Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel – Engage Journal Issue 4 – February 2007

Israel is frequently compared to South Africa (1, 2, 3, 4) by people who propose international, coordinated measures similar to those put in place to bring about the end of apartheid. One such, resurfacing in its fourth UK incarnation, is academic boycott (5). The campaign for the boycott of Israeli academics proposes an action which compromises academic freedom, reduces opportunities for debate, and obstructs the significant contribution of Israeli academics to knowledge. While the point has been made that these are not overwhelming considerations(6), they are, however, singularly important to academia and to society as a whole(7); as such their loss must be carefully weighed against the expected benefits of boycott. Academic boycott – in this case, obstructing the interchange and free flow of information between academics of Israel and academics abroad – is often painted as a tactic to bring about a change in policy of the Israeli government towards Palestinians, and is considered by its advocates to be a logical extension of wider economic divestment. Yet, as this paper sets out to explain, the validity of this cause-and-effect strategy is in doubt and the feasibility of implementing it properly, slim (8, 9, 10, 11). The fact that academic boycotts have been resurrected at all suggests that the ways in which the proposed boycott is expected to work are more obscure than is implied by their organisers.

This paper’s concern is the proposed institutional academic boycott of Israel, which it approaches from the following angles. First, the practice and effects of the South African academic boycott – as the Israeli boycott’s closest historical precedent and often-cited inspiration – are considered, with particular reference to one of the few pieces of empirical research in the area. A re-examination of the practicalities of the Israel academic boycott follows, which adds doubts about its feasibility to the doubts about its effectiveness already raised. Next, in seeking an explanation for the persistence of boycott campaigners in attempting to ratify dubious policy, some of the symbolism in the recent motions and calls to boycott Israel is explored. Finally there follows a discussion about the implications of these findings for the justification for and success of an academic boycott of Israel.

South African academic boycott

In contrast to economic boycott, academic boycott has been little studied. Out In The Cold: Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa(12), a 1995 book by Haricombe and her doctoral supervisor Lancaster, documents a rare piece of empirical research into the practice and effects of the South Africa boycott which has implications for the proposed exclusion of Israeli academics. Their findings support the observations of others that the impact of that boycott on academic business was minor – “more of a nuisance than a real obstacle” (p111) – but they also note a significant symbolic, psychological impact on individuals. What emerges strongly is that the academic boycott of South Africa worked as a gesture rather than as an obstacle to academic business; the varied boycott manifestations and responses of individuals who experienced them were so unpredictable as to forfeit their political impact and discredit academic boycott as a tactic. Although there is a well-known summary of the research(13), many important findings about the practice and effects of the boycott are omitted there which merit consideration below. Prior to that, it is helpful to include some of the background the authors provide on how the boycott was organised.

In recognition that boycott is an unwieldy instrument, measures were taken in South Africa to allow it to be both standardised and individualised. A collaboration between boycotters and the South African Union of Democratic University Staff Associations (UDUSA) was initiated in 1986 in response to the inability of the predominantly white established union to advocate for an academic community faced with mounting objections to the participation of white academics. In a climate conducive to a shift away from protest politics and towards the more reconstructive approach of selective support, the UDUSA came to assume the role of an endorsing agency. With the UDUSA’s blessing it was – on a case-by-case basis – possible for individual academics to attend and maybe participate in conferences in countries with a boycott policy. This blessing took the form of documentation, two examples of which Haricombe and Lancaster present, relating to the cases of two academics.

The documents themselves are striking, paradoxically both for their scope as political tests and their inability to guarantee what they set out to guarantee. While capitulating to the assault on academic freedom which its very existence constitutes, one document includes a statement that UDUSA members are expected to “pursue actively” (their emphasis) the aims of the UDUSA constitution, including that of upholding academic freedom and university autonomy. Additionally, members are vaguely “expected to implement as best and appropriately as they can” the ideals of democracy and an end to racism in society at large.

In short, only conspicuously anti-apartheid political activists, or those who successfully represented themselves as such to the UDUSA, would be supported in participating in international conferences. It may be argued that this is entirely appropriate, yet delegating the definition of ‘anti-apartheidness’ to a union meant that this seal of approval was withheld from some South African anti-racists. According to one contemporary(9), the African National Congress and Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) moved to supervise all decisions pertaining to international collaborations, restricting the inclusion of anti-racist academics who did not subscribe to the views or approach of the ANC or MDM – who were judged politically incorrect. Moreover the criteria these overseeing organisations applied were subject to revision, leading to what he terms the ‘erosion’ of sanctions, and tension between anti-apartheid NGOs.

Haricombe and Lancaster tasked themselves with investigating incidence and prevalence of different boycott manifestations and their effects. They sent 900 questionnaires to named academics across disciplines in 21 (all except one omitted in error) South African universities. The questionnaire was based on the following eight boycott elements which they had identified, below. It is worth considering at which level these work – individual or institutional (or both):

1. Scholars refusing to travel to South Africa or to invite South Africans abroad
2. Publishers, journals, and the like, refusing to publish South African manuscripts
3. Scholars abroad refusing to collaborate with South African scholars
4. Publishers abroad refusing to provide access to information (for example, books or computer software)
5. International conferences barring South Africans
6. Institutions abroad denying South African academics access
7. Institutions abroad refusing to recognize South African degrees
8. Scholars abroad refusing to act as external examiners for theses presented at South African universities.

They incorporated these manifestations into five questions about the boycott in practice, and a further four exploring effects on scholarly activity and steps taken by those affected to circumvent the boycott. Of their 513 respondents, 294 had been affected, from which they selected a sub-sample and further contacts for interview, totalling 42. Their findings are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Although 57% of the respondents reported experiencing some form of boycott, the manifestations they reported were often tacit or covert. There were many incidents of rejection (for example, declining South African visits, refusing to publish South African work, or refusing to sell resources such as publications to South Africans) for which reasons other than the boycott were given, but which respondents interpreted as boycott manifestations. Often, no reason for rejection was given, leaving the academic to speculate. In some cases respondents took an absence of response from referees or publishers to mean that their work had been covertly boycotted. Non-response to orders by some publishers or vendors was implicitly linked to the boycott.

An interviewee reported that his institution had been receiving “an alarmingly high incidence of inactive materials when they requested samples of biological agents and antibodies from other researchers in the field” (p95). In this context, documented occurrences like inexplicable disinvitation from a conference, manuscripts returned unopened, refusal to collaborate, perceived sluggishness, or non-response to orders and correspondence left South African academics unsure whether these ambiguous manifestations were boycott incidents or issues which should be pursued and put right: “…the nitpicking comments, you are not sure [whether] it is your scientific work that’s being penalized [or] is it because you are South African…” (p101).

Some of the affected respondents had encountered the boycott more directly. 16.4% had experienced the refusal of international scholars to collaborate with them. The largest proportion attributed this to pressure from the prospective collaborator’s professional or institutional peers, but refusal was also made on the grounds of moral support for the boycott. 49% had had to overcome problems with access to textbooks and/or periodicals. 25.9% had been denied conference participation or had experienced boycott action during the conference, such as denial of attendance at the official banquet or opening ceremonies, last-minute downgrading of presentations, and in its most extreme form, demonstrations or staged walk-outs prior to their presentation.

The anxiety and even fear this engendered in South African academics had a powerfully isolating effect on the individuals affected, one response to which was self-boycott. Haricombe and Lancaster define self-boycott as “the adoption of a self-imposed restriction by an individual to prevent/circumvent a penalty that would otherwise be imposed from elsewhere” (p96). Several interviewees had stopped attempting to participate in international conferences in order to avoid embarrassment.

The phenomenon of self-boycott emerged strongly, but it had not been explicitly anticipated in the questionnaire and the authors think that it was probably under-identified. Self-boycott is attributed to knowledge about boycott practice gleaned from personal experience or experience of colleagues, knowledge about the boycott policy of the country, institution or sponsoring agency, and expectation of rejection on the basis of nationality or residency. One respondent said “I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get because they … are the most anti-apartheid group … they just ignore you” and “we knew we did not have a chance” (p87). Another gave the following account (p72):

“I had problems… I could have gone on a British passport but I refused on principle to go. I’ve been in jail for my beliefs… I feel very strongly about not be allowed to go because I was in South Africa.”

This suggests that some anti-racist academics decided to self-boycott rather than avail themselves of opportunities to participate such as the selective support of the UDUSA. Although the reasons for this remain poorly understood, it is important evidence of unpredictability in responses to the boycott.

Practicability of academic boycott

The South Africa academic boycott was inconsistent, and responses to it predictably unpredictable. Mainly concerned with the perspectives and responses of those boycotted, Haricombe’s and Lancaster’s research does not shed light on why it was not standardised. It is tempting to speculate that boycotters did not acknowledge the need for a coordinated, transparent boycott with the significant bureaucratic burden that this implies. Haricombe and Lancaster note that the practice, effects and impact of academic boycotts excite few outside academia – there was little public interest in this dimension of the wider South African boycott(9) 9 and therefore little scrutiny. This may be partly due to the gesturing nature of boycotts: they demand little or no individual investment of time, money or energy, and in this respect are unsensational. For many who sign up to them, they involve no action beyond subscribing to a policy and this gives them appeal for people who wish to “do something” for the world’s oppressed, but who may prefer to avoid more conspicuous or effortful forms of activism.

This symbolic, inert quality of boycotts may explain why supporters are willing to accept them on strikingly vague terms. In 2002 Stephen and Hilary Rose politicised collaboration with Israeli academics in an open letter, signed by over 700 academics, stating that they could “no longer in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions” but would “continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli scientific colleagues on an individual basis.”(14) “…until Israel complies with UN resolutions and begins to negotiate seriously with its Arab neighbours”(15) . In 2005 PACBI called on people to “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era”(16) . At its 2005 Council the AUT considered a motion (motion 56)(17) that called on academics and intellectuals to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions” but which did not elaborate on the difference between an institution and an individual. In 2006, NATFHE voted narrowly in favour of motion 198C (18), which “noted continuing Israeli apartheid policies” and made the obscure recommendation that members “consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies”. These examples illustrate how the extent and expression of a boycott is designated a matter of individual conscience, and boycott organisers (to use the term loosely) are not concerned about gauging the intentions of who sign up to it. What this amounts to for Israel boycott organisers, even as they appeal to their supporters’ consciences, is a simultaneous demand that these consciences be surrendered and entrusted to the boycott. Jewish Socialist contributor Diana Nelsen (19) is quoted to this effect on Mona Baker’s web site:

“Many people, while sympathising with the boycott as a strategy, are concerned that it will alienate potential supporters of Palestinian self-determination. They also have tactical quarrels with the organisers. But it’s a tactic, not a strategy, and one of its by-products is an increased awareness of Israeli behaviour.”

In this way boycott supporters are discouraged from taking boycott at face value; instead – a license for irresponsibility – boycotts are cast as tactics which work circuitously, even mysteriously, through side-effects and by-products. This insistence (see for example the 2006 AAUP report on academic boycott[20] ) that boycott is a tactic and not a strategy is crucial in rebutting accusations that academic boycott of Israel is an antisemitic tail wagging the dog, a point which I revisit later.

Also militating against nuts-and-bolts detail is the prospect of disciplinary action or litigation:

“The legality of an academic boycott of institutions must be distinguished from taking adverse decisions against individuals because of their race or nationality. The latter would obviously be discriminatory and the specific wording of any boycott would have to be examined in close detail.” (21)

The above (from a guidance document on campus hate crimes and racial intolerance) is the only piece of advice offered to boycotters by BRICUP, the British Committee for Universities in Palestine. It is ironic that the vague terms with which the architects of academic boycott avoid litigation could easily be the downfall of those who, in practising boycott, fall foul of racial discrimination. This absence of guidance makes each boycotter arbiter of who is excluded and therefore ultimately responsible for the decision. Pro-boycotters argue that this makes the boycott more sensitive and specific, allowing for exemption of actively dissenting academics. However, standardisation and consistency, the bases of a collective act, depend both on the commitment of informed, conscientious boycotters, and on negotiated agreement between these individual boycotters. As such, this looks impossible to achieve, another casualty of a fixation with boycott as the only tactic under consideration.

Standardisation might mitigate psychological effects, but alone would not be sufficient to vindicate a boycott which did not achieve its aims. Only 12.6% of those affected in the research carried out by Haricombe and Lancaster reported that the boycott had had a major effect on their academic activities and the authors conclude that, because it constituted more of an inconvenience than a disruption, its effectiveness is doubtful. South African academics managed to circumvent the boycott by building links with countries that were not boycotting them and by using third parties, friends or front organisations to hide their South African origins. As a strategy for change, although some interviewees felt that academic boycott worked by sensitising academics who were indifferent to the imorality of apartheid, most rejected it strongly because it “played into the hands of the government since many of the radical and progressive scholars refused to visit South Africa anyway” (p101), and because of the way it penalised progressives alongside those who upheld the status quo:

“Universities that were fighting the government, and academics who spent time in jail were being adversely affected by this boycott. This is what really soured me badly” (p99).

Symbolism of the academic boycott of Israel

Haricombe and Lancaster note unanticipated effects to do with the symbolic quality of the South Africa boycott which, though “more than a nuisance or irritation than … a major obstacle in the path of their research or teaching activities” (p92), had a negative impact on individual academics at a psychological level. They comment:

“If the goal of an academic boycott is to create a feeling of isolation or devaluation, rather than to measurably impede scholarly progress, the South Africa boycott can be considered effective” (p112).

It is important to acknowledge that the failure of the boycott did not amount to it being neutral: as well as failing to achieve its aims it had side effects. Unlike withholding resources or custom, symbolism does not work at an organisational level but is felt in complex ways at the level of the individual psyche, implying that the success of the boycott depended on the reaction of those affected – in the interests of the boycott these needed to be conspicuous enough and of the right nature to stimulate the desired effect in their government. Yet on the contrary, not all of those subjected to boycott were prepared to be, or in a position to be, conspicuous.

Instead, their responses were unpredictable, as illustrated by the failure of the survey instrument to anticipate self-boycott. Some did indeed submit to a political test, and this could be held up as evidence that the boycott was working – however some self-boycotted, others circumvented the boycott, others chose to replace the work of international authors with South African work, others disassociated themselves from the country as part of a brain drain phenomenon which left South African scholarship more “parochial” (p95).
These phenomena undermine a central claim that the academic boycott of Israel would exclude institutions not individuals. As noted by Jon Pike (22), “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 2006 report of the All-Party Inquiry Into Antisemitism (23) noted

“The majority of those who have institutional affiliations to Israeli universities are Jewish, and thus the consequences of a boycott would be to exclude Jews from academic life. A boycott would have a detrimental effect on Jewish studies departments in the UK leaving them potentially unable to continue teaching.”

If academic boycott works on a symbolic level, this leads us to question what the Israeli case symbolises, which in turn involves attention to context. Leaving aside the interpretations of those who are boycotted, which are well documented (c.f. Engage, 2005 onwards), and accepting the aforementioned difficulties with monitoring the practice of academic boycott, the only remaining approach to answering this question is to explore what meanings boycotters intend.
Boycott statements, with their negotiated and deliberate wording, can be considered influential and representative. A brief analysis and critique follows – not exhaustive, since many of the points are well-worn – which draws out three themes of the boycott campaign: the implied denial of Israel’s right to exist; the charge of apartheid; and the particular culpability of Israeli academics, followed by a re-examination of the claim that boycotts are tactics rather than principles.

The denial of threats to Israel’s existence

PACBI’s (24) boycott call refers to “Palestinian citizens of Israel”. This is intended as a straightforward reference to the descendents of the Muslim, Christian and Druze people who remained in what had been British Mandate Palestine after the 1948 founding of Israel, and is supposed to contrast with “Jewish citizens of Israel”. The reference is problematic because it ignores the presence, at the time of Israel’s establishment, of the Yishuv – over half a million (25) ‘Jewish Palestinians’ making up around third of the population of British Mandate Palestine who, together with Muslims, Christians, and other groups, were entitled to become Israeli citizens. In this context, the choice of the phrase “Palestinian citizens of Israel”, and also “Arab-Palestinian citizens” (26) creates the impression not only of different ethnicities but of layered states – it hints that not only does Palestine exist, but that it is geographically superimposed over Israel.

It is rare for boycott supporters to try to dispel this impression and some go further in confirming it. Haim Bresheeth has termed all Israelis “foreign settlers” (27) whether they live in the Occupied Territories or within the 1949 Armistice Line (the Green Line). This kind of terminology, which may seem semantic and unimportant, resonates strongly with themes in Palestinian nationalism, the literal and figurative ‘wiping of Israel off the map’, examples of which include the ‘elimination’ enshrined in Hamas’s charter (28) , censorship of Israel’s existence by the Respect party , and statements from the Iranian president Ahmedinejad calling for the ‘annihilation of the Zionist regime’ (30) . In this way, the wording of the PACBI boycott statement allows it to be associated with illegitimisation of Israel.

The charge of apartheid

References to ‘apartheid’ in the motions and statements of the boycott campaign(1, 3, 4)are numerous. These are intended to work on an uncomplicated level, eliding Israel’s “colonial oppression … based on Zionist ideology” with the illegitimate South African apartheid regime – which Glaser (31) calls a ‘gold standard of evil’. Comparisons between apartheid and Zionism fall down with close attention to the historical background to the movement to establish Jewish state – Zionism – from the mid 1800s until the establishment of Israel (32, 33) a period in which more than a third of the world’s Jews were murdered and the need for Jewish self-determination became desperate. Since then Israel’s military aggression has not occurred in a political vacuum; in the period after the state was established forces from Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries invaded with the objective of destroying it, damaging economic boycott was imposed, and the Khartoum Resolution of 1967 stated “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel” (34). More recent examples of such threats have been cited in the previous section. This background, which boycotters generally choose to ignore, provides important insight into Israel’s challenges in building a liberal democracy which maintains Israel as a state for Jewish people in the context of eliminationist threats from neighbouring states and a proportion of its citizens, while upholding the equal rights of its non-Jewish citizens to prosper in Israel by right and not on sufferance.

The challenges faced by Israel cannot justify institutionalised and legalised discrimination endured by some non-Jewish Israeli citizens; the point relevant to this boycott debate is that the institutionalised and legalised exclusions invoked by pro-boycotters are not supremacist acts of apartheid. This is likely to be of little comfort to dispossessed, disadvantaged and disrupted Palestinians and Arab Israelis, but it should be taken into account by international boycott supporters who uncritically accept the apartheid claim. The “complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or sex” is included in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (35) , and Palestinian Israelis possess full voting rights and other civil rights upheld on numerous occasions by the legislature (36).

Academics are free to undermine state policy from within Israeli institutions – as evidenced by the work of dissenting academics such as the ‘New Sociologists’ and ‘New Historians’ Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart, Baruch Kimmerling, Idith Zertal and Yehuda Shenav (37), – a sharp contrast with the experiences of South African dissenting professors such as Eddie Roux and Jack Simons, whom the government prevented from taking up posts, and whose work it censored with retrograde legislation (9).

South African-born doctor David Katz recollects how, unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel’s hospitals made no distinction between Jewish and Arab victims of the Second Intifada (38). The proportions of non-Jewish students in the universities of Israel, while they do not reflect population demographics, demonstrate a principle of equal rights to education which non-white South Africans did not have. These and other indicators show that Israel, despite the hegemony and exclusion which also dog other states, is not an apartheid state but persists against significant obstacles in resisting totalitarianism, normalising dissent and upholding the rights of non-Jewish citizens.

Separate from Arab Israeli citizens, however, but still under Israel’s ultimate control are the disenfranchised non-Jewish, non-citizen Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. In his examination of the criteria for apartheid, Glaser (31) makes the point that dismissing the charge of apartheid is more difficult if we consider Israel to be a complex which comprises the territories as well as the region within the Green Line. The better arguments for a boycott emphasise the injustice of the segregation of what used to be a single population into Israeli citizens who have civil rights, the denationalised territory-based Palestinians with few or none, and the settlers with their privileged road networks and full individual and collective rights.

Glaser presents these systematised inequalities as morally equivalent to apartheid, but this is a difficult assertion to uphold since they do not discriminate on racial lines but geographical ones. For reasons of national security, and not for reasons of Jewish birthright to the land – a marginal view that most Israelis do not hold – withdrawal from the occupied territories is controversial and fiercely contested. Despite this, planning for Palestinian statehood is in progress, as is the end of the occupation. Punitive measures like academic boycotts, as discussed above, are inherently divisive and difficult to defend in this context, particularly where they justify their existence with reference to apartheid policies which do not exist in Israel, while ignoring policies which are, by Glaser’s standards, morally equivalent to apartheid in other countries (39, 40).

The particular culpability of Israeli academics

Seemingly as prevalent as the charges of apartheid are the persistent comparisons of Israel with Nazism, another ‘gold standard of evil’. The implication here is that, of all ethnicities involved in conflicts, the Jewish role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is particularly obscene because what Jews collectively experienced throughout history should have made them acutely empathetic to the suffering of other groups. One English Member of the European Parliament wrote that “it is very difficult to understand why those whose history is one of such terrible oppression appear not to care that they have themselves become oppressors” (41).

Ruth Kluger (42) points out the simplistic naivety of this widely-held view in her response to the same accusation:

“I sit in the student cafeteria with some advanced Ph.D. candidates, and one reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. Auschwitz was no educational insitution…You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theater for? … No one agrees, and no one contradicts me. Who wants to get into an argument with the old bag who’s got that number on her arm?”

Those who feel that a lack of empathy in Jews is particularly grievous may find a gratifying pedagogical quality in academic boycott, which makes reference to Nazism and apartheid but avoids engaging its targets in uncomfortable exchanges like the one above. However, such analogies are highly questionable. Jonathan Freedland (43) comments, “perhaps it is possible to imagine a very tight comparison of one specific aspect of Israeli conduct with an equally narrow item of Nazi policy that somehow did not feel like an assault on Jews – but it’s hard to see what that might be”.

A further dimension of the culpability of Israeli academics is that they are complicit in oppression either through accepting state funding, or through failure to take action against injustice. In this way they are said to become extensions or symptoms of an oppressive state. Again, this argument depends on a view of Israel as unique in this respect. Most higher education institutions world-wide rely on state funding – particularly in scientific disciplines and Israel is no different here. The situation in South Africa and Serbia, whose academics have been boycotted, was clear-cut: apartheid South Africa was governed with heavy intervention from the Security Council which has been compared (44) to a military junta, and there is consensus that the Serbian higher education forfeited its academic freedom in 1998 by signing an oath of allegiance to Slobodan Milosevic and accepting rectors he selected (45) . Israeli institutions however are sources of acute homegrown criticism levelled at the Israeli establishment (37).

Boycott of Israel – tactic, strategy or principle?

In the light of these three symbolic aspects to the boycott, it is the opinion of many if not most anti-boycotters that it is a pre-existing will to exclude Israel which is expressed in the boycott, rather than the other way round as boycott organisers claim. In other words, analogies between a given state and Nazi Germany or a given state and apartheid South Africa may be possible, but in Israel’s case they are avidly sought out and foregrounded to serve the cause of constructing Israel as a pariah state, thus smoothing the path for its exclusion. This explains boycott organisers’ willingness to sideline the atrocities of other states that might interfere with this construction of Israel, and their insistence that we ignore any other cause which would – if the murder of non-combatants, starvation, torture, unlawful dispossession, poor health, and poverty were really at the heart of their activism – altogether eclipse a boycott of Israel as an institutional or international cause.

So when an AAUP report, drawing on the South African boycott confidently asserts that “boycotts are not in themselves matters of principle but tactical weapons in political struggles”(20)20, this may have been true of South Africa, but this section has outlined reasons why it is not necessarily always the case. Here, there are abundant reasons to be skeptical – to entertain the idea that boycotting Israel may be a principle, an end in itself dishonestly masquerading as a tactic in an unbalanced campaign. Although such skepticism has been met by allegations of paranoia or disingenuity, it is sustained by a steady accumulation of reports charting an increase in antisemitism, the latest of which in the UK has exposed a striking measure of indifference on the part of UCU(23, 46).


Conclusions from the findings and discussion above stack up to build a strong case against academic boycott of Israel. Only in very extreme circumstances where there is an unequivocal case, eclipsing important concerns about academic freedom, for making a moral and symbolic stand can academic boycott be justified, because its effectiveness is in serious doubt. At the most basic level of feasibility, research findings discussed above suggest that the practice of academic boycott is compromised by an inherent resistance to standardisation which weakens and destabilises its effects.

Moreover, even if the coordination and consistency which strengthen the character of a boycott could be achieved, the experience of South Africa and latterly Israel indicates that academic boycott is largely symbolic – felt primarily by individuals at a personal or emotional level, but with unpredictable and usually unsensational consequences which do not ultimately influence government policy. The case for any academic boycott is cheapened from its inception – not only is it unlikely to achieve its aims but it is instead likely to affect individuals; since a core aim and selling point of this boycott is that it does not hurt individuals but damages the interests of institutions, its case is further undermined.

For these reasons academic boycott is at best an unreliable agent of policy change. Nevertheless, as Primoratz (47) points out, despite this weakness, it remains to ask whether the moral message of protest and disassociation a given boycott sends could be considered important enough to exist as an end in itself, overruling all other concerns and regardless of whether or not it ‘works’. An analysis of the symbolism of the boycott in question is needed to assess whether the analogies used in its calls and motions could be focused to convey a specific moral stand, the value of which outweighs the sacrifice of academic freedom and negative individual effects.

In Israel’s case, the campaign is undermined by the extreme one-sidedness of its protest, based in its refusal to acknowledge Palestinian and regional hostility to Israel’s Jews as an independent factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The charges of apartheid and Nazism signal a determination to ignore this hostility against Israel, turning historical persecution of Jews on its head by invoking Jewish ethno-supremacy as the sole basis of the conflict, and designating the task of “fixing” it as Israel’s exclusive responsibility. These charges are also inaccurate; circumstances within Israel’s borders prevent its being categorised as a Nazi or apartheid state, while marked inequalities between people living in the occupied territories and Arab Israelis of the same ethnicity show at least that Israeli policy here is neither Nazi nor apartheid.

By trying and failing to cast Israel as the world’s worst state, the boycott campaign fails both to justify itself and to distinguish itself from antisemitism. It is therefore unsurprising when it is interpreted as what Jonathan Sacks calls anti-Zionism “shading into antisemitism” (48).

The boycott’s moral stand communicates strongly as a partisan indictment of Israel’s Jews. This approach cannot withstand scrutiny when examined on its own terms, far less so when compared to the systematised and institutionalised human rights abuses perpetrated by other states. Yet boycott campaigners ignore these in order to foreground Israel as the world’s most important concern. This is the basis of an important symbolic dimension to the boycott: for many Jews it is strongly reminiscent of the anti-Jewish measures orchestrated by the Nazis in the 1930s. However, where this point has been made, it has been dismissed as a disingenuous move to, as Tom Paulin puts it, ‘deal the antisemitic card’ and so close the debate (noted by Hirsh and Cohen) (49).

Yet boycott supporters undermine the debate about academic freedom and antisemitism by framing the situation as an urgent humanitarian issue for which boycott is the only non-violent solution. In this way they seek to justify the incongruity of Israel as the solitary target of a punishment which not only overlooks several other states guilty of institutionalising the same policies for which Israel is targeted, but pyrrhically proposes a tactic that does not work. Under the circumstances, there are only two courses of action which would avoid antisemitism.

The first is to reject the proposed academic boycott entirely, but in the understanding that such rejection does not equate either to approval of Israel’s policies or to taking no action. The second is to demand that the principles which underpin it be applied to all academics equally in the understanding that academic boycott is not the kind of subtle instrument of change which would afford a more utilitarian application, but is rather an expression of moral protest which must be used consistently to avoid exposing its prejudices.

Mira Vogel

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(2) NGO Forum (2001). World Conference Against Racism NGO Forum Declaration (3 September 2001). Available from: Article 425.
(3) NATFHE (2006). Motion 198C. Available from:
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(5) April 2002, Steven and Hilary Rose initiated a call for a moratorium on European research collaborations with Israel. This resurfaced in the form of motions proposed at the HE union councils in 2003, 2005 and 2006. For a history of the Israel boycott• campaign, see
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(11) Pike, J. (2006). Wrong in principle, wrong in practice. May 9 2006. Available from:
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All web page citations last accessed: 29 November 2006.

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