Why I am for academic boycott

by Ahmed Moor on March 12, 2010

The boycott of Israeli academics and academic institutions has always made me a little uneasy. We all read books by Israeli academics that at their humanist best elucidate and inform, and at their racist worst reveal something about the Zionist zeitgeist. I read Ha”aretz, Ynet and the Jerusalem Post on a daily basis – and communicate pretty regularly with Israelis through email (the majority of whom admittedly, are anti-Zionists). Despite all this, I do support the academic boycott. The issue is very muddy, however.

The issue of academic boycotts has achieved renewed attention here in Beirut after a Beirut-based publishing house decided to translate Amos Oz”s novel “A tale of Love and Darkness.” Oz”s books have previously been published in Arabic in both Egypt and Jordan, but the context is a little different here; Lebanon is still at war with Israel and anti-normalization currents remain strong, as they should. More recently, a professor at the American University of Beirut, Sari Hanafi, co-authored a book with two Israelis at Tel Aviv University – something that has angered many people here. Lebanese civil society is currently organizing around the issue, which is an explosive one. Hanafi appears to have made a poor decision.

Academia is usually a bastion of (relative) liberalism anywhere in the world. A recent study helped explain why; it”s something to do with type-casting. Opponents of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions can plausibly argue that Israeli academics mostly need our support and historically resist the jingoistic anti-intellectualism that runs rampant in Zionist society vis-í -vis non-Jewish human rights and anti-Zionism. I am sympathetic to their arguments, which is why I have so much trouble with this issue. But academia is easily segregated into different global disciples. What I mean to draw attention to is the fact that engineers are not post-colonial scholars and vice versa. That fact enables us to draw finer distinctions.

There is a straightforward case for boycotting Israeli engineers and others who directly enhance the occupation by, for instance, building unmanned drones. These are not the cases I wish to discuss here.

Instead, I”ll put forth a hypothetical case. Dr. Z is an anti-Zionist history lecturer at an Israeli institute of higher learning who actively contributes to the delegitimization of Zionism through his research. He feels strongly that Palestine/Israel ought to be one country and that Jewish privilege has no place in a modern democratic state. He is, in every way, an ally to the cause for equal rights in Palestine/Israel. So, why do I feel he should be boycotted?

After a lot of thought and discussion with friends, I managed to identify two principles that offer a decision-making framework on the issue of academic boycott: coercion and parity.

Boycott is a coercive measure adopted to influence the behavior of different actors. Because Israel is a democracy for Jews, it follows that Jewish people in Israel have an opportunity to correct the racist government policies of their government and society. However, there is no evidence that most Israeli Jews have the desire to relinquish Jewish privilege in Palestine/Israel. Many Israelis will decry the evils of occupation and military administration of a civilian population, but very few of those are actively willing to confront the extremists in their midst or in their government. Therefore, our boycott effort is specifically aimed at making the lives of Israeli thought leaders more difficult, so that they can exert the democratic pressure that is their sole purview to bear. It is this coercive element of BDS that compelled Avraham Burg to describe BDS as a form of violence.

I respectfully disagree with Burg; Zionist Israelis can hardly be counted on to relinquish their racial privilege in the absence of pressure. More importantly, BDS is an expression of Palestinian agency which is non-violent according to more traditional definitions of violence. I hope the reader will forgive me for not attempting to define violence in this context.

The case of Dr. Z is resistant to the coercive component of our analysis. As an anti-Zionist Israeli who actively contributes to undermining Zionism, his behavior already conforms to liberalism”s standards, which are our standards. I do not agree with those who argue that if Dr. Z is truly an anti-Zionist, he must leave Israel and all it stands for behind, like the awesome Ilan Pappe. On the contrary, the Palestine/Israel I hope to see one day will rely on these people. Nor does the argument that Dr. Z is a necessary casualty in a sledgehammer boycott, which by definition is all-encompassing, sit well with me. The idea of collateral damage is inherently illiberal and immoral in my view.

This is where the parity principle can be engaged. Much of the important revisionist (post-Zionist?) scholarship that emerged in the past twenty years from Israel – which we rely on a great deal – emerged from an exclusivist Zionist state framework. The archival material available to Israeli researchers is simply not available to Palestinian scholarship. The Zionist state, through its institutions, has created a structural bias for Jewish scholarship in Israel. Whether that material bias is employed by Dr. Z to undermine the state or not is irrelevant in this context. Dr. Z is afforded access, exclusively because of his privileged role as an Israeli Jew. That access is not available to scholars from the Islamic University in Gaza or Birzeit University in the West Bank, for instance. The much more obvious restrictions on movement imposed by Israel on Palestinian scholars only underline my point here.

Forgetting the state of war that exists between Lebanon and Israel for a moment, let Dr. Hanafi travel abroad to promote his book with Israelis when he is capable of traveling abroad to promote a book with Palestinians from the occupied territories. Let Dr. Z promote his anti-Zionist scholarship in tandem with his peers from Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip.

This is the principle of parity as I understand it.

Putting aside the theoretical framework, there are particulars which merit discussion. When Benjamin Netanyahu presented his dissembling and obfuscatory vision for a “two-state solution,” Bar Ilan University provided him with a platform for his dissembling and obfuscation. The fact that Bar Ilan University embraced such an intellectually dishonest policy is important (and my claim that Bar Ilan embraced the policy by providing a platform is debatable) but not unique. Academia is supposed to provide a safe haven for competing (but illiberal? Harvard and Kramer?) ideas, and the free marketplace of collective idea adoption by laypeople acts as the litmus test by which all ideas (and products) are tested.

But I believe that the Zionist state has co-opted the intellectual legitimacy afforded by academia to its own ends. One strong example of this was Ehud Barak”s decision to upgrade the status of Ariel College, which sits in an illegal settlement, to Ariel University. In that case, the military governor of the occupied territories made a political decision to enhance the prestige and increase the funding of an institute of higher learning for whatever reason – it”s not important why he did it. To its credit, the Israeli academy strongly protested Barak”s decision.

I am making a personal judgment here that the reader may disagree with, that Israeli academic institutions are not independent of the Zionist states political aims and goals. I believe that Israeli institutions of higher learning are actually Zionist institutions of higher learning partly as a result of structural issues (funding, tenure, access, etc…), but also as a result of lived experience. The daily lives of academics and the environments they exist in inform their scholarship. In the case of Zionist Israel, that experience taints scholarship. It is true that there are Neve Gordons in Israel, but their scarcity and marginalization in the dominant Jewish Israeli society reinforces rather than disqualifies my judgment. Again, the reader may disagree here.

I mentioned earlier that we have relied on Zionist Israeli scholarship for our own understanding of history. And it is true that Zionist Israeli scientists have provided crucial breakthroughs for the material advancement of humanity; an Israeli woman – Ada Yonath – recently received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her pioneering work in that field. But the gains they have helped us make in medicine, technology, and numerous other fields are subordinated to liberal considerations. Scientific research is already restricted by our ethics. Psychology research, for instance, cannot expose subjects in a study to harm, construed broadly. This was not exactly the case when Stanley Milgram conducted his experiments on human suffering and proximity, from which we learned a lot, but our societies have grown since then. Israeli technology may one day cure me of cancer, but do I really want to live in world where those advancements are evaluated independently of the repressive regime in which they are realized?

To sum up, I believe that there are two moral principles that compel us to boycott Israeli academia. First, we seek to coerce Israeli thought leaders, a large portion of whom are academics, into behaving humanely towards their neighbors by more closely binding their individual activity to that of their state. Second, we seek to enforce parity across scholarship. The Zionist Israeli state is largely responsible for the extant disparities, and we are obliged to treat its academics in the same way.

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