The Flawed Logic of the Academic Boycott of Israel

The campaigns for boycotting Israeli academic institutions are meant to protest Israeli politics; however, the advocates of the boycott have failed to answer this simple question: why only Israel? Of all universities in the world, why is it that Israeli universities should be singled out to be boycotted? Why not Turkish, Iranian, Indian, or Pakistani universities, for example? I have to state from the outset that I am against the so-called academic boycott of any place in the world, including the countries I mentioned above. Nonetheless, even if I were to agree that academic boycotts were a justifiable means to political ends, I think there is something morally and politically wrong with the judgment that Israel should be boycotted but not Turkey, to stick with one example.

Here the point is not to compare cases of victimhood, which would be wrong simply because such a comparison would amount to a subjugation of the peoples in question. Rather, I want to call into question the validity of the moral claim behind the call for boycotting Israeli academic institutions. Behind every double-standard, there is something disturbing that deserves to be exposed through open intellectual debate. If the moral claim of the proponents of the boycott is valid, Israel must be more oppressive than all other countries, including Turkey. I argue that this is not the case, that the degree to which Turkish politics is oppressive is not even comparable to Israeli politics.

Turkey was founded on the mass graves of Armenians and remains the genocider-colonizer of Kurds, the largest stateless nation in the world.

In Turkey, any person who mentions the “Armenian genocide” could face imprisonment under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which originally criminalized insulting “Turkishness” – in 2008 modified to “Turkish nation” under EU pressure. Even if one does not deny the Armenian genocide privately, one must act as if one denies it. Thus, Turkey is a country where not denying genocide is criminalized.

 Some might argue that in Israel one cannot deny the Holocaust, and, thus, there is a lack of freedom of expression there too. The difference, however, should be plain to us all: denying any genocide serves the perpetuation of racism, and thus it should be prohibited. By the same token, criminalizing the refusal to deny genocide amounts to the official adoption of racism by the state.

Has any language ever been forbidden in Israel? You can speak and teach Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, Persian, or any other language in Israel, whereas in Turkey languages other than Turkish have long been prohibited. The Kurdish language has been ruthlessly targeted throughout the history of modern Turkey. Indeed, only recently have Kurds been allowed to speak their native tongue in public institutions in the country.

Prior to these “reforms,” there were times when Kurds who did not speak Turkish had to communicate in sign language in public space to avoid being arrested by the Turkish police. Over generations, this policy forcefully Turkified millions of Kurds, which was the state’s official goal of banning Kurdish. Most Kurdish parents still prefer to teach their children only Turkish to avoid the disadvantages from which they or the generations before them had to suffer for being Kurdish. Those disadvantages go far beyond discrimination in the distribution of wealth and career opportunities. To this day, individuals are lynched by ultranationalist mobs merely for speaking Kurdish in the wrong place and time.

Has any scholar in Israel been persecuted for using “Palestine” in a speech or piece of writing, whether in a geographic, historical, or political context?

In Turkey, numerous scholars have been persecuted for saying or writing “Kurdistan”, even in the most non-political contexts imaginable. Using “Kurdistan” in political contexts has also landed many in prison. One example is the Marxist sociologist Ismail Beshikçi, who spent 17 years of his life in prison for daring to write on the political rights of Kurdish people.

What about the situation of women?

 In Turkey, a woman can be sent to jail for 10 years merely for singing in Kurdish. Kurdish women as women are systematically targeted by the police. In some cases, even the bodies of deceased Kurdish women are abused to reduce Kurdish women to the object of rape, as an act revenge for their refusal to be Turkish.

 Freedom of the press?

Reporters Without Borders named Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists” in 2012. Today, the situation is even worse as the Turkish government has increased its crackdown on the press and has even gone so far as to try to limit freedom of the press in Germany and the USA.  

Currently, hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish scholars who signed a peace petition demanding an end to the ongoing war against Kurds are being persecuted on the basis of a direct order from Erdogan. Indeed, the four scholars who read the petition in a press release on January 11, 2016 are already in prison.

The list of systematic injustices, atrocities, and forms of suppression in Turkey goes on and on, but the point is clear. What is the reason the participants of the boycott of Israeli universities do not boycott Turkish universities instead? I would like to believe that it is not anti-Semitism, and I do not think it is, in most cases at least.

Instead, I am inclined to think that in many cases it is something arguably no less disturbing than anti-Semitism: the racist belief that for a so-called “Muslim” country, Turkey is fine. In other words, the racist assumption that so-called Muslim, or Eastern, societies are fundamentally different than Western societies underlines the belief that the same standards of freedoms and human rights cannot (or need not) be applied. Combined with that is the prevalent pseudo-leftism that uses the fashionable cliché of idealizing the Palestinian issue as a primary gauge of leftism. Why do we not talk about the fact that Palestinian leftists do not support Hamas, while so many Western leftists do?      

Boycotters of Israel, especially since they present their position as a moral one, should apply a simple but critical ethical rule to their worldviews and actions. Namely, lives are inherently invaluable everywhere. If one holds true to that simple ethical rule, all political entities should be held accountable for their treatment of people, regardless of the identity of the rulers and the ruled. Within a universal moral framework, it should not be acceptable to call for boycotting Israel while keeping Turkey on your list of tourism destinations and academic conference hotspots.

Just to reiterate, I am not calling for boycotting academic institutions in Turkey, or anywhere else in the world. What I am calling for is a more politically aware Left committed to truly universal ethics.