The Case for Academic Boycott

January 31, 2009 By Jason Kunin

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Of the various campaigns for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel , none seems to have provoked as much condemnation and rage as the threat of academic boycott. Even among people who have no problem with boycotts against products made in the Israeli settlements, or against companies like Caterpillar that manufactures the bulldozers Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes, you will find a certain level of discomfort with academic boycott. At a recent talk in Toronto, for example, Susan Nathan – a committed and active anti-Zionist whose book The Other Side of Israel provides some of the best commentary out there on the mechanisms of apartheid within Israel – came out, to my surprise, against academic boycott on the grounds that it punished the innocent and the guilty alike.

For many, academia is simply not a fair or reasonable target, either because academics are not seen as being directly involved in Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians, or because there is a notion that Israeli universities are sites of dissent against the occupation, or because requiring that academics, regardless of their discipline, to pass an ideological litmus test conjures memories of McCarthyism. To target all academics, some will argue, amounts to collective punishment and makes the solidarity movement no better than Israel, which brands all Palestinians as terrorists. Yes, some will concede, there are Israeli academics involved in weapons research or Zionist propaganda, but what do they have to do with professors of astronomy or plant science who have little or no active involvement or interest in politics? Why punish them?

These are all reasonable objections, but, as I hope to show, unfounded. Academic boycott is entirely appropriate, legitimate, and just.

Is academic boycott collective punishment?

Leaving aside the fact that Israel routinely engages in the collective punishment of Palestinians, let me begin with the concern that academic boycott amounts to collective punishment – that, as Susan Nathan has argued, it punishes the innocent and the guilty alike. To be sure, there are a handful of Israeli academics who have voiced criticism of their government’s treatment of the Palestinians. Baruch Kimmerling, Israel Shahak, Tanya Reinhart, Ilan Pappe, and Jeff Halper, for example, have all come out of the Israeli academy and have been invaluable allies in the Palestinian struggle.

True, one would be hard-pressed to name half a dozen of such people operating in the Israeli university today – Kimmerling, Shahak, and Reinhart are dead, Pappe now lives in England, and Halper is retired though now a full-time activist – yet even so, the vast number, maybe even the majority, of Israeli academics are neither politically active nor involved in work that would seem to be connected directly to Israel’s occupation. Wouldn’t targeting them amount to collective punishment?

The answer is no. And to understand why, it is useful to turn to one of the most important inquiries on the subject of collective guilt, Carl Jaspers’s The Question of German Guilt.

As an ordinary German during the Second World War – and maybe even as an exceptional German since Jaspers was an outspoken critic of the Nazi government throughout those dark and dangerous years – Jaspers struggled after the war to understand the degree to which ordinary German citizens bore responsibility for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Jasper’s friend Hannah Arendt had already rejected the notion of collective guilt, arguing, in her famous formulation, that “if everyone is guilty, then no one is guilty.” Arendt felt that “collective guilt” diluted the concept of guilt so much that those who were truly responsible for the deaths of millions, and therefore the real criminals, would be let off the hook. Jaspers agreed. For this reason, he felt the need to distinguish between four types of guilt: criminal guilt, which is determined by human laws and their instruments; moral guilt, which is determined by one’s conscience; metaphysical guilt, which is determined by God; and political guilt, which is determined, in the case of war, by the victor, or in peace time, by international law.

“Everybody is responsible for the way he is governed,” Jaspers argues. Yet political “responsibility” is not the same thing as criminal or metaphysical responsibility. As Jaspers explains, “There is liability for political guilt,” and therefore one can demand appropriate consequences, such as the payment of reparations or “the loss or restriction of political power and political rights (on the part of the guilty).”

Ordinary Israeli citizens should not be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by their soldiers or by their government, and therefore they should not be considered legitimate targets of military resistance, such as Qassam rockets or suicide bombers. On this, I part ways with Hamas. Nevertheless, following on Jaspers, Israeli citizens are politically liable for what their government does, and therefore they can be seen legitimate targets of political resistance, such as boycott.

Boycott is the revocation of a privilege, not the violation of a right

It is part of the condition of privilege that those born with privileges mistake them for rights. The ability to travel virtually anywhere in the world with a valid passport is something most citizens of Europe or Canada take for granted but which the majority inhabitants of the global South know only as a privilege they will never enjoy. Similarly, the ability to have one’s voice and opinions heard and published and taken seriously – to be regarded as an “expert” – is a privilege enjoyed by very few people anywhere. It is worth noting that even within the Palestine solidarity movement, Jewish voices are often conferred greater authority than those of Palestinians. Susan Nathan’s The Other Side of Israel does a great service educating people about apartheid systems within Israel, but we shouldn’t have needed Susan Nathan to write this book when there are over a million Palestinians living within Israel who could have told us the same things and more. But if a Jew is saying it, it must be so. The fact that we do need Susan Nathan – and we do – speaks to the privilege that Jewishness confers upon us who are Jewish, even for those of us, such as queer Jews or black Jews or poor Jews, who might experience marginalization in other ways.

Certainly, there are many marginalized Jews and Jewish communities in Israel, but we should note that academic boycott does not target them. Its target, rather, is Israel’s intellectual leadership, the educated elite whose record consists largely of misinforming Israelis about their history, distorting their understanding of current conflicts, normalizing the racism of their society, and providing to the Israeli military and government the legal, technological, and political tools it needs to facilitate the continued theft of Palestinian land and the containment of its restive population. There are exceptions, of course, a brave few who stick their necks out or engage in small acts of quiet rebellion – and then, of course, there are those who, like Dante’s poor souls in the outer circle of hell, sit on the sidelines and do nothing – but by and large this is the overall picture.

Nevertheless, the smattering presence of a few dissenting voices is not an argument against academic boycott. True, God said He would spare Sodom and Gemorrah if He could find just ten righteous people living there (unfortunately, He found only four, probably about the same number of anti-Zionists currently in the Israeli academy), but then academic boycott hardly amounts to the wrath of God, and it certainly doesn’t even come close to the brutality visited upon people in occupied Palestine by the Israeli army. It simply seeks to revoke the privileges of an intellectual class that has failed to live up to the moral responsibilities that come with those privileges. It targets not those Israelis who are kept in the dark and don’t know what their government is doing, but those who should know better and are part of the apparatus of misinformation that misinforms the Israeli public. And if in its sweep it penalizes the odd Israeli academic who supports Palestinian rights – and let’s keep things in perspective, we’re not exactly talking death by firing squad here, only the cancellation of a few visiting lectures – the fact is that those of us Jews who are allies in the Palestinian struggle need to understand that part of being an ally is being prepared to give up some of the unearned privileges we enjoy, especially those that are contingent on the silencing of Palestinians themselves.

What about academic freedom?

One of the liberal myths of societies built upon Enlightenment ideals such as intellectual freedom is that universities are special, protected sites where dissent is allowed to reign free and absolute freedom of speech and inquiry exists and needs to be protected. The fact is, however, that absolute academic freedom has never existed anywhere – not in Canada, not in the United States, not in Europe, and certainly not in Israel. Anyone who has ever applied for research funding can tell you that certain types of projects will simply not get money, particularly as sources of funding come more and more under corporate and government control. In Canada, universities are increasingly reliant on private endowments and corporate partnerships, which never come without strings and which place certain types of research off-limits. (Just ask Dr. Nancy Olivieri, the Hospital for Sick Children doctor who was removed from her position after publishing research critical of thalassaemia, a drug produced by the pharmaceutical company Apotext that was funding her research.) Tenure-track appointments and contract renewals are all subject to ideological controls. Try making a career in academia as a specialist in the genocidal policies of your own government, or as an anti-Zionist critic of Israel and the Holocaust industry, then ask the formerly-tenured professor Ward Churchill or the now unemployed Norman Finkelstein what kind of career possibilities exist.

In Israel, things are no better. For a country that likes to boast of its robust democracy and wide spectrum of debate, the ideological climate in the universities is even more stifling than in the United States and Canada. Dissent beyond a certain point, especially if it questions the Zionist foundations of the state itself or calls too much attention to the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous inhabitants, is simply not tolerated. Tanya Reinhart and Ilan Pappe, two of the most forceful and insightful critics to come out of the Israeli academy, both faced such intolerable levels of harassment while there that they eventually left the country of their birth to teach in the U.S. and England respectively. Pappe in particular has been subject to death threats, denunciation in the Knesset, and an unsuccessful bid to have him dismissed from his tenured post at the University, which finally backed off but then barred him from participating in seminars or conferences. When a graduate student at Pappe’s university named Teddy Katz published his MA thesis about a massacre of Palestinian villagers by an Israeli military unit during the 1948 war, he was sued for libel by veterans of the war. The lawsuit drained Katz’s savings and destroyed his health. He was eventually pressured to sign a public “apology” for his work, which he quickly after retracted. of Haifa is no different.

The argument that a boycott of Israeli academics constitutes a violation of some sort of mythical academic freedom simply doesn’t take account of the various indirect ways in which the freedom to teach, publish, and research are already restricted. All universities are subject to ideological controls. Israel

Academic boycott is actually a mechanism to ease these controls by creating external pressure on the universities to allow for the expression of opinions it does not currently tolerate. Indeed, one could argue that boycotting Israeli academics who do not take a public stand against the Israeli occupation is, in fact, a way of giving them more freedom to say what they do not at the moment feel free to say. Now they have an excuse to speak out.

“The freest universities in the Middle East”

When the
Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) put forward a motion last month in the midst of Israel’s Gaza onslaught to boycott Israeli academics who did not condemn it, the newspapers were filled with the usual denunciations. A common point that came up a few times was that Israel’s universities are “the freest in the Middle East.” One letter writer in The Globe and Mail even suggested that CUPE boycott Arab universities instead!

Apart from being a tired tactic of Israel’s defenders – calling attention to any other country but Israel – such denunciations miss the point: why boycott academics who have no freedom to criticize their government? If you are going to argue that Israel’s universities are the “freest in the Middle East,” then you imply that it is the individuals themselves, not the institutions, who are responsible for their silence on what their government is doing to the Palestinian people, and therefore you are arguing they can be held to account. Certainly, those who profess to care about academic freedom in Israel tend to show a stunning indifference to the plight of Palestinian universities, which have been bombed, sliced in half by Israel’s “security fence,” and regularly shut down under Israeli military order. Checkpoints routinely prevent students and faculty from attending classes. Immigration and security officials deny visiting scholars their visa. Students winning scholarships abroad are denied permits to leave. And these are not universities under the control of Arab governments but under the control of Israel, the very country whose universities are supposedly the “freest in the Middle East.”

The boycott movement is actually more generous towards Israeli academics than Israel’s supporters, for unlike them, the boycott movement recognizes the constraints under which they operate and does not presume that they are totally free. This is why it is the institutions, not the individuals who are targeted for boycott. I suppose you could argue that institutions are comprised of individuals and therefore individuals will be affected, but academic boycott targets individuals only in their capacity as academics working for Israeli institutions. It does not target them for being fathers, grandfathers, sisters, or friendly neighbours. Nor does it seek to prevent them from writing, speaking, or publishing, provided that they are not doing so as representatives of Israeli universities or functioning as organs of the state.

Supporters of Israel always complain of “imbalance” in any venue or context in which their view of the world is not affirmed. Admittedly, boycotting Israeli academics will not create “balance,” but only because the current imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians is too great and Israel is too powerful. Academic boycott is just a tiny step in restoring some balance to this most imbalanced conflict.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer. He can be reached at jkunin [at]

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