A note on the academic boycott of Israel

A few issues have come up this year regarding the academic boycott of Israel that I wanted to address. These issues have arisen because work on academic boycott is really starting to kick in, in the UK student movement, which is an exceptionally exciting development. We’ve also had our first big success – with Kings College London soon to pull out of an EU research project in partnership with the settlement enterprise Ahava.

This isn’t a note regarding the ins and outs of the academic boycott, that is addressed in more detail, and far better, in other places – in particular Omar Barghouti’s new book on BDS, which everyone should definitely read.

One specific argument against the academic boycott has been raised which I don’t think has been adequately dealt with. This is the fact that Israeli universities do a lot of good things, regardless of their connection to the military and human rights abuses. At a packed student meeting in the University of London Union last term, an opponent of boycott in the audience argued that some Israeli universities are at the forefront of medical technology, saving thousands of lives in the Third World. More recently, the Vice-Chancellor of Technion spoke at LSE, in a desperate attempt to counteract the launch of a boycott campaign in one of the UK’s most prestigious universities. Although I wasn’t there, following the twitter hashtag it appeared the main “Hasbara” (propaganda) coming out of the talk was the great technological achievements of that university.

So, surely life saving medicines counteract the worst crimes of university complicity with the Israeli army – or at least mean that boycotting these institutions is counterproductive? Well the answer for me is no.  Under the regimes of Stalin and his predecessors, Soviet universities created truly inspirational leaps in technology and human understanding. My dad went on a school trip in the ’70s to the Soviet Union, and he tells me a story of how the Soviets had created pioneering techniques in helping people who are both deaf and blind, to communicate through touch. Incredible stuff. They also sent the first human into space. But Soviet universities were also 100% complicit in the crushing of dissent and brutal oppression of independent organisation.

If democracy activists in the Soviet Union had called for an international boycott against Stalin’s USSR, which included academia, surely human rights activists would have supported that – despite the damage it would have done, in the short term, to humanity’s development of knowledge and technology.

We would have done that because there are “red-lines” that we can’t stomach in the name of advancement of knowledge. The same applies to the academic boycott of Israel. It is a fact that many Israeli universities are creating groundbreaking technologies that have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. But these same universities also work with the military state of Israel to support the continued ethnic cleansing, oppression, occupation, and colonisation of millions of Palestinians. And Palestinians have had enough and are leading a nonviolent campaign to achieve their human rights, and are demanding international support.

It is humanity’s short-term loss, for a long term gain – a society free of racism and barbaric violence.

The arguments now are no different than they were under South African apartheid. In fact the difference is that the Palestinian academic call is more nuanced – targeting institutions and not individual professors (as the South African one did). It would be naive to argue that apartheid South Africa’s universities weren’t creating life-saving technology and advancing humanity’s knowledge. However they were also implicit in supporting their racist government and its violence. Humanity’s short term loss, for a long term gain.

So the point of the academic boycott is: we are not saying Israeli universities are not good at what they do. Like many universities they are pioneering superb research. But the Palestinians didn’t initiate the boycott because Israeli universities create poor research, anymore than black South Africans called for the sporting boycott because the rugby team weren’t good athletes. The point was their relationship with the racist and colonial government.

The onus is ultimately on Israeli academia. If the sector is as progressive as it claims – then it should break links with the racist and colonialist military regime which abuses Palestinian human rights. It should end racist practises against Palestinians within its own institutions. Universities could be a crucial sector of Israeli society fighting for the liberation of Palestinians, but at the moment they are not. In fact, as has been well documented, they are quite the opposite.

Until then the rest of us will suffer a short term loss – not benefiting from the fruits of Israeli research and knowledge creation – for a long term gain: a non-racist system in Palestine/Israel that no longer promotes racial superiority and violence.

N.B. – aside from the above mentioned book by Barghouti, check out this academic boycott pamphlet by the British Committee for Universities in Palestine (BRICUP)


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