The recent proposals to impose sanctions on the Israeli academy have caused a great deal of controversy in the US, in Europe to some extent, and of course within Israel itself. Some have argued that collective boycotts are often the first sign of fascist and anti-liberal tendencies; at least one American academic has insinuated that it is tantamount to an anti-Jewish campaign. I am not addressing myself principally to these arguments, since I view them as attempts to intimidate and stifle debate.
These charges are, however, a good point from which to examine the question of the proposed sanctions against Israeli academia, since they bring to light one of the central problems relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Briefly put, Israeli colonial policy has enjoyed immunity from criticism and condemnation for many decades. The recent flagrant disregard for UN Security Council Resolutions, the debacle surrounding the UN fact-finding mission, the US government’s complicity in the ongoing violent colonial war waged against the Palestinian people and its state and civil institutions, and the unprecedented measures recently proposed by the US Congress all point to this special status that Israel enjoys in the corridors of world power, ranging from governments to international bodies like the United Nations.
I suspect that many of the arguments put forward to exempt Israeli academia from sanctions (even though they are couched in the universalist language of protection of free inquiry and in defense of academic freedom) are colored by and derive their legitimacy from this deep-seated exceptionalism. I know that many individuals who supported the boycott of South African universities in the anti-apartheid era are arguing vigorously now against the proposed sanctions against Israeli institutions, the vast majority of which, it is important to add, happen to be state institutions.
One of the most common arguments against the boycott is that it is a form of collective punishment which will hurt those Israeli scholars who have built ties with Palestinian colleagues (some may be engaged in joint research projects with Palestinians) and are actively engaged in the struggle against the colonial occupation of Palestinian lands. Some have even argued that the boycott might actually limit the capacity of Israeli human rights and other activists to fight for justice in Palestine.
I would like to make several comments concerning these arguments from my position here in the Palestinian academy.
First, to respond to arguments concerning the academy as an institution, I would like to point out that the academy has never been the sacred place it is purported to be. It has been a haven for many scholars either in the outright service of repressive states, or for those who have rewritten history in defense of colonial projects. European and American universities are no exception, and I daresay that the Israeli academy is not either. The academy, therefore, has not always lived up to what some may consider its moral duty to expose oppression and unmask the oppressor, and to write history from the perspective of the dispossessed. Sanctions negatively affecting academics, in my view, are no more objectionable than those affecting growers, manufacturers, exporters (not to mention small retailers, poor workers, farmers, and soldiers).
Regarding the Israeli academy in particular, I admit that the sanctions may negatively affect the scholarly pursuits of those few Israeli scholars engaged in the struggle for justice in Palestine, and will compromise joint projects with Palestinian scholars (although the latter seem to have been disrupted of their own accord, under the weight of the ongoing repression, in recent months). It will also undoubtedly disrupt the projects and activities of many Israeli academics. That, however, is precisely the point. A sanctions/boycott campaign is a severe measure called for in exceptional circumstances. The question, then, is whether we are there yet, whether the conditions justifying such dramatic action prevail. From my perspective here in Palestine, the time has come for such extreme measures. It has been shown beyond doubt that the “international community” has not delivered–neither in protecting the Palestinian people, nor in the search for a peace with justice. The flagrant disregard for recent UN Security Council Resolutions is the latest in a long history of making exceptions for Israel. The latest–and ongoing–colonial war being waged against Palestinians has shown that relying on governments and international bodies does not guarantee that justice will prevail. Popular public opinion has been mobilized, however, and pressure is beginning to build up. The academic sanction/boycott campaign is part of this campaign of pressure, as a message to the international and Israeli scholarly community that business cannot go on as usual at a time when a systematic campaign is underway to dismantle the infrastructures of a nascent state and civil society, including research institutes and universities. In fact, promoting “business as usual” can be considered a sign of agreement with the status quo, constituting, in effect, a political position (I refer parenthetically here to a letter written by a European academic to an Israeli colleague to the effect that coming to Israel at this time would constitute taking a political stand, and that therefore it was better to suspend such collegial visits). In short, this campaign is meant to render the Israeli colonial project unacceptable, non-negotiable, and immoral.
No one has of course mentioned anything about Palestinian freedom of inquiry and the sanctity of the Palestinian academy in this raging debate. What I have to say about this is particularly relevant to Israeli academics, since the vast majority of them have been carrying on their business as usual for the past 35 years oblivious to what is happening to their Palestinian counterparts, not to mention to the Palestinian nation as a whole. Focusing only on my institution, Birzeit University, I would ask these academics if they know that since March 2001 we have not had one day when our access to our campus in Birzeit was unfettered, not blocked by concrete barriers and tanks? That we are still in the first week of teaching of the second semester of this academic year, when we should have been preparing for final exams and the end of the academic year? Do they know that since 1967, thousands of Palestinian students and faculty have been arrested, tortured, and deported for their opposition to the occupation? Do they know that it is extremely difficult for Palestinian scholars to travel abroad and partake in international scholarly activities? These realities reflect the fact that Palestinian universities have been subjected to an insidious and unacknowledged form of collective punishment for several decades now, and continue to pay the price for it. Are we not as scholars obliged to condemn this form of collective punishment?
I know that there are Israeli scholars who are aware of this and who have offered us their solidarity and have fought the occupation tirelessly, beginning in the dark decades of the 1970s and 1980s and until now. But they are alone out there in the world of business-as-usual, and they know this better than we. The vast majority of Israeli scholars are unmoved by the fact that their state, in their name, is carrying out a violent colonial war against the Palestinians and committing some of the worst violations of humanitarian law. The recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do not leave this in doubt.
Lisa Taraki is an Associate Professor of Sociology ar Birzeit University in Palestine.