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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 16

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 Barak. 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 and, respectively. 19-05-2005

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