A Counterproductive Call to Boycott Israel’s Universities – Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon

This piece, by Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon is from The New Republic

Israeli universities have links to their military. So do most research universities with the military establishments of their respective countries. To single out Israeliuniversities for opprobrium for such links is to say, in effect, that the Israeli military as such has no reason for being—a discriminatory absurdity.

Boycotts and divestment campaigns have their uses, and not only because they express moral passion. Properly focused, they channel passion at specific targets and toward specific results. In this spirit, the two of us have thrown ourselves into such campaigns. One, Calderon, is presently involved in the Israeli boycott of cultural performances in the Ariel settlement on the occupied West Bank. The other, Gitlin, worked against American economic relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa, from 1965 (a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank protesting their loans) through 1985-87 (as cofounder of divestment campaigns at Berkeley and Harvard).

Such efforts go after illegitimate targets—apartheid in the first instance, the West Bank occupation in the second. They send clear signals about indefensible institutions and policies. The apartheid regime excluded all but designated “whites” from citizen rights—therefore it had no right to exist, period. The West Bank occupation is likewise immoral and illegal, and therefore has no right to exist, second period. The boycott and divestment campaigns aimed, and aim, to deprive them of legitimacy—and rightly so. It was surely an unambiguous victory for human rights when the apartheid regime—from its political system down to its passbooks, its flag and its anthem—were definitively junked.

But the recent call for a University of Johannesburg boycott of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) is reckless. It fires a cultural scattergun and blurs necessary distinctions. Thus we take issue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an authentic hero of the anti-apartheid struggle against apartheid, who joined in a sweeping call to cut off ties with all Israeli universities, maintaining that they “are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. … Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”

The idea of a BGU boycott is in other ways misdirected. It should go without saying that Israeli academics are far more likely to support a just two-state solution than other Israelis. A boycott directed against their academic freedoms antagonizes precisely the Israeli political force that most opposes the occupation.

Moreover, in yet another way, the BGU boycott proposal is not only naïve but counterproductive, for it implicitly erases the Green Line and undercuts the Ariel boycott. In effect, it presumes that the Green Line has no particular meaning. Its implicit demand is: Israel, out of everywhere. In effect, it maintains—contrary to the United Nations partition decision of 1947, and the recognition of Israel by most nations—that the Israeli state has no right to exist.

By the same logic, those in Europe and elsewhere who support boycotts of Israeli products, artists, or universities, mirror the arguments of the West Bank settlers who insist that Ariel and Beer-Sheva belong to the same nation-state. Here again, a precise demand is of the essence. Israelis must be convinced that they should relinquish the West Bank. In other words, they need to be assured that pulling out of Ariel does not mean pulling out of Beer-Sheva.

Accordingly, it was good news that, on September 29, the faculty of the University of Johannesburg rejected the proposal to cut ties with BGU. Surely BGU-Johannesburg cooperation on biotechnology and water purification projects is worthy and should not be held hostage. But at the same time, the Johannesburg professors asked BGU “to work with Palestinian universities on research projects, and to start the collaborations within six months if it wants to maintain ties with the University of Johannesburg.” Again, the principle of such cooperation is sound. But such endeavors should be decided upon by academics themselves, not imposed from the outside. Ultimatums do not generate intellectual cooperation or found the moral life we all devoutly desire.

Nissim Calderon is a professor of Hebrew literature at an Israeli university. Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and the co-author of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, just published in the United States by Simon & Schuster.

This piece, by Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon, is from The New Republic

2 Responses to “A Counterproductive Call to Boycott Israel’s Universities – Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon”

  1. Angela Wine Says:

    Excuse me, I disagree with the statement of yours
    The bottom line is that when it comes to war and survival, immorality doesn’t play a part. The West Bank and Gaza openly declare their intention to wipe Israel off the map because they and other Arab nations consider Israel occupied territory and so Israel should be annihilated.so that they can call the area (including Israel) as Palestine.
    Without defending themselves, by keeping close watch on the West Bank and Gaza, Israel would have been gone a long time ago.
    The very fact that Israel made peace (albeit a more cold peace than warm) with Egypt and Jordan just shows that when they accept Israel’s existence, peace could easily be achieved and Israel could easily pull out.
    I ask the question. Why are there Arabs living in Israel, while Israelis cannot live on the West BAnk if they the Palestinians are so moral? But if we open our eyes we can see the Palestinian leaders DO NOT ASPIRE TO PEACE and Israel gets the blame. Funny isn’t it.
    As far as legality is concerned the West Bank and Gaza were conquered after aggression towards Israel and until some sincere negotiation over the land (which happens after every war) occurs Israel has the right to stay there at the moment in order to survive This is a paramount issue that people especially those outside Israel do not grasp. I ask them to try living here for 62 years under constant threat of annihilation one way or the other.

  2. luny Says:

    The new republic? The racist rag whose editor says things like
    “So many people in the black population are afflicted by deficiencies, and I mean cultural deficiencies, which Jews, for example, didn’t”
    “But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

    I wonder what your website would make of a pro-boycott article published in a place where “cultural deficiencies of Jews” and “Jewish conspiracies abusing the first amendment” are discussed. Perhaps in the context of the “controversial building of a synagogue”.

    I do not know about Israeli academia, but anyone who does not boycott the New Republic is an appeaser of racism.

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