BORDERLINE VIEWS: Boycott realities

Yair Lapid
It was a bit pathetic to see Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid inviting the media to film him at Ben-Gurion Airport trying to persuade Israelis traveling abroad to take his little Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) handbook with them, containing the “correct” answers to BDS and academic boycotts.
It an effort to promote his own political credentials as a potential future leader of Israel in a post-Netanyahu era, Lapid has attempted to push himself to the forefront of the government-sponsored strategy to combat the delegitimization of Israel.
For the government and some Jewish community organizations around the world, BDS has become transformed into the single most critical strategic threat facing Israel and the Jewish people. It is slowly becoming a lucrative business, with government officials and Jewish “machers” traveling around the world, visiting Jewish communities, university campuses, and organizing expensive summits and conferences, in Jerusalem, London and New York, in which the world is berated for its anti-Semitism and singling out of Israel as a target for political activism.
Let’s not be naïve about it. There are growing calls for boycotts of Israel. Within the academic world the American Association of Anthropologists and the American Studies Association have recommended that their members do not undertake collaborative work with Israeli colleagues, while the important Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has a forthcoming motion still to be discussed.
But one has to be realistic about how to combat this threat, rather than turning it into the monster which it isn’t.
The academic boycott attempts remain, at this stage, little more than proposals to members of a small number of scientific communities and guilds to cease all forms of collaboration with Israeli scientists and scholars. The boycott cannot be enforced upon the members of these scientific communities and guilds, the majority of whom continue to undertake full scientific collaboration with their Israeli colleagues and research partners.
The small number of pro-boycotters who do not participate in scientific meetings and conferences in Israel, or who do not invite Israeli colleagues to participate in conferences arranged elsewhere, are far outnumbered by the many members of the international scientific community who do participate, and are more than ready to participate. A glance at the long list of academic meetings and seminars that have taken place at Israeli universities during the past two years, or those that are planned for the coming academic year, is clear evidence of this.
This is completely unlike the case of South Africa, where there was an almost blanket boycott in all political, economic and social realms. In both Western Europe and North America, where most of the boycott proposals emanate from, the major universities and, in some cases, the governments themselves have made it adequately clear that, regardless of their own personal positions concerning the Israel-Palestine impasse, they do not support selective or discriminatory academic boycotts and, in some cases, this has even led to a strengthening of scientific ties.
In a letter issued by the European Union Science and Research Authority, in response to a request by some scholars to boycott projects with Israel, the EU made it clear that academic boycotts were discriminatory – and this bears little relationship to the EU decision to propose the labeling (not the boycott) of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank. Since the EU will not fund any university or research consortium that practices policies of discrimination, the EU letter made it clear that they would have to rethink the funding of any institutions, or individual scholars, that blatantly practiced a boycott. This is perceived by university principals and provosts as being harmful to their own research and funding objectives and they constantly make the point that the members of the various academic associations speak for themselves as individuals, and do not speak in the name of the universities, who are opposed to any such action.
In addition to its strong scientific links with both North America and Western Europe, Israel has, during the past decade, developed strong commercial and scientific links with Asian countries, notably China, South Korea and India, none of which have displayed any interest whatsoever in placing politics before science, and all of which view scientific collaboration with Israel in a very positive light.
Falling back on the simplistic anti-Semitism argument has absolved the Israeli government of the need to conduct a serious international debate on such important topics as the occupation, Palestinian statehood, the asymmetrical levels of development between Israeli and Palestinian universities, or the role of some Israeli universities in military-related research and development.
But those pro-boycott groups who, so they argue, are only critical of Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians, but are neither blanket delegitimizers nor anti-Semites, have failed to make clear their rejection of anti-Semitism. The silencing of any pro-Israel debate or discussion on some campuses in Europe and North America, often using verbal or even physical violence, has resulted in an unbalanced debate, the denial of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and has conveniently opened the door for the real anti-Semites to walk in and to peddle their wares on the back of what should have been a debate about Israel-Palestine.
They would do well to actively defend the rights of Jewish students or faculty to hold open debates and public lectures on topics relating to Israel, regardless of whether they agree or not with the views expressed, thus showing their commitment to freedom of speech.
For those within Israel who are critical of the occupation but are equally opposed to all forms of BDS or delegitimization, the boycott debate only serves to further weaken their cause. Next week’s strange symposium on BDS to be held at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University is a case in point – only representatives of the most extreme right-wing NGOs and organizations have been invited to participate, and are expected to spend most of their time attacking left-wing academics rather than undertake a serious discussion of BDS. These right-wing groups, in the name of a self-appointed patriotism and extremist nationalism, have caused much greater damage to the reputation of Israel’s universities as place for free and open debate than any pro-boycott groups could.
These self-appointed defenders of the faith remove the very foundations for a reasoned response to the pro-boycotters, as they threaten the integrity of the places where, as we argue to the outside world, freedom of speech is practiced and not silenced, and where a constructive debate can take place. In direct opposition to what they claim, they weaken the ability of Israeli academics and community activists to combat the pro-BDS and boycott arguments.
And the government is blindly following them in this self-defeating direction, with little blue books of simplistic and unconvincing messages.
Although there is clear power and fiscal asymmetry between the respective Israeli and Palestinian institutions of higher education, the universities remain one of the few spaces where it has been possible to undertake any form of meaningful Israeli- Palestinian dialogue. The level of Israeli- Palestinian collaboration and scientific partnerships has significantly decreased in recent years, as Palestinian academics in particular have come under pressure from their own authorities to cease all such joint activities. This, unfortunately, may point to one of the few areas where the call for boycott has been successful, and if this is the case then it has been totally self-defeating.
The case of Prof. Mohammad Dajani, a professor of political science and American studies at Al-Quds University (east Jerusalem), who was hounded out of his place of work for being involved in pro-peace activities involving both Israeli and Palestinian students, is a recent case in point. Younger generations of students are prevented from meeting their counterparts across the political divide – to agree, disagree and seek joint programs of social and political action.
The boycott lobby would have a far greater contribution to make to the cause of Israel-Palestinian conflict resolution were it to use their campuses and organizations as places in which to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, as honest, third-party brokers. It has always been difficult, especially during periods of violence, to hold Israeli-Palestinian meetings on either Israeli or Palestinian university campuses, as these places are not seen as being neutral.
Third-party facilitation is of critical importance for dialogue to take place. This would be an important contribution in the creation of a new generation of socially responsible students and faculty who could maintain networking and exchange of ideas in finding ways forward for a new generation of peacemakers.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.