Israel boycott push in U.S. not yet a threat, say monitors

By Raphael Ahren

Local and international anti-boycott groups said this week they are monitoring the growing academic boycott movement in the U.S. but currently do not deem it a serious threat. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said recently it has more than tripled its membership since it was launched about half a year ago, receiving endorsements from a number of prominent individuals and groups.

About 85 people joined the movement in the first weeks after a group of 15 Californian academics founded it in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. Today, its Web site lists more than 325 academic signatories from American and some 60 from international universities – ranging from Egypt and Tunisia to Canada, England, Sweden and Brazil. Another 95 “cultural workers” and organizations have also joined. Among the most prominent signatories are Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, and the U.S. Green Party.

David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of Southern California and one of movement’s founding members, recently told Haaretz, “Given that the call for the boycott only went out in late January, and that – unlike the ADL, Hillel, or AIPAC – we lack funding for PR, we consider this a considerable achievement.” He complained of a “climate of intimidation that faces opponents of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and of the Zionist project” in both “the university as well as political life.”

The group says it aspires to an international boycott and divestment campaign similar to the one waged against South Africa in the 1980s, asserting that Israel’s “colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal.” Many American universities have spoken out against academic boycotts. The American Federation of Teachers in March reiterated its opposition to Israel boycotts, deeming the idea “inconsistent with the democratic values of academic freedom and free expression.”

Lloyd, who asserted there has already been a “palpable shift in public opinion” in the U.S., said his organization’s activities will culminate “with an international conference on BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] being planned by our European colleagues in 2011.”

Heads of organizations opposing such a boycott are cautious but downplay the impact of Lloyd’s group. Edward Beck, the president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international NGO partnered with several pro-Israel organizations, told Haaretz his organization is taking the U.S. boycott “very seriously and is trying to anticipate and address its actions on campus when they arise.” However, he added that “we believe that the movement has had little traction thus far in the United States, where there generally is more sympathy and understanding of the situation in Israel than there is in the U.K. and Europe.”

Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University who visited Israel this week, also doubts a U.S. group could duplicate the success of its British counterpart. He said he has observed that the atmosphere on American campuses is less friendly than it was a few years ago. “Whereas Israel regularly received the benefit of the doubt in academic settings, I don’t think that is still the case,” he told Anglo File. “But to go from a more open and nuanced debate to an academic boycott is a huge leap.”

Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of NGO Monitor and chair of Bar Ilan University’s political studies department, also believes the U.S. boycott movement is marginal at best. “They haven’t made much noise yet,” he said. “There is little visible BDS activity on most U.S. campuses; it’s not at all comparable to Europe.”

Steinberg explained the idea of academic boycotts against Israel arose after the U.N.’s Durban World Conference on Racism, which took place in 2001. The movement, which was most influential in Great Britain where the University and College Union has continually tried to impose a boycott on Israeli academics, expected to gain strength in the wake of the 2009 Durban Review Conference, he said. But the opposite was the case, according to the U.S.-born academic. “My American colleagues and I were particularly surprised that even after the [2008-09 Gaza] war there was no increase of any kind in anti-Israel activity or BDS support on American campuses.”

Yet despite its relative insignificance, the U.S. movement should not be entirely ignored, Steinberg cautioned. “It should be taken seriously because there’s always the chance that this political virus will hop the pond. But at this point that has not been done successfully.”

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