Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Israeli Academics

The Middle East website Jadiliyya published a call today by 100 US academics to boycott Israeli academics. The list is formidable - many scholars included are first-rate and conduct excellent Middle East research. As a website, Jadiliyya has many informative pieces and is a positive force for reason in a convoluted region. However, this call to boycott is poorly substantiated and does not represent the best tools we as an academy have to offer suffering people in the Middle East. Signing it would be a mistake.

For starters, the text of the petition relies on questionable assessments of the situation on the ground. It accuses the international community of silence with regards to Gaza. This claim is demonstrably false. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, British MP Ed Miliband, and French President Hollande, among many others, have raised questions about Israel's use of force in Gaza. Any "silence" is not due to a lack of speaking - it's because those who perceive silence aren't listening.

The petition then lists the Israeli actions which warrant a boycott. Many of these actions, as discussed in previous posts on this blog, are quite disturbing and merit investigation. But the statement omits any mention of Hamas' rockets, tunnels, or kidnappings. It omits any consideration that Hamas could bear some responsibility for shooting rockets from civilian areas. While criticizing Israel's disruption of Palestinian academic environments, it says nothing about Israeli universities which in the past have had to shut down or disrupt classes as a result of rocket fire. Such considerations do not reduce the severity of Israeli actions, but if the goal is "morality" why be partial?

In fact, partiality is the defining element of the petition. The signatories have nothing to say about Qatari academics whose work is supported by a government that funded Hamas' rockets. They have nothing to say about Iranian academics who designed the rockets that Iran admitted to giving Hamas. Again, if the basis of the boycott is supporting moral academic work, why not include these actions as well?

The most disappointing part of the petition, however, is where it tries to establish a link between Israeli academics and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This evidence is disappointingly shoddy and would certainly not pass peer review. The claim that Israel's universities have offered "unconditional support" for the Israeli military is substantiated in footnotes 6 and 7 with the following:

1. An article about Tel Aviv University which describes its role in IDF technologies like smart bandages, tunnel detection systems, and the Iron Dome system (designed by an alum of the university).

2. A Facebook post in Hebrew, which most of the signatories don't read, that shows pictures of Haifa University students packing Bamba into boxes.

3. A Facebook post from the Technion, again in Hebrew, that wishes for the safe return of students who were called up to fight in Operation Protective Edge.

4. An English statement from Bar Ilan University expressing "support and encouragement" for the IDF and security forces and wishing them a safe return.


5.  A book chapter, by an Israeli, with a BA and an MA from Tel Aviv University.

6. A broken link to the radical anti-Israel site Electronic Intifada. 


This was the best evidence one hundred academics, many of them world class, could come up with to support a boycott. Of course, these questionable links are only half the evidence. They say nothing of Israeli academics like Oren Yiftachel whose book Ethnocracy is foundational in academic criticism of Israel. They say nothing of Neve Gordon who published a book literally called Israel's Occupation in 2008There are even Israeli academics who support boycotting Israeli goods - Anat Matar and David Newman among them. These examples roundly refute the petition's claim that "our colleagues in the Israeli academy have been silent."

This call to boycott is both prejudicial and poorly substantiated. It disregards the inherent complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also fails to show how a boycott of Israeli academics would have any effect whatsoever. Rather than gloss over complexity, academic supporters of Palestinians would do better to leverage their understanding of this complexity in Mideast politics. They could exert pressure through existing channels with Israeli counterparts. They could study the phenomenon of asymmetric warfare and make recommendations of how Israel could reduce casualties while achieving legitimate ends of self-defense. Ultimately, it is engagement rather than disengagement that will give academics the best chance to make a positive difference in the region they so deeply care about.


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