The idea that you should boycott Israeli universities has been one of the more difficult arguments within the Palestine movement. Here a member of the University and College Union national executive, Trish McManus, tackles the key questions.
In 2004 a small number of intellectuals and scholars launched the Palestinian Campaign for an academic boycott of Israel (Pacbi). This campaign met with some immediate successes and was followed in 2005 by the formation of a wider movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) with the establishment of a BDS National Committee (BNC).
The response of the Israeli state, and of its supporters inside and outside of Israel, once it saw the damage such a campaign, international in purpose and in scope, was capable of wreaking, was extensive. In 2010, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, debated how to implement penalties on those who expressed support for BDS. One of the bill’s backers, Zeev Elkin of the Likud Party, noted that “[w]e must not accept boycotts against Israel, whether academic or economic. The state must protect itself from the growing delegitimization processes, and provide compensation for those harmed by it” .
The Reut Institute, a think tank very close to the Israeli state produced a report which used the same term: ‘delegitimisation’.
The writers of that report argued that:
“[t]he effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimisers … stems from their ability to engage and mobilise others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics. They do so by branding Israel as a pariah and ‘apartheid’ state … [this] Delegitimisation Network tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities, and advances the one-state solution.”
The non-Zionist arguments against such a boycott turn on a misunderstanding of Israel as a state, and more generally on a misunderstanding of the function of universities. The Zionist arguments against such a boycott are familiar: opponents of Israel single out Israel unfairly, they are hence, naively or with intent, antisemitic and need to be fought. Israeli universities, like other civil society Israeli institutions, are beacons of democratic light in a sea of hostility and should be supported.
A more specific argument against the boycott comes from those concerned about protecting universities as a space of free dialogue and debate. What damage, such opponents ask, is done to the principle of “academic freedom” by dragging academics and institutions to take sides? Are not universities places where “the two sides” can create bridges to understanding and hence to reconciliation and peace?
The furiously tragic events of the last four weeks were not needed to upend the hollowness of claims about the “free” or “open” or “independent” nature of Israel’s universities. The response to the recent massacring of life in Gaza does however open up the urgent need for UK scholars to push their institutions to engage wherever they can with the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott. Pacbi addresses academics worldwide thus:
We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.
Now that the NUS national executive has voted to support a policy of BDS, the Universities and Colleges Union needs to urgently revisit how it can put its own formal support of BDS into action. On the eve after the NUS vote, one of the supporters of that vote, Sai Englert, NUS executive member for postgraduate research, argued: “Now we must turn this victory into practice on each campus. Set up your committees with other unions and societies, research what your university invests in – and launch a campaign. Keep up the fight. Keep up the pressure”. Each university needs a BDS campaign group. We need to work out what an academic boycott means in relation to our own institutions as well as in relation to national and international pots of funding. What are the links our institutions has with Israel? How can we work to break those links to further isolate Israel?
The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (Bricup) has some valuable guidelines on how to implement an academic boycott, and how to argue for one, on its website. For such a boycott to be effective, it will need to engage with the political questions raised by opposition to Israel and support for Palestine. A priority for anyone who works in higher or further education in the UK needs to be the concretising and generalising of the academic boycott as we prepare to return to our campuses in September.