Borderline Views: Boycott paranoia

Attempts at boycott have to be combated and shown for what they are, but they should not be allowed to become the captive of political policies of a government and a well-oiled propaganda machinery.

Boycott Israel sign (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel sign
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The past year has witnessed an increase in the number of attempts by various academic groups to implement an academic boycott of Israel. The war in Gaza intensified this trend and Israeli academics returning from international conferences in recent months have reported a growth in debate on this topic. In reality, however, outside a few radical political circles the academic boycott has never taken off. The impact on Israeli academic and scientific activity has remained marginal, as evidenced by the large number of collaborative research projects between Israeli scientists and their international colleagues, both in North America and throughout Europe. In some cases there has been a growth of new cooperative projects which have been set up as a statement that science is beyond politics and that whatever criticism there may or may not be of Israel and its policies vis a vis the Palestinians, the two do not mix.
When the first calls for boycott were heard just under 10 years ago, the Israeli academic community dismissed them as insignificant.
The yearly anti-Israel circus which took place at the University and College Union conference in the UK was combated by Jewish community groups and local Jewish academics, but despite the hot air and the media headlines that it generated its impact was, then as now, marginal. One of Israel’s largest research funders, the EU, has always made it abundantly clear that it opposes any form of scientific or academic boycott. It continues to fund Israel’s research community, enabling Israel’s scientists to be partners in some of the largest international research projects and academic exchange programs. Israel continues to host large international gatherings of scientists, even if there are a small number of people who boycott these events and refuse to attend.
Only last month I was privileged to host an international meeting in the field of geopolitics, attended by almost 60 international participants, many of them critical of Israel and its policies, but all of whom understood that the way forward is to increase scientific cooperation and promote dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics. Yes, there were three colleagues from Queens University in Belfast and the University of Tromso in Norway who informed us that they would be boycotting the event, but this had no impact on the conference. Participants were exposed to realities on the ground, including field trips to contested areas, and to the many critical perspectives concerning Israel’s regional geopolitics – the sort of critical perspectives which only a free and open society can express.
Those who refused to attend displayed a remarkable lack of integrity. The conference took place as part of a major EU-funded project, in which all participating scientists and institutions are obliged to honor the rules of non-discrimination as a condition for receiving EU funding. These same academics were only too happy to receive hundreds of thousands of euros for their participation in the project. If they had political qualms about attending the project workshop because it was held in Israel, they should have displayed integrity and should have immediately withdrawn from the project and returned the funds that they had received thus far from the EU. It is extremely unlikely that their parent institutions were aware of this breach of rules as they would not have accepted any action taken which would endanger the present and future funding of major research projects by the EU or, for that matter, any other international research-funding agency.
There are some cases of a silent boycott which are difficult to quantify. One never knows when an Israeli researcher is not awarded a research grant or a postdoctoral fellowship, in what is a highly competitive arena, because he/she is the subject of a boycott.
Here too, though, the effect is minimal and does not reflect the academic decisions which are made by most evaluation committees or journal editorial boards, seeking the most qualified and skilled people in the field, many of whom are Israeli scientists and researchers.
None of this explains or justifies the boycott paranoia which has taken over the Israeli political response during the past year. From being largely ignored by the government and academic institutions, the so-called boycott threat has suddenly been transformed into a new “security threat” to Israel. Spurred on by the Strategic Unit within the Prime Minister’s Office, the threat of boycotts has taken on a new dimension.
During the past month, the unit sponsored a boycott lecture tour by inviting an eminent North American academic Prof. Cary Nelson, known for his defense of academic freedom over a long and distinguished career, to come and “educate” Israeli leaders about the threat facing Jewish and Israeli academics in North America. Having recently co-edited a book on the topic of combating academic boycotts aimed at Israel, Nelson’s visit and busy lecture schedule did very little to inform an Israeli public beyond promoting boycott paranoia as the new threat facing Israel’s scientific community.
The main event was held at the National Institute for Security Studies (the INSS) while all of Israel’s universities were pressed into holding public lectures on the topic as part of an Orwellian newspeak. In some cases, the universities expressly forbade any debate with other speakers from taking place, and it is little wonder that most of the events were attended by no more than a handful of participants.
Another boycott-related event is being held this week at the Center for Anti-Semitism studies at the Hebrew University, sponsored, among others, by the right-wing NGO Monitor which has gone out of its way in recent years to accuse the left-wing NGOs of aiding and abetting boycott efforts. The Center for Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and the Center for Study of Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem – these are the mantras which are now being served up as boycott becomes the subject of simplistic slogans and political agendas, avoiding the real issues at stake.
It is not surprising that support for the traveling anti-boycott circus was expressed by the Israel Academic Monitor (IAM), an extremist right-wing website which spends most of its time defaming any Israel academic who holds centrist and left-wing views. IAM has probably done more to damage the international name and reputation of Israel as a place of academic freedom and open dialogue than any other right- or left-wing organization in Israel or beyond.
Are there anti-Semites involved with academic boycott attempts? Of course there are, and the number is growing as the back door is held wide open for them to enter and take part by those who have become so obsessed with a critique of Israel that they no longer know how to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, delegitimization of the State of Israel and crude anti-Semitism.
But in a well publicized case, UK academic Ronnie Fraser took the UCU to an employment tribunal, arguing that the Union was guilty of anti-Semitism. Despite calling on one of Europe’s foremost lawyers and experts on anti-Semitism, Anthony Julius, the case was thrown out by the neutral arbitrator and Fraser was criticized for having brought the case in the first place.
Is every academic who supports a boycott motion an anti-Semite? No. By collectively labeling them as such, all we manage to achieve is to push them into a corner where it is no longer possible to dialogue or debate with them about the real issues on the table, such as the totally misplaced ethics of boycott and discrimination, universities as places of open debate and academic freedom, or the role of Israel’s universities in providing an important space for Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab dialogue.
One cannot ignore that the growing influence of Islamic students on some campuses is making it uncomfortable for Jewish and pro-Israel groups to hold Israel-related events, or to invite Israeli speakers, but this does not turn the entire academic or student body into Israel-haters. Jewish student groups are capable of countering these arguments and have shown, on more than one occasion, that they are able to put forward their own case with great alacrity and skill. Ironically, it is the attack on some Jewish student bodies which has made the Jewish students more knowledgeable and more capable of providing the counter-arguments of which they were previously unaware.
It would be wise to heed the words of the current chairperson of the Council for Higher Education, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, who, at a recent symposium of the Bologna process held in Jerusalem, a process which enables Israels universities to be part of the trans-European standardization of academic degrees, noted the minimal and marginal impact of the calls for boycott on actual scientific practices and research achievements.
It would also be wise to heed the words of one of North America’s most eminent Jewish academics and fighters against anti-Semitism, Prof. Deborah Lipshtadt, who, when asked at last month’s Limmud conference in the UK about anti-Semitism on North American campuses, argued that it was being overdone and that we should not fall into the trap of labeling every critic of Israel as an out and out anti-Semite.
It would be wise to heed the experiences of those of us who combat boycott through dialogue and debate and through the strengthening and expansion of scientific links between Israel and its international partners, to engage less in politics and government- sponsored “hasbara” exercises, and a lot more in demonstrating the academic and scientific excellence of Israel’s scientific community.
An excellent recent example has been the way in which the editor of The Lancet, one of the medical profession’s most respected scientific journals, reversed his position, which had been strongly critical of Israel and sympathetic toward boycott, following a visit to Israeli medical institutes and teaching schools to encounter a vastly different reality to that he had been told about prior to his writing a critical editorial of the Israeli medical profession.
It would also be wise to heed the fact that most of the boycott proposals (admittedly not all) relate to Israel and its policies vis a vis the Palestinians. By ignoring this and attempting to shift the blame elsewhere (inbred anti-Semitism, security threats, the left-wing critique of Israel), we cheapen the real threat where it does occur, and where it is likely to grow in the immediate future.
At the end of the day, Israel continues to enjoy broad global admiration for its universities and its scientific community. There are enough, and will continue to be plenty, of academic institutions and world-class scientists in North America, Europe and the growing academic market of Asia who will continue to collaborate with us and who are simply not interested in the political machinations of a boycott which has achieved nothing other than hot air and a lot of media headlines. Even those proposals by academic associations which have supported boycott have not been honored by their members, while the recent letter by 300 American university presidents along with the statements of the EU on this matter are a clear indication of where the real scientific endeavor is to be found.
One practical step would be for the Foreign Ministry to reinstate the position of science attache at its foreign legations, as a means of promoting and strengthening academic collaboration and cooperation between Israel and the global science community. At the very least, there should be one in each of Europe, North America and Asia.
Attempts at boycott have to be combated and shown for what they are (unethical, discriminatory, self-defeating), but they should not be allowed to become the captive of political policies of a government and a well-oiled propaganda machinery whose agenda has very little to do with the long-term interests of Israeli science.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.