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The Academic Boycott of Israel

by M. Shahid Alam

In early April 2002, moved by the massacres in Jenin and the wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure in West Bank cities by invading Israeli forces, two British academics, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, circulated a call-posted at an academic boycott of Israel.

This campaign was directed mostly at European academics, and so when it reached me nearly two months later, in the first week of July, there were only six American academics among the signatories. I carefully read the boycott statement, which entailed non-cooperation with “official Israeli institutions, including universities,” and decided to sign on to the list. I also forwarded the call to academics on my mailing list.

Most of the friends on my mailing list just ignored the call. Only two responded, and both were more than a bit troubled that I should support such a thing. One described this campaign as “destructive,” another objected that this was an “attack” on academic freedom. And once my name was on the list of signatories, I promptly received two pieces of hate mail. One of the two, from India.

A few days later I came across a counter petition initiated by Leonid Ryzhik, a mathematics lecturer at University of Chicago. In an interview published in The Guardian, May 27, he said that the boycott campaign was “immoral, dangerous and misguided, and indirectly encourages the terrorist murderers in their deadly deeds.” And this week, in The Nation, August 5-12, Martha Nussbaum, an eminent ethical philosopher, wrote that she felt “relaxed” to be in Israel, where she had gone to receive an honorary degree from the University of Haifa, “determined to affirm the worth of scholarly cooperation in the face of the ugly campaign.”

Having declared my support for the academic boycott of Israel, I believe I must now explain why I can not view this campaign as “destructive,” “ugly” or supportive of “terrorist murderers.” On the contrary, I see this as a moral gesture, part of a growing campaign by international civil society to use its moral force to nudge Israelis, to awaken them to the ugly and destructive reality of their Occupation, which has now lasted for more than thirty-five years and shows no sign of ending any time soon. At last, the cumulative weight of Palestinian suffering has begun to break through the crust of Israeli protestations of innocence. Although tardy, world conscience is now preparing to engage Israeli intransigence.

Increasingly, the world outside United States understands that Israel is not a ‘normal’ country. The Zionist movement sought to establish an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine, a land inhabited almost entirely by Palestinian Arabs in 1900. Since no people yet has been known to commit collective suicide, this could only be accomplished by conquest and ethnic cleansing. This is how Israel emerged in 1948, through conquest and ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Palestinians.

Yet this was not enough. Although Israel now sat on 78 percent of historic Palestine, this fell short of Zionist goals. In 1967 this shortfall was corrected when Israel, after defeating Egypt, Syria and Jordan, occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Another, smaller campaign of ethnic cleansing was rolled into this second round of conquests.

Although the Security Council promptly passed a resolution, calling for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it had occupied in 1967, this never had any teeth. Impressed by Israeli rout of Arab nationalist forces, United States deepened its partnership with Israel and promptly rewarded Israel by doubling its military and economic assistance.

As a result, thirty-five years later, Israel still remains in ‘Occupation’ of West Bank and Gaza. In reality, this Occupation is merely a fiction, a farcical cover under which Israel buys time, time which it uses to insert armed Israeli settlers, to increase Israeli control and ownership of Palestinian lands, to push the Palestinians into ever shrinking enclaves, to escalate the violence against Palestinian resistance, and to deepen the misery of Palestinian lives till they can be forced to flee their homes.

The logic of the Occupation is brutal, and it should be transparent to all but the purblind. If Palestinian demography prevents annexation, and if Palestinians cannot be expelled in one fell swoop-as they had been in 1948-then the same results can still be achieved by forcing the Palestinians into Bantustans. If a million Palestinians can live in Gaza, a strip of 100 square miles, the two million in West Bank can be pushed into similar enclaves, freeing 90 percent of the West Bank for Jewish settlers. It is about time that we gave up the fiction of the Occupation, and describe this oppressive regime by its proper name. This is Aparthied: one country with two systems of laws, one for the colonizers and one for the colonized.

I have two objectives in rehearsing, though ever so briefly, this narrative of Palestinian dispossession. First, it is a narrative that has been denied repeatedly and falsified massively by Zionists. It therefore needs to be affirmed, simply and forcefully, again and again, in the expectation that world conscience will bear witness to the Zionist project of wiping out the Arab presence from Palestine to make room for Jewish settlers.

Once this narrative is affirmed; once it becomes clear that the destruction of Palestinians was necessary-and always known to be necessary and accepted as necessary-for Israel to emerge as an exclusive Jewish state; once it is admitted that the dispossession of Palestinians has involved wars, ethnic cleansing, massacres, villages destroyed, cities besieged, homes demolished, children maimed and killed, prisoners tortured, ambulances bombed, journalists targeted, municipal records destroyed, and trees uprooted; once all this destructiveness-already accomplished, and more of it unfolding everyday-is recognized the protestations about the “destructiveness” or “ugliness” of an academic boycott of Israel become insupportable, indeed unconscionable.

Mr. Leonid Ryzhik, of the University of Chicago, argues that academic boycott “indirectly encourages the [Palestinian] terrorist murderers in their deadly deeds.” Does he mean to say that this boycott “indirectly encourages” the Palestinian resistance; and anything that questions, delays or weakens the extension of the Zionist project to the West Bank and Gaza must be challenged, and neutralized. It must be affirmed in the face of such posturing that resistance is a right of the Palestinians, as it was of all colonized peoples who faced dispossession. Of necessity, dispossession is implemented by force-unless this project is aided by pathogens; and, it follows, that resistance to the colonizer must be violent.

The question is not, why do the Palestinians resist, or why do they resist by violent means? There is a different question before world conscience. Why have we for fifty years abandoned the Palestinians to fight their battles alone, beleaguered by a colonizer whom they cannot fight alone? Why have we allowed the Palestinians to be battered, exiled from their lands, herded into camps-in villages and towns that have been turned into concentration camps-exposed to the mercy of a colonizer who freely draws upon the finances, political support and military arsenal of the world’s greatest power? In despair, marginalized, pauperized, facing extinction as a people, if the Palestinians now use the only defense they have-to weaponize their death-who is to blame?

And if now world conscience shows the first signs of acting on behalf of the Palestinians, we can hope that this will mitigate the Palestinian’s deep despair. When the young Palestinians learn that academics the world over, that young people on campuses in Britain, France, Canada, and United States are stirring on their behalf, this will convince them that they are not alone; and once they are so convinced, they may be persuaded to renounce their acts of desperation. The academic boycott of Israel uses non-violent means, it leverages moral suasion, to reduce the violence of the colonizer as well as the colonized.

There are people who are shouting “Foul” at the academic boycott on the plea that this curtails the academic freedom of Israelis. I will readily admit that it does; this boycott is expected to work by shrinking some of the international avenues available to Israeli scientists for pursuing their work. Still it must be emphasized that this curtailment is temporary; it will end the moment Israel ends its Occupation. It is also limited in its scope. It only seeks to limit some of the advantages Israeli scientists derive from their interactions with the global scientific community. It does not threaten any fundamental academic freedoms.

This infringement of academic freedom-temporary and limited as it is-must be seen in a broader framework. I will readily concede that academic freedom is an important value, a value that all humane societies should cherish. But there are other values that we cherish, other values that may even be more important, more fundamental than the right to academic freedom. I believe it is reasonable and moral to impose temporary and partial limits on the academic freedom of a few Israelis if this can help to restore the fundamental rights of millions of Palestinians-their right to life, to their property, to their lands, to freedom of movement within their own country, to sovereign control over their destiny, and to equal treatment under the law. This can only be denied if we confess to a disproportion in the value we accord to Israeli and Palestinian rights.

One might, of course, argue that this boycott is wasted effort, since it can have no appreciable impact on Israeli society and policies. This is a question about the efficacy of the boycott. There can be little question that Israeli scientists value the esteem and cooperation of the world’s scientific community as well as access to international funding. It can therefore be expected that if the boycott spreads, this can begin to reduce the effectiveness of Israeli scientists. Perhaps more important, it is unlikely that Israeli polity can ignore the message that the boycott sends to them: that Israeli violations of Palestinian rights are repugnant, and will not be allowed to stand.

At the same time, I refuse to be cowed by invocations about the ‘sanctity’ of academia. More than ever before, universities help to reproduce the power structures of their societies; they are a potent source of ideologies of imperialism, race and class exploitation. Israeli universities are no exception. Through their links with the military, the political parties, the media and the economy, they have helped to construct, sustain, and justify the Apartheid. I might have hesitated in adding my name to the boycott if I knew that Israeli academics had taken the lead in organizing rallies, in organizing sit-ins, and passing resolutions protesting the Occupation, or that they had refused to work on projects that serve the Occupation. To the contrary, Israeli academia, on the whole, has shown that it is a party to the Occupation.

The academic boycott offers one of the few handles available to international civil society for seeking to end the Occupation. Israel has pursued policies in the Occupied Territories that would have invited economic sanctions, and even military intervention, against another country. America’s capitulation to the Israeli lobby has meant that Israel can wage war against a civilian population-using bombs, rockets, tank shells, and artillery fire-with impunity. Abandoned, isolated, beleaguered and unarmed, a few Palestinian men and women have responded to this massive force by weaponizing their own death, provoking still greater violence against themselves. But, paradoxically, this has also pushed world conscience into taking notice of the affront to humanity that is the Israeli Occupation. The academic boycott is one small step the detribalized world is now taking the stop this affront, a step that all men and women who have risen above tribalism should welcome.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. His second book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at Copyright: M. Shahid Alam.


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at

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