At the request of a number of friends, I’m reprinting this piece here.
Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, July 16, 2002
Why We Should Not Boycott Israeli Academics
By JUAN COLE
I thought the divestiture movement and the boycott of academic institutions in the old racist South Africa a good idea, and was cheered to see students at the University of
Michigan demonstrating against apartheid in the 1980s. I do not feel the same way about boycotting Israeli academics, as has been called for by hundreds of European scholars since April. Nor is this a matter on which I have the luxury of not taking a stand. As a historian of the modern Middle East, I am sometimes invited to conferences hosted at least in part by Israeli institutions. I edit the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the flagship publication of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which receives large numbers of submissions from academics in Israel and sometimes has Israeli scholars on its editorial board.
In April, I was happily making airplane reservations for an Istanbul conference, which had partial Israeli sponsorship, on the 20th-century historiography of the Middle East. Despite the sound of the topic, dull as antique scissors, it promised to be an intellectually engaging experience. And I would hate to miss Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture, the priceless museums, the chance to practice my Turkish, and the play of spring light on the Golden Horn. Then one of the invited conference participants, himself an Israeli living in the United States, sent out an e-mail message saying that he would avoid the conference and urging others to do so, too. He cited the European boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and said he could not in good conscience participate in the wake of the early April Israeli army actions at Jenin and elsewhere in the West Bank.
For many faculty members in the United States, where the political culture is strongly pro-Israel, this question would provoke no soul-searching. Indeed, a petition against the boycott idea has garnered thousands of signatures from intellectual luminaries here. While I strongly support Israel’s right to exist within secure and peaceful borders, I reached my decision about the Istanbul conference only after days of hard thinking and consultation with conscientious and progressive friends.
Unlike most Americans, I find the political and military behavior of the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza appalling and contrary to the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law. The United Nations charter, to which Israel is a signatory, forbids the acquisition of territory by military conquest. Some Israelis argue that they may do as they please with the West Bank and Gaza because of the territories’ unclear status, but this position ignores the rights of the Palestinian residents.
The massive usurpation of land and water resources since the Israeli capture of the territories in 1967, the illegal settling of about 200,000 colonists there, and the harsh and humiliating treatment of an essentially colonized population has provoked a good deal of Israel’s problems with the Palestinians. Although much of the Palestinian population has now been nominally put under the Palestinian Authority, the major roads remain under Israeli control, the often-armed colonists remain in place, and the Israeli army frequently reoccupies the territories, destroying PA infrastructure and imposing curfews and other harsh measures in response to the terrorist actions of a few. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to envision annexing large swaths of the West Bank.
Like any human being with a heart, I too feel the helpless rage, the sickened despair, at seeing the serial murders by pitiless bombers who take the lives of innocent Israeli victims as well as their own. I understand the Israeli public’s demand for an end to these monstrosities, and the willingness to use force for that purpose. Still, the Geneva Conventions were enacted with precisely such heated situations in mind, and Israel is not exempt from them by grief.
The second Palestinian uprising that began in October of 2000 and Israeli attempts to put it down have tragically claimed the lives of more than 525 Israelis and more than 1,450 Palestinians, according to the Israel-based International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. The institute calculates that more than 420 of the Israeli dead were noncombatants, whereas about 568 of the Palestinians were. It is clear that the radical Palestinian forces are guilty of actively targeting civilians — which is morally heinous — and that the Israeli army has, at best, been careless in avoiding the deaths of Palestinian civilians. More likely, Israel has been cavalier in taking the lives of innocents in its narrow pursuit of enemies. This behavior, on both sides, is a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions, which were formulated to apply to wars of national liberation as well as to conventional warfare.
The Human Rights Watch report on Israeli-government actions at Jenin described how Israeli forces bulldozed buildings to make way for tanks in the labyrinthine refugee camp, sometimes giving insufficient notice to residents or refusing to wait when informed that a civilian (in one case a paralytic) was still inside the building.
When a group of Palestinian guerrillas put up a fight that killed 13 Israeli soldiers in the Hawashin district, the Israelis riposted and most residents fled. The Israeli army bulldozed 140 buildings and extensively damaged 200 others, leaving as many as 4,000 camp residents homeless. That action was a form of collective punishment. Throughout the West Bank, civilians who have inadvertently, or because of an emergency, gone outside during curfews have sometimes been shot dead by Israeli soldiers — again, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
That isn’t the narrative put forth by the Likud Party, but it is, more or less, the way the European news media presented the situation. If some European academics thought international law was being consistently flouted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, then it is not hard to understand why they proposed a boycott in early April. The European Union treats Israel as a European country for the purposes of scientific and academic exchange, a practice that the European academics sought to end as long as Sharon continued his hard-line policies.
While I understand the impulse, the shunning of Israeli academic institutions seems to me entirely the wrong place to begin. The supporters of the European academic boycott often make an analogy to South Africa and its apartheid policies. Yet while Arab Israelis are discriminated against in many ways in Israeli society, there is nothing like apartheid. Baruch Kimmerling, an anthropology professor at Hebrew University, wrote in a piece for the Independent Media Center that not “all the members of the Israeli academy are great humanists or support the idea of self-determination of the Palestinian people. We are a highly heterogeneous community.” He points out, however, that while South African academic institutions generally gave vigorous support to the apartheid government and sanctioned dissident faculty members, the Israeli academy, on the whole, shows great independence. Israeli universities have Arab-Israeli students and have conducted hundreds of joint projects with their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Israeli academics tend to be left of center, and finding one who expresses something other than deep distaste for Sharon is no easy task. It seems especially inappropriate to punish academics for the actions of a government they largely oppose. Many Israeli academics have been involved in the peace movement, which, although badly damaged by the suicide bombings, struggles on.
It is surely that movement which, however dark its prospects now seem, holds the greatest hope for a better future. Kimmerling says that an increasingly chauvinistic Israeli public militates against the independence of journalists, whereas tenured faculty retain the ability to speak out on human-rights abuses.
Hillel Shuval, a professor of environmental sciences, also at Hebrew University, was quoted in The Chronicle warning that the boycott would harm projects in which he has been involved that get Europeans, Israelis, and Palestinians to work together. It should be remembered that the Oslo peace process itself originated with back-channel meetings of Israelis and Palestinians at a university in Norway. The current boycott call would forestall important new developments deriving from such exchanges.
As for the recent sacking of Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University and Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University from the editorial boards of the British journals The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts, respectively, here individuals are being sanctioned for the policies of their government, and that is wrong. Ironically, Shlesinger is a prominent Amnesty International activist who has been highly critical of Israeli government policies in the West Bank. In contrast, I could support the divestment campaign at some American campuses, aimed at university investments in Israeli firms, because the business elite in Israel is both more powerful and more entangled in government policy than the academics.
I am not unaware, of course, that in some circles such a position would immediately raise the question of anti-Semitism. For those of us actually involved in the Middle East, that reaction is simply unhelpful. Israel is a state — just as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan are — and it is not exempt from censure for illegal or unethical behavior because it is Jewish. I would argue that treating the Sharon government with kid gloves in order to tiptoe around the issue of anti-Semitism would itself be a form of anti-Semitism, a way of cordoning off all Jews as somehow unlike other human beings. In any case, this non-issue was irrelevant to my own thinking, which was more pragmatic. An academic boycott is a political act with a political goal, and if it is unsuited to the purpose then it is bad politics.
I recently appointed an Israeli academic at Hebrew University to the editorial board of the journal I edit. At the Istanbul conference I attended with my Israeli academic colleagues, they promptly led others in working up a petition to protest the policies of the Sharon government in the West Bank and Gaza. I signed it in solidarity with them. Refusing to meet and talk with a concerned party to an epochal set of political and cultural negotiations is the farthest thing from a progressive act.
Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and is the author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002).
Lawrence Davidson has written an interesting rebuttal of my piece at: