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ISR Issue 56, November–December 2007

Boycotts and academic freedom
Hypocrisy and double standards at U.S. universities


IN EARLY August, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement with a statement opposing efforts by the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain to advance a boycott of academic institutions in Israel. The statement was signed by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and was endorsed by hundreds of other presidents and chancellors of universities and colleges around the United States. In May, the UCU’s delegated convention voted to distribute a resolution calling for a boycott to it members. But in late September the UCU dropped its plans, after receiving advice that the union would exceed its legal powers if it advocated the boycott or spent money promoting it.

The Times ad—emblazoned with the headline “Boycott Israeli universities? Boycott ours, too!”—left a bad taste in my mouth. In part, that was because it grossly misrepresented the argument made by defenders of the boycott, trivializing it as being based on “political disagreements of the moment.” But even more it was the hypocrisy of people like Bollinger posing as defenders of academic freedom while U.S. universities are becoming ever more inhospitable to prominent critics of Israel, turning them down for tenure, denying them speaking engagements, and harassing them in other ways.

The idea of an academic boycott of Israel has been around for several years, not because of momentary “political disagreements,” but because of Israel’s long record of oppressing the Palestinian people, decades of illegally occupying Palestinian lands, systematic discrimination against Palestinian Arabs both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and its denial of the rights of Palestinian refugees, which are recognized by international law. Support for a boycott has increased “with the growth of Israeli human rights abuses, collective punishments, house demolitions, targeted assassinations, and “the construction of the ‘separation wall,’ [which will divide Israel from the occupied West Bank] judged illegal by the International Court of Justice,” as one proponent notes.

In April 2002, two respected left-wing Jewish academics in Britain, Steven and Hilary Rose, called for a moratorium on funding by the European Union for research collaboration with Israel, because of the latter’s human rights record, and the call was adopted as a resolution by the Association of University Teachers (AUT—one of two unions that merged to form the UCU last year). Soon afterwards, a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and in April 2004 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was formed. PACBI asked the AUT to support the boycott.

In April 2005, the AUT council voted to boycott two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan, because of their complicity with the policies of the Israeli government. Haifa, for instance, sponsored a conference on how to prevent non-Jews from becoming a majority in Israel, which excluded Israeli Arabs. “If we want to remain alive we will have to kill and kill and kill,” said Haifa geography professor Arnon Soffer.

All day, every day. If we don’t kill we will cease to exist. The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.

Soffer’s comments provoked no response from the university administration, but Teddy Katz, a graduate student who identified a previously unknown massacre carried out by the Israeli army in 1948, had his master’s thesis disqualified. For its part, Bar-Ilan supervised the College of Judea and Samaria, set up in one of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank.

More generally, the Palestinian researcher Omar Barghouti has pointed out the many ways in which Israeli universities support the government’s violations of international law and human rights abuses:
This collusion takes various forms, from systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research—on demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, among other disciplines—that directly benefits the occupation apparatus to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories, and “scientific” research; to institutionalizing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens; to suppressing Israeli academic research on the Nakba, the catastrophe of dispossession and ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of more than 400 villages during the creation of Israel; and to directly committing acts that contravene international law, such as the construction of campuses or dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done, for instance.

All of this provides a powerful rationale for the boycott of these institutions. The New York Times ad declared the boycott a violation of academic freedom and proclaimed the importance of “fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy, and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas.” But while these are admirable abstractions, they simply ignore the role that Israeli universities are playing in depriving Palestinians of their rights and freedoms, including academic freedom. If the values that the American university presidents claim to espouse had absolute weight, then it would have been acceptable for researchers in the U.S. to collaborate with universities in Nazi Germany in the 1930s (as indeed many did), even as they provided spurious justifications for Hitler’s policies.

Economic and cultural boycotts played an important role in isolating and weakening the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually helping to bring about the collapse of its racist system. The parallels between South African apartheid and modern Israel, which systematically discriminates against both its Arab citizens and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, are striking. In fact Israel’s current blockade of Gaza, reducing much of the population to near starvation, is far worse than anything the white majority regime in South Africa did to the black population.

Of course some refuse to see the similarities. While apartheid still existed, for example, Raphael Eitan, chief of staff of the Israeli Army during its brutal 1982 invasion of Lebanon, rejected the comparison:

I don’t understand this comparison between us and South Africa. What is similar here and there is that both they and us must prevent others from taking us over. Anyone who says that the blacks are oppressed in South Africa is a liar. The blacks there want to gain control of the white minority just like the Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over. I was in a gold mine there and I saw what excellent conditions the black workers have. So there is [sic] separate elevators for whites and blacks, so what? That’s the way they like it.

There are at least twenty laws that grant unequal status to Jews and Arabs in Israel on the basis of “nationality,” which is defined in religious terms. Jews from any part of the world may claim Israeli citizenship, but Palestinian Arabs do not even have the right to bring family members into the country. Jews have exclusive use of most land, privileged access to private and public employment, special educational loans and home mortgages, and preferences for admission to universities.

Other special privileges are reserved for those who have served in the Israeli military, from which Israeli Arabs are excluded. The poverty rate for Israeli Arabs is double that of Jews and the Israeli government spends much more on schools, hospitals, roads and other social services for Jewish areas than for Arab ones. In the occupied territories, the situation is even worse. Even some Israeli Jews recognize the kind of society that has been created. For instance, Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Beth, the Israeli security agency, admits that Israel has developed “apartheid characteristics,” which are “not compatible with Jewish principles.”

The parallels are real, so does it follow that the same strategy that helped to defeat apartheid should be used to undermine Israeli racism? Boycotts are a political tactic, not a matter of principle, so whether they should be pursued depends on how effective they are in a given set of circumstances. On this question, not all critics of Israel agree. Noam Chomsky, for instance, who has long opposed the policies of Israel, believes that a boycott may be counterproductive in current circumstances, because it may increase misplaced sympathy for Israel. As the political analyst Phyllis Bennis, like Chomsky a Jewish critic of Israel, has noted:

For the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, South Africa was always considered a pariah state. But Israel is not in that position. Israel is given a pass, if you will, on the question of racism. Because Jews were victims of the Nazi Holocaust, there’s a way in which Israeli Jews are assumed to be either incapable of such terrible racialized policies, or that it’s somehow understandable because of what Jews went through.

One of the challenges facing supporters of Palestinian rights in the U.S. is winning wider layers of people to understand the real nature of Israel, as well as the role it plays in supporting U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. It is certainly possible that a call for a boycott of Israeli universities made here could play a role in shifting the debate and winning the ideological struggle, but it’s also possible that at this stage it could prove counterproductive. In Britain, the 2005 AUT resolution provoked something of a backlash and was overturned within a few months. The latest retreat by the UCU is an indication that even in the UK there is a long way to go to win the battle of ideas. But this tactical debate about whether an academic boycott is currently an effective way to advance the fight for Palestinian rights is a world away from the condemnation of all boycotts by U.S. university presidents, in a statement that doesn’t even acknowledge Palestinian grievances.

Not only was the statement in the New York Times silent about the Palestinians, it was also silent about violations of the academic freedom of scholars critical of Israel in the United States. The most notorious recent case was De Paul University’s denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein earlier this year, over the objections of his department and a faculty panel, both of which supported his application. Finkelstein, who has published several well-respected books and had outstanding student evaluations, was effectively told that he was too argumentative. His real sin was exposing a book defending Israel by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz as an academic fraud. Dershowitz launched a high-profile campaign to block Finkelstein’s tenure bid, and De Paul caved in under the pressure.

But Finkelstein’s case is not unique. His colleague Mehrene Larudee was denied tenure at the same time, despite unanimous support from her department, apparently because she publicly supported Finkelstein. At Barnard, the women’s college associated with Columbia University, the Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj is fighting a well-orchestrated campaign by Zionist groups to deny her tenure because she wrote a prizewinning book arguing, among other things, that the ancient history that Israel uses to justify its existence is mainly myth. Three years ago a similar campaign was launched against members of Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, accusing them of anti-Israel bias. In that case, instead of defending the academic freedom of his own faculty, Bollinger convened an ad hoc panel to investigate them, although it eventually concluded that accusations that students had been treated unfairly were unfounded.

Visiting speakers are also being vetted if they are considered too critical of Israel. In one jaw-dropping recent case, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had his invitation to speak at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota cancelled because he has drawn parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel. The faculty member in charge of the program who invited him was demoted. The university president was forced to reverse himself after a campaign by faculty and students, but the demoted faculty member was not immediately reinstated.

Stories like these could be multiplied many times over. Perhaps the university presidents who signed the New York Times statement should take a moment to speak out against the attacks on academic freedom taking place right under their noses.

Phil Gasper teaches philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005).

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