quintessential nonviolent form of protest, are seen as a key tactic to force Israel to end the occupation and in general obtain a modicum of justice. Academics in particular see the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a way they can contribute to this struggle. Israeli professor of history Ilan Pappe called on his academic colleagues to “boycott us.” This may seem an odd recommendation coming from an Israeli scholar—indeed, someone likened Pappe’s call to a “turkey voting for Christmas”! Pappe explained his action, however, by arguing that change will not come from within, that external pressure is essential for Israel to change. Although Israeli academics may be more liberal than the population at large, Pappe didn’t believe that demand for change would come from this quarter. If Israeli academics actively were working for change, he explained, then the boycott might be seen as counterproductive. It was clear from several presentations, however, that Israeli academic institutions are part of the problem. Support for the boycott also came from a handful of academics in Israel, some Israeli academics working abroad, and a significant number of Jewish academics. A large number of Palestinian academics and intellectuals called for the boycott in April 2004, and Prof. Lisa Taraki of Birzeit University clarified what Palestinians hoped to obtain from this action. She warned against substituting genuine solidarity with Palestinian academics with offers of funds conditional on Israeli partnership. European Union funding agencies in particular have implemented such arrangements, she said, but this has resulted in a “false solidarity.” Joint Palestinian-Israeli research projects, she elaborated, “inevitably result in enhancing the legitimacy of the Israeli institutions as centers of excellence, without doing much to strengthen the research capacity of Palestinian institutions.” And, Taraki concluded, “luring fund-starved Palestinian academics in such a manner can be seen as a form of political blackmail, again regardless of the intentions of the sponsors.” She cautioned conference participants against accepting such conditional arrangements as substitutes for a boycott. A portion of the conference dealt with drawing lessons from the boycott against apartheid South Africa. It took years to implement this boycott and to overcome the arguments leveled against it. The South African academic boycott proved to be effective, however, and an important contribution to the collapse of apartheid. The same arguments made in favor of the academic boycott against South Africa apply now—and even more so. Since Israel’s version of apartheid is more extreme than that of South Africa in the 1970s, it is clear that the arguments for the boycott are more relevant today. Mona Baker, a British professor of translation studies, set out principles of who and which institutions should be boycotted. This is an important issue, because the boycott must avoid the appearance of discrimination and the risk of dilution due to individually chosen exceptions. The proposal was to cast the academic boycott as an economic boycott “to undermine the institutions that allow a pariah state to function and claim membership of the international community.” When considering a boycott of, say, tourism to Israel, Baker noted, “supporters of an economic boycott do not ask whether the individual hotel workers who are being laid off in Israel are individually for or against the occupation. But we do keep returning to this question in relation to academics affiliated to Israeli institutions.” When cast as an economic boycott, therefore, an academic boycott implies that all academics at Israeli institutions should be boycotted, and Israeli academics working abroad would be exempted. Similarly, non-Jewish academics at Israeli institutions also would be boycotted. Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian dance company director and doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, addressed the common arguments raised against the academic boycott. He, too, observed that there were no genuine attempts by Israeli academic institutions to make a difference or bridge the divide. Israeli academics were deeply involved in the implementation of the Israeli brand of apartheid, he noted, and the legal profession was particularly complicit in this. Finally, addressing the claim by opponents of the boycott that it will hurt those opposed to the occupation, Barghouti made it clear that such a group was a small minority in the universities. Thus, he concluded, it didn’t make sense to suspend the boycott because of a handful of individuals. In the coming months several activist groups will push for divestment, economic boycotts and an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Because it seems, on the face of it, to conflict with values such as academic freedom and freedom of speech, the latter tactic will encounter most opposition, and opponents of the boycott may attempt to diminish the responsibility of academics for crimes committed by their state. In 2005, we will witness the overall call for the academic boycott gathering momentum, and this will undoubtedly trigger a sharp and violent reaction. The London conference was meant to prepare advocates of the boycott with the arguments with which to address their colleagues, and the means to answer any objections.