What is the academic boycott of Israel and why is it so important?
PANELISTS:Isabel Peñaranda, CC ’14, is studying Anthropology, and uses it to draw connections between the dispossession of poor communities of color in Harlem due to Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion, the people of Palestine by the Israeli state, and peasants by state and paramilitary violence in Colombia, where she is from. She hopes to return to Colombia to support social movements fighting this dispossession. She can be reached at email@example.com Julia Salazar, CC ’14, is a History student, focusing on the modern Middle East with a concentration in Jewish Studies. While staying in the Palestinian Territories last year, Julia became devoted to a community development project for Palestinian youth in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour. She will continue to work in Beit Sahour and Jerusalem after graduating from Columbia in May. She can be reached atjcs2194@ columbia.edu Daniella Greenbaum, BC ’17, is an English student with a deep interest in Middle Eastern politics. She is a graduate of the Write On For Israel fellowship, an advocacy through journalism program. While spending a year abroad in Jerusalem, she became a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Daniella is active in LionPAC, Columbia’s Pro Israel, Pro Peace, non-partisan student group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Feride Eralp, CC ’14, is a student of Anthropology, focusing on the repressive, colonial and genocidal politics of the Turkish state. She is an activist from Turkey who grew up in Istanbul with a Muslim and Jewish background. She has been actively involved in feminist and Kurdish movements, and is looking forward to being back home. She can be reached at email@example.com
In December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities and academic institutions through a resolution that attracted 1,252 participants—the largest in organization history—and passed with over 66 percent endorsement. Sticking to his guns, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger joined many other American universities in condemning the ASA boycott on the grounds that it violated the constitutional right to free speech. Devoutly multi-partisan, CPR solicited input from passionate and authoritative student voices on the subject to better understand the considerations and rationale underlying their positions.
The American Studies Association’s political maneuver to boycott Israeli academic institutions was almost instantaneously met with reactions of surprise, dismay, and shock by students and presidents across many of the campuses ostensibly represented by the ASA. President Bollinger issued a statement condemning the ASA’s vote to boycott as being contrary to political and academic freedoms. The boycott was significant in that it reminded peace activists around the world of the unfortunate consequences of actions that are allegedly taken to promote peace and equality. One of the problems with this boycott movement is that it specifically targets Israel, a country with clear flaws like any other, but not a country whose real or alleged human rights violations reach the level of countries like Iran or Syria—just to give two examples of countries in Israel’s immediate vicinity. Once we acknowledge this odd singling-out of Israel, it is important to discern why this injustice is happening. Is it anti-Semitism? Pure misguidedness? It is certainly an advancement of a hidden agenda, which warrants further inquiry and explanation. Additionally, academic boycotts in general, but certainly this one in particular, run completely antithetical to the ideas of academic freedom and open forums for the exchange of all philosophies, viewpoints and beliefs.
In response to the 2002 Palestinian call for a comprehensive economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel, the academic boycott is a tactic that tries to attain three goals:
- Ending the colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.
- Recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.
- Respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
It is important to know that the academic boycott of Israel is a call to boycott institutions, not individuals; in this sense I see it as a form of exposing and struggling against the complicity of institutions in a system of oppression, rather than a curtailment of individual freedoms. This is why I value it as a means of protest. Yes, Israeli academic institutions are part of the occupation and complicit in Israel’s discriminatory policies. First of all, the Israeli government denies Palestinians freedom of education by bombing schools in Gaza and restricting the freedoms of students in the Occupied Territories to the extent that the army can veto them when they apply to Israeli universities, even if they meet all required criteria. Moreover, academic institutes like the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), associated with Tel Aviv University, help formulate military strategy targeting civilians—including the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which entails the usage of disproportionate force in heavily populated areas as a “deterrent.” This is a war crime! Universities also collaborate on the development of weapons used by the Israeli army against Palestinians and others. The Israel Institute of Technology, the Technion, conducts research in military technology on which Israel relies to sustain its occupation of Palestinian land. These developments include the unmanned D-9 bulldozer, which the Israeli military used during Operation Cast Lead, a war that resulted in the death of around 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. It is important to understand that these are the institutions that the academic boycott seeks to target. As a student, I believe in an academia that does not collaborate in endangering people’s lives, perpetrating and perpetuating injustice.
The ASA’s recent resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions is consistent with BDS, the international movement of Palestinian civil society calling for a boycott of products, services, and institutions which financially or otherwise benefit the State of Israel, or which support Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. In the ASA’s press release regarding the academic boycott, the voting members cited several reasons motivating their decision, collectively saying that the Israeli government’s policies actively inhibit Palestinians’ academic freedom.
This resolution is important for largely the same reasons as similar divestment resolutions recently passed by American and international institutions: It indicates an unprecedented negative shift in public opinion about Israeli state policies. The call for an academic boycott (rather than an exclusively economic boycott) has unique implications because it provokes the question of how academic freedom is upheld. Many American academics (including our own President Bollinger and President Spar) have condemned the academic boycott on the grounds that, ironically, it further impedes on academic freedom. However, the boycott may effectively draw attention to the reality of the State of Israel’s systematic control over Palestinians’ lives. Above all else, the ASA boycott reveals that our academic commons is profoundly interconnected: A threat to Palestinian and Israeli academic freedoms is a threat to academic freedom at large.
In 1985, the African National Congress was still considered by many governments a terrorist organization, and many Western governments insisted on keeping their relations with the Apartheid regime. But, many universities worldwide, including our own Columbia University, decided to stand up for justice and divest. Then, like now, many voices accused the divestment movement of undermining freedom of expression on campus. But today we recognize the movement to divest from South African Apartheid as one of the most valuable displays of academic freedom and integrity.
Furthermore, preventing boycott itself is an inhibition of freedom, since the right to engage in human rights boycotts, which were used to oppose segregation in the southern United States, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and are now aimed at achieving equal rights for Palestinians, are protected by the First Amendment. Many voices inside Israel have indeed endorsed the boycott as well. This is again reminiscent of the South African struggle in which boycott and divestment provided everyone with a peaceful means for the struggle for freedom and justice. Today, just as we make the moral choice to stand against our university’s investments in the private prison industry, and thus its profits from the increased incarceration of people worldwide, some of us also think universities and academic institutions should not collaborate with, or allow for the justification of, taking away people’s lives and lands.
The idea that the boycott draws attention to Israeli control is one that I fundamentally disagree with. The boycott ostensibly is in some way related to academic freedom—when Israel is in fact the only country in the Middle East where genuine, complete freedom of the press is allowed— and one of the only countries where colleges and institutions, including Palestinian institutions, can freely question and critique the government. This kind of freedom, for Jews and Arabs alike, exists only in Israel.
The loss of civilian life in Gaza is certainly not a straightforward or a simple subject, but it is imperative to remember that the Israel Defense Forces expend time, energy, and money, and in fact endangers its own soldiers’ lives, to ensure that civilians are warned of impending attacks and given time to find safe haven. It is Hamas and the other terrorist groups budding in this region that use Palestinian innocents as human shields. I happen to also believe that this tragedy is completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, as the interaction between Israeli institutions and the army in its role in Gaza is minimal.
I resent and fervently deny any inherent comparison with South African Apartheid, as well as the private prison industry with Israel and Israeli policy. Israel is not an Apartheid state. It does not discriminate based on a thinking of one race being superior to another. The separation that takes place in the West Bank is based on citizenship, not race. There is no single country in the Arab world where there are more freedoms (including for Arabs) than in Israel. The BDS movement, and by extension academic boycotts, attempt to achieve by subterfuge what has not been achieved by force of arms: the de-legitimization and destruction of the state of Israel. As illustrated by the song some of our very own students will chant during Apartheid Week, if “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” where exactly will the state of Israel be? Wiped off the map, as is the true goal of BDS.
Above all else, the ASA boycott reveals that our international academic commons is profoundly interconnected: a threat to Palestinian and Israeli academic freedoms is a threat to academic freedom at large. The security checkpoints and unjustified restrictions, which prevent Palestinian and Israeli students from moving freely in the Occupied Territories, go beyond violating Palestinian civil rights. They prevent Israeli and Palestinian students from even interacting with one another, let alone learning from each other. Many West Bank Palestinians often find themselves trapped by the restrictions imposed on them by Ha-Minhal ha-Ezrahi—the Israeli Civil Administration. Conversely, Israeli and American students are legally able to travel freely to and from Israel. But, the violation of Palestinian students’ civil rights inevitably encroaches on the academic freedom of those beyond the West Bank because we are deprived of these students’ valuable contributions to the academic commons.
Boycott is only one of the tools or tactics used within resistance and solidarity movements. It is a means and not an end; the goal is to dismantle an oppressive regime and boycott is only one way of increasing international pressure. It is not necessarily more valuable than any other form of resistance, but what is important about academic boycott is that it refuses to cooperate in strategies of justification and whitewashing that support oppressive regimes. It draws attention to the fact that academia and the knowledge it produces are not separate from, but are rather deeply entangled in, the workings of power over populations that are subjugated.
Furthermore, criticizing Israel’s denial of the Palestinians’ right to exist freely upon their own land is interconnected to exposing global forms of injustice ― from systems of mass incarceration destroying communities of color in the United States to the elimination of indigenous peoples by the settler state in North America and other places. Israel, like the United States, is not exceptional; both are part of a global system of domination. It is in this sense that Israel must be resisted. Yet it is Israel itself that claims a form of exceptionalism by arguing that it is possible to legally discriminate against people based on their ethno-religious identity and to still treat everyone equally. The impossibility of this claim is demonstrated as occupied Palestinians are made to live under Israeli military law while Israelis live under civil law. Yes, four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories cannot vote for the government controlling their borders, air space, water, and tax revenues because of a military occupation. It is impossible to speak of equality when Palestinian citizens of Israel, who can vote, also face around 50 discriminatory laws that have been documented by the human rights organization, Adalah. These laws include those that control who a Palestinian can marry and still remain home. Palestinians who have been forced into exile have no right to return to their homes, in complete disregard to UN Resolution 194, while any Jewish person anywhere in the world may claim “birthright.” Because I have a Jewish grandmother, I have the right to live anywhere within the borders of the State of Israel even though I have never had any relationship to the place, while Palestinians forced to leave their homes cannot go back. Does this look like freedom in any way? Rather, it is this injustice and lack of freedom that boycotts, as tactics within movements, seek to expose and put international pressure upon.
In thinking about what the academic boycott of Israel aims to help dismantle, it is important to keep in mind the facts of the situation, since they do speak for themselves, rather than get bogged down in rhetoric. The academic boycott is not a restriction of academic freedom; on the contrary, it is an exercise of the freedom to make a choice not to participate in the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Individuals and institutions may make the choice not to boycott Israeli academic institutions. They may decide to collaborate with a system that produces the weapons and policies that cause the death and displacement of Palestinians. That choice— to participate in the dispossession of a people or not—is one everyone is free to make. But, it is important to lay bare that this is the choice before us. It is not a choice between remaining neutral and taking a position: Collaborating with an Israeli academic system directly linked to the oppression of Palestinians is not remaining neutral. Making the choice to boycott is a manifestation of the freedom of expression, and so it is within the scope of the First Amendment. The Israeli academic system, on the other hand, allows the army not only to veto Palestinian applicants, but also to prevent certain research projects and thesis topics. This is what restricting academic freedom really means.
We should also remember that the connection between the South African, anti-Apartheid movement and global solidarity with the Palestinian people is one made by South Africans themselves. The ruling party, the African National Congress, endorsed both the BDS campaign and Israeli Apartheid Week. Many unions support the boycott including the South African Municipal Workers Union that promoted an “Israeli Apartheid Free Zone” to ensure their municipalities have no commercial, academic, cultural, or sporting linkages with the Israeli regime. Let me end, then, by recalling the words of the celebrated Nelson Mandela: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”