Against the Academic Boycott
1. In late November 2003, I received an anonymous letter from a student demanding that I stop expressing my opinion against the separation wall. A few days later, in the bathroom across the hall from my office someone hung a large note which read "Neve Gordon is a rotten apple." Much worse, a professor from Haifa University wrote an article several months earlier stating that, "Among the Judenrat Wannabes is your old friend and mine Neve Gordon." "Gordon," the professor continued, "is a fanatic anti-Semite from the monochromatic (Red) Department of Politics at Ben-Gurion University…." The contemptuous adjectives did not, however, satisfy the angry professor and in another commentary he decided to call upon his readers to harass me, and some obediently complied.
2. This type of assault is not altogether exceptional. At the beginning of December 2003, the wives of several "leftist" professors received letters ostensibly written by other "leftist" professors. In these letters, the wives were threatened that if their husbands don’t shut-up, the letter writer would publicize the names of women with whom their husbands had supposedly been sleeping. These letters introduce a new dimension into an already stifling atmosphere: the employment of sex in order to silence professors who are critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.
3. During a casual encounter with a university official, I learned that the administration has been receiving incensed letters from abroad by people who have read newspaper articles in which I criticize Israel’s neo-liberal monetary policies, the ongoing discrimination of its Palestinian citizenry, and, most importantly, the government’s draconian policies in the West Banks, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Some of the letter writers were unhappy with the fact that an Israeli academic institute continues to employ me and have threatened to stop their annual donations to the university.
4. Consider one letter sent by a woman from New York to the president of my university.
I recently received a solicitation from you on behalf of Ben-Gurion and was planning to send money to this fine institution—that is, until I found out about Neve Gordon teaching political science for you. It is unfathomable that you can allow a vicious Holocaust denier who sings the praises of Norman Finkelstein, the famous Jewish anti-Semite who is worshipped by neo-Nazis, at your university… This, at a time when worldwide anti-Semitism has reached levels not seen since the (yes, it really happened as written, Mr. Gordon!) Holocaust, is completely unacceptable. As long as you allow Neve Gordon to teach at Ben Gurion, you will never receive any money from me or my community in support. I urge you to remove Gordon (and anyone else who preaches such reprehensible ideas) from your university.
5. Ironically, intolerant reactions of this kind—whether articulated within Israel or abroad—are a reminder that in Israel academic freedom still exists, much more so than in many other countries. Despite claims made by Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson, as well as my colleague Ilan Pappe, there are many Israeli professors who have been vocally criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. I, for one, do not feel lonely in my struggles; indeed I am a member of a relatively large and vibrant community. For example, almost 350 professors signed a public petition supporting the courageous men who have decided to defy Israeli law and refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Some of these professors have even sat in jail for their refusal to serve in the territories. I doubt that in the United States and Britain five percent of those holding academic positions would support such acts of civil disobedience. Thus, to claim that a mere handful of academics are politically active in Israel—claims made by some of those participating in this debate—is both wrong and disparaging.
6. The hate letters described above not only reveal that academic freedom still exists, but also suggest that this freedom should never be taken for granted and that it is currently being challenged. Unwittingly, the supporters of the academic boycott against Israeli universities are aiding this attack. They certainly have not taken into account some of the realities inside Israel, particularly the internal offensive against the universities as well as the anti-intellectual atmosphere that has colonized the Israeli public sphere. I return to this point momentarily.
7. First, however, it is important to analyze, if only briefly, some of the claims made by the supporters of the academic boycott. Baker and Davidson, for example, justify the use of the boycott by claiming that Israel’s occupation is "one of the bloodiest" since World War II. While I agree that a concerted effort should be made to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, where it uses brute force to repress the Palestinians, the claim that this occupation is one of the bloodiest in recent history is pure demagogy. In Vietnam some 3 million people were killed in a period of 10 years, while in East Timor 200,000 people were slaughtered, that is, one third of the population. In Chechnya, tens of thousands have been killed by Russian forces, and in the recent occupation of Iraq, civilian casualties are estimated to be somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000. Thus, in the nine months that have passed since the invasion, the US and British forces—Davidson and Baker’s countries—have killed more people than Israel has killed in 36 years of occupation. Surely, Israel’s occupation has been bloody and extremely brutal, but one should be wary of exaggerations and hyperbole, not least because they ultimately play into the hands of those who want to silence Israel’s critics.
8. It is not only that some of the boycotters come from countries which are also responsible for much oppression and suffering, but, perhaps more importantly, Israel could not carry out its policies without the ongoing support of the United States, which has, for example, recently promised Sharon $10 billion in direct aid and loan guarantees. Unfortunately, Baker and Davidson have turned this argument on its head, claiming that it is Israel, or, more precisely, the Zionists who determine the policies of such countries like the US and Britain. They write:
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can be seen as more important for citizens of the Western nations than other contemporary crises and examples of oppression. This is because Zionist influence spreads far beyond Israel’s area of dominion, and now widely influences many of the key domestic agendas in the West. In other words, unlike the Chinese, Russians, and other oppressive regimes, the Israelis and their supporters directly influence the policy makers of our own countries. Thus their actions have import beyond the Occupied Territories and potentially affect the lives of ordinary citizens of most Western nations. This particularly obvious in the case of United States. Here Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media, and the administration of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative advisers see Israel and its aggressive behavior as a model for their own policies.
9. As a theoretical exercise, the reader should imagine a world without Israel or Zionism, and ask him/herself whether the US and Britain would have attacked Iraq. I, for one, think the answer to this question is undoubtedly yes, which suggests that neither Israel nor Zionism are significant variables in the existing international power game. Corporate greed and control over resources are, I believe, the important variables. But this is just a minor point when considering the undercurrent of the passage just cited. Much more essential is its anti-Semitic overtones.
10. To be sure, scholars and commentators are right when they suggest that "anti-Semitism" has recently been turned into a political weapon employed to shut up all criticism of Israel. One should accordingly be very cautious when using the term against Israel’s critics. Nonetheless, it is just as apparent that anti-Semitism not only exists but is also on the rise. Some of Israel’s critics are well aware of this fact, others have decided to ignore it, a few are unconscious of how they themselves appropriate anti-Semitic imagery, while still others are just plain anti-Semitic. In their article, Baker and Davidson cogently emphasize that one should distinguish between anti-Semitism (i.e., anti-Jew) and anti-Zionism, a distinction that is indeed crucial these days. But even though they accentuate the term anti-Zionism, their description of Zionism portrays a global movement, which is almost co-extensive with Judaism and the image they create in the passage above is reminiscent of the image produced in many well-known anti-Semitic publications. (While the Israeli government itself makes a similar move, identifying every Jew with Zionism, intellectuals should resist this trend.) Moreover, as a factual statement it is false.
11. Also important to mention in this context is that Baker and Davidson’s notion of Zionism is extremely problematic, if only because they present an essential, one-dimensional and therefore inaccurate term. Zionism is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon and as intellectuals we should not reduce it to a simple equation like Zionism=Racism, even though there are racist elements in some strains of Zionism. Particularly in political debates of this kind, it is of utmost importance not to erase complexities and refrain from exaggerating. This is our responsibility as intellectuals.
12. Before moving on to my argument against the boycott, let me provide just one more example of how Baker and Davidson mislead their readers. In their discussion of the complicity of Israeli universities with the occupation, they write: "And finally, there is the particularly sinister, documented involvement of Israeli doctors in torture." As one of those who helped document and expose the participation of Israeli doctors in torture already in 1993, I must say that there is no "particularly sinister" connection between Israeli universities and these doctors, and the linkage the authors attempt to draw between universities and torture is simply false. (see Gordon and Marton, 1995) Mistakes like these—and I do believe this is a mere mistake—just play into the hands of both those that want to undermine criticism of Israel as well as into the hands of anti-Semites.
13. While this line of argument exposes some of the biases informing the proponents of the academic boycott movement, I would like to briefly mention three reasons why a boycott of Israeli universities is misdirected.
14. The first argument is the one already alluded to: Israeli universities continue to be an island of freedom—made up of a diversity of voices both pro and against the occupation—surrounded by a stifling and increasingly threatening environment. At this point in history, this island needs all the support it can receive. Numerous faculty members write against the government’s policies and take part in protests against the occupation, some even organize them. This resistance is carried out during a period in which the Israeli media suppresses critical voices and the police are clamping down on protestors. Thus, within this context the universities are still one of the sites housing a large number of voices that criticize government policies and it is, I believe, the moral obligation of our colleagues abroad to support these voices.
15. The boycotters disagree with this claim. Ghassan Hage of Sydney University and John Docker of the Australian National University initiated a boycott of research and cultural links with Israel. They wrote:
We urge our colleagues not to attend conferences in Israel; to pressure our universities to suspend any existing exchange or linkage arrangements; and to refuse to distribute scholarship and academic position information. We note that while some academics and intellectuals in Israel oppose the government and some also are involved in cooperative Israeli/Palestinian research projects, the vast majority have either supported the Israeli Army onslaught on the Palestinians, or failed to voice any significant protest against it. The boycott we propose will inevitably also adversely affect those who don’t deserve it, and we regret that this has to happen.
16. Their underlying assumption, like the assumption of other boycotters, is that social change cannot come from within. While I agree with those who urge the international community to pressure Israel to change its policies, I also think that it is crucial for the local population to play a role in bringing about this change. This, after all, is what democratic change is all about, and it is not coincidental that this was one of the claims made by those who were against the Iraq war: don’t implement democracy from above, they said, democracy must also come from below. Why is this claim true when discussing the invasion of Iraq, and false when discussing the academic boycott in Israel?
17. My second argument, the one most often ignored by outsiders, has to do with the fact that in the past two years Israeli universities have been under an unprecedented assault by the Sharon government. The Minister of Education, Limor Livnat, is trying to radically change the structure of higher education, including the way they are governed and managed. She would like, for example, to strip the power from the faculty senates and transfer it to boards of trustees in which professors are barred from membership. An academic boycott will only strengthen Livnat because it will weaken Israeli professors, and in this way assist the destruction of academic freedom in Israel. When I explained these points to pro-boycott colleagues in Britain, they replied, "It isn’t you, but rather your institute that will be punished for not taking an institutional stand on the illegality of the occupation." We have seen that in reality this distinction is not being held up. But even if the so-called institutional boycott was adhered to, these colleagues seem to ignore that it is precisely the institute which enables Israeli professors—regardless of their political affiliation—to voice their views, suggesting that an assault on the university is in fact an assault on its faculty.
18. My third argument echoes Noam Chomsky’s reasoning against the academic boycott and it includes two major claims. First, the academic boycott is informed by a double standard. Is it not the case that the United States is responsible for crimes that are even more heinous? Does the Bush Administration allow Israel to pursue its oppressive policies unhindered, vetoing almost every UN Security Council decision that is slightly critical of Israel’s occupation?
19. Chomsky’s more interesting claim, in my opinion, is that, as a rule of thumb, a majority of the people within the country which is being boycotted should support the boycott. This was clearly the case in South Africa, where the representatives of the majority of the population called on the international community to implement a boycott. This is also the case in the occupied territories, where the Palestinians call on the international community to boycott all settler merchandise, etc. It is not the case, however, regarding Israel proper, and therefore I am against an academic boycott. This position is informed, once again, by my conception that it is critical to bring about social change simultaneously from above and below.
20. Finally, we must also keep in mind that in the world of politics, as Jean Paul Sartre cogently observed, those who fight for social change must dirty their hands. Shirin Ebadi, for example, the great Iranian lawyer and women’s rights advocate received the Noble Peace Prize after struggling for many years within a regime that is extremely oppressive towards women. In her day-to-day struggles for social justice, she was undoubtedly in many ways complicit with oppressive structures characterizing her country’s laws and customs. This suggests that we are all complicit—to different degrees—with oppressive power relations. The question then is not so much whether we or our universities are complicit or not, but rather how to deal with and minimize this complicity, how to confront it as well as how to challenge the brutal occupation of the Palestinians. In my opinion, we should strengthen the struggles taking place from within and be very wary of writing them off or disparaging them. Wittingly or not, this has been one of the outcomes of the call for an academic boycott. To fight the anti-intellectual atmosphere within Israel, local academics need as much support as they can get from their colleagues abroad. A boycott will only weaken the elements within Israeli society that are struggling against the assault on the universities, and in this way will inadvertently help those who want to gain control over one of the last havens of free speech and critical thinking in the country.
Neve Gordon teaches politics and human rights at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and is an activist in Ta'ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. His articles have appeared in several academic journals, including Political Studies, Democratization, Polity, and Jewish Social Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Neve Gordon and Ruchama Marton, eds. (1995), Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel, London: Zed Books.