Academic Boycott Diverts Attention From More Effective Pressure

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.

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  1. Hypocritical. For once, I’d like to see the main stream Jewish academics in this country apply the same rhetoric towards Israel for the illegalities that is an ongoing basis for the degradation, outright theft of Palestinian lands, rights, etc. These same academics scream the same tune to anyone who says anything against Israeli practices. Just who are the bigots in this show? They also seem to think it’s O.K. to bribe the Congress to the point it’s become corrupt to see the forest from the trees, as long as its in Israels interest. If Israel really was a friend of the U.S., it wouldn’t have to resort to this kind of action.

  2. Methinks Mr. Katz may well be one of the Israeli government’s hasbara brigade. He makes pleasing noises as though he supports the overall goal of BDS but merely decries one of its [ostensibly] misguided activities. His efforts at misdirection are especially evident as he tries to turn our eyes to the supposed efforts of the world to stop Israeli colonization of Palestinian land which, he says, is being subverted by the ‘academic boycott issue’. As if! Since when has any effort, whatever, caused Bibi or his predecessors to stop colonizing Palestinian land? His land grabs continue under Kerry’s nose and nobody in the U.S. has the cojones to do the obvious and just stop the $1.3 Bn/yr subsidies to the Israeli defense forces until they stop. Absent extreme U.S. pressure (unlikely in the face of the Israel Lobby’s power), the eastern border of Israel will ultimately end up somewhere east of the Golan and ‘Palestinians‘ will disappear from history, much like the Anasazi. That the BDS effort, overall is becoming increasingly effective is shown in these recent articles “Cultural boycott of Israel makes significant gains in 2013” [] & “Jordan Valley settlements hit by boycott campaign” [].

    As regards the ‘academic freedom’ argument… how free are Palestinians to attend Israeli universities? Are there special exemptions that allow them through the check points to attend (or teach) classes? If they can attend (they aren‘t!), are they treated the same as Israeli students or professors or are they subject to searches, suspicions, & discrimination (a moot point)? Are the students & staff at Israeli schools united in opposition to even participating in actions or research that benefits the Zionist state & its goals or are they ‘going along to get along’ even if they’re personally ‘uncomfortable’ supporting the occupation & oppression of Palestinians in their own land? That people are willing to debate the esoteric issues of whether or not an academic boycott of people complicit in an ongoing crime stifles academic freedom while real people are suffering real hardships bespeaks a moral decay as if the knowledge to be gained debating how many angels dance on a pin’s head outweighs a child’s life.

  3. I agree Yarden and would like to know if you agree with the following proposal: That the US Jewish community organize in support of a $1.00 reduction of US aid to Israel until Israel “immediately and unconditionally withdraws” its armed forces to the Green Line.

    There are two principles embedded in this proposal. One is that Israel is a legitmate nation state that is an important friend of the US – which warrants continued US aid. The second is that the post -1967 Occupation is illegal and immoral.

    The phrase “immediate and uncondtional withdrawal” will be familiar to all US citizens who oppossed the Vietnam War – which was the slogal of the largest wing of the anti-Vietnam War movement. That being said, US departure from Vietnam was negotiated but significant credit must go to the principled and vocal position of the anti-war movement.

    I believe a significant number of American Jews will support this position and that the Israeli people will be appropriately responsive.

    Your thoughts?

  4. ‘self-serving’ is the word which comes to mind. But no matter. The US academic boycott may be unprincipled, unethical, unreasonable and hypocritical, but it gets the job done. A boycott may be non-violent but that doesn’t mean it is not an application of force. I read the Israeli press regularly; the denigrated, marginalized, scorned ASA is having quite an effect in Israel, which is the target.

  5. The problem is that most of this logic could have been employed to oppose an academic boycott on South Africa, which hardly anyone nowadays thinks was a mistake. Sure, you can say Israel is no South Africa, but that’s not your argument here at all. IF Israel is that bad, then your argument is probably incorrect.

    But there is a better reason why this is all irrelevant. Even if Israel were that bad, there’s no reason to think Israel is subject to international pressure like South Africa. It comes down to identity: South Africa saw itself as western, so it cared a lot what the west thought. Israel sees itself as being on its own, as Jews have been for centuries, so it doesn’t necessarily give a damn what US academics think.

    Think about it. It’s a similar reason why other boycotts of non-western countries are often worse than useless.

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