On 30 May 2007 the British Academics’ Union (University and College Union) passed a motion at its annual congress urging lecturers to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.” Under the terms of the motion the union must now circulate calls for a boycott of Israeli universities to all of its branches for discussion. If adopted, the boycott initiative could see academics no longer writing for journals published by Israeli universities and refusing travel to Israel for conferences.
As member of the UCU, I regret that some of my colleagues have decided to pass this disgraceful motion, and I will do my best to oppose it. I can also preannounce that in case the motion reaches the approval of the majority of the UCU, I shall resign from the union. I will explain below my decision as well as what I think the UCU can do to improve the intellectual life of our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues who find themselves trapped in one of the most painful conflicts.
First of all, I do not believe in boycotts in general. It is my contention that boycotts of all kinds are often led by irrationality, are the result of hysteria rather than planning, miss a real political target, and last but not least, tend to be propagandistic by nature. My convictions on boycotts alone would have been enough to let me reject the UCU ‘Academic Boycott of Israel’. Yet this is not a ‘normal’ boycott, such as avoiding the purchase of certain brands of merchandise. This is an ‘academic’ generalised boycott of the academics working in a particular state. We are not even speaking here of the boycott of a particular Israeli university, (something which in any case I would reject), but the Israeli academe.
Some colleagues approached me and argued that I am right to oppose the boycott because it is shamefully ‘anti-Semitic’, wishing actually to say that it is anti-Jewish (Palestinians are Semitic too). I had to remind them that there are all kinds of westerners, as well as all kinds of Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists, working (and visiting) Israeli Universities – all of them with different opinions, ideas and political creeds as far as the conflict. So the anti-Semitic argument is not less propagandistic that the boycott itself.
Indeed, let me say this clearly, Israeli governments have committed atrocities, abused UN resolutions, and sometimes oppressed Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Jews who have criticized, opposed or rejected official attitudes towards the Middle East conflicts. Often we are reminded that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but, as one of my Jewish friends used to say, surely it is one of the most imperfect among the ones existing in the world as some of its most controversial laws and inhuman military operations demonstrate. At the same time, we have to recognise that even in Palestine academics have been persecuted not just by the Israeli authorities, but also by Palestinian paramilitary organizations and religious fanatics. I was wondering whether the UCU is organising an embargo against them too?
The Israeli governments and its politicians and their actions are not representative of the Israeli academe. Actually the majority of Israeli scholars are highly critical of their own governments and their aggressive military approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Some of these scholars have also suffered from restriction of their intellectual freedoms by their own universities because of their political creeds. So why boycott the most progressive side of the Israeli intellectual arena? Many Israeli academics have long been active in, or have even run, local NGOs such as Gush Shalom, B’Tselem, Yesh Gvul, the Committee to Stop Demolition of Houses in Palestine, the Committee to Stop Torture, and Courage to Resist. Their political activities have brought some commentators and politicians to challenge academics’ freedom, as noted in a recent Jerusalem Post article. Is the UCU motion jeopardising even further the freedom and independence of these Israeli colleagues? Is this the moral task of a union?
Leaving aside the above political argument, I reject the proposed boycott as an academic who is engaged in dialogue, debate and intellectual challenges. I can strongly disagree with other academics’ ideas, findings, and opinions, but I will never boycott their right to present, discuss, and explain them. As the founding editor of a new journal, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life, I see the boycott as the antinomy of our own mission as academics. We, as scholars, should wish to increase debate and dialogue, criticism and research; we, as scholars, should wish to facilitate cooperation and exchange through mutual respect. These are important elements for the advancement of humanity and also for achieving peace. It is through dialogue, and not censorship dressed as a boycott, that the Middle East can find a stable peace. Academics, both Palestinian and Israeli should be involved more in our research, help to overcome the terrible social and political effects that the war, occupation and today civil war have on their capacity of engaging in the scholarly debate. This is what the UCU should have proposed; this is the motion that I would have wished to read. A motion that goes beyond nations, creeds and skin colours inviting scholars to engage in a serious discussion of what we can do to resolve the everyday tragedy of the people of the Middle East. We should descend from the Ivory Tower to engage with reality (whatever it is and how ugly it might be) instead of just boarding up the doors of knowledge and denying entry.
Yet, I agree with those UCU members suggesting that we need a boycott. There is surely a boycott which we need to implement. A boycott on stupidity and childish behaviour of those academics whom, instead of engaging in serious research, prefer to play international politics.