Borderline View: A self-imposed boycott

The sort of boycott that BGU's Neve Gordon called for in an LA Times op-ed is ineffective and unethical.

david newman 88 (photo credit: )
david newman 88
(photo credit: )
My colleague at Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Neve Gordon, has made headlines during the past few days as a result of an opinion piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times (reprinted in the Guardian, with excerpts at the bottom of this page) calling for an international boycott of Israel to be accompanied by disinvestment. It is with a sense of déjà vu that I write this column. I work in the same department as Dr. Gordon and despite our close and collegial working relationship, disagree with him on this issue. This is all the stranger given the fact that I have represented Israel's universities in matters related to the attempted (but failed) boycotts by British academics for the past few years. I see this sort of boycott as both ineffective and unethical, regardless of whether Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is in itself unethical. "Two wrongs don't make a right," but it's a lot more than that - Israel's universities constitute the public spaces where Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and discourse take place. In today's world, where Israelis and Palestinians talk less with each other than at any time since the beginning of the 1993 Oslo Process, we must value every small opportunity and space where such dialogue, including the strongly felt differences, can be aired. ANGRY RESPONSES to Gordon's piece from North America's Israel supporters, including the Los Angeles Israeli consul, were not unexpected. The Consul's proposal to counter the critique by setting up an Institute of Zionism (at a university which offers a degree program in Israeli History and Politics and includes the Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel, the Ben Gurion Archives at Sede Boker, and from which the leading journal in the field, Israel Studies, is jointly edited) completely misses the point. This is not about advocacy and propaganda, it is about honest dialogue. Unfortunately, rather than respecting the degree of freedom which Israeli academics enjoy and engaging in the debate opened by the opinion piece, many of Israel's supporters in the Diaspora automatically saw this as a reason to vent their own anger by lashing out at Ben-Gurion University. Israeli universities include people who hold a full range of political opinions - from the far Right to the far Left. As such, they are to be congratulated, not berated, for their breadth of discourse, and contrasted with comparable institutions throughout the world which do not allow for any critique of political leadership. At the end of the day, threats by potential and existing donors to cease supporting BGU or any other academic institution because of the political views of one of its faculty members are, in and of themselves, the only sort of boycott threat which has any negative impact. It is pretty clear that the attempts to boycott Israeli institutions are, with a few minor exceptions, a lot of (unpleasant) hot air. Throughout the UK, university heads have distanced themselves from the vociferous calls on the part of a small disaffected group of union activists, most of whom have few serious academic or scientific achievements to their name. The British and Israeli governments have signed new academic and scientific cooperation agreements as a clear indication of the fact that, whatever the political differences concerning occupation and the rights of the Palestinians (and the differences are significant and growing), these cannot be translated into attempts to impose collective boycotts. There are only two groups of people who can actually cause real damage by actively implementing any form of boycott: contributors to Israeli universities who withdraw their support of scientific and social programs, and Israeli academics who mistakenly decide not to attend conferences or not to spend their sabbatical leave at European universities because of what they perceive as an unfriendly and even anti-Semitic atmosphere. What these institutions are unable to do beyond their declarations, Israeli academics implement by their own actions - boycotting themselves and their potential scientific contributions. There is, of course, a dilemma involved in an Israeli academic calling for a boycott of the institution for which he works. It is one thing to call for a boycott of the "other," quite another to suggest a boycott of the self while continuing to enjoy the benefits of that institution. It is the reason why many of Israel's left-wing critiques of government policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians stop short of calling for, or supporting, boycotts. NONE OF this detracts from the rest of the argument. The occupation continues. We are no nearer a political settlement than we were 10 years ago - perhaps we are even further away. Israel and the Palestinians have proved, time after time, that left alone to their own devices, they are incapable of resolving the situation. Gordon argues for strong international intervention, without which there will never be any conflict resolution. But strong intervention requires pressure to be exerted on both sides, each of whom has to make the sort of compromises which they are incapable of doing of their own accord - on such major issues as Jerusalem, refugees and acknowledgement of mutual guilt for having inflicted violence and suffering on the other. Gordon is absolutely right to worry about the future of his two children, as all of us who are residents of Israel worry. We want them to grow up in a society where the conflict is history, where there is mutual respect between peoples of differing religions and ethnicities, where land and political rights are either separated or shared but equal, where one does not rule over the other. But this cannot be achieved through sanctions and boycotts, at least not in the case of Israel and the Palestinians. It is on this point where I strongly differ with my colleague, while respecting his right to make his point publically. This is something which Israel's universities can be proud of. It is this level of democracy, pluralism, and freedom of speech which few in the world, not least many of those proposing boycotts from abroad, can share. The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal, Geopolitics.