Middle East Roundtable /
The academic boycott of Israel
by Yossi Alpher
There is a growing movement at the non-governmental international level
to exercise pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue. The movement is
being led by Protestant denominations and US municipalities that are
discussing divestment, and by far left-leaning NGOs--first at Durban's
anti-racism conference, now academics in England. It may have drawn
encouragement from last year's International Court of Justice decision on
the fence/wall. Unlike the ICG, some of the new advocates of pressure
question Israel's very legitimacy. The ideological roots of others appear to
be even more troublesome.
The decision by the UK Association of University Teachers (AUT) to single
out two Israeli universities for boycott has little weight in and of itself.
There is already a movement afoot among this group of academics to void the
boycott, and several fair-minded British professors have asked to join the
faculty of the University of Haifa (one of those boycotted) so the AUT will
be forced to boycott its own people.
A similar, more sweeping boycott attempt initiated a year ago was defeated
within the AUT; this year the proponents fixed on specific areas in which
they deemed that Israeli universities "transgressed" in ways that justified
punishment. It singled out Bar Ilan University for its sponsorship or
tutelage of the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel. And it decided to
boycott the University of Haifa because of its treatment of a senior
lecturer, Ilan Pappe, an extreme left-wing, self-styled "anti-Zionist" who
advocates that Israel become a binational state. Pappe is a prime instigator
of the boycott.
The boycott abounds in ridiculous paradoxes. Why it didn't focus on Tel Aviv
University, which is built on the land of the pre-1948 Arab village of
Sheikh Munis, is anyone's guess. The boycott seemingly singles out Arab
citizens of Israel for punishment: fully half the student body at the
University of Haifa is Arab, and the student body at the Ariel College
includes many Arabs from villages just across the green line in Israel.
Ariel, incidentally, is included in the Clinton-Barak-Arafat maps of
Israeli-annexed territory negotiated in 2000-2001.
In general, the boycott aims at the most liberal sector in Israeli society:
Israeli academics, almost as one, reacted with disgust at the antics of
their British colleagues, which in any case have little immediate effect on
much of anything. Anyone who has studied the history of boycotting
Israel--I'm referring primarily to the so-called "Arab boycott" that began
after 1948 and dissipated around the 1980s--knows that nothing creates more
solidarity among Israelis and Israel's supporters than the impression that
we are being singled out unfairly for our transgressions, such as they are.
Why Israel? Why not boycott China over its human rights abuses? Or the US
over Guantanamo? Or, for that matter, why not protest Arab human rights
abuses? Why didn't the sanctimonious British lecturers boycott Egyptian
universities when academics there were jailed, vilified and forced into
exile over freedom of speech issues? Why, indeed, didn't the world boycott
Palestinian academics and Palestinian olive oil when more than half the
Palestinian population supported the vicious suicide bombing campaign
against Israeli civilians? In contrast, Israeli universities, including Bar
Ilan and Haifa, made strenuous efforts over the past four and a half years
to welcome their Palestinian colleagues and offer them a forum for
presenting their views.
The notion of boycotting Israel's universities, where freedom of expression
and freedom of inquiry are enshrined in a democratic country, is repugnant.
Pappe himself, who remains a teacher at the very university he seeks to
denigrate, is the proof of this. Few if any universities elsewhere in the
Middle East would have tolerated this degree of hostile dissent.
It is in the same spirit of freedom of expression and tolerance of all
points of view that the Israeli side of bitterlemons has opened its virtual
pages to Pappe and his position this week. But let no reader misinterpret
this gesture to mean that he represents more than a few hundred out of
nearly seven million Israelis--Jews and Arabs alike.
Inevitably, like it or not, this boycott brings us into the tenuous twilight
zone between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It certainly has nothing to do
with advocacy of a just two-state solution.- Published 16/5/2005 (c)
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet
publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic
Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet
forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its
specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about
the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers
and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the
region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at