Israeli Universities’ Response to Gaza War May Justify an Academic Boycott

Attempts by Israeli universities to punish students and faculty who protested against the Gaza war were a profound challenge to those, like me, who had opposed the boycott of Israeli academia.

Amir Hetsroni
Amir Hetsroni
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An anti-Israel protester at Dublin Airport, Ireland, June, 7, 2010.
An anti-Israel protester at Dublin Airport, Ireland, June, 7, 2010. Credit: AP
Amir Hetsroni
Amir Hetsroni

The lingering Gaza war and now (perhaps) its aftermath has brought once again to the fore the question of an international boycott of Israel. Before answering whether such a boycott is justified given the changing circumstances, and whether or not it stems from genuine recognition of unacceptable brutality of Israel's behavior and not from pure anti-Semitism, let us first clarify what the talk is about.

The BDS (Boycott Divest Sanctions) movement is known for calling on individuals and institutions worldwide to refrain from cooperating with Israel in any field – from commerce, through tourism, up to and including scientific research. These calls are loud and public, but often their effects remain undeclared by official channels, silent but not unnoticed. When, for example, sales of Israeli mangos to Scandinavia falls by more than 50 percent in just one month (as it did recently) it is not only due to the reluctance of Nordic food chains to market Israeli fruit but because their consumers leave produce marked "Made in Israel" on the shelves.

Alongside the ideological boycott, a non-ideological ‘avoidance’ of Israel and its products also exists. If large numbers of tourists cancel their vacation plans to the Holy Land (as many recently did), it is not necessarily because these tourists are set against the occupation. Quite likely, they simply prefer sunbathing on a serene Greek island to seeking shelter from missiles in the Ashkelon Riviera. This kind of avoidance is inevitable as long as Israel continues to be a dangerous place with an image tarnished badly by pictures of war and terror. In science, too, non-ideological avoidance operates. Only last week I received a note from a Polish colleague who was supposed to come to Israel to examine plans for a joint research project but asked to meet instead in Warsaw, explaining that no research is worth risking her life.

Yet, in academe - more than in other fields – the political boycott is thick on the ground. Over the last years, and particularly since the academic center in Ariel, a West Bank settlement, was upgraded from a teaching college to a research-first university, numerous campaigns were held to boycott Israeli institutes of higher education - and particularly Ariel, due to its active contribution to the occupation of a Palestinian homeland. The typical stance of most academics in Israel and abroad, including those who lean to the left, has been that such political boycott would be unjustified since it stems from 'non-academic' (thus 'irrelevant' or extraneous) reasons and because it would jeopardize the academic freedom of scientists who work in boycotted institutes.

I once shared this position. Unfortunately, recently I had to change my view. I still think that an academic boycott based on reasons that are not academic is unjustified, but something profound happened in Israeli academia during the war in Gaza, something severe enough to make me believe the option of boycotting is no longer out of question in some cases.

I am speaking of the undeniable attempts by academic management to prevent students and faculty from speaking their minds and punishing those who protest against the war. At the Technion, a medical student of Arab origin is about to stand trial for writing a joke on his Facebook page regarding the three teenagers kidnapped and murdered near Hebron.

Hadassah College in Jerusalem and Western Galilee College in Acre suspended students or their scholarships who wrote that Israel's activities in the Gaza Strip are war crimes. Hadassah College added a NIS 6,000 fine to the outright punishment. Presidents of Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University urged their students and faculty to show restraint in what they say. Ariel University – as one might have expected of an institute identified publicly as an academic outpost of the right-wing – warned students and faculty that any statement contradicting Zionist tenets violates the university's disciplinary code and would be treated accordingly.

Obviously, wartime is not the perfect season to change radical views, but it is a time when the commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom was most urgently needed. A college that prohibits students from taking part in political protest is not an academic institute. A university that vetoes its faculty's right to publish non-Zionist (not to say anti-Zionist) scholarship is not a university. In such cases an academic boycott might be an acceptable response – not because the institutes are placed in politically disputed land but since they show a lack of respect to the basic principles of science and democracy. In other words – it is not the location but the behavior, and it should be obvious to all that there’s no hint of anti-Semitism here.

Amir Hetsroni is a professor of communication at Ariel University, an Israeli university located in the West Bank. The article expresses his opinion and does not represent the view of the university.

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