The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The claim that BDS is a boycott campaign which is not directed at Israeli individuals is doing the rounds again. The article below is from February 2006 and questions this claim with regard to the academic boycott.

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike

The Myth of the Institutional Boycott - Jon PikeAdvocates of the academic boycott of Israel frequently complain that we get them wrong. They do not advocate, they say, an individual boycott. What they propose is an institutional boycott. The institutional boycott is much softer, they suggest, than the individual boycott – it’s the boycott where no-one gets hurt.

They make this move in part because of the fall out from the Mona Baker and the Andrew Wilkie case. That was, the boycotters say, a different kind of boycott – that was a boycott against individuals, and not against institutions. (They don’t generally, condemn Baker and Wilkie though. We normally get a shrugging of the shoulders – different strokes, for different folks).

Now, to cash out this distinction, the boycotters need to say what is meant by an act against an institution and what is meant by an act against an individual. They do not do this in any clear way so we have to reconstruct what they must mean from what they do say. Here are two actions the boycotters call for, within the remit of an institutional academic boycott. BRICUP advocates:

• ‘Refusing research collaborations with Israeli institutions or to referee papers or grant applications issuing from such institutions.’ (BRICUP website)

The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign says that it wants academics to

• ‘Refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted from Israeli institutions.’ (SPSC website)

Because it’s the way things work in my field – I submit papers and book proposals, and I also referee papers and book proposal, I want to say something about this particular action. It’s clear that the institutional boycott is supposed to be institutional because it involves the boycotting of papers from Israeli institutions. But here is my question.

Who wrote these papers?

There are a couple of possibilities. The first is: no-one. On this line, ‘Israeli institutions’ somehow belch out papers, these institutions are some sort of Heath Robinson machine, firing papers into the ether, and the good hearted boycotters don’t want have any contact with those machines, so they don’t referee them. But this is OK, because the refusal to referee, touches only the machines, the institutions, and there’s no worrying flesh and blood individual academic behind them.

The second is, that the papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions’ (BRICUP) or are ‘submitted from Israeli institutions’ (SPSC) are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by, individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer.

(But if it’s the Heath Robinson machine, that machine must be really clever. Perhaps we should read its papers).

Look at the two sentences above I’ve quoted from BRICUP and the SPSC: they are really very odd. And it changes none of the sense or the things in the real world to which the sentences refer if we change them to read:

• Refuse to referee papers or grant applications issuing from individuals at Israeli institutions (BRICUP)

• refuse to serve as a referee for publications submitted by individuals at Israeli institutions (SPSC)

This gets past the comprehension problem in the SPSC case, because the idea of an institution submitting a paper for publication was always opaque. Submitting a paper is an act and an act needs an agent. It’s obvious who submits a paper: the person who puts their name on it, or their name and that of their joint researchers.

The BRICUP sentence, though, is still troubling, because of this rather odd phrase ‘issuing from.’ It rings oddly with anyone actually involved in the grind of writing papers, submitting them, getting them accepted or rejected, making amendments and so on. Papers don’t ‘issue from’ anywhere at all. But the odd use of words is, again, instructive. To say that something ‘issues from’ something else is to be deliberately murky about the mechanism of issuing. It’s to suggest a mysterious agentless process. And, of course, that’s precisely what the boycotters want to suggest, because they want to divert attention from the fact that what they are advocating is discrimination in the selection processes of academic journals against Israeli thinkers.
There are, further, two ways in which this process of refusing to referee papers written by Israelis might be taken. One is terrible, the other is worse.

First, it might be that the boycotters advocate this as a position of ‘individual refusal.’ That is, like the antiwar protestors who said ‘Not in my name’ they may be arguing for an individual rejection of papers written by Israelis – with the let out that someone else on the editorial board can always referee the offending item. On this reading, the boycotters might have some defence against the criticism that their stance thwarts the academic lives and careers of Israelis, and holds back knowledge. They have the defence that they can say – ‘Well, I don’t mind the paper being published, I just don’t want to handle it myself.’ They can help themselves to that defence but only at the price of letting in the unmistakeable connotation of moral corruption, of infection, and disease arising from contact with the academic work of Israelis.

Second, they can, more consistently, more sensibly, say, ‘yes, of course the policy is general. Of course, we want everyone to adopt this policy of refusing to referee papers written by Israeli academics.’ This response has the merit of consistency and universalisability. As a result, it commits the boycotters to a political aspiration – a general refusal to referee papers by individuals at Israeli universities – that would exclude those individuals from this part of academic life.

Finally, remember that all this is now being proposed covertly. The boycotters were defeated in the AUT and failed in their attempt to gain a foothold in the AAUP. They can’t gain legitimacy for a public boycott, so they opt for a covert one. This covert boycott (a ‘quiet stand’ according to BRICUP) is, of course, denuded of a political message. But also, there is no mechanism of accountability for their actions. They claim that there is a difference between an institutional boycott and an individual boycott, and I think that there’s no difference. But we won’t be able to know whether or not there is an operable distinction, because the operation is now conducted in secret. We won’t be able to know whether people engage in Wilkie type actions (without the incriminating email). And I guess, the boycotters who think it’s OK to adopt an ‘institutional’ rather than an ‘individual’ boycott simply think we should trust them on that one.

So, next time a boycotter says they favour an institutional rather than an individual boycott, ask them what they make of the BRICUP and the SPSC statements. And ask them just which particular squalid little discriminatory acts they support.

Jon Pike
Senior Lecturer, Open University,
Chair, Engage

4 Responses to “The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    It is also interesting (i.e., I can’t understand what they’re playing at) to note that it doesn’t occur to the BDSers that in this case, the boycotted will take their papers, their research, their start-ups, to other, more understanding, English-speaking countries, like the United States (where, just like here, such a boycott would actually be unlawful) or, perhaps Australia.

    So, given that, whose academia would suffer? Israel’s or the UK’s? It’s just, for the Israelis, a longer plane flight. But al least they’d be welcome at the other end of it.

  2. Open letter to Claire Potter from David Hirsh | Engage Says:

    […] academia would inevitably become a boycott of our Israeli academic colleagues.  Some time ago Jon Pike wrote a piece explaining why the institutional boycott is a myth, please do read […]

  3. A reply to Claire Potter: in a fight to boycott Israelis, remain vigilant to the danger of antisemitism | Engage Says:

    […] the camp of the ‘horrible people’ or the good, radical people.  We have discussed how a boycott against academic institutions might impact against individuals and the danger of imposing a McCarthyite political test onto Israeli academics.  We havd discussed […]


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