The Meaning of Academic Boycott
My dear colleagues and friends Tanya Reinhart, Rita Giacaman and Elia Zureik:
1. On May 17 Professor Tanya Reinhart published a lengthy and well-documented article in Indymedia Israel (http://www.indymedia.org.il), seeking to convince Israeli academics opposing Israel's oppressive and brutal policies toward the Palestinian people to join Professors Hilary and Steven Rose in their effort to promote a boycott against the Israeli academic community and its institutions. The appeal suggests that European research institutes stop treating Israel like a European country in their scientific relations with it until Israel acts according to UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. About 270 European and some American and Palestinian scientists signed this appeal, including about 10 Israelis.
2. Contrary to some of my Israeli colleagues I do respect the right of every member of the scientific international community to make such a demand, and as all of you know, I even agree with most of the reasons behind this call. However, the same reasons that lead the Professors Rose to call for a boycott against Israeli academic institutions lead me to urge the world academic community not only refrain from boycotting us but to offer us its support and protection.
3. First of all I have to admit that Israeli academic institutions are a part and parcel of the oppressive Israeli state that has, among its other acts of foolishness and villainy, committed unforgettable crimes against the Palestinian people. A major cause for the Israeli academy's inseparability from the state is that we are so heavily funded and subsidized by the Israeli government. A successful boycott will have a boomerang effect by cementing the dependence of Israeli academic institutions and their members on an increasingly capricious government.
4. Since Ms. Limor Livnat was appointed Minister of Education under the present government, the Israeli academy became the target of a reconstruction and "reeducation" campaign. This policy was in no way accidental. In Israel today, the mass media are generally chauvinistic and unwilling to challenge the Sharon government. Dissenting journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, who document the daily afflictions and human rights violations suffered by the Palestinian population, are subjected to petition drives designed to pressure the country's most liberal private newspaper to stop publishing their work. In this repressive climate, the Israeli academy remains the last bastion of free thought and free speech. Most humanistic, dissident voices in Israel originate in the academy or are supported by faculty members.
5. This is not to say that all the members of the Israeli academy are great humanists or support the idea of self-determination of the Palestinian people. We are a highly heterogeneous community, as is true in any other fine academic environment. Some of us are highly active in ethnocentric groups, other (perhaps the majority) alienated from any public or intellectual activities, while a small but salient minority (of which Prof. Reinhart is a prominent member) are very active and highly committed to the humanization and democratization of various aspects of the Israeli society. However, the most important feature of this community is that so far, in spite of the deep cleavages among us, we have found a way to co-exist each with the other and to conduct spirited dialogs among ourselves and with the world outside the ivory tower – under the umbrella of academic freedom I also think we, the Israeli academy, have stood fast in a time of crisis and have conducted ourselves more credibly than the British academy (while the British government was engaging in acts of brutality against the Irish-Catholics, during the Falkland/Malvinas war, or throughout the long Thatcher regime) , or the patriotic American academy (during the current war against Afghanistan, the McCarthy-era witch hunts, or even during most phases of the Korean and Vietnam wars). Yet I have never heard of any calls to boycott either the British or American academies. As for the cause celebre of the "successful" boycott of the South African academy, it is well known that it mainly damaged the progressive forces within South Africa and probably hindered its democratization process. As sociologists, the Roses have to know the inner dynamics of communities under siege.
6. My friend Elia Zureik suggested that the boycott should be only institutional but not personal. Very kindly and generously, he has offered to cooperate with me, (presuming I'm on his personal list of "good guys") but to boycott my institution, the Hebrew University. Self-evidently it is his right to boycott every institution or person he want to, but he must realize that if his call to freeze funds to my institution is effective, the resulting constraints on research and conferences will also hurt "good guys" like me. Moreover, the very idea of making selections among members of the academy is a horrifying idea and I hereby pledge not to cooperate with any institution or person who will make such selections, even if I myself am ruled acceptable by them. Selections made on the basis of non-academic criteria endanger academic freedom.
7. I'm fully aware that academic freedom is not above other moral considerations and does not exist within a political and social vacuum. I can understand European and American academics who feel strong moral resentments when confronted by oppressive policies and war crimes directed against Palestinians and who desire "to do something" within their own profession. Even more, I can sympathize with Palestinian academics like Professor Rita Giacaman, who daily witnesses the destruction of Palestinian academic institutions and the harassment of faculty and students while only miles away, my institution operates more or less normally. Her feelings are especially comprehensible because my institution, as an institution, never did anything to relieve the severe conditions suffered by Palestinian universities and colleges. True, we had some of common research and development projects, some funded by European authorities and NGOs, but under the present circumstances they provided almost no remedy to the Palestinians.
8. However, I have less understanding for my Israeli colleagues who are asking to be boycotted. I don't condemn them as our "trade union" did, because they are fully entitled to express their opinions and to try to convince us of their correctness. Moreover, they and I have the common goal of democratizing and de-colonizing Israeli society. The only divergence between us, beside the very meaning of the academy, is that, should their call be taken seriously it would weaken our common academic autonomy and freedom – the precise goal of our adversaries – and ultimately have catastrophic consequences for our common struggle.
9. Therefore, I'm calling on the international academic community to strengthen its connections with the Israeli and Palestinian academic communities, in order to empower their autonomy and freedom. Both people needs a strong academic space as a part of their civil and civilized societies in order to promote the elements that are able to initiate major social and political changes in the region.
Baruch Kimmerling (1939) Is George S. Wise chair of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published numreous books and articles on Jewish-Arab conflict, sociology of war and peace, Israeli and Palestinian societies, culture and history, including The Israeli State and Society: Boundaries and Frontiers (SUNY, 1989), The Invention and Decline of Israeliness (California, 2001), The Palestinian People: A History (with Joel Migdal, Harvard, 2003), Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003) and Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Am Oved, Hebrew, 2004). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in Indymedia's Israel website. URL: