Israel's Academic Boycott: The Siege of Palestinian Education
In the furore that followed the suggestion of a limited academic boycott of Israel in April 2002, two major arguments were employed in opposition. The first was that the boycott is an attack on academic freedom, and therefore fundamentally immoral. The second is that Israeli academia represents a powerful source of opposition to government policy and that Israeli allies of the Palestinian cause would be hurt, and ultimately silenced by a boycott campaign. Palestinian academics and students are well placed to comment on the issue of attacks on academic freedom, but their voices were largely absent from this debate. In addition there has been little critical analysis of the true political profile of Israeli academia. To address these questions, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign planned an international video conference, bringing Palestinian academics and students together with Israeli academic dissidents and advocates of the boycott in UK universities.
On March 4th 2003, professor Hillary Rose, who along with her husband Steven initiated the boycott petition in the UK, spoke at the Augustine United Church in Edinburgh. Hillary was joined from Tel Aviv by Tanya Reinhart and Rachel Giora, two of the few Israeli professors who are living up to their responsibility to fight the repressive policies of their government. A link was planned also with Birzeit university in occupied Palestine, where professors Reema Hammami and Lisa Taraki were joined by Palestinian students. Unfortunately we were unable to establish either a video or a voice link with Birzeit. Our technical advisor (not a political person) strongly suspected that the signal was being monitored and blocked by the Israeli authorities. There follows an edited transcript of the event.
Background: Hillary Rose
Background: Hillary Rose
It’s a great pleasure to be here in Edinburgh at this meeting called by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. And it’s an absolute joy to see Tanya Reinhart and Rachel Giora with whom I’ve been in contact over the past months, it’s a great pleasure. And I look forward hopefully to seeing as well as hearing Reema Hammami and her colleague Lisa Taraki because I’ve also been in correspondence with them and indeed as I am a feminist I’ll have particular pleasure in meeting my colleagues in the gender studies group at Birzeit. Those are the academic pledges.
The boycott letter
Almost 12 months ago Steven (1) and I were incredibly depressed at what was going on in the Middle East, and the sense that the international governments, who should have been making sure that the UN resolutions would be enforced (and we know that governments can get very interested in enforcing UN resolutions) why then is it 60 vetoes that the US has used to stop anything happening on the Middle East? (2). Because of this sense of absolute powerlessness, and feeling of growing desperation at the situation we thought what can we do? It’s a curious thing which those of you who are academics will know, that the European Union has something called the European Research Area. All the member countries put money in and you write research proposals as academics and industry and you get the money out. Now very bizarrely, and I think it says much of the colonial position of Israel, bizarrely one Middle East country is a member of the European research association, that is Israel. And this is what triggered our thought, that this is something that we as Europeans can do. We can invite our fellow academics to join with us in declaring a boycott, particularly focused on this business of European research money. And refuse, because we have to work in networks with four or five universities, simply refuse to collaborate with people working in Israeli institutions. So we rolled out our letter suggesting this to a few friends, they sent it to more, and within six days 126 people, academics from all over Europe signed up, including with great courage a good handful of Israeli academics. So that’s where it began (3).
Now it’s also produced an enormous amount of hostility. I want to say the hostility comes from two positions. One position is fundamentally unwilling to accept any criticism of Israel whatsoever. It is Israel right or wrong. And frequently people with this position emphasise the "democracy" of Israel and its strong academic tradition and therefore the right of Israeli academics for academic freedom. Often this position, we were to discover rather sharply, flies into something else. It then attacks critics. If the critic is a Jew, they’re described as a "self hating" Jew. If the critic is not Jewish they’re described as anti-Semitic. Now this is frankly to mistake the message for the messenger and it’s completely unacceptable. It doesn’t avoid however the need always to address both anti-Semitism and racism which are constant and terrible problems all over the world, and as we all know, brutally within Europe.
The second position is more interesting. This one appeals to the view that science is above politics and that politics and science should not mix. We get arguments from the scientific journal Nature (4) and the International Council for Scientific Union who speak of the universality of science, the unrestricted flow of scientific ideas, free rights to publish and associate freely and share material. They conclude that there should be few, if any, circumstances where this should be overridden. Now this is one view of science and I want to ask you why Palestine represents an exceptional case. The Association of University Teachers and the other higher education teaching unions both supported the boycott. The Association of University teachers simply adopted the text of our letter while NATFHE (5) was even more robust.
Six reasons to support the boycott
There are six reasons why it’s right to support the academic boycott and I want to say here, and I should have said this at the beginning, I speak for me. I cannot speak for all signatories of the letter. I have no right to. What I have in common with them is we’ve signed the letter, we defend the academic freedom of our right to express our views and to hold that position, but how we get to sign the letter will be different for each of us. This is my argument.
First Israel has an internal racially organized hierarchical structure, not very different from Apartheid. Arab citizens who are unwilling to serve in the army are penalised with lower welfare benefits and diminished access to universities. Jewish citizens who do so, typically for religious reasons, are not so penalised. Those of us who read the Guardian will have seen the further attacks on the rights of the Bedouin (6), the ancient nomadic people, to continue wandering in the desert and instead they are going to be replaced by Jewish settlements. This is quite straightforwardly racist and it’s well in keeping with an Apartheid regime.
Two, Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing. Currently one party in the government (7) fought the recent elections on a straightforward platform of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank. Three, Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Mordechai Vanunu who blew the whistle on this was captured in another country and incarcerated. The missiles are no secret, they’re listed in Jane’s. It is rare that countries with nuclear weapons do not also have chemical and biological weapons. Four, Israel is in breach of UN resolutions, starting with 242. The role of the US and its practice of using its veto to protect Israel from the implementation of these resolutions is widely recognised.
Fifth, and this is a very important argument, a boycott, as the South African example shows, can only work, when the boycotted wishes to join the community that is doing the boycotting. It’s crucial. That means that the idea of boycotting several completely brutal and despotic regimes who are also indifferent to human rights and they’re completely indifferent to being part of the community of democratic nations is a complete waste of time. So a boycott against Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China is frankly useless and pointless. The rage that the academic boycott has generated, not least within Israel, and the recognition by the newspaper Ha’aretz, which says that the boycott is working, is proof of the value in this particular context.
Lastly, an academic boycott which looks to Europe, and which comes from civil society, not from government, has the potential of bypassing the excessive and negative influence of the US in Middle East politics. The EU is committed to human rights, and as we’ve seen in the case of Turkey has actually blocked its full membership on the grounds of its failure on human rights issues. Logically, Israel should not be permitted to remain in the European Research Area, whose core countries are the EU member states, when it is in breach of human rights and its leaders are, on a priori grounds, eligible to be prosecuted for war crimes.
The nature of science
I am a sociologist and I would argue that the position taken up by Nature is actually something of an absurdity. It argues that science, the whole research system, is above politics. Now if we look at the reality of our campuses today, and Edinburgh is a major research university, you’ll find an enormous amount of industrial money on campus. We now have tremendous problems with the peer review system, whether for grants or for refereeing papers, because leading researchers, particularly in the biological sciences, either own a small company, have substantial shares in biotech companies, or are very well paid advisors. They are not, in the old language of science, disinterested. They are very interested indeed, and this is actually changing the nature of science. It is no longer something very separate from society. What we’ve got now are very much more hybrid forms of knowledge production, so there's very little evidence to support the old idea of pure science.
So I would argue that Nature’s position, this world that they’re describing, actually does not exist, even in those countries which claim still that the ideology of science prevails. Speaking purely as a sociologist I really cannot buy that basic argument. For example a Nature issue that was particularly amusing, this was last week. At the back there was a statement of excellence, that was the stuff I read out about freedom to publish and so on. At the front there was a statement that said if any research results looked as if they might be potentially attractive to a terrorist group that paper would be suppressed. So some politics come in. It’s this very peculiar word of "politics" in play here. We’re back with Alice and Wonderland. You remember Humpty Dumpty saying "a word means exactly what I want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less". Nature is actually using politics in a way that suits Nature and not in any way that is comprehensible to anyone who is trying to be fair with the use of the word.
I think that Nature’s call for Israeli-Palestinian collaborative research which it makes instead of the boycott (8), fails to recognise the sheer impossibility of the work of the Palestinian universities. The exhibition outside (9) documents that so I won’t rehearse it. When you see a classroom bombed, how can education take place? Basically I think that what Nature is asking for roughly speaking is academic freedom for Israeli academics but no academic freedom for Palestinian academics because they do not have the right to travel, they do not have the right to move freely around their own land.
I think there are some new initiatives developing now and I hope that among the very important developments, like the internationals going (10) and standing so as to observe the activities of the occupying army of Israel (I cannot bring myself to use that euphemism which George Orwell would recognise of the "Israeli Defence Force" that’s a euphemism too far for my stomach). I think there has to be a stage when it would be interesting to talk about academics who are very happy to sign the boycott to go and enter into meetings with Palestinian academics in Palestine. Of course it would be interesting to see how many of us the Israeli government is willing to admit, but I think it would be an attempt that would be very well worth trying, particularly as it would say something about their somewhat double views on academic freedom if we go purely as academics. I think that’s the kind of initiative that I would like to see us working on now, to do something new, something collaborative with our colleagues in Palestine. I’ll stop at that point and perhaps if there are questions we’ll go from there.
If the boycott is to be directed not against individuals but against institutions, how can this be reconciled with the rights and privileges of individual academics in Israel?
Let me just begin by expressing my sorrow that we can’t hear our colleagues from Palestine, which in a way is symbolic this situation and I hope in the end we’ll be able to hear them. This is a very grave situation. Even now in this company, they don’t have a voice and this first question addresses the freedom of speech or rights of the Israelis while the matter that we should focus on is actually the freedom of speech and rights to live, to move, to engage in academic study, of the Palestinian colleagues. The question of the freedom of speech of the Israelis might be a serious question under different circumstances. Right now what people like me would want to say is that this is a price that we would like to pay because there are some more serious topics and issues to be addressed, discussed and fought for and if this is the price, maybe this is something we have to pay. Those who are in favour of divestment also have to take this into consideration because eventually if we lose our jobs for instance we also lose our freedom of speech. But I don’t think this is something we would like to consider seriously right now because if we weighed this against the miseries and atrocities that the Palestinians have to suffer if this is the price for our fight then we’re ready to pay it.
Hello, I was really hoping to get to speak with Reema and Rita whom we have been corresponding with a lot over the last years but it is very hard to see, even on video it’s very hard to reach them. I would like also to pick up on this question. The first question when we discuss a boycott cannot be the suffering of the Israelis. I believe the first question must be the suffering of the Palestinians. Much of the boycott debate is concentrated around the price of the Israelis. Maybe we can come back to it at the end but I think we really should focus first on what academic life is in Palestine. It’s not just a matter of freedom of speech that they have to face every day.
I too feel that the fact that we can have two dissident Israelis talking easily to us speaks of their freedom and the fact that we cannot see or hear our Palestinian colleagues is symbolic of their situation. And I think to compare the two situations is just so desperate that to me it’s quite unethical, because one is an absolute struggle for everyday life, for the most basic access to educational rights and to human rights, which are denied every day by the terrifying military might of the Israeli army. The thing that fascinates me is when you listen to the refuseniks (11). One of the things that particularly the more senior of the refuseniks say is how they feel dishonoured because the way that the army of occupation behaves is shameful and illegal within the laws of war and the rules of how occupying powers behave. It’s for that reason that I find this preciousness of the debate about the academic freedom of Israelis seriously destructive. Did we really, when we were supporting the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, worry about the tiny diminishment of academic freedom of white South Africans? Were we not horrified at the monstrous oppression of black South Africans? We were completely horrified. But they had the protection that there were 10 million black South Africans. The number of Palestinians living inside Palestine, as against the many, many who have been forced to live in the diaspora because of the ethnic cleansing of Israel, means that they are very vulnerable against such a military machine.
I think it’s typical of the way that the debate about the boycott is being handled that it’s so slowed up into a sort of fundamentalist discussion about academic freedom. What I’m trying to say to you is that academic freedom is sorely diminished by the very stage of the development of our university system, the increasing question as to industry, and by the tremendous constraints that exist on academics nowadays. We do have a tiny amount of academic freedom and it’s precious. I as an academic am free to speak and to say how terrible I think this is. Tanya and Rachel those very dissident academics in Israel can speak, and thank goodness they’re there. They are actually a tiny number, the peace movement is pretty much crushed in Israel. After all Israel has democratically elected a completely terrifying government. I think anybody who read today’s newspaper describing what went on in Gaza (12) can see that this is a military completely out of control, without a scruple, of incredible violence.
But lastly let me come back to the academic boycott. It was really nice, and I can tell you how it came about - it was the bishop of Scotland who helped to do it. He wrote to Desmond Tutu and said "what do you think about the academic boycott of Israel?" and Tutu of course said he recognised it immediately. It’s so similar to the struggle that the South Africans have had all those years ago and he immediately came to the support of the boycott. The ANC leadership, which is now the South African government, including Ronnie Kasrils (13), are in complete solidarity with the Palestinians, because they can recognise an oppresive regime. They can recognise a struggle for national liberation when they see one. Again, a colonial, settler state.
Do you feel a boycott here of Israeli academics would help the dissidents in Israel to do something?
I think the dissidents are enormously effective and enormously brave. There’s a small group, and we’re privileged to have two of them here in virtual reality, who do offer tremendous solidarity and practical support for their colleagues. But these are a very tiny minority. Most of Israel’s academia is very complacent, very acquiescent. It’s part of that majority that votes for Sharon and his fellow folks. So I think it’s about strengthening the critical voice in Israel which is now very few in number, very strong in character but very few in number. I see it as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians first and foremost because they have been abandoned.One of the saddest letters I’ve had was from the vice-chancellor of Birzeit. He said it seems that Europe has forgotten us. And as a European I felt bitterly ashamed because there is a funny solidarity between teachers, university teachers all over the world who care about this business of teaching students. We care about students and the possibility of learning. And we can feel that for the students in Palestine, in the occupied territories, whether they are five or whether they are postgraduate students, studying is almost an impossibility. And if you are a teacher this really angers you in a tremendous way because there’s a deep-seated solidarity with your fellow teachers.
If a country feels that it is under attack then it tends to prevent the processes of opening out and if Israel feels it’s under attack from a boycott then this will in the end harm the dissident voices. The boycott ultimately because of its effect on Israel will harm the very purpose of the boycott itself which is to bring about a resolution of this conflict.
The reply to that question has to be that we have a state which prides itself on its democracy, yet takes no notice of the reasoned, patient criticisms coming from the international community. There are many, many resolutions urging Israel to get back behind the 1967 borders. They have had no effect and this is because of the protection of the US - it’s that axis of collusion. Now what the boycott does is it moves around that because it challenges ethically and individually. It's a challenge from civil cociety. It’s a challenge from people like us, who are not part of political parties, who are not part of government. The governments have failed, the UN has failed in that sense. It's an ethical challenge. It says look, you talk about academic freedom, start living it.
It’s also a non-violent way of stimulating debate. This is precious. It has, along with a whole lot of other things, helped put the issue of the denial of educational and human rights of the Palestinians onto the table in schools and universities, in public life in this and many other countries.
I would like to pick up on this question. The question presupposes that there are still many, many steps of evil on the road that Israel is taking. That we are so far semi-human, and if only you will boycott us we will become worse. I wonder how much worse can it be than what is happening now, where the Palestinians are undergoing a slow death. They are isolated in their villages and towns. Israel is using economical sanctions, preventing food aid, preventing charity money. Malnutrition is in Palestinian children already equal the levels in Congo and Zimbabwe. What is the evil, the worse situation that the person who asked the question foresees that can develop?
On the other hand on the question about the help of the boycott, I think the argument that is always brought out is not based on any facts. The same was true in South Africa. Of course the whites were threatened by the world boycotting them. Still eventually this is what led to the end of Apartheid. Specifically in Israel, the boycott already has an enormous positive effect because it’s been discussed in the media with great fear. As has already been pointed out, people don’t like the idea of being boycotted. There is occasionally criticism of the government in the papers, they say look if you continue this way we will become outcasts, the boycott will only grow against us. Artists are worried about boycotting culture. Academics are very scared of the institutional boycott that is going on. So in effect, especially if you talk about academics but not just academics, most definitely Israelis want to feel part of this community, they want to feel part of the western world. They don’t want to view themselves as an outcast that the people of the world are not willing to even talk to. The fact that the world are seeing us as outcasts is in my view helping the Israeli society to look and see and pay more attention to what is happening to the Palestinians just a few miles away.
The lesson from South Africa
I’m really sorry that we couldn’t hear Birzeit too but I guess I should talk now and then we’ll see if we can get in touch with Birzeit.
Following on the line of Hillary, the boycott idea is something that the people of the world are taking when they see no other way. This is the lesson from South Africa. The question we are facing is what can the people of the world do when the US is backing Israel fully, all of it’s atrocities and the European governments also, maybe more silent support but they do support all atrocities of Israel. And the lessons we could learn from South Africa, where it was exactly the same way, and perhaps also the lesson we can learn now from the resistance movement to the war in Iraq. The lesson is that the people of the world do have power. There are many things we can do on our own to stop our governments or to force our governments to take the right actions. What should happen is that the UN and the European governments should impose sanctions on Israel the way they imposed sanctions on Iraq or on Yugoslavia. Wherever there is an extreme violation of human rights the world institutions should take care of it but they are not. So what we are witnessing here is the decision of the people to try to save the Palestinians without their governments, on their own.
The cruelest method of struggle and it’s justification
Boycott is of course the most cruel method of struggle, it is very cruel. We’re talking here not just the academic boycott which is a very little aspect of the boycott. There is a boycott going on of tourism, all tourism to Israel. The divestment movement in the US colleges is discussing all business co-operation with the Israeli economy. The consumer boycott: to not buy any product of Israeli society and there is also the cultural boycott, of which the academia is a part. All these other means of boycott I have listed are much more cruel than the academic boycott. The tourism boycott has led thousands of hotel and tourist workers off their jobs in Israel. These people lost their living. If the economical boycott is successful, many other workers will lose their living. Boycott is cruel and this is why it should really only be taken if this is the only way to save lives. What we’re talking about here is saving the lives of the Palestinians. If we do nothing these deaths will continue. Every day the average of deaths is 10 people, the average of wounded is 40. The wounded will die soon because of their wounds as there is no medical care. Others will die because they cannot get medical treatment, the ambulances not being able to take them to the hospitals. They are dying, the Palestinians are dying and that is why the decision should be to help the Palestinians, even if it’s cruel.
The profile of Israeli academia
I think what we are discussing here is only the question of whether there is something special about the Israeli academia that should exempt it from the boycott, given that there is this boycott, there is this right of the world to save the Palestinians. Is there something about the Israeli academia that makes it special? Because if the Israeli academia was indeed a centre of struggle against the occupation it would be possible to consider maybe it should be exempt. But this is really not the situation. It is true that there are pockets of resistance against the occupation in the academia, but there are such pockets in all of Israeli society. There are many anti-occupation organizations, there are many people active against the occupation. I personally don’t believe that the proportion of the opposition in the academia is bigger than in society. There are 400 university people who signed a petition supporting draft resisters. That is 400 Israeli academics out of tens of thousands of Israeli academics.
So there is opposition in the academia but the question is not what is the number of the actual dissidents. The question is what is the profile of the Israeli academia? because I support only the institutional boycott so the individuals are not really what matters. The question is what is the human rights profile of the academia? The academia should be the conscience of society. In acute situations like this, if the academia does not take a stand, that we do not agree, at least with the closure of Palestinian universities. If the academia is not doing that, the academia is collaborating. If the academia continues to do its research, write its papers, get its grants, go to the labs, forget that just a few miles away the Palestinians are dying, then the academia is not being the voice of conscience. It’s not. And it is a fact that in the whole history of the occupation, there was never a single decision passed in an Israeli (university) senate against the closure of the Palestinian universities, which was the practice also before this present uprising, let alone some statement about the situation of the Palestinian academics under Israel’s recent brutality. But is wasn’t that the position of the Palestinian universities was brought up and failed. That can happen, we are in a minority. It was never even brought up. When we ask our colleagues why they say "well that’s politics, we don’t deal with politics."
So if this is the situation, the Israeli academia as an institution is not different than all these other institutions that we have mentioned. These are institutions that collaborate with the system, just by not resisting. Indeed I believe that, something that Hillary also mentioned, that you can see how detached the Israeli academia is from this thing. I was away, I just came back to Israel. I was away in Holland the first semester I came back two weeks ago for the second semester and I can’t believe how life around me, in the university, goes on as usual. People do what they do, they don’t seem to notice that they know that people there in the territories are sitting locked in their homes starving. There was snow in Jerusalem last week, there was snow in Jenin, there was snow in Hebron, in Nablus, people were freezing to death. UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees) is losing its budget much due to Israeli lobby pressure that they are helping terrorists. They may soon not have blankets any more to give to the freezing people who’s houses were destroyed. And here in Tel Aviv life goes on as usual, as if nothing. And the best indication of this complete detachment are these proposals that we hear to say to the EU funds to continue the funds (to Israeli universities) but to give them for collaborating with the Palestinians. How can someone who knows about what is going on here speak about collaborating with research when the Palestinians can hardly even get to those universities that are still open?
The problem with our colleagues today is that this is a holiday there and they had to come (to Birzeit) especially for this event in which they so far cannot participate. That’s a huge, enormous sacrifice for them because just to go to that university is a half day’s work, battling through all the snow. So under these conditions where the Palestinians are under curfew our Israeli colleagues are calling for collaboration, rather than calling for getting the Israeli army out of the gates of the Palestinian universities.
Yes, It is very difficult in these days to call for a boycott for an Israeli academic. The Israeli universities are paying the price of the occupation, just like any other segment of Israeli society. There are huge budget cuts, especially the situation in Tel Aviv university is very, very bad economically. And if we are calling for cutting EU funds obviously we are put in perspective. And it’s a difficult decision. I know my colleagues, not me and Rachel because we are full professors, but our younger colleagues or students will get hurt. We know that. It is a very difficult decision. It’s easy to understand why the Israeli academia is on it’s feet. It’s not something I would like to do, to go against my colleagues and tell them, OK you lose your funds. It’s not. But I believe that there is really something much more important right now. We cannot really think just of the harm to Israeli academia but we should really save academic life in Palestine but mainly, first of all save the Palestinians. They are in real danger. So this for me the major issue.
I’d like to just add a few things to fortify the arguments that Tanya has made and again to express the hope that while we are talking you’ll be able to overcome the problems of contacting Birzeit. It is really almost intolerable for us here to be able to talk to you while they lose their voice and this is the most special voice in this conference we think.
A political act
Getting to the point of how we can perceive the Israeli academics. Apparently there are a number of "good guys" even in our campuses, people who really want to save the Palestinians. But the agenda is different here. I think what we are calling for is a political act while the proposals to carry on research with the Palestinians or the warnings that we get that we should not make our lives here more difficult are things that actually people do on an individual basis. Because you know if you do something on an individual basis that is if you’re not political and you don’t raise a voice in terms of universal justice or universal moral issues then you’re not political and then you’re not taking any risks. But on the other hand we seem to enjoy the mask or appearances of a person of morality. This is another reason why we should question the motives behind the calls to collaborate with Palestinian colleagues in terms of the scientific research that we would like to carry on with them. Of course we would like to work with them. But not when this situation is so asymmetric, we have to ask you why - it’s not about their research but about their lives. So let us not enjoy feeling good about ourselves because we would like to promote some common research topics and even give them some money for research. Let’s become political. Lets go against our government, against the decisions of the Israeli government to destroy all kinds of educational institutions in Palestine.
Our colleagues are trying to shut us up because they say that in a way we collaborate with our government which is basically against academia. The government runs a lot of cuts these days and Tel Aviv university is in a particularly sensitive situation. But if this is the logic then of course you shut yourself up even before you’re restricted by any kind of academic boycott. If what you’re aiming at is pleasing your government and keeping quiet and trying to behave nicely then of course you’re limiting yourself to the ghetto. So I don’t see any other way but sticking to something that is political and that invites international academics and internationals in general to pressure the Israeli government which is outright criminal.
I would like to ask how effective is the economic boycott? I feel the two are related because I have doubts about supporting the academic boycott because individuals are targeted and academics, from what I know, seem to be very liberal pushing that agenda. But like the lady in Tel Aviv said, an economic boycott inevitably hurts people as well. I think it’s very effective in terms of a protest and in terms of raising awareness and debate about the issue but I’d just like to ask whether the economic boycott has been effective because America has increased its aid as Israel is being economically boycotted. I would feel that if the economic boycott wasn’t being as effective as it should then I’d be more willing to support the academic boycott because that might put pressure on the establishment in Israel.
This is only one boycott, the economical boycott as I mentioned is a very cruel thing. In South Africa the blacks were the first to be hurt by the boycott because they are the poorest, they are the weakest, the blacks were hurt. Yet they pleaded with the world to continue because this is part of the struggle. I myself really do think that the economical boycott on other segments of Israeli society is more cruel than the academic boycott. The academics pay a price but it’s not to be compared with the hotel workers that are being laid off. So I view the academic boycott as a separate issue, that we should abandon one boycott in favour of the other. I think that each person in their own community should apply the type of boycott that is fitting for him, so academics can participate in the tourism boycott but they can also participate in the academic boycott. This is the idea of direct action, of people everywhere, in whatever they do, trying to affect the situation in any form.
Along the same lines I’d like to add that what is actually destroying Israeli society, and of course the Palestinian society, is the Israeli government itself, because of the occupation. The economy is actually serving the occupation and even though the rich might not feel it to a tremendous extent of course the poor in Israel are paying the price of the occupation. So even if what you are doing right now is going to harm them a little bit further we think this is only a temporary harm. What we are looking forward to is to see the consequences of our call for this kind of international intervention in the long run. In the long run if Israel starts investing in Palestine and living in peace with the Palestinians rather than destroying them then we’re all going to benefit from it.
How have you been viewed by your colleagues in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, you and others who have stood up and supported the boycott publicly and internationally?
To tell you the truth we anticipated this kind of question but we find it entirely irrelevant. It is not a thing that would make us feel bad about ourselves. What makes us feel bad about ourselves is that we are destroying the lives of the Palestinians. This is the issue here so our personal biography right now is entirely irrelevant. Thank you for that but It would be interesting to compare your experiences with the experience elsewhere. Are there forces campaigning against you, for example. Yes, it is exactly as elsewhere. it is everybody who has been active in boycotts knows the types of attacks this brings and yes it’s certainly not less, maybe even more if you are also Israeli and viewed as a traitor. But we are here, we are not in gaol, we are not in prison, we are not under curfew so it is something that everybody can endure.
How do you rally support for the boycott among your colleagues in Israel? I’m concerned that the boycott conjures up images of book burning and activities of that kind. How do you go about trying to get your colleagues to support the boycott?
Frankly speaking of myself I don’t do much effort to convince my colleagues. This is the hardest thing for an Israeli academic. The Israeli academia has been very "liberal", or let’s say indifferent, until it comes to its pocket, when you start hurting in the pocket, when they pay the price. Some of my colleagues support economic boycott and divestment and they are against the academic boycott, obviously because from the academic boycott they suffer themselves. So frankly I don’t invest effort in convincing my Israeli colleagues. It’s not we Israelis who are supposed to boycott ourselves. I invest my effort in trying to convince you, people of England (sic) to join the academic boycott. It’s you, it’s your job it’s not the Israelis job to do the boycott.
Are you getting support from the student body in Tel Aviv and elsewhere?
Well, no. That’s expected, because they see us as fighting against ourselves or as destroying ourselves. Even though they’re interested in our opinions and they interviewed us in their local newspaper, in general they find us really hard to follow. And this is really enigmatic because students when they want to take care of the rate of their fees they go on a strike and the university stops working and of course their education is hampered. And they don’t find that they harm themselves while they’re fighting for their causes but they don’t quite understand the logic of us calling for boycotting Israel when the long run objective is a moral issue.
It’s still not only Rachel and me who support the boycott and I think our proportion in Israel, those who do support the boycott, is precisely the same as the proportion of the whites in South African academia. The idea of boycott was not popular in South African academia. There were a few, and I think we are just the same and we are here. It is not only the two of us.
Just to remind you in general it is not us who are the victims. You always take care of us here which is quite displeasing. We are not the victims. Israel is the aggressor so I think we should focus on that.
Can I come back into this and pick up on the metaphor of the boycott reminding one of our audience of the burning of the books? That’s really interesting because that ought, if there was really a connection, to have been in the popular mind when there was a cultural and academic boycott of South Africa. But nobody said it. What we’ve got to hear is that underneath there is an argument that because there is a boycott of Israel, that somehow this is a boycott of Jews. It isn’t.
There is a terrible elision which is made and made and made that to be Jewish is to be synonymous with support of Israel right and wrong. And that is one of the most terrible elisions. As a citizen, as an academic I feel passionately that we cannot allow this to happen. It’s historically complete nonsense because support for the Israeli state was seen as a rather bizarre enthusiasm in the Jewish community when the idea was first kicked around. It was a minority pre-occupation. I don’t want to go back into digging up all that old history but simply to say that I think there’s a quite skillful and quite manipulative use of the memories of the terrible death camps in Europe in order to stop any legitimate criticism being made of Israel. We should not tolerate this. We do have to be clear the victim in this case is Palestine, as Tanya and Rahel have said so clearly, the aggressor is Israel.
And memories of burning of the books - this is manipulated memory which is being used very deliberately. And the overuse of this is one of the things that we have to struggle with. Because we cannot forget this terrible history. The Holocaust can’t be forgotten. But nor can the Nakba (14). We have to remember these two terrible events in the history of these two peoples to help them to live in Israel (sic) in a better way together. If that sounds, given yesterday a completely utopian hope in the meantime what we can do is offer our solidarity with the Palestinians in any way that we can. To put pressure however we can.
I do agree that the price of an economic boycott is harsh while the price of an academic boycott is curiously rather little. There’s a lot of sound but there’s no jobs being lost through an academic boycott. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing in Britain over two Israeli academics who were disappointed, I think that’s obviously the correct word, disappointed from their membership of a journal. It didn’t touch their economic interests, it didn’t touch their jobs and I do think when there’s a tourist boycott and it makes workers in the tourist industry unemployed, and Israel’s welfare state is rolling back because of it’s lunatic expenditure on the military, rather like our own government. The intellectual and academic boycott of Israel is a very powerful weapon.
One of the things that happened to us when we began this is we got letters from musicians and poets and one playwright who said I wouldn’t let my play be performed in Israel, I couldn’t do it. It would be like supporting the Apartheid regime South Africa. A musician carefully explained how he played in every country under the sun but he would no longer play in Israel. He would play in Palestine, he would work with Daniel Barenboim (15), but he would not play in Israel. It is this sort of thing, this isolation of Israeli society. To use very old fashioned language, I sound like my mother, she said "well you really have to work very hard to knock sense into people’s heads sometimes". I think that’s what we in the Palestine Solidarity movement are doing, is trying to knock sense into the heads of Israel. Because Israel for its own sake must change, because otherwise there is no future for Israelis. In the same way that it’s desperately denying the future for Palestine, it’s also destroying its own chance of an accommodation with its neighbours in what is actually the Middle East.
Before supporting the boycott I would like some assurance that it will have a positive effect. I will not support anything that cannot demonstrably produce the effect that it intends to achieve.
Of course here is where we have to regret that the speakers from Palestine cannot be here because they could tell us something of that positive effect. I know that when you are in a very hard position and somebody comes to your support it’s a good feeling. And anybody who has taken part in any deep political struggle, if you are on the losing side and someone comes and supports you that helps you and gives you a little more courage. The expression of support is my solidarity, the solidarity of the signatories to the boycott with the Palestinian academics. That is in itself part of this value. Boycotts by their nature are slow. It’s about a very slow development of pressure. We saw that in the South African case. What worries me is that there is not much time because of the tiny number of Palestinians. There’s not much time.
This type of question is somewhat weird. I wonder if when the South Africa boycott started you first wanted guarantees that we are going to succeed before we start struggling. If we think this way then we will never do anything. Would the people that try to stop the war before they go to demonstrate in London in these huge demonstrations they would start asking "are we going to succeed?" and only if they get a written commitment from, I don’t know whom, the vice-God, they will go and say "OK, we have assurance, we are going to proceed"? This is not a question you ask when you start a struggle. But if you want our opinion then yes, the boycott is very helpful, and let’s stick to the specific academic boycott. The Israeli universities now are really having difficult times financially. If their European funds are being further cut this gives them more initiative to fight with the government and say look you are destroying the country. You have to change policy, at least to get off the boycott from us. Same with industry, same with everything. That’s the logic of boycott. The logic of boycott is not to punish people but to make them see that what they are doing is not accepted and it’s going to give them trouble. And the way to avoid this trouble is to change policies.
Finally I’d like to mention how I feel about this as an Israeli. I actually feel that by calling for boycott I am a patriot. I don’t feel I’m working against my people. I feel I’m working for my people. It’s not my major point, I’m doing this first for the Palestinians. But I believe that if my government continues, it’s not just a moral issue it’s a question of survival for Israel. Israel cannot survive this way. The economy is collapsing. It has been completely subordinated to the occupation. The only thing that gets money in Israel is the military machine, everything else is collapsing. Israel is provoking the whole Arab world. For a nation with five million Jews surrounded by 200 million Arabs, not to speak about the whole Muslim world, in this way Israel has no future. Sooner or later the whole thing will collapse. Our only hope is to integrate in the area and start a new role. We Israelis are prisoners of the army, of the government composed of generals, of people who believe in the redemption of land and are willing to take us all to the abyss of national suicide and anything that will help stop us is going to save our future. What I am saying is that by saving the Palestinians we are also saving us Israelis.
The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign would like to thank the Edinburgh University Video Conferencing Service, the Reverend Mitchell Bunting (Augustine United Church), John Chalcraft (Edinburgh University), Professor Yasser Suleiman (Edinburgh University), Charlie Duthie (Beltane video conferencing), Oren Medicks (Gush Shalom), Indymedia Israel, Mick Mooney and all supporters who contributed financially to this project.
Tanya Reinhart died March 17 2007.
1. Steven Rose, professor of Neuroscience at the Open University, Hillary’s husband and co-author of the original boycott letter.
2. 35 security council resolutions critical of Israel have been vetoed by the US: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/membship/veto/vetosubj.htm. Hillary is probably thinking of the 64 Security Council and General Assembly resolutions demanding action from Israel that have been passed and ignored, largely due to the failure of the US to support measures to enforce them.
3. The letter was published in The Guardian on 6 April 2002 with the first 120 signatures. It can be read at: http://www.pjpo.org/appelinst.html
4. Nature editorials opposing the boycott and supporting Israeli-Arab scientific collaboration: volume 417, no 6884, p1 (2 May 2002) and volume 417, no 6886, p207 (16 May 2002)
5. NATFHE - the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland issued a press release on the 16th of April 2002 urging all UK universities and further education colleges to review their links with Israel: http://www.natfhe.org.uk/says/rels2002/2002pr25.shtml
6. Guardian article by Chris McGreal, February 27th 2003: http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,903627,00.html
8. Nature volume 417, issue no 6886, p207 (16 May 2002)
9. "Students under occupation", a photographic exhibition by Yasser Darwish, Birzeit University's Photographer and Public Relations Assistant, was displayed at the Edinburgh venue.
10. The International Solidarity Movement: www.palsolidarity.org
11. Refuseniks - the name given to the 1000 or so Israeli soldiers and reservists who are refusing to serve in the occupied territories. For more information see: http://www.refusersolidarity.net
12. On March 3rd 2003 eight Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and a child, were killed by Israeli soldiers in the El-Bureij refugee camp: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2813749.stm
13. Ronnie Kasrils, the minister for water, one of three Jewish ministers in the current South African government and a prominent critic of Israel.
14. The Nakba (Arabic - catastrophe). The name given to the ethnic cleansing and destruction of Palestinian society in 1948.
15. The well known Israeli pianist is highly critical of his government's policies.