Israeli professors: academic freedom includes freedom to self-boycott

Hundreds of Israeli professors and academics have signed a petition slamming Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s stated intention to take action against professors who support an academic boycott of Israel.

Petitioners include Haifa University rector Prof. Yossi Ben Artzi, Israel Prize laureates professors Benjamin Isaac and Yehoshua Kolodny, and former education minister Prof. Yuli Tamir.

Read on in Ha’aretz. As a staunch anti-boycotter I hope they are successful in overturning this attempt to criminalise boycott.

Update – some more on this.

Firstly, I mis-titled this post, I think – an inadvertent provocation.

The petition was initiated by Israel’s Forum for the Protection of Public Education. They don’t translate into English (i.e. they aren’t seeking international attention) but Google sort of does (and the original is here).

This petition needs to be considered in the context of the bill to outlaw Israel’s homegrown boycotters, which does not distinguish between the implicit eliminationism of a whole-Israel boycott and the implicit acceptance of Israel’s and Palestine’s co-existence in the boycott of settlement products. The 552 signatories of the petition are not fighting for the right to boycott – they explicitly do not endorse boycott – but against the intrusion of an unsurprisingly defensive government into what is said and considered on campus, and for the right, when one academic’s expression of freedom begins to interfere with that of their colleagues, of the institution to respond on its own behalf.

14 Responses to “Israeli professors: academic freedom includes freedom to self-boycott”

  1. Harry Goldstein Says:


    I don’t think it’s true that ‘academic freedom includes the freedom to self-boycott’.

    There are two aspects to this – the more generalised freedom of speech and political action that applies to everyone in a free society, and the more specific academic freedom that by definition applies only to academics.

    Surely the latter isn’t simply another word for the former but just applied to academics. After all, academics have – or should have – exactly the same rights of free speech and political action as everyone else, and there’s no reason to call these rights by a different name.

    Therefore academic freedom must mean something different from and additional to ordinary civil and political rights. It seems to me that it means the right to exercise academic judgement – i.e. to do teaching and research – without external constraint. Thus it relates specifically to academic work – teaching and research – and is the exact equivalent of a doctor’s clinical freedom .

    An academic boycott certainly transgresses academic freedom because it means that – for example – an academic would not be allowed to exercise their academic judgement to collaborate with an Israeli institution. Just as a medical boycott might transgress clinical freedom if it sought to limit who got treated, and what medical equipment could be used.

    Campaigning for a boycott is no more an exercise of academic freedom than a doctor’s doing the same would be an exercise of clinical freedom.

    It is of course an exercise of ordinary free speech. However, that raises another problem. Can an employer insist that for an employee to campaign against his/her own institution is incompatible with that employee’s contract of employment?

    Actually there are surely some circumstances where they can. A company PR officer may be free (according to basic civil rights) to diss his own employer, but he could hardly pretend that this is compatible with his remaining in his company role.

    Again, one’s civil rights might allow one to make sexually inappropriate suggestions to one’s co-workers, or to make racist comments in the workplace, but modern ethics and employment law – rightly – regard such behaviour as incompatible with one’s employment.

    There is a good case for saying that campaigning for a boycott of one’s own institution falls into this latter category. The campaigner is asking for his colleagues (and, bizarrely, presumably, himself) to be discriminated against, and this surely represents a form of harrassment which merits disciplinary action.

    Of course, it may or may not be wise for the institution to take such action, but that’s a different issue.

    • Bill Says:

      I have to disagree a little bit with Harry. And I’ll admit up front that I’m a lot more laissez-faire on interfering with lone boycotters, and other rouge elements in academia (up to where they cross legal lines that endanger more than their own careers).

      Harry’s of course right that we work on a leash of institutional policies and law. And if I trash my institution, I’m likely not going to be in its favor. No tenure for me (just ask Norm Finklestein who was known to “talk smack” about DePaul among other things locally that would deny him that privilege). Academic Freedom also can’t be used to discriminate by specific statuses (e.g., Race, Religion, National Origin) anymore than it lets us offer “favors” for grades. And based on all my HR training, the key boycotters have leaped well over the red line on a number of occasions. AF has little to do with UCU’s shenanigans.

      But since AF gives us the right to investigate and teach as our professional conscience sees fit, it also gives us the right to collaborate, or not to collaborate, as *we* see fit, reasonable, and ethical. Discrete and very carefully articulated “boycotts of one,” albeit not smart, may be within the bounds of AF depending on how each boycotter expresses their stance.

      (The problem with the boycott clique is that they want to expand the boycott to cover all members or at least to indemnify boycotters from legal action when they, inevitably, get sloppy. In both cases that’s a no-can-do. Once again, that’s not safe inside AF territory. And more importantly ,there typically are structures already in place at the foreign boycotters’ points of origin to deal with this. It’s the local university’s problem in the UK, US, etc., not Sa’ar’s.)

      But here, Sa’ar is crossing the same line as the boycotters, just as it would be inappropriate for Sa’ar or his counterpart to require me to “teach the ‘controversy'” of a “Young Earth,” if I want or need to work with someone who is pro-boycott, I should be allowed to do so (hypothetically of course). Likewise if said academic wants me to stop working with an anti-boycotter or no nice-nice, screw ’em. But *I* get to do the screwing by not working with someone who doesn’t reciprocate AF — as my prerogative, not university policy or law. It’s self policing and it’s, admittedly, what we do to keep the Sa’ars of the world off our back.

      Sa’ar can throw his weight around; that’s what government people do. He may get a few punches in, but academia, in total, should tell him to take a hike. He’s overtly undermining AF in order to save it just as the boycotters are trying to redefine AF to suit their partisan hobbyhorse. As academics, its our problem to deal with source of the boycott, and he can’t be the one to solve it. He’s just going to empower the boycott clique in Israel and abroad.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      You make some important points Harry. I’m going to ruminate for a bit and get back.

      • Mira Vogel Says:

        Basically Bill said what I think, Harry. I added a bit to the post above, including an apology about the title, which was provoking (although not all that provoking, given the not-so-huge volume of comments here).

        Yes, there are limits to academic freedom – it’s not the same as freedom for academics. James Watson being retired comes to mind, and there are plenty of other examples.

        When one boycotter’s free of expression demonstrably prevents their colleagues’ free association, or if it leads to discrimination, then the institution – the academic collectivity – has a problem it needs to solve (your point about contractual obligations) – but without government intervention to shape discourse. The petition needs to be looked at in the context of the bill to outlaw boycott, including boycott of the settlements. This is the latest of three bills suppressing dissent, and before that were the Nakba bill and the loyalty oath bill. This very-defensive government has authoritarian tendencies, and that’s no way to fight a boycott.

        I think academic boycotters like Neve Gordon are very wrong and very counterproductive and need to be opposed, but no good will come of government policing.

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Can an employer insist that for an employee to campaign against his/her own institution is incompatible with that employee’s contract of employment?” Possibly the wrong question, Harry – or at least framed in the wrong way (sorry to sound patronising, it’s unintentional but the hour is late and there isn’t the time to find the mot juste).

    Employees who are members of “recognised” unions can and do do this all the time, every time they campaign over pay and conditions, even though it is lawful to picket one’s own employer, arguably industrial action is against the contract of employment. Presumably, it is only in extremis that an employer will attempt to sack the work force and recruit replacements. Normally, they will take their lumps and sit it out or negotiate.

    However, we are talking of a situation which may well break the law, and just laws at that, such as Race Relations Acts and so forth. Then we’re back with Bill’s argument. And Steven Rose shouldn’t be looking to collect a Nobel Peace Prize just yet for his own avowal of a secret personal academic boycott either.

  3. Bill Says:

    The other thing here is that there’s a difference between an Israeli professor blowing smoke and asking to be boycotted and a UCU boycotter wanting to boycott Jews and only Jews and using “special pleading” (that leverages Jewish stereotypes, just as a “random” example).

    Yes, the Israeli self-boycotters will no doubt try for their own special pleading (or parachute out of Israeli academia, like some people have) so they’re not professionally isolated and thus only screw the fellow in the office next door. But they can ask for a boycott the same way I can ask for a personal parking space or a juicy raise. You don’t get if you don’t ask but that doesn’t mean that anyone has to listen, and even if there were no wannabe self-boycotters-except-for-me in Israel, the boycott movement would stagger onward like sloppy drunks anyway.

  4. Ed Kaplan Says:

    I think that the account linked below is relevant:,7340,L-3916653,00.html

    Regarding boycotts (or any other political tactic for that matter), it illustrates how everything comes down to where one draws a line, and on which side of the line one resides.

  5. N. Friedman Says:

    Four points:

    1. Regarding conditions of employment as it relates to this discussion, some elements of a contract, employment or otherwise, are stated in the agreement (if it is in writing) and some parts are either expressly or impliedly read into a contract, whether or not they are stated.

    Hence, the right to boycott might be read into a contract without doing an injustice to the notion that employees can strike. This is because the law can indicate that there is a right to strike, notwithstanding a contract but no right to boycott, because that has a deleterious impact for purposes of desired public policy. Stated a different way, the Israeli government can certainly determine that advocating a boycott is inconsistent with the condition of employment.

    Such may or may not be desirable but it is not something outside of the norm for democratic states with respect to employment.

    2. Advocating or boycotting is not the same thing as academic research. Rather, it is a question of the right not to associate with people or groups with whom you prefer not to associate. More simply stated, it is the exercise of a political prerogative or, perhaps, political right, not a form of research.

    3. This discussion, like so many others on this website, confuses the tree for the forest. Understanding and countering Antisemitism is what this website is supposed to be about, not whether the Israelis should allow or disallow boycotts of Israelis who oppose Israeli public policy. It is just as misplaced as Israeli boy-cotters who object to Israel’s settlement policy instead of aiming their objection internally – which would mean advocating to reform the Israeli political system so that it no longer grants minority political factions more political power than they have in other countries – but at joining with Israel’s enemies.

    4. The problem of Antisemitism is too significant to waste energy worrying whether Israel commits this or that peccadillo. I reiterate what I have written here recently:

    Please carefully read Paul Berman’s most recent book, The Flight of the Intellectuals (and most particularly his discussion of Jeffrey Herf’s research about the Islamist movement’s nexus with the Nazis from Nazi Propaganda For The Arab World and from Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers’ research presented in Halbmond und Hakenkreuz – Das “Dritte Reich”, die Araber und Palästina (in English – “Crescent Moon and Swastika: The Third Reich, the Arabs, and Palestine”). You should also read Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s most recent book, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, which shows in pretty stark terms that the Islamist movement is, all things considered, not only the most openly Antisemitic party today on Earth but also a party which openly espouses genocide and has acted to advance that aim. Reading these books might open your eyes to just how misplaced your priorities are here.

    • Bill Says:

      I’m due to leave on travel so I’ll let Mira or Brian or someone else address the nuances of academic freedom, and I’ll just hug one tree (ok two).

      Regarding their contracts:

      There isn’t much room between the lines to say ix-nay on the oycott-be or other precise scripts from the government (or for that matter the regents, president, provost, dean, chair…). But ironically, there is one avenue where Sa’ar could have steamrolled over the home-grown boycotters easily.

      The best foothold for Sa’ar on this isn’t talking smack about Israel but rather capital-L Lobbying (as opposed to commenting) on matters other than academic. It’s standard gov employee (most universities in Israel aren’t private, IFAIK) best practice in several countries and the one area in my contract & policy manual where my fair comment must be run through channels to our designated agent outside the institutional firewall. But that’s not the path that Sa’ar is taking from the looks of things.

      And trust me N! We here are painfully aware of the forest of existential threats to Israel, both with respect to concretes like Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and very real abstractions like anti-semitism and it’s sock puppet “globalized anti-zionism.” Same goes for radical Islam. Regulating comment of all faculty to deal with a few crank profs and tenured teenagers isn’t the way to address it. Most faculty don’t support a boycott inside or outside of Israel. Declaring the headcases the norm and regulating the rest of us is just going to make the rest of us mad and suspect that there are more restrictions on the rest of us on the way. And as Mira stated, this seems to be a current trend for the present government.

      • N. Friedman Says:


        I do not recall saying that I support legislation in Israel related to boycotts by Israeli academics. It does not impact on me because I do not live in Israel and is a matter for Israelis to sort out for themselves. The closest I come to the topic is to note that the Israeli political system gives too much authority to minority factions so, perhaps, the boycott advocates in Israel might work to reform the country’s political system. However, that is for Israelis, not me, to worry about.

        In any event, what I was saying above is that such legislation could be passed as a regulation of contractual relations, that boycotts are not part of the job of an academic and that the facts uncovered by people such as Jeffrey Herf are far, far too serious to be displaced by discussions of irrelevancies: such facts showing the origins of today’s Antisemitism and, as such, much about its nature – most particularly in the Arab regions – being not a circumstantial Antisemitism that might be remedied by resolving the Arab Israeli dispute but, instead, one of world-historical significance that must be faced down on its own without regard to what Israel does or fails to do. Hence, all the talk about this or that policy of the Israeli right is a waste of energy. The same for discussions about occupations and flotillas, etc., etc.

        I do not understand why this website repeatedly gets itself drawn into matters that may concern Israelis or Israel but which are of no consequence to fighting Antisemitism. As you note, the issue of self-boycotting Israelis involves only a very small number of people. So, what possible concern is it to the fight against Antisemitism? None.

  6. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    It really shouldn’t be necessary, and certainly not to its friends, to have to remind people of the origins and intent of this website. I know whereof I speak: while not a founder of the site, I was a founder commenter; I endorse the statement of principles to be found in “About us”, up there on the left-hand side of every page; and I am a signatory of the Euston Manifesto.

    This site was founded to publicise and lead the fight against the boycott of Israeli and only Israeli universities by what was then the Association of University Teachers (AUT), although its soon to be partner in a new trade union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) wasn’t far behind in its own efforts in this field.

    As is well known, the one and only time the membership of the AUT were invited to collectively and directly express their view on the boycott, they decisively rejected it. As a former member of NATFHE, I can attest that we were never offered the chance to so vote.

    The ground for this opposition to the boycott was mainly the clarion call for academic freedom, everywhere and anywhere, on the basis that an attack on academic freedom anywhere was an attack on it everywhere. After all, even at the height of the cold war, western and Soviet Bloc academics still talked to each other, or tried to, if their governments would let them. Even the presumed boycott of South Africa, often called in support of the boycott of Israel, was never as solid as is frequently claimed: much opposition to apartheid came from the South African academic community.

    Of course, there was and is a suspicion that the selection of the only Jewish state in the world might have something to do with the motives of some who chose to support the call for a boycott. However, the use, inadvertent or otherwise, of antisemitic tropes should not lead to casual accusations of antisemitism, not only because they are often wrong, but also because they are counter-productive to the main aim of the fight: to defend academic freedom anywhere and everywhere.

    Thus, when the Israeli government proposes to criminalise those within the Israeli academic community who, for whatever reason, call for a boycott of themselves, their colleagues and their institutions, engageonline must, quite rightly, identify this for what it is: an attack on academic freedom. It is _not_ an irrelevance to do so, nor is it a side-issue to this site’s concerns.

    If we are to fight for academic freedom, this means fighting against attacks on it wherever they are to be found – even in Israel. And in fact the fight against antisemitism is _part_ of the overall fight, not the main reason for this site’s existence: it is part of the fight because the suspicion must always be there that the reason for the selection of Israel for boycott has little to do with the state’s record on human rights (which we all know is far from the worst in the world) and much more to do with the fact of being the “Jewish state”.

  7. N. Friedman Says:


    The Engage website did, as you note, come out of the movement opposed to boycotts and a primary focus has to be, with respect to Europe, boycotts – since that is an important part of the campaign against things Jewish. That, however, is not quite the same thing as citing Engage’s raison d’être. According to Engage’s website:

    Engage is a single issue campaign. It focuses on one issue, antisemitism, and is therefore concerned also about the demonization of Israel, and of Jews who don’t think of themselves as anti-Zionists. [Emphasis added.]

    The issue raised on this particular page of Engage concerns the views of an insignificant number of Israelis who are at extreme odds with their country’s policies if not existence. Most Israelis have no interest in boycotting themselves. That is a position, for a country at war, of, in the best case interpretation, fools.

    As a country fighting a long term war of attrition against enemies all around it, it is for Israelis, not foreigners (who are unaffected by the matter), to worry about what is expected of its citizens. It is, for us outsiders, to worry about combating Antisemitism and, as it relates to Engage, things like boycotts which are being used by Antisemites. Which is to say, this is not a website directed to combating all boycotts without consideration of circumstance. It is to combat boycotts that have some important connection to Antisemitism.

    The issues raised by a boycott by Israelis are entirely different from the issues raised by non-Israelis who want to boycott Israel. So, I think your entire comment amounts to ideology trumping an analysis of the circumstances involved.

  8. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    The very first words in “About us” are: “Engage, the group for which this web site is a focal point, was created to arm people with arguments and facts that they could use to counter the propaganda of the boycott campaign within the Association of University Teachers. Engage grew from a being a resource for that particular campaign into being a resource that aims to help people counter the boycott Israel campaign in general, as well as the the assumptions and misrepresentations that lie behind it.” By their words (and deeds) shall ye know them.

    Thus, citing fighting the boycott as Engage’s raison d’etre is exactly right, and Neil Friedman, wittingly or otherwise, is obfuscating the issue by constantly referring to antisemitism and only antisemitism as the focus (or perhaps the _major_ focus) of this website and further compounds the problem by asserting or implying that what happens in Israel is or should be of little interest to Engage.

    If Neil Friedman wishes to focus his attention there, that is his privilege, but he shouldn’t expect others who comment here to fall in line with _his_ take on what this website is all about. Of course, when discussion and debate is focussed on boycotts of Israel, antisemitism comes into the equation. However, we know (or should know) that not all members (official or unofficial) of the BDS movement are antisemites, and many, possibly most, do not use antisemitic tropes in their arguments. Not all of them are even anti-Zionists: that is, they may have no desire to see the end of the state of Israel. They may just wish to see a _different_ Israel, even if that different Israel would not be, to me and others like me, a pretty picture.

    Given the words that start this particular comment, an apparent attack by the Israeli government on the academic freedom of its own academics, however few in number they are, should ring alarm bells among those of us who take academic freedom anywhere and everywhere seriously. Furthermore, it is a another turn in the vicious circle which encourages the BDS adherents to increase their efforts, and possibly encourages a right-wing Israeli government to increase _its_ efforts to create a conformist consensus.
    It is Neil Friedman’s privilege to believe what he wishes about the importance of antisemitism to Israelis, the world Jewish community and/or Engage, but please don’t tell the rest of us what we should be doing or thinking.

  9. Israeli academics consider the academic boycott « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] it’s hard enough to laugh and reach cybernetic accommodations; you can only imagine how recent government moves into Israeli academia have been received there in these political […]

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