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Why We Should Boycott Israeli Academics

Lawrence Davidson
Professor of Middle East history
West Chester University
July, 26, 2002


Recently Prof. Juan Cole of the U. of Michigan published a piece against the academic boycott of Israel. I have presented the Chronicle(*) with a response which I hope they will publish.
A copy of it is given below.


As one of the few American academics who has publically supported the boycott of Israeli academia I would like to respond to the recent piece, “Why We Should Not Boycott Israeli Academics” by Professor Juan Cole.

To begin with many of the reasons Professor Cole gives against the boycott are, I believe, inaccurate and misleading. I suspect they are based largely on his sense of the situation in Israel or, as his evidence suggests, the opinion of Israelis who also oppose the boycott. Let’s take these one by one.

First, he says that while he “understands the impulse, the shunning of Israeli academic institutions seems to me entirely the wrong place to begin.” In fact those who seek to boycott Israel have not begun with academia. There are now on-going efforts at an economic boycott and a divestment movement that pre-date the effort directed at academia. This latter effort is a subset of a larger, older effort.

Second, Professor Cole asserts that apartheid is not a part of “Israeli society.” Specifically he says, “While Arab-Israelis are discriminated against in many ways in Israeli society, there is nothing like apartheid.” Leaving aside whether Israeli society, as it functions behind the Green Line, is not itself bad enough to warrant a boycott, Professor Cole surely knows that the boycott was initiated because of what Israeli is (and has been for thirty five years) doing in the Occupied Territories. There, according to the testimony of Desmond Tutu, apartheid certainly does exist.

Third, Professor Cole asserts that Israeli academics oppose Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and therefore it is unfair to target them. Thus, “Israeli academics tend to be left of center and finding one who expresses something other than distaste for Sharon is no easy task. It seems especially inappropriate to punish academics for the actions of a government they largely oppose.” Professor Cole may or may not be right about the personal distaste many Israeli academics feel for Sharon, but where is their public opposition to his government’s policies? There are approximately 9000 academics in Israel. Only 66 of these signed on to the published letter of support for soldiers refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Only 20 signed on to a letter of support for Ilan Pappe when the University of Haifa threatened to fire him, in part for his opposition to Israel’s behavior. In October of 2000, when Israeli forces killed 13 Israeli-Arabs demonstrating against that discrimination Professor Cole noted, only a few dozen Israeli academics registered any public protest. Even fewer now publically support the various petitions circulating against the actions of the Sharon government. (It is to be especially noted that these actions include an on-going attack on the institutions of Palestinian academia). On the contrary, Israeli universities have attempted to shut down criticism, most of which has come from Arab-Israeli student organizations. Not all, but most academics, fearing loss of their jobs and friends, have remained silent. Whatever the private opinion of the majority of Israeli academics might be, their public silence essentially condones the behavior of the Israeli government.

Finally, Professor Cole notes that “it should be remembered that the Oslo peace process itself originated as back-channel meetings of Israelis and Palestinians at a university in Norway. The current boycott call would forestall important new developments deriving from such exchanges.” I am not sure if Professor Cole is going to believe this, but the Oslo accords were a disaster. They did get Arafat back into Palestine and the PNA established, but on the unpublished proviso that they act as a security force for the Israelis. The latter proceeded to use the accords to forestall any final agreement while they continued to impose an apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories. It is because Arafat and the PNA refused to forestall violence against Israel under these circumstances that the U.S. and Israel now seek his ouster and the “reform” of the PNA. PNA corruption, which certainly does exist, is strictly a secondary issue at the State Department.

Thus, if the boycott can “forestall” any similar agreements then that is yet another reason to support it.

Israeli academics and their supporters cannot abstract academia from the context of their own society’s behavior. This is true not only for Israelis but for American and other academics as well. Whether it is the napalming of Vietnamese villages, the blowing up of Israeli pizza parlors and busses, or the systematic imposition of a colonialist apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Geneva Convention and countless UN resolutions, we find ourselves faced with an increasingly destructive and abnormal situation. It cannot be business as usual for Israel under these circumstances. If Israeli academics want worldwide acceptance they should follow the lead of those brave Palestinian intellectuals who have come out vocally against suicide bombings. It is time for them to take a principled, moral and public stand against Israeli government behavior that demeans our collective human status. Until a very significant number of Israeli academics do so, this boycott should go forward.

Lawrence Davidson
Professor of Middle East history
West Chester University
West Chester, PA 19383


(*) Chronicle of Higher Education, "Why We Should Not Boycott Israeli Academics" By Juan Cole (July 16, 2002)