Academic Boycott - Rights and Wrongs

By Moshé Machover

Israeli dissident, a socialist and (therefore) anti-Zionist. Founding member in 1962 of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). Now living in London. Mathematician, emeritus professor at London University.

First published 2005

In April 2001, six months into the second intifada, a small ad-hoc group, most of them Israeli citizens, published a call launching a campaign to boycott Israeli exports and leisure tourism in Israel. As far as I know, we were the first to publish such a call. You can still find it at , with hundreds of additional signatures of supporters from many countries. (If you have not added your signature, please do so now.)

The justification for this campaign should be obvious even to liberals, let alone socialists. Since the demise of South-African apartheid, Israel is the last remaining active colonial settler state. Its treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is, if anything, more brutal than that meted to non-whites by the apartheid regime. As Israel enjoys the full support and protection of the US (which it serves as chief regional partner and enforcer), other governments dare not take any effective measure to restrain the armoured monster bulldozers of Israeli expansionism that trample over the Palestinians, demolish their homes, steal their land and uproot their ancient olive trees. It is left to world public opinion and civil society to act in defence of the victims. The same arguments that justified the boycotting of the South-African apartheid regime - accepted by all progressive people - surely apply in the present case.

Let me add one general point: the boycott tactic has the great double merit of being non-violent and a way in which every individual can express a moral commitment. This immediate mobilizing effect on those who join the boycott is no less important than its real effect on the target (in this case, Israel), which will take long to gain force.

Shortly after we issued our call, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK launched its BIG (Boycott Israeli Goods) campaign.

Dos and don'ts

At about that time, I was involved in private discussion among some radical academics about extending the economic boycott to the academic sphere. My position was - and remains - that a boycott directed against Israeli academic institutions is wholly justified, but a boycott of Israeli academics, as individuals, is unacceptable.

The arguments justifying economic boycott apply also to an institutional academic boycott. Israel's universities are part of institutional structure of the Zionist colonial settler state and help to manufacture its ideological superstructure. True, a small minority of radical dissident academics are - barely - tolerated within these institutions; but surely the institutions as such cannot be judged by these rare exceptions.
On the other hand, being an Israeli, and in particular an Israeli academic, is not per se a punishable offence; so no one should be penalized merely for being an Israeli academic.

Moreover, an individual academic boycott would be impaled on the horns of a nasty dilemma: either it is a blanket boycott directed indiscriminately at all Israeli academics, or some exemptions are to be made.
In the first case, the boycott would target the righteous along with the wicked, punishing the small minority of beleaguered courageous academic dissidents, as well as the few Arabs who, against great odds, have achieved positions in Israel's academe.

But if exemptions are to be allowed, then a thicket of thorny questions must be faced: Are Israeli Arab academics to be exempt, on purely ethnic grounds? What would be the rules and procedures for exempting any individual? Who would be authorized to grant exemptions? What evidence of righteousness would need to be submitted by an individual wishing to be exempted? If an individual felt that s/he was unjustly denied exemption, how and to whom would s/he appeal against the decision? These and similar questions have no satisfactory answer. Begin to consider them, and you are reminded of loyalty oaths and totalitarian policing of thought. Any system of individual penalties is inherently iniquitous unless it is accompanied by a fair and transparent mechanism of adjudication.

On these grounds, I believe that sanctions such as the following are justified:
" Refusing to participate in academic conferences co-sponsored by the Israeli authorities or by Israeli universities.
" Acting within international scientific organizations so as to oppose them holding conferences in Israel.
" Acting against cooperation at the institutional level with Israeli universities.
" Opposing the award of grants by the EU and other international agencies to Israeli universities; refusing to act in any way (for example, as referees) to facilitate such grants.
" Refusing to collaborate with a person acting as representative or on behalf of an Israeli university.

On the other hand, acts such as the following, targeting an individual merely on the ground that s/he is Israeli, are unjustified:
" Withholding scientific collaboration with an Israeli scientist who acts in an individual capacity.
" Hampering the publication of academic work by an Israeli.
" Refusing to act as a referee of a paper submitted to an academic journal by an Israeli.
" Dismissing an Israeli from the editorial or advisory board of an academic journal to which s/he had been appointed in an individual capacity. (footnote #1)

Let me add three remarks. First, if you have some evidence that an individual academic is guilty of a war crime, or even of propagating racist poison, then you may well wish to have nothing to do with that person. But this applies whether or not the guilty person is Israeli. No general academic boycott of Israel need be invoked.

Second, clearly even an institutional academic boycott is bound to have some adverse side effects on individual Israeli academics, including the righteous minority. This kind of thing is unfortunately inevitable in any boycott. Even disinvesting in firms, such as Caterpillar, that supply Israel with instruments of oppression, may well hurt some innocent people. This cannot be a valid objection to the boycott. Would we oppose a campaign for disarmament on the grounds that it would deprive some workers of employment? But deliberately aiming punitive measures at individuals irrespective of their personal guilt is quite a different matter: it is morally repugnant.

Third, there are bound to be some borderline cases, where it is not quite obvious whether an Israeli academic is acting on behalf of an institution (in which case applying the boycott is justified) or in an individual capacity (in which case no sanction ought to be imposed). Most real-life demarcations are somewhat fuzzy. Such doubtful cases should be resolved as best we can, applying sound judgment and good common sense. But, most importantly, they must be resolved ad causam, on the merit of the case - not ad hominem, on the merit of the individual.

AUT resolution lacked clarity

On 6 April 2002, a campaign for an academic boycott of Israel was launched by a letter to the Guardian signed by 120 academics, headed by Hilary and Steven Rose. The steps proposed in the letter were clearly aimed at institutions rather than individuals. Moreover, they were of very limited scope, (footnote #2) which is perhaps reasonable as a first step.

From then on, the academic boycott campaign gathered momentum. Several branches of the AUT adopted resolutions supporting it. It peaked on 22 April 2005, when the AUT conference adopted as union policy the boycott of two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan and Haifa, and a more limited action against the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, a vehement backlash counter-campaign, orchestrated by the pro-Israel lobby, led to the overturn of this resolution on 26 May.

In my opinion, insufficient clarity in the April resolution may have contributed to its subsequent revocation. Although the main text of the resolution speaks in general terms of boycotting institutions rather than individuals, it relies for detail on an earlier Palestinian call for boycott. The resolution says:
'Council resolves: … That the boycott should take the form described in the Palestinian call for academic boycott of Israeli institutions.'

This Palestinian 'call', quoted in the AUT resolution, also seems to intend a purely institutional boycott. The specific boycotting measures it demands are:
'i Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions; Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
'ii Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions.'
Note the repetitive emphasis on 'institutions'. However, the Palestinian text immediately muddies the water by making the following proviso:
'iii Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies.'
This proviso is clearly well meant, but it negates the institutional nature of the proposed boycott. If the boycott is to be truly purely institutional, as seems to be demanded by clauses i and ii, then the exemption of 'conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals' is totally irrelevant. And of course it raises all those unanswerable questions as to what would constitute sufficient proof of 'conscientiousness', what degree of 'opposition' is being demanded, who would be authorized to judge this, and what procedures would be used in the adjudication.

So the Palestinian text ends up being highly ambiguous as between calling for institutional and individual boycott. And the AUT 22 April resolution inherited this ambiguity from the Palestinian text, which it incorporated and endorsed.

This made the resolution harder to defend than would otherwise have been the case.

Most damaging was the opposition to the AUT boycott resolution expressed by some of the Israeli academics who are known to be opposed to the occupation and active in defence of Palestinian rights. Although - as befits academics - they produced all sorts of sophisticated theoretical arguments in support of their position, I am pretty sure that at the back of their minds was the shocking feeling that the proposed boycott might face them with the unenviable choice between the sad irony of being wholly innocent victims of 'friendly fire' and the humiliation of having to prove (how and to whom?) their righteousness.

Of course, the overturning of the AUT resolution is by no means the end of the story. The struggle will go on, and it will no doubt have many ups and downs. I can only hope that the lessons of the past will have been learnt by the advocates of boycott.


#1 According to press reports, this actually happened in June 2002. If so, I find it inexcusable. A person penalizing an Israeli academic on the mere grounds that s/he is Israeli cannot be regarded as progressive: it is reactionary to categorize and treat individuals according to their nationality. If, as reported, the person dismissed was in fact an opponent of Israeli policies, this only adds irony to the affair.

#2 The letter said: 'Odd though it may appear, many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. (No other Middle Eastern state is so regarded). Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.' This clearly calls for reassessing the status of Israel as a state for academic purposes. The letter does not call for any other action.