College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics

College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics


Howard Adelman

I had written that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel did not originally include the boycott of Israeli academics speaking on campuses outside Israel. The effort to boycott academics had an earlier and separate origin. The academic boycott movement did not begin among Palestinians or Arabs but by Westerners. In fact, Jews initiated the idea of academic boycotts. The key mover and shaker was Stephen Rose, an illustrious professor of neuroscience at the Open University in Britain and an expert on the physiology of memory who also wrote popular versions of his scholarly work (Genes, Cells and Brains). He is perhaps best known to the wider public for his radical opposition to evolutionary psychology and sociology, that is, the effort of scientists to use Darwinian theory to explain social adaptation. As an ex-Orthodox Jew and an adamant atheist and Marxist, he and his sociologist wife, Hilary, started a petition in 2002 that eventually garnered over 700 signatures of scholars, including 10 Israeli academics, to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in the occupation of Arab lands.

Rose belongs to a long list of renowned academics, some of whom, like Tony Judt and Hannah Arendt, began as Zionists. They include Eric Hobsbawm, Judith Butler and Richard Falk, as well as lesser lights such as Ilan Pappé (originally at the University of Haifa) and Norman Finkelstein. If cultural figures are to be included, add Harold Pinter to the list. In 2013, even Stephen Hawking, though not a Jew, was recruited to join this anti-Zionist Jewish cabal of Jewish humanists and secularists.

Some may assume that this is a victory for the Palestinian cause. Certainly it is a victory of liberal utopians who believe that Jews have only individual rights and no national rights. Unfortunately, it feeds a trope that the problem is one of rights when it is one of national self-determination. Palestinians and Arabs as the indigenous majority in the region have that right. Colonizing Jews do not but, ironically, this is a contention that cannot be established by right. That has to be openly stated. Further, against these armchair Jewish anti-Zionist academics who subvert the Palestinian cause by seducing others to join with them in the belief that the matter can be settled by intellectual and economic pressures when any realistic analysis will demonstrate that it can only be settled by force of arms. If it were not so far-fetched, one might be led to believe that the Jewish-led academic boycott is really a secret Zionist plot to milk the Palestinian movement of its militancy and reduce its efforts to petitions, protests and verbal haranguing with few substantive victories, however well publicized, and far more substantive setbacks.

Case after case demonstrates this. Let me list them:

  • The Rose petition instigated a counter-petition which garnered even more signatures
  • Not one university has joined the divestment effort and many universities have turned the tables and formally denounced the academic boycott campaign, including almost 300 S. university presidents who in 2007 denounced the boycott movement
  • When Mona Baker, inspired by the Rose petition, delisted Dr. Miriam Schlesinger of Bar-Ilan University (who also happened to be a former chair of Amnesty International in Israel and a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause) from the editorial board of her prestigious journal, The Translator, she added the delisting of Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University to the dismissal list when Schlesinger refused to quietly resign. The result was a storm of protest, including from Judith Butler, a defender of boycotting Israeli institutions and not individuals, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt, President of the Modern Language Association of America, and an overwhelming vote of condemnation by the British Parliament. (Can you imagine, parliament becoming involved in the appointment process of members of an editorial board of an academic journal?) Baker then put her foot further in her mouth when she insisted that she was only in favour of boycotting institutions and not individuals, and then complained she was the victim of a Jewish cabal
  • Even major victories – the overwhelming majority support (73%) in March 2015 of the students, faculty and support staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London favouring the Israeli academic institution boycott and divestment campaign – had no concrete practical results
  • The Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain initially supported the BDS campaign, but subsequently rescinded its support when the organization merged with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which had just voted to boycott Israeli academics who did not vocally speak out against their government; the merged result, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to withdraw from supporting the BDS movement following the lead of the AUT which decided in 2005 to cancel the boycott of Israeli universities because of the damage to academic freedom and the hampering of dialogue and efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians; however, in 2010, the UCU reversed course again in a very minor way against the backdrop of the Israeli operation against Gaza in 2008-2009 when the UCU agreed to begin an investigative process into the Ariel University Centre of Samaria
  • In 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op decided to divest in any investments in companies supporting the Israeli occupation (a symbolic move) and, more substantively, to remove all Israeli goods from its shelves in a campaign led by Noah Sochet, a Jew, but that decision failed completely to serve as a catalyst for any other co-op to follow its lead; on the other hand, Israeli and Jewish lobby attempts to use lawfare and other techniques to rescind the action failed abysmally and backfired against the efforts on the grounds that any organization had the right and freedom to decide which items it would sell and which it would not
  • At a totally different scale, SuperValu food distributors in Ireland decided to no longer distribute food products from Israel, but the gap was quickly picked up by another distributor
  • In 2010, the Senate of the University of Western Sydney cancelled its relationship with Ben Gurion University thereby offering token support for the BDS movement
  • Following Wayne State, in 2010, the Student Government General Assembly of the University of Michigan in Dearborn, an area inhabited by 40,000 Arab Americans, passed Resolution # 2010-003 endorsing the BDS campaign
  • Following a vote by the York University Federation of Students endorsing BDS, in 2013, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) at Berkeley voted to demand that the university divest the $14 million it had invested in companies affiliated with the IDF, namely Caterpillar, Hewlett– Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings, but the motion was vetoed by student government president, Will Smelko. (The veto seemed to be with respect to divesting its $135 million in General Electric and United Technologies and I have not yet been able to clarify the discrepancy.) The final vote for divestment was passed by a tiny rump left at 4:00 a.m. by a vote of 16:4
  • UofT Mississauga Students Union passed a similar motion as had a rump group at the end of the previous year representing the Graduate Students Union (GSU) at the university
  • At Oxford University, support for BDS was defeated by a vote of 69:10
  • The University of Manitoba Students Union voted to strip financial support from the Students Against Israeli Apartheid;
  • In April 2013, theAssociation for Asian American Studies (AAAS) and in December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) by a two-thirds majority and the Council of Native American and Indigenous Studies Association unanimously voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions;
  • 500 anthropologists from around the world called on Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 but did not endorse divestment and/or a boycott
  • In February 2011, the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) first voted in support of an abstract motion condemning any state engaged in occupation of another territory and recommending divestment and then, after the amendment universalizing the motion of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), voted to declare the whole motion redundant which then resulted in the very opposite of democratic dialogue – shouting, intimidation and even the temporary blockade of the room in which the meeting was being held thereby proving by the actions of the protesters that the arguments based on abstract human rights were a sham
  • In January 2015, student leaders at Trent University by a vote of 47:28 with 14 abstentions reversed a previous motion of the TCSA (Trent Central Student Association) to boycott Israel on the grounds that it was discriminatory
  • The numbers of academic associations and universities that have rejected such calls for boycotts and divestments are far, far longer, and include the best universities in the world like Princeton and Stanford as well as institutions like the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Further, the American Council on Education in the U.S., its equivalent in Canada, the Canadian Association of Universities and Colleges (CAUT), have unanimously condemned boycotts aimed at Israeli academic institutions or Israeli academics individually; the American Association of University Professors also condemned the boycott effort. As AAUP worded their objections, “condemning violations of academic freedom whether they occur directly by state or administrative suppression of opposing points of view or indirectly by creating material conditions, such as blockades, checkpoints, and insufficient funding of Palestinian universities, that make the realization of academic freedom impossible” was both acceptable and even desirable, but NOT boycotts of either individual academics or their institutions. Dialogue, discourse, critique – there were the proper avenues for academics to make their views known
  • The states of Tennessee, Indiana, New York with other states lined up to follow, have voted to sanction learned societies that support BDS, in particular, ASA; in the U.S. Congress in February 2014, a bill, the “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” was introduced “to bar federal funds from going to academic institutions that back the BDS movement”
  • An objective and detached analysis would reveal far more defeats than the few and often only empty victories of the BDS movement after ten years of sustained and well-funded efforts. Instead, a few victories are broadcast ad nausea and often greatly exaggerated without a detailed examination on whether any changes on the ground have been effected, reinforcing the view that what counts for BDS are rhetorical and propaganda successes rather than any significant concrete wins .

Have the economic sanctions efforts yielded better results than the academic ones? It is true that Israel’s membership in a variety of international political and economic organizations (EU, OECD, etc.) provides a veneer of respectability, and, more importantly, an instrument for strengthening the economic foundation of the state, but that is merely an acknowledgement of the political, military and economic imbalance between the two sides. Turning it into a message of moral indictment is simply akin to blaming the wealth of the United States for impoverishment and impotency of others.

In the very first year of accession to membership by Israel in the OECD tourism council in 2010, when the Israeli Tourist Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, made the claim that the decision by the OECD for Israel to host the 2010 annual meeting was a recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, Sweden, Turkey, South Africa and Ireland all decided to stay away from the conference in protest against such an outrageous interpretation of the decision. The UK also stayed away,but said its decision was not politically motivated. Greece and Denmark sent low level delegates. The Palestinians claimed this as a victory for the BDS movement – OECD refused to consider moving the locale of the conference even when the stupid assertion was made by the Israeli tourist minister. All the evidence pointed to simply another self-inflicted wound by the Israeli government. Had the minister made no such statement, the conference would have gone ahead as planned. But quite aside from the conference, the reality is that tourism from Europe to Israel continues to increase. Swedes increasingly head to Eilat as a winter destination. The reality is that this was not a boycott in any substantive sense, but a protest against an irresponsible and factually incorrect claim by the Israeli tourist minister; the effect had nothing to do with the BDS movement and, in any case, had no repercussions on the ground.

What about the widespread and oft-repeated report by electronic intifada that Brazil cancelled a $2.2 billion security contract for the 2016 Olympics with International Security and Defence Systems (ISDS) of Israel? BDS allies in Brazil had been lobbying for a decision to exclude ISDS since it won the contract for the FIFA world cup. BDS Labour unions in Brazil had protested the possibility of using a company which they linked to the use of technologies in suppressing the Palestinians in the West Bank. BDS claimed an enormous victory.

The reality was something else. ISDS did claim to have won a contract in October 2014, not for $2.2 billion, but for a small part of that huge security budget. The contract was for design, organization, procurement and management of the security operation. The contract was not for provision of the security. On 8 April 2015, the Brazilian government denied that a $2.2 billion contract had ever even been contracted with ISDS let alone cancelled. Whether ISDS even obtained the small part of the contract for planning and coordination, I was not able to learn, but it now seems clear that it never received or even claimed to receive such a contract. The contract for planning and coordination could have been cancelled, but neither ISDS nor the Brazilian government opined on the subject and, given that this was a core security issue, it is no surprise that both the Brazilian government and ISDS remained otherwise silent.

It seems unlikely given the lead time needed to undertake the planning and coordination, that such a planning, coordination and procurement contract would have been cancelled. Further, the Brazilian Air Force purchased Israeli drones to patrol the skies during the World Cup in 2014. It is likely that Brazil will rely on even more of those drones for the Olympics. Even if Brazil had cancelled the contract, it was only for a very small part of the overall $2.2 billion sum. ISDS would have had to have completed or almost completed its work by April 2015 if the security were to be in place by the time of the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2016. Whatever the case, BDS had been engaged in gross exaggeration and in the practice of claiming great victories where they were at best ephemeral.

Elbit Systems Ltd. is another Israeli international high tech firm engaged in the provision of homeland or company security systems offering a wide range of defence, homeland security and commercial programs throughout the world. It won a contract for supplying the Philippines with 28 upgraded APCs for the army in a modest $20 million deal in spite of an enormous BDS effort to prevent the contract. In 2010, BDS did succeed in getting the huge Swedish pension fund, Foersta AP-Fonden, and the Norwegian Oil Fund to delete Elbit from its investment portfolio.

I have argued above that any consequentialist examination of the BDS movement ends up finding it contradictory and self-defeating rather than capable of producing better results than any other alternative. I have also implied that on situational grounds, the BDS movement is not grounded in an in-depth analysis of the economic and political forces arrayed against the BDS movement and how the Palestinian cause can emerge victorious. Rather, the movement is based on the contemporary ethos of shaming, which can and has produced results on an individual, corporate or national front, but often misguided, poorly targeted, and unfocused results in the electronic equivalent of the Salem witch trials.

There is also a deontological ethical argument. Like the genocide and many other international conventions, what counts in determining exploitation, colonization, expropriation and apartheid are intentions. The 2002 Rome Statute defines a crime against humanity as an action by a regime that systematically institutionalizes “oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”  Proving intention becomes the key. The dilemma is postulating ethical concerns between two polarities, a regime dedicated to establishing equal rights for all members of a polity and one dedicating to denying rights in perpetuity to a polity.

In this case, there are three different groups: 1) non-Jewish members of the Jewish state, 2) members of a Palestinian collectivity on territory controlled and/or occupied by the Jewish state, and 3) refugees with the same ethnicity as the previous two outside the territory of either state. Re the latter group, if denial of return were to be termed genocide, apartheid or even continued oppression, virtually every state in the world in which there has been ethnic and religious conflict would fail such a litmus test. If it is the second, then the case has contradictory evidence – the seizure of territory, sometimes privately owned, to expand the territorial control of the state and, on the other hand, the provision for the creation of universities (there were none there prior to 1967), and elections in that territory as well as educational and religious autonomy.

Even if the depiction of good will cannot be sustained, the charges of evil intent also cannot be proven given the mixed record. Piling up the evidence on one side without considering falsifying evidence is no way of determining evil intent. This has even greater truth when applied to the discrimination against Israeli Palestinian citizens of Israel even when they are treated as second class citizens and discriminated against with respect to employment and housing. This is why a political argument for collective rights falls flat because what comes forth is the need to defend individual and NOT collective rights and then to offer self-defence as a higher moral ground when faced with discontent and criticism.

But the key and most important issue is a teleological one. For those involved in and concerned have four choices, two mushy liberal ones each with a proven record of failure, even as many still cling to hopes for the first option.

  1. Liberal support for a two-nation solution in which Palestinians and Jews have their own nations and purportedly live side-by-side in peace, a position which still seems to enjoy support from some leading Palestinian figures such as Sari Nusseibeh, currently president of al-Quds University;
  2. Liberal support for a singular secular state with equal individual rights for every individual in the one state;
  3. A Conservative Jewish ideology or maintaining superior power and control by Zionists over the territory under the guise of both security and maintaining a Jewish majority in the territory;
  4. A Radical Palestinian vision of a single state dominated by Palestinians, including the refugees who, through victory on the ground, exercise their right to return.

The BDS movement is really based on the second of these options, even when sometimes, and in contradiction, employing the two-state language. If number 1 seems to be headed for the bankruptcy courts, considerable investment in option 2 might be warranted if the position were not so strategically weak in terms of situational ethics, and self-contradictory in the defence of Palestinian national and collective rights while denying the same to the Jews when insisting on a universal discourse of individual human rights. And when clearly understood, the resort to number 3 by more and more Jews and Zionists only undercuts both 1 and 2 even more, and moves state and national legislatures to introduce bans on promotion of BDS in the U.S. so that the most powerful state in the world more and more supports the hegemonic right-wing agenda in Israel.

The fourth option seems the only one left after discrediting the others, though this paper only focused on the BDS movement. If option 4 is reinterpreted as a focus on one’s own power, on the need to own and exercise that power instead of focusing on the horror of the other, if there is recognition that freedom and self-determination must be first exercised by oneself before one can become a true sovereign state, then everything is once again possible.

Conclusion (to follow in a separate blog)