With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why Stop at Boycotting Israel?

With the recent vote by the British Association of University Teachers to boycott some Israeli academic institutions and scholars who support the Occupation, it is becoming increasingly difficult for scholars of the Middle East, and especially Palestine/Israel (or Israel/Palestine, or Israel and Palestine, or Palestine and Israel—there are historical-chronological reasons to put either one first depending on how far back one goes) to avoid publicly taking sides in this often acrimonious debate.

I find this debate fascinating as much by what it excludes as by the subject matter itself. What I want to argue, however, is that if we look at the idea of how best to pressure Israel to end the Occupation and allow a real fulfillment of Palestinian nationhood (whatever that means) from a holistic—literally, global—perspective we can achieve deeper insight into the logic of the boycott/disinvestment argument, what level of support or criticism they are receiving from scholars and the public at large, and how likely it is that these strategies will achieve their stated goals.

When the idea of a boycott first arose in 2002 I was immediately and directly impacted. I was co-chair of a group composed of Israeli and Palestinian scholars which had just won a prestigious grant to work together on a research project. Unfortunately, the Palestinian members were compelled to withdraw from the group, both because their universities would not allow them to work in the same group as Israeli scholars--even though the scholars in question were among the most progressive and "pro" Palestinian (to use that much abused prefix) scholars in Israel--and because they felt that their community was experiencing such a level of violence that they couldn't devote energy to a joint project at the time.

It was hard to disagree with them, having seen first hand how much energy it takes Palestinian professors to keep their students following the syllabi when they're trapped across the West Bank and Gaza by suffocating curfews and can rarely make it to class in person. And so the remainder of our group, Israelis, Europeans and me, the lone American, supported their decision to withdraw officially because we understood they had no choice but to do so given the circumstances—this occurring in the incredibly tense and violent aftermath of the Israel invasion of Jenin. Since then we have continued to work together on a more ad hoc and unofficial manner, while our group went on to win the award the next year with a new group of Palestinian scholars who were freer to work with their Israeli colleagues.

But even as I spent hours on the phone to Ramallah, Nablus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bersheva working through the complex issues with colleagues from both communities the larger issue of boycotting Israeli scholars and disinvesting from Israel began to trouble me increasingly. It's not that I have a problem with Palestinians and Israelis calling for disinvestment from or even boycott of Israel because of its ongoing policies in the Occupied Territories (the two strategies are not identical even if they do stem from a similar political-moral calculation). After all, it's their struggle and they have the right to advocate whatever non-violent strategy they think will help them achieve their goal of ending the Occupation in all its aspects.

Indeed, when I read Ilan Pappe's appeal and recall his sense of utter exasperation at the inability of Israelis either to grasp the heinous realities of the Occupation or to do much of anything to end it, or talk to Palestinian academics who suffer so much from it in so many ways, I understand why Palestinian and Israeli scholars who advocate such measures feel that only the strongest possible message will have a chance of forcing the Israeli academy—and just maybe through it, Israeli society at large—to confront their role in the dispossession and continued oppression of millions of Palestinians. Nor, because of the immediacy and vastness of the Occupation, do I expect Israeli and Palestinian activists to have time or energy to move beyond comparing their plight to those of other oppressed groups to actually work actively on behalf of, say, Tibetans or the people of the Congo or Darfur.

What I have grown increasingly troubled with, however, has been how few non-Palestinian or Israeli scholars have seen this conflict in broader terms or considered that other countries/situations should logically and morally warrant the same consideration and treatment as Israel.

When the list of signers of the boycott call was first published about two years ago, I looked at it and emailed many of the signers to understand who they were. It turns out that most weren't/aren't scholars of Israel/Palestine or its two national movements, but rather were scientists or professors from other fields unrelated to their study. Well, it's pretty easy if you're, say, a professor of literature in London, to say you are boycotting Israeli scholars or institutions. You probably don't work with any Israelis and even if you did, given the "security situation" chances are you're not planning to visit them any time soon anyway. It's perhaps a bit more challenging if you work in medicine, IT, sciences or related fields were Israelis are disproportionastely (to its size) represented. And it's slightly more dicey if you’re a professor of Middle Eastern political or history in general, or focus on another country in the region (and here it's getting tougher because there are so many excellent Israeli scholars of other Middle Eastern/Muslim countries).

But what happens if, like me, you're a historian of Israel/Palestine? How am I supposed to support a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions? How do I do that and still continue my work, which involves visiting the country and various libraries, archives, meeting with Israeli colleagues, to achieve the level of understanding of events past and present that public presumes I should have as a historian and scholar of the country? Am I supposed to support the boycott but personally demure given the impossibility of working on a country I'm boycotting?

The point is, for most people who don't regularly work on or in Israel/Palestine or with Israeli colleagues, supporting a boycott is a nice way to demonstrate or burnish one's progressive credentials without having actually to give something up personally to make one's statement.

And there's another even more important issue when understanding calls for either boycott of or disinvestment from Israel: The participation of most of the supporters, however unwittingly and unwillingly in occupations perpetrated by their own governments that are nearly, as, and perhaps even more destructive than Israel's clearly criminal occupation. Let's start with the obvious but seemingly forgotten fact by most American-based scholars that every professor at an American university is the direct beneficiary of the most successful genocide in human history: that is, the European conquest of the North American continent. Indeed, European Christians succeeded in achieving in America exactly what European Jews failed to do in Palestine--to secure their new homeland with a negligible amount of the indigenous population left on it. And we are no better than the professor from Bar Ilan University who goes to teach in an outpost—just that we've succeeded in turning all our frontiers into bustling cities, while Israel still (thankfully) has a long way to go before this happens.

Let's face it; unless you're a direct descendent of either African slaves or Native Americans, if you live in the U.S. you are no better than a Jewish settler living in the West Bank or Gaza. How many people calling for boycotting or disinvesting from Israel even know the name(s) of the Native American tribe(s) on whose land, most likely stolen, their universities sit? How many of us have ever taken the time to work with Native American communities—our own Palestinians—who continue to suffer greatly from centuries of colonialism and occupation? Before, or at least at the same time that, we become involved in conflicts outside the U.S., don't we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to help the people from whose dispossession we directly benefit?

There was a similar logical problem with the infamous Zionism equals Racism resolution at the UN. That is, aside from the fact that the particular discrimination at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian case is more ethnic and/or religious than "racial," the fact is that there is almost no nationalist movement and nation-state in the modern world that has not been at some point—and usually till quite recently remained—been based on "a form of racism and racial discrimination" and which is also "a threat to world peace and security" (as Resolution 3379 described Israel) in its policies at home and/or abroad. This is particularly true of the kind of "settler colonial" societies of which the U.S., Australia, South Africa and Israel are prime examples, and of course of the major European empires or today the U.S.

And so the main problem is not that the UN condemned Israel, but rather that it only condemned Israel for possessing the kind of destructive and discriminatory ideologies, identities, and state practice that remain common to far too many nation-states in the modern era.

Move forward thirty years, and today the U.S. and Britain (where the boycott and disinvestments movements are strongest) are currently involved in a horrific, brutal occupation of Iraq that has killed many more Iraqis in two years than Israel has killed Palestinians in a century of conflict. And let's not forget the nearly incalculable material damage the Iraqi occupation has wrought. Shouldn't anyone who supports the boycott/disinvestment call simultaneously call for similar actions against American or British academics (that means, essentially, as Ilan Pappe has done, having the courage to urge a boycott against yourself) and the institutions for which they work?

And it's not just Iraq. My university, the University of California, has the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is home to one of the major nuclear weapon research programs in the United States. In other words, the same people who pay my salary manage one of the most dangerous and immoral operations in the world. I know many of the supporters of the boycott/disinvestments also work at various UC campuses; shouldn't we demand that UC immediately sever all ties with any government military or intelligence program and be willing to resign our positions if this doesn't occur in a timely manner? How in good conscience can any of us continue accepting money from UC based on the same moral principles that would lead us to call for the boycott/disinvestments in Israel? In fact, let me state here that I am willing to sign onto such a petition if other supporters of the Israeli boycott support it (that's if, in all seriousness, my wife let's me risk our family's future for this principle). And shouldn't we be boycotting any colleagues who come from university programs that have any ties to military or intelligence programs?

And what right do we have to stop with the United States? As bad as our occupation of Iraq is, China's genocidal occupation of Tibet is worse than the Iraqi and Palestinian occupations combined. Not to mention the widespread use of child and near-slave labor as the basis for the country's extraordinary growth. Shouldn't we be boycotting and calling for disinvestment from China at the same time as Israel? And Egypt, which we now know is "rendition" central in the war on terror, and therefore a lynchpin of America's own axis of evil? And Sudan? And Russia? And the list goes on and on.

Don't the victims of these occupations or political, religious, gender, economic and other severe and systematic forms of oppression deserve our concern and action as much as Palestinians? This is what I mean about the need to think holistically. As long as supporters of boycotts or disinvestments from Israel focus almost entirely on this one case, it becomes easy for the Right and so-called "supporters" of Israel (that's like calling someone who keeps pouring drinks for an alcoholic a "supporter" of that person) to raise issues of unfairness and anti-Jewish sentiments as being involved in the singling out of Israel, thus making it harder for supporters of these actions to achieve their stated goals.

So here's my suggestion: Let's put together a code of ethical conduct we expect any business or university or scholar with whom we or our university works to adhere to and demand that our university refuse to deal with any person, institution or business that can be shown knowingly to violate it. Let's say that if a university (or program/department within it) anywhere in the world (including in the U.S.) receives government funds related to war, violence and oppression, we will condemn the program or school, whenever possible refuse to work officially with it, yet forge relationships with faculty therein who, like Pappe and numerous other farsighted Israelis, are willing to risk their careers to change their system. Such a code would certainly include things like supporting or directly engaging in illegal occupations, systematic violations of civil, political, labor and human rights.

Let's take a page from the great (although by no means complete) success of Students Against Sweatshops and demand that our universities "disinvest" from any company (state or private-owned) that earns any significant income from military related contracts, or that violate workers' rights or the rights of indigenous or other peoples as well. Let's use our unique position in the public sphere and civil society to work against the walmartization of the world economy even as many of us focus our energy on the Apartheid Wall (they are certainly not unrelated). Such a code would clearly impact Israel in many facets, but not to the exclusion of so many other places where governments and corporations engage in systematic abuses against local populations that desperately need to be stopped. The Right could no longer label people as "anti-Semitic" for supporting actions against Israel that we would equally support in many other countries.

Ultimately, a more holistic and universalist strategy stands a better chance of ending the occupation and transforming both Israeli and Palestinian societies towards cultures of justice, peace and reconciliation than the current strategy of largely singling Israel out for criticism.

Related Links