The academic boycott campaign: Is it over?

The academic boycott cam

Last week, Prof. Trond Andresen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) received a lengthy, patiently argued e-mail from an Israeli colleague at the Weizmann Institute. The proposal circulating at NTNU for a blanket boycott of Israeli academics was, opined the Israeli, a lousy idea on so many levels. A boycott would violate the precious norms of academic freedom. It would do nothing to advance dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. To the contrary, it would simply fuel extremism on both sides. Andresen promptly posted the e-mail on his personal page on the NTNU Web site, together with a short introduction. "The Israeli lobby machine has sent a quick and targeted reply for my attention," he wrote. "I have today, as a supporter of the NTNU boycott of Israel, received a 'personal letter.' Notice how it is tailored to me in the sense that the sender positions himself as a 'dove of peace' in the Israeli political spectrum. Smart thinking." This can be put another way. Since it is, at least for the boycotters, blindingly obvious that Israeli academics are complicit in the policies of war and occupation pushed by the rogue state in which they live and work, it follows that anyone who opposes an academic boycott is expressing not a personal opinion, but the imperatives of an invisible-yet-eerily-powerful lobby. You might call this Andresen's Law. EXCEPT THAT you can't. As laws are based on science, and the boycott campaign is all about a rigid, dogmatic ideology, Andresen's response tells us more about the mind-set of the boycotters than anything else. Hence, the key question: whether, in the wake of the NTNU board's November 12 decision to unanimously reject the boycott, its proponents will do what ideologues are notoriously resistant to doing, namely, rethinking their assumptions. On the surface, they should. When more than 100 of your own colleagues sign a petition opposing the boycott, when Norway's own minister of higher education comes down against it, when prestigious international bodies like the American Association of University Professors and the Russell Group of leading British universities urge you to desist, can all that really be blamed on the "lobby?" Answer in the affirmative and you have to prove that the very same "lobby" cajoled or pressured all these disparate groups and individuals into taking this position. It is, to say the least, a tall order, which is why scientific, rational minds have historically dismissed conspiracy theories and emotionally-rooted beliefs. However, having followed the academic boycott campaign's trajectory over the years - as well as Norway, it's been a recurring issue in France, Canada, South Africa and, with a vengeance, the United Kingdom - I would counsel against any hasty conclusions. The boycotters may have been chastened by the NTNU decision, but they won't give up. In part, it's because two very different sets of arguments confront each other. One side frames the debate entirely in terms of what is good for the university. As the NTNU press release after the November 12 meeting stated, "the board voted against the proposal to boycott, and stressed the need for open lines of communication and between scientists at NTNU and academic institutions in Israel." The other side regards the university as a platform for a campaign which focuses on Israeli academics, but targets Israel itself. Here is a flavor of the pro-boycott petition at NTNU: "Since 1948 the State of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights... we refrain from participating in any kind of academic or cultural cooperation with Israeli institutions... until the occupation of Palestinian land will be terminated." Since their points of departure are very different, any productive debate between these two perspectives is nigh on impossible. That is why the boycotters are down, but not out. They exist in their own self-referential world in which opposing views are discounted before they are even heard. As for the mundane priorities of ordinary mortals - "Most Norwegians would prefer not to think about Israel any more than we think about Syria," quipped one exasperated local blogger - those can be put down to what Marxists call "false consciousness." I am not going to predict where the boycott campaign will again rear its head. A more immediate concern is that those institutions where the boycott has been raised should be extra vigilant in ensuring that Israeli academics are not victimized by private, undeclared boycotts. Why? Because when you are convinced that you are right beyond any doubt - as the boycotters manifestly are - the rules don't matter. The writer is the American Jewish Committee's associate director of communications and the author of the AJC monograph, The Ideological Foundations of the Boycott Campaign Against Israel.