by Yarden Katz
Every few years, a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions gains enough momentum to make a brief wave in the media, before it enters the cycle of condemnation. After making the rounds, the boycott gets predictably denounced by major organizations, followed by widespread reiteration of support for the state of Israel. It diverts the public’s attention from the main issues of justice in Palestine, stands no chance of convincing a mainstream audience, and sets the stage for right-wing opponents. Still, a minority of academics dutifully roll their boycott stone up the endless hill of opposition again, only to see it rolled back down again. And roll down it should, because the current ASA-supported academic boycott of Israeli universities is, in my view, unprincipled, ineffective, and hypocritical.
The usual cycle of condemnation has been seen in the backlash to the recent American Studies Association (ASA) appeal, which called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The relatively small list of individuals who signed the petition was overshadowed by official condemnations of the move by Harvard and Yale and the cancellation by four other universities of their membership in the group. A slew of other universities, including Princeton, Brown and NYU denounced the boycott, while the president of MIT, Rafael Reif, issued a statement that rejected it since it “fundamentally violates the principles of academic freedom” and contradicts the “longstanding practice of fostering active engagement with international academic institutions and open dialog among people from all nations.” Reif’s simple logic is correct: the boycott is entirely unprincipled if one is committed to academic freedom. Indeed, the academic boycott campaign has actually served to divert attention from the critical issue of Israeli violations of the human rights and international law to the otherwise unrelated question of academic freedom.
Moreover, the academic boycott ignores the fact that students and faculty within universities have historically served as key sources of resistance to arbitrary and abusive regimes. Although a small minority, there are Israelis within academia who organize opposition to the occupation and seek to advance justice for Palestinians. This voice of dissent should be harnessed to educate the population and influence policy, as in previous struggles, rather than boycotted and isolated.
To learn about the case for academic boycott this time, I turned to the website for the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USCACBI). A graphic on its front page urges a halt to the Cornell-Technion Collaboration (“STOP the Cornell-Technion collaboration in NYC – NO to war crimes + NO to Israel”).
What could be so malicious about a scientific collaboration between two academic institutions offering a joint academic curriculum? The Cornell-Technion website states that the collaboration’s goal is to “create better health care information systems, mobile health care applications, and medical devices,” and that the joint venture “aims to increase the efficiency and sustainability of urban environments at all scales.” It will also provide a Masters of Science program for students. Could this be a misleading veil? Is this academic alliance secretly a destructive effort to further deny the rights of Palestinians? The hyperbolic language on the campaign’s website is so far-fetched that it invites easy dismissal by its opponents. Extraordinary claims require real evidence, and the campaign fails to provide any substantiating the notion that this collaboration is anything but ordinary, similar to other collaborations between U.S. universities and universities throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s transparent that the Cornell-Technion collaboration was not singled out for its substance, but rather for being a well-funded and visible collaboration. But that hardly justifies the hyperbole displayed on the site.
Meanwhile, important actual developments take place in the world. With the advent of peace talks, Netanyahu is planning to continue building settlements that further encroach on Palestinian territory and rights and are totally illegal under international law. The international community is overwhelmingly against the settlements, and Israel’s strongest ally, the United States (or a unified European coalition) has the power to end them with real economic pressure. It is straightforward to make a mainstream case for why settlements are illegal, why they infringe on the rights of Palestinians, and why they actively undermine hopes for any eventual peace settlement of the conflict. Critical matters like these are effectively sidetracked by the brouhaha over the academic boycott and by the long line of Israel advocates who are eager to take advantage of the opportunity to express their unconditional support for its government. In that respect, the academic boycott is not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.
Moreover, opponents of the academic boycott will rightly point out the hypocrisy of academics who sign it. A recent book by historian Craig Steven Wilder documented the ways in which major U.S. universities — including the Ivy League Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown universities — benefitted from the slave trade. More recently, institutions like MIT have contributed to weapons development and the planning of unjust wars, while benefitting handsomely from Pentagon and other government contracts. In one way or another, virtually all major American universities have contributed to or benefitted from injustices committed by their government. Thus, the appeal to punish one set of significantly younger, less influential institutions (like Israeli universities) can easily be depicted as hypocritical by its foes — especially when the call is made by those currently employed by major U.S. universities with richly tainted histories. These common-sense arguments against the academic boycott and its destructive effects have been made repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, among others.
Ultimately, it is economic pressure — justified by legal and human rights violations for which there is ample evidence and strong international opposition — that can help remedy the injustices in Palestine.
— Yarden Katz is a PhD student from Israel in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.