For first time, U.S. professors call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel

01.29.2009 | Haaretz
By Raphael Ahren

In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, a group of American university professors has for the first time launched a national campaign calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

While Israeli academics have grown used to such news from Great Britain, where anti-Israel groups several times attempted to establish academic boycotts, the formation of the United States movement marks the first time that a national academic boycott movement has come out of America. Israeli professors are not sure yet how big of an impact the one-week-old movement will have, but started discussing the significance of and possible counteractions against the campaign.

“As educators of conscience, we have been unable to stand by and watch in silence Israel’s indiscriminate assault on the Gaza Strip and its educational institutions,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel stated in its inaugural press release last Thursday. Speaking in its mission statement of the “censorship and silencing of the Palestine question in U.S. universities, as well as U.S. society at large,” the group follows the usual pattern of such boycotts, calling for “non-violent punitive measures” against Israel, such as the implementation of divestment initiatives, “similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”

The campaign was founded by a group of 15 academics, mostly from California, but is, “currently expanding to create a network that embraces the United States as a whole,” according to David Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of Southern California who responded on behalf of the group to a Haaretz query. “The initiative was in the first place impelled by Israel’s latest brutal assault on Gaza and by our determination to say enough is enough.”

“The response has been remarkable given the extraordinary hold that lobbying organizations like AIPAC exert over U.S. politics and over the U.S. media, and in particular given the campaign of intimidation that has been leveled at academics who dare to criticize Israel’s policies,” Lloyd wrote in an e-mail to Haaretz Monday. “Within a short weekend since the posting of the press release, more than 80 academics from all over the country have endorsed the action and the numbers continue to grow.”

Asked if the group would accept the endorsement of Hamas supporters, Lloyd said, “We have no a priori policy with regard to the membership or affiliation of supporters of the boycott so long as they are in accord with the main aims stated in the press release.”

He argued that, “on several occasions Hamas has sought direct negotiations with Israel, a pursuit that constitutes de facto recognition of Israel, and has openly discussed abandoning its call for the destruction of the state of Israel conditional on reciprocal guarantees from Israel.”

Lloyd wrote that to the best of his knowledge, all supporters of the anti-Israel boycott were also opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Asked if logic wouldn’t dictate that he and his colleagues boycott themselves, he responded, “Self-boycott is a difficult concept to realize. But speaking for myself, I would have supported and honored such a boycott had it been proposed by my colleagues overseas.”

Durban bred, British approved

The idea of an academic boycott against Israel originated in 2001 at the “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban, South Africa. A first attempt to implement a boycott was undertaken by British professors in the wake of Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and the Jenin massacre claim. Since then, British academics tried several times to establish boycotts, with the latest such effort failing because legal advisers a few months ago pointed out that academic boycotts are discriminatory and thus illegal. Yet, analysts say that another British boycott campaign is to be expected in the follow up of Cast Lead.

In the U.S., on the other hand, only a few professors have supported the idea of an academic boycott. In 2006, the American Association of University Professors declared its objection to the British boycott, saying members, “especially oppose selective academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test.”

In 2007, nearly 300 university presidents across the United States signed a statement denouncing the boycott, under the motto “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!”

First indications that the climate might change in light of the Gaza operation could be seen earlier this month when the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario proposed, “Israeli academics be barred from speaking, teaching or conducting research at the province’s universities unless they condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza,” as the Inside Higher Ed Web site reported.

Not a mass movement

Israeli academics are hesitant to sound the alarm bells in light of the recent development. “One has to look at this with some degree of caution,” said Gerald Steinberg, the American-educated chair of Bar Ilan University’s political studies department. “Yes, the organization’s declarations are coming from the United States, but this is not at all yet a mass movement.”

Jonathan Rynhold, who also teaches political science at Bar Ilan, explained that boycott movements are rare in America, “because the U.S. has much stronger political culture and laws about freedom of speech than the UK. In America, there is stronger sense that one should be able to think and say whatever one wants.”

“What they’re trying to do,” Rynhold continued in his analysis of anti-Israel boycotts, “is blurring the distinction between criticism of Israeli policies and criticism of Israel’s existence. Their game is to move the liberals, who accept Israel’s right to exist and don’t think Israel is wrong every time but criticize Israeli policies as and when they think it’s right, and turn them into radical left-wing critics [who believe] Israel is racist in its core and everything it does is wrong.”

Rynhold and Steinberg said that the new U.S. campaign is a clone of its British predecessors. The two professors, who were both born in England, speak out of experience. When the original boycott movement arose – initially attacking only Bar Ilan and Haifa University – they were among the co-founders of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which was fighting the boycott but ultimately folded for lack of funding. Although none of the previous boycott efforts were successful, Steinberg is concerned about every new round. While he said that it’s too early to predict the impact of the U.S. boycott, he sharply criticized the Israeli government and local universities for their handling of the previous boycott.

“The government and the universities have completely neglected not just the academic boycott but in general this kind of soft war,” he said. “The military prepared to go into Gaza for two and half years. But in terms of the boycott movement, both the ministry of education and the foreign ministry – which had pledged support for the existing anti-boycott frameworks – completely failed to prepare their own portfolios for this.”

“The battle is just beginning now,” Steinberg added. “The main response will have to come from American academics who find this kind of bias to be unacceptable and will fight it. But for those of us in Israel who are interested in helping to be a catalyst in that process, the funding has been completely cut off. There was the naive view that having won a few battles in Britain meant the war had been won.” Yet, giving the boycotters too much attention might be counterproductive, Steinberg emphasized.

Effective counterattacks need to be prepared, he said, “but at the same time we must not overreact and provide stimulation and amplification to this process – that is precisely what they’re seeking.”

Other pro-Israel advocates are less hesitant and soft-spoken in their assessment of the U.S. boycott.

“The usual anti-Israel suspects in U.S. universities may sign on to the petition, but it won’t amount to much,” predicted Mitchell Bard, executive director at the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, which seeks to strengthen the pro-Israel camp at American colleges. “If it becomes a widespread effort, I’m sure some effort will be given to countering it, but it is out of touch with the mood in the country,” he said. “Israel has near record high support, [U.S. President Barack] Obama has just taken office with a positive message and the focus will be on moving the peace process forward, not sideshows by anti-Semites and cranks among American pseudo-academics.”