The moment I first heard that the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) was planning on boycotting Israeli universities and faculty, I expressed my opposition to the notion in every possible way. I even tried to influence my colleagues in the U.K. and elsewhere - recently the American lecturers' union has been considering a similar idea - to refrain.
In principle, my opposition stems from the understanding that the academic world must work differently than the aggressive political one, and a boycott is a violent step taken by the strong against the weak.
Academe must be based on complete freedom of research, learning and expression. Assessment, advancement, dismissal or acceptance to a position in academe must be done by authorized professional committees. In addition, the tools of the academic environment and of academics are dialogue, persuasion, cooperation among institutions and scholars of all nations, and engaging the public beyond the ivory tower.
The practical reason that prevented me from supporting this type of boycott is the lack of its ability to ease the suffering and exploitation of the Palestinians, not to mention putting an end to the occupation. The opposite might even be the case. Universities - some more and some less - are among the few places left in Israel where individuals are allowed to think freely and raise new ideas, sometimes daring ones. Even if the ideas do not become consensus, they may crystalize slowly as one of the alternatives that Israel should choose in order to become a properly-run democratic state.
The present political regime is doing all it can to weaken the universities and thus erode academic freedom and choices of thought and expression. An external boycott, however well intentioned, only strengthens this trend.
I do understand clearly the frustration and anger of Palestinian academics who initiated the boycott, who hoped it would expand and encompass all the countries of Europe and perhaps even the U.S., and would extend to any cooperation with institutions of higher learning in Israel. They look on longingly at what seems to be business as usual in Israeli universities, which remain almost devoid of individual expressions, not to mention collective ones, against the harsh infringements of Palestinian academic freedom. The access roads to Palestinian schools are blocked most of the time, buildings and infrastructure are ruined, students and lecturers are kept for unknown reasons in administrative detention, and it is almost impossible to pursue regular studies, academic or otherwise.
I also understand the British lecturers. No, they are not anti-Semites - that is too easy a claim, the goal of which is to deflect criticism. They want "to do something" in their field against the evil they see, without being able to understand the complexity of the issues that Israeli academe faces.
Indeed, when I ask them why they do not declare a boycott against the U.S., for example, because of its invasion of Iraq, or on themselves for the involvement of their country in the same foolish action, they are quite embarrassed and admit that such a boycott is not realistic.
Those who approve of a boycott bring as an example the academic boycott of South Africa, which they say contributed greatly to the fall of apartheid. In fact, the academic boycott of South Africa proves the opposite. It resulted in the departure from that country of many of its progressive elements, the weakening of internal opposition to the regime, and perhaps even to the prolonging of its demise.
What did bring down the racist regime in South Africa was the general boycott - economic, political, military and cultural - a boycott of which the academic component was minuscule, and not a separate element.
If we cannot rid ourselves of the affliction of the occupation itself - and by the way, in South Africa an effective white anti-apartheid movement did crystalize, completing the external pressure that brought down the system - it is better to initiate a widespread external form of pressure, not a boycott that will further weaken Israeli civil society.
Ostensibly, a general boycott of the regime in Israel is not possible as long as the (almost) total support of the U.S. in our self-destructive policy is assured.
Nevertheless, there are signs that even this situation might change gradually, especially if the regime continues to commit systematic and systemic acts of stupidity like the upgrading of the Ariel College. If so, there is a real chance for a change in internal public opinion as well, which may make it worthwhile even for Israeli academe to suffer from the boycott until we purify ourselves completely from the impurity of the occupation.
The writer is George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.