Why Palestinians are calling for a boycott of Israeli universities

A Palestinian academic union urges British colleagues to back a boycott in support of ‘our struggle for justice’

* Amjad Barham
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 May 2009 15.57 BST

Palestinian academics have been heartened by the outpouring of solidarity with our people on the part of British academics and students – the latter attested to by the creative “student occupation movement” in the wake of the brutal Israeli war against the Palestinian people in Gaza last December and January.

What does the Palestinian academic community expect from international colleagues?

It has sometimes been suggested that solidarity with Palestinian academics is best expressed in fostering academic links between British and Palestinian universities, with the aim of strengthening the capacity of Palestinian academic institutions that have suffered from the long siege imposed by Israel’s colonial regime.

While we value academic and institutional forms of support, we feel that this is not sufficient. Decades of life under military occupation have taught us that no sustainable development, including in the academy, is possible without freedom from occupation and oppression.

We are keenly aware that British intellectuals and academics have been at the forefront of many international campaigns for justice, the most illustrious and successful of which was the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. What we ask for is moral consistency: if it was acceptable for British academics to support unreservedly the academic boycott of South Africa with a view to ending the system of apartheid, then the same should apply in the case of Israel.

It is the duty of civil society to shoulder the moral responsibility of isolating Israel in the international arena through various forms of boycott and sanctions to compel it to obey international law and respect Palestinian rights.

It is well documented that Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel’s colonial and racist policies against the Palestinian people. Not only do Israeli universities and research institutions co-operate closely with the security-military establishment through research and other academic activities, they have never dissociated themselves from the occupation regime, despite the more than four decades of the systematic stifling of Palestinian education.

Israeli universities have never condemned the entrenched and institutionalised system of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel within the Israeli polity, society and even the academy.

Israel and its supporters have argued that the Palestinian call for institutional boycott infringes the universal principle of academic freedom. Palestinians find this argument biased and hypocritical – not to mention based on false premises.

The privileging of academic freedom above more basic human rights conflicts with the very idea of universal human rights, as it assigns far more importance to the academic freedom of a sector of Israeli society than to the fundamental rights of all Palestinians to live in freedom and dignity. Is upholding the academic freedom – in our view, the privileges – of Israeli academics a loftier aim than defending the freedom of an entire people living under a brutal and illegal occupation?

“Constructive engagement” with the Israeli academy is often suggested to us as a more effective mechanism to address the injustice inflicted upon us by Israel. We have tried this method, only to realise that as long as the terms of the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians are those of occupier and occupied, and oppressor and oppressed, the engagement process only results in normalising the occupation on the ground and whitewashing Israeli atrocities abroad.

I can give an example from my own personal experience. Once, as I was crossing one of the hundreds of military checkpoints on my way to my university, I was stopped by an Israeli soldier who turned out to be a fellow mathematician at an Israeli university. But our collegiality ended here: he told me that I could cross the checkpoint if I was able to answer a mathematics question correctly! What kind of engagement can be possible here?

As to the charge that the boycott is discriminatory, it is completely false. The Palestinian boycott call is institutional; it simply does not target individual Israeli academics and cannot, therefore, be “discriminatory” in any real sense of the term. Endorsing and applying the boycott does not in any way prevent individual Israeli academics from participating in international academic conferences and research projects, so long as the projects themselves are not based on institutional links with Israeli universities and research centers.

Moreover, being enshrined in universalist values and principles, the boycott call adopted by an overwhelming majority in Palestinian civil society categorically rejects all forms of racial discrimination and racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Finally, we of course recognise and deeply appreciate the steadily increasing support for the boycott we are witnessing among Israeli academics, who have reached the conclusion that only sustained pressure on Israel and its complicit institutions can bring about a just peace.

Our struggle for justice and peace is best supported through actions that aim at ending Israel’s impunity by compelling it to respect international law and our rights. Boycott is the most effective among those.

“¢ Dr Amjad Barham is president of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE)

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