The “silent boycott” is a growing and worrisome phenomenon, Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says.
Carmi, the only female president at the nation’s nine universities, sat down with The Jerusalem Post recently to discuss the BDS movement, strengthening ties with the East, and establishing Ben-Gurion University as a driving force in reshaping the Negev.
Regarding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign, Carmi said she doesn’t believe any of the Israeli universities have been directly or significantly affected by the movement, noting that leading universities in the world have denounced the academic boycott effort.
“There is however, what we call ‘the silent boycott,’” she said. “I am very worried by this.”
A silent boycott entails incidents where Israeli academics and researchers are quietly shunned by the global academic community – from exclusion from academic conferences to the rejection of research papers by noted publications, Carmi said.
“There were cases where a professor would say, ‘I am having difficulties that I didn’t have in the past to get articles in leading journals’; and we thought, ‘Well maybe the papers weren’t good enough,’” she said. “We were looking for excuses and eventually there were more and more cases where scientists felt they were not being treated the same way they were before.”
Carmi said that at first, nobody noticed the phenomenon.
“We were reluctant to really admit that it was connected to BDS,” she said.
“There were all kinds of insidious events, where one by one it might be related to other issues, but when you put them all together there is a pattern.
Now we know they are part of the silent boycott.”
Carmi said that the vast majority of academics in the world are against BDS or are simply indifferent to it, “but they are still somehow affected by the environment.
“A professor might be ready to accept a post-doctorate candidate from Israel, but because of the environment he might reconsider,” she explained.
The circles being affected by BDS are “getting wider and wider,” she said, expressing concern that mainstream academics will “simply say we don’t need this headache” when it comes to working with Israeli institutions and researchers.
The best method to combat BDS is to bring as many students and delegations to Israel as possible, and to send Israeli students abroad, the university president said.
“I really strongly believe in the role of students in combating the phenomenon,” she said. “Bring them to Israel to show them the complexity of the situation and show them the reality of things – don’t sugar coat it.
“Even if you don’t change their minds 180 degrees, they’ll come here as extremists and at least leave as people who ask questions,” Carmi said.
She stressed the importance of sending Israeli students abroad as representatives to conferences, competitions, and for sports.
“It doesn’t directly counter BDS on campus, but they interact with other students, and when you spend time together you connect and network on a personal level,” she explained.
She added, however, that it is “useless” to send Israeli officials to foreign campuses as it often has “the opposite effect.
“The government should act behind the scenes and not send diplomats to campuses, because except for humiliation I don’t see what they can accomplish over there.”
Carmi addressed the claim that BGU has become a center for BDS and other anti-Israel activities from within.
“There is a hardcore segment of about 50 to 80 faculty members out of 880, less than 10 percent, that have this more Left orientation, but they are very vocal and they are very active,” she said.
The university “doesn’t have a political stance but it is somehow being stained,” Carmi said.
She addressed the recent controversies in which she granted permission to the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence to speak at an academic conference but stepped in to veto awarding the group a prize.
“When I allowed Breaking the Silence at the conference I was attacked by the Right, and then a month later I was called a ‘female rhinoceros’ in the Negev by the Left,” she said.
She joked that she must be doing something right if groups from both the Left and the Right were accusing her of bias.
Still, Carmi does not let the public backlash faze her.
“We are trying to walk a fine line between preserving academic freedom and freedom of speech, the hallmark for democracy, and the welfare of the university,” she said.
The BGU president also address the university’s collaborations with the East.
“One of the ideas to strategically go to the East is to strengthen ties that are not being threatened by BDS,” she said. “If we still have allies in the world they are in the East.”
Carmi warned that while currently Asian countries are unconcerned by the issue, “it doesn’t mean it won’t eventually get there.”
Still, she said that the main reason for forging collaborations with China and India has nothing to do with BDS.
“All the universities in the world are looking eastward,” she said.
Ben-Gurion made a strategic decision to focus on bringing Chinese graduate students to Israel in a number of fields where the university maintains a competitive edge, primarily in programs for water and solar research, and for dry land agriculture at its campus in Sde Boker, Carmi said.
“The most serious decision we have made is that we will allocate resources and that the university will invest funds in research collaborations with China – it means that we are committed to this relationship,” she said.
The university recently partnered with Jilin University, the biggest university in China, to establish a joint center for entrepreneurship and innovation.
“It is an opportunity that we seized,” she said.
“We are now looking for ways to really put this collaboration on track, to define it and give it meaning and first identify those areas that we can be synergic to each other,” she said.
The university also runs summer programs aimed at Chinese and Indian graduate students in disaster management and in “big data” mining in the field of cyber technology.
“Cyber technology has now become one of the most sought after research fields, and Ben-Gurion has been declared as a hub of cyber technology in Israel by the prime minister,” she said.
As part of that effort, the university is building a technology park adjacent to its campus in collaboration with the Beersheba Municipality and the state, which will house elite army tech units.
In addition, the university is building a North campus that will double its size over the next two decades.
“My vision is to fulfill our mission of being a tool or a robust engine for the development of the Negev, which is now concentrated on the move of [much of] the IDF to the Negev,” she said. This will be a “historic move” that will change the face of the South and its demographical mix, Carmi said.