Academic boycotts on Israeli universities—are they effective?
Photo Credit/Fraser Allan Best
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a Palestinian movement which began in 2005 with a call for international boycotts of Israel until it ceases its occupation of Palestinian territories. Last spring, a motion was put forth by the UTSU Vice President Equity Sania Khan to vote on whether a committee should be formed to look into supporting the BDS movement. While that particular motion failed, BDS has since remained at the forefront of student discourse.
BDS has become increasingly visible on university campuses across North America, and is supported by several student governments in Ontario. These academic boycotts have recently garnered attention as a way of condemning human rights abuses against Palestinian people in a way that is symbolic, not economic.
This past November, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) passed a resolution to vote for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution will now go to the general members’ meeting in the spring, where it will be decided if the AAA will boycott Israeli academic institutions.
Whether or not sanctions are warranted is one matter. But are academic boycotts an effective tool to push for decolonization?
The AAA resolution was formed based on research conducted by a task force of anthropologists, appointed by then-president of the AAA, Monica Heller:
"I decided [this is relevant to anthropologists] for a number of reasons.... We study conflict, the formation of nation-states, the distribution of resources, multilingualism.... This issue is traversed by dozens of topics which are recognized as legitimate subjects of anthropological inquiry."
The task force came up with two resolutions to be voted on. The first resolution, sponsored by the past president of the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA), called for specific action to be taken, such as facilitating Palestinian access to free anthropological journals, offering travel and academic scholarships to Palestinian scholars, and undertaking public education initiatives—but not a boycott on Israeli academia.
The second resolution, which was in favour of BDS, "was less specific in what they wanted the AAA to do, but boycott was the key to them," says Professor Heller. This is the resolution that was passed.
As outlined in the AAA resolution, the most tangible impact of this boycott will be the withdrawal of AAA-regulated anthropological journals from Israeli libraries.
Anti-BDSers have noted the paradox of recolonization through imposition of American ethical standards. They also raise the question of censorship: those against the boycott of Israeli universities see an ironic conundrum in which academic freedom is simultaneously promoted for some and repudiated for others.
Pro-BDSers argue that aligning the AAA with the BDS movement is a commitment to the anthropological endeavour of decolonizing and de-silencing those who have been "othered."
Notable scholars of the pro-Palestinian movement Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky have both spoken out against BDS. Chomsky, in an interview with Democracy Now, states that the boycott of Israeli universities implies American exceptionalism: "If we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?"
The argument of the double standard has its flaws. But Chomsky’s resistance to supporting BDS highlights the policy’s divisive nature. “Pro-BDS” does not mean “anti-Israel”; “anti-Israel” does not mean “anti-Semitism”; and being “anti-BDS” does not necessitate “anti-Palestine.” Alas, binaries sometimes appear, and frequently, these juxtaposing labels are overly reductive.
The AAA's resolution explicitly states that a boycott of academic institutions does not entail a boycott of individual Israeli academics. Israeli academics would still be allowed at AAA conferences, just not as representatives of their home universities. Anthropology, as a discipline, in Israel is quite small; as the Task Force Committee report outlines, "Israeli anthropologists rely heavily on publications in U.S. journals and on letters of evaluation by U.S. colleagues to achieve tenure and promotion."
If funding is withdrawn from Israeli academic institutions and dozens of anthropological journals become inaccessible at universities, might this create a climate of stigmatization? How does this realistically push towards the end of Israeli occupation?
Boycotting academic institutions seems contradictory, as Israeli academics are vital to solving internal political persecution. Liberal Israeli scholars frequently fight within their system to make progressive policy changes, so limiting them with a boycott seems unjust.
Just last month, the Israeli Education Ministry banned the teaching of Borderlife, a novel about a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, from school curriculums, for concern of it threatening Jewish culture. This was an embarrassing regulation that typified the apartheid-like intolerance that has often dominated Israel’s political agenda—however, many Israeli teachers and professors resisted and have been circulating readings of this novel in classrooms and universities across the country.
This story is reflective of a larger narrative at hand in which many Israeli academics do not reproduce the extreme right-wing rhetoric that the government professes. A narrative in which hundreds of Israeli academics condemned Israeli military tactics during the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict. A narrative in which Israeli professors protest the proliferation of checkpoints and curfews in East Jerusalem because it takes their Palestinian students and colleagues an hour longer to get to school.
On one hand, it seems as though the boycott is intended to stir anti-Israel sentiments rather than push for the end of occupation. American organizations and corporations that help facilitate the occupation are better subjects of a boycott, not universities.
On the other, the ethic of "open dialogue" feels, at times, futile. Israel is increasing its grip on the occupied territories, and while it's touching to know that liberal scholars are fighting racist, dogmatic laws, these laws are still being implemented. Perhaps the increasing spiral of American condemnation is necessary if the hope is for Israeli leaders to stop and listen.
Still, clearer suggestions are necessary to reverse the problem. Allocating more funding for the Palestinian academics, ensuring that the AAA journals are distributed among Palestinian universities, and working with the Israeli Anthropological Association to discern power dynamics within Israeli academic institutions seems like more effective grassroots approaches to an issue that is otherwise being handled in a fundamentally abstract manner.
Anthropology has the unique lens of probing at a diversity of histories and perspectives to challenge narratives. Ostracizing Israeli academics will not hasten the end of persecution of Palestinian people. Restricting academic freedom through BDS could compromise the potential for productive dialogue and make the problem more difficult to solve. Collaboration with all academics—Israeli and Palestinian—is necessary to subvert violence.
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