Well, Britain’s academic community has once again embarrassed itself. Britain’s lecturers’ union, UCU, (numbering 120 000 members) voted Wednesday in favor of encouraging and discussing an academic boycott on Israeli universities and research institutes. The motion doesn’t impose the boycott on union members yet but rather brings the question of boycotting Israel’s academia to discussion with all the members, urging the membership to “consider the moral implications of conducting ties with Israeli academic institutions.” It calls on the EU to freeze funding of Israeli research. The UCU’s president herself is opposed to this development, and government and many British universities themselves have also reacted negatively. It will be interesting to see if this particular effort will go through after discussion with the union membership. This is approximately the third effort of this kind in the past five years in Britain’s academic community. The previous two attempts ended up failing or being revoked.

While some, (including Britain’s ambassador to Israel) say that this motion is unlikely to affect academic bilateral relations much, it is still disturbing that 158 out of 257 delegates at the UCU convention supported such a motion. The principle of academic freedom is essentially about dissociating collective administrative bodies from politics such that individual academics are uninhibited in their political and research choices. Beyond that, the concept of discouraging or restricting productive collaborative research because of unconnected political issues is incoherent to the extreme. Even forgetting the fact that the academic community is one of the most progressive and ‘peacenik’ sectors in Israeli society, what in tarnation do two cancer researchers (one at Hebrew U, and one at Cambridge) who want to collaborate, have to do with occupation and activism? Maybe what they want is merely to provide a new therapy, publish their papers, and enrich humanity’s store of knowledge. What could possibly be accomplished by stigmatizing such a working relationship?

Clearly, academics are not individuals that are miraculously free of politics, nor are academic organizations like UCU. They also have the inviolable freedom to say what they wish and carry what motions they will. But when an academic community sees fit to restrict its own intellectual opportunities, priorities have gone out of whack. Israeli research has been rich and innovative over the last 60 years – and brought into being ideas and objects of great interest and benefit, from technology for desert agriculture, to ubiquitous computer programs. Why punish one of the most interesting, international, productive, and beneficial sectors of Israeli society for an occupation that is in no way in their mandate to address? Attempting to scare British academics from collaborations, and bully Israel’s powerful intellectuals into political acquiescence is a strategy likely to alienate and anger, not build consensus or communication. It certainly won’t forward research or knowledge-making. A poisonous culture has already emerged in some British institutions whereby anything associated with the Jewish state is stigmatized, villainized, and rejected. As someone who has spent considerable time taking in both the good and the bad in Israeli society (including academics), I find myself wondering what the motivation behind this harsh profiling is – because it certainly is not warranted by reality.

So that’s where I stand, I suppose. Are collective intellectual boycotts effective, warranted, and moral in this, or other situations? I want some arguments.


12 Comments so far

  1. Cameron Gerald Funnell on June 2, 2007 6:09 am

    I believe there were academic boycotts of South Africa back in the day. Then I found this article, entitled “Academic boycotts of South Africa” on Wikipedia.

    Here is the link:

  2. maayan on June 4, 2007 6:22 am

    Thanks for the eddification. yeah there were boycots then. It’s much debated whether they were moral, and whether they had an impact. The comparison of South Africa to current day Israel is dubious. But do people feel comfortable with the idea of intellectual boycots, generally, or in either of these cases?

  3. Nathan on June 5, 2007 5:53 pm

    It is terrible to consider that all Israeli academics are responsible for the occupation, and not true. If possible, though, we should weigh the many terrible things all in a row and all at once. It is not ridiculous to put a smaller moral question (the ethics of a certain academic neutrality) next to a larger moral one, especially in light of the ongoing military occupation and “matrix of control” established by military authority in the occupied territories of Palestine. Even with its own problems, the academic boycott draws attention to the seriousness of the occupation, and to the very central role played by the Israeli academic community in the production of ideology, technology, administration, military strategy and technology, diplomacy and so on. It’s quite a distraction to argue for the autonomy of the academy if Israeli politics and academics are so much a pair. In fact, there is a larger question: Whose academic freedom are we actually speaking of? I wish I could have read Maayan’s post and found her vouching for a universal notion of academic freedom and integrity. But indeed, it is about the freedoms of British and Israeli doctors and academics. It will not need an understating, especially not by me – the academic life of Palestine has suffered under the occupation more than any boycott will ever bring to Israel. That is, the occupation IS a de facto boycott of the academy of Palestine. In that sense, I am happy to join Maayan in opposing academic boycotts if she will join me in opposing ALL academic boycotts, de facto and more formally, and especially those that cripple an academic community in its entirety, from the level of ‘built environment’ all the way to ‘unbuilt’ economy. I recommend a film about a Palestinian community whose only road to the university is regularly blockaded by occupying armymen, called “A Caged Bird’s Song”, where students are harassed and humiliated by armed occupiers, denied freedom of movement and expression… The South African example will become a model, and certainly when Palestine is free, “history” will think kindly of those who worked in whatever way possible – through the professions and otherwise – to end the horrible and pointless occupation.

  4. Anonymous on June 6, 2007 1:20 am

    Sorry, I am totally an ignorant man, but what is seriously stopping the separation of Palestine from Israel?

  5. Maayan Kreitzman on June 6, 2007 4:29 am

    Hey Nathan – I agree that Palesinian academic life, and life in general is seriously debilitated by occupation and violence. I also agree that this boycott draws atention to the problem. I simply do not see that it draws the right kind of attention, or promotes any kind of forward motion solution-wise. I dissagree that academics and polititcs are “so much a pair” – there’s no concencuss among academics about, well, anything. They are part of the occupation insfar as the fact that they live, function, pay taxes to, and constitute the Israeli state, but no more so than any other citizen. If so then, the idea behind this is not to condemn the specific activities of academics that one may politically dissagree with, but to condemn their normal life, their very existence as Israeli citizens. That is a position I find highly strange for a group of people that ultimately desire some sort of peace. It can’t be achieved unless both sides are are allowed to exist. Denying Israelis (yes, israelis generally – it is obvious that the academy is irrelevant to the intent of this motion) normalcy since Palestinians lack it isn’t going to help palestinians regain normalcy.

    I don’t want this duscussion to get too off-track, but essentially there are a few points that are preventing a “two-state” solution (note that “separating” isn’t accurate since the west bank and gaza aren’t part of Israel, but are occupied territories with partially autonomous government): the hightened distrust and hatred on both sides, the question of who jerusalem belongs to, the issue of finding a just solution for the refugees, and the entrenched settlements. Those are all issues that have potential negotiated solutions – an imediate impediment though is the refusal of the Hamas government to recognize Israel or conduct talks, as well as their refusal to renounce terror – and the vicious factional fighting in gaza. Another immediate impediment is the constant violence and retaliations between the IDF and militants. Ultimately though, there’s no inherent reason for a state of Palestine not to be created – it would be in both sides’ interests.

  6. Anonymous on June 6, 2007 6:34 am

    I would like to say that the boycott should be done on a case-by-case basis.

    It would be outright ignorant to say that all researches done should be boycotted as there are studies, which are irrelevant to the wars but more relevant to the general benefits of humanity. For example, some medical research or technological advances.

    However, it would be equally ignorant to say that there is absolutely no scholar who is not working for the government in committing the evil. After all, scholars are mostly funded by the state, and the government does have the ability to exert pressure.

    An eye for an eye does not work, but the only thing puzzling me about the situation is why the people would like to kill so many lives. It’s always either the Israeli or the Palestinians, doing something totally hideous to me as an ignorant outsider. I know both sides feel desperate and helpless in this struggle and have heard news about it, why can’t they come together if it is so much for the mutual benefits? Should I blame on the British Imperialism for making this mess? oh, wait, who is doin’ the boycott again?

  7. Anonymous on June 6, 2007 7:31 am

    In regard to the last post, I was just applying the same logic that the British academic community uses.I did not really mean it, but you can see regarding the academics from a certain country as if they were the state or government is a bit ridiculous.

  8. Patrick on June 6, 2007 7:36 am

    Curious, why is an academic boycott different from an economic boycott in its morality?

  9. Maayan Kreitzman on June 9, 2007 3:19 pm

    Patrick – I dissagree with both in this case: to me they both send the message that it isn’t specific activities that the boycotter is opposing, but a whole community/country’s very existance. If someone can’t make a living, they can’t function, they can’t live. Now, academic boycotts have this thin veil of justification behind them – that scholars in some way contribute directly to the occupation through their research. I think that’s pretty disengenuous considering that a higher proportion of scholars oppose the occupation than the general population. Anyway, the moral problem with generalized boycotting is that you’re tellibng someone that they have no right to make a living. THus they have no right to be a citizen of their counrty and live a life. Once you say that, you enable yourself to remove their rights. This conflict will take two sides to solve. Treating the more powerful side (Israel) like a recalcitrant child, denying their citizens right to live and make a living, from a purely pragmatic perspective doesn’t help. It’s also wrong.

  10. Anonymous on June 9, 2007 8:49 pm

    Wait, Maayan.
    There’s a problem from the boycott.
    Israel is a democractic country. So in a sense, Israeli elect who they want to be their leaders.Hence those who plan out all the atrocity have the mandate of the people so it’s part of the people’s fault. Right?If there’s a general boycott, the Israel deserves it.

  11. maayan on June 11, 2007 3:35 am

    well, if you truly think Israel (all its citizens) deserve to be denied a living for said “atrocities” I suppose I can’t argue with that. I think it doesn’t make sense for the cited reasons – practical and moral. Yes, the Israeli government is accountable, but remember that Israeli people and their kids have been in danger for a long time too. Voting in a way that you think will protect your kids above someone else’s makes sense. Of course, this fear will lead to short-term strategic planning, and perhaps greater long-term danger. who knows.

  12. jamie griffiths on April 11, 2010 10:22 pm

    Israel is a democracy only for Jewish citizens. The rights of Palestinian_Israeli citizens are restricted based on Race and Religion. Israels claim to democracy has been well researched by many western academics. It is two-tiered and as such is not democratic by definition.

    Palestinian academics are rarely granted study visas abroad by Israeli forces which administer the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There are plenty of other substantiated reasons for the academic boycott of Israeli professors, but that one alone is enough for me. Also the fact that the educational opportunities for Palestinians are also restricted.

    The crash of Israel’s international reputation is the result of its own racism and illegal military and zionist actions since 1948.
    The boycott has been brought on themselves.
    I wholeheartedly support it.
    I urge you all to do the same, and to study the history of the region. Better still, get on a plane and go and visit.

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