Oxford University academic Michael Yudkin critiques the ‘Academic boycott’ promoted by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and its UK partner the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). Placing both under the spotlight, Yudkin finds that not only do they contradict the fundamental academic principle of universality but their true purposes are much more radical than their stated aims suggest. ‘I oppose both the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government towards the Palestinians and the occupation of their territories’ he writes, but ‘in contrast to PACBI and BRICUP, however, I do not believe in imposing my views on others by force, I don’t believe in requiring people to pass a test of political orthodoxy before they are allowed to practice their profession, and I don’t believe in punishing academics and artists for the misdeeds of their government.’
These days the phrase ‘academic boycott’ seems to have acquired a thoroughly restricted meaning. It has nothing to do with China, which has been in occupation of Tibet since 1949 and which routinely imprisons or ‘disappears’ human-rights lawyers; nothing to do with the US or the UK, which invaded Iraq in 2003 without the authorisation of the UN Security Council; and nothing to do with Russia, which seized 27,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory two years ago and has (with the enthusiastic support of Iran) been helping the government in Damascus to bomb Syrian civilians. Instead, ‘academic boycott’ is a term of art to describe a means of punishing Israeli academics for the actions of a government over which they have little or no power.
Supporters of the boycott say that their aims are to support Palestinian universities and to oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories, but I show here that their true purpose is much more radical than these stated aims suggest. In addition, I illustrate the way in which the academic and cultural boycotters of Israel disrupt the work of individual scholars and artists – disruptions that belie the moderate and peaceable language the boycotters use to describe their tactics.
First let’s get some acronyms out of the way. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is a branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. PACBI’s ‘key partner in the UK’ is the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) (PACBI, 2009). The latest manifestation of BRICUP is an advertisement that appeared in The Guardian last October, in which some 340 British academics signed a commitment (‘commitment4P’) to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The commitment4P website gives a prominent link to the booklet Why Boycott Israel’s Universities? published by BRICUP (2007). In what follows I shall quote from both.
BRICUP versus Israeli universities
The BRICUP booklet Why Boycott Israel’s Universities?, citing a paper (Blakemore, Dawkins, Noble and Yudkin, 2003) about academic boycotts of which I was a co-author, admits that ‘The widely-held default position in the practice of academic work is the avoidance of any discrimination on grounds of citizenship, religion, politics, race, colour, language, age or sex.’(BRICUP, 2007)
Exactly so. Academics now overwhelmingly accept this ‘Principle of Universality’: that it is morally inappropriate to discriminate against other scholars on grounds that are irrelevant to the conduct of their profession (such as those mentioned in the BRICUP quotation above); hence that it is unacceptable to boycott scholars on grounds of their citizenship. However, many academics would agree that the strong presumption against boycotts could be rebutted in exceptional circumstances if academic misconduct is involved. A boycott of an individual academic would be acceptable as a response to a precisely defined act or omission that constitutes an exceptional violation of accepted professional norms, and is substantiated to a high standard of proof. Thus only grave professional misconduct, such as the systematic falsification of research results, could appropriately give rise to a boycott; an academic who steals from shops or stabs a neighbour is liable not to boycott but to prosecution and punishment in a criminal court (Rodin and Yudkin, 2011).
Immediately after the sentence quoted above, the BRICUP booklet continues: ‘Only exceptional circumstances, such as the violation of other at least equally important principles, could justify its [the default position’s] breach.’ (BRICUP, 2007) But if the boycotters want to justify an academic boycott on the grounds that ‘equally important principles’ have been violated, they need to say what the ‘principles’ are; unless these are made explicit, boycotts could be held to be justified on any grounds whatever. The ‘default position’ – that discrimination must be avoided – would then have been robbed of all meaning.
In fact, BRICUP never sets out, even in general terms, the principles that it believes would justify academic boycotts. We are therefore forced to try to infer them from its statements about Israeli universities. What becomes clear, as we shall see, is that the principles have nothing to do with professional misconduct.
Many of the complaints at the commitment4P website are no more than hand-waving. For example, ‘Israeli universities are at the heart of Israel’s violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinian people.’ (Commitment4p, 2015) But we also find this more specific complaint:
[N]o body of academics, in any department or discipline or university, has ever issued any statement in support of their Palestinian equivalents just a few miles away whose academic freedoms are being consistently violated. In a situation as extreme as that of Israel, with death, dispossession and humiliation being dispensed just a few minutes drive from Israeli academics’ own front doors, public silence is complicity. (Commitment4p, 2015)
The first sentence is simply false, since in fact many Israeli academics have, individually and collectively, issued statements in support of Palestinians and in opposition to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. In one example, more than 360 faculty members of Israeli universities signed a statement that began: ‘We, faculty members from a number of Israeli universities, wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories. Such service too often involves carrying out orders that have no place in a democratic society founded on the sanctity of human life . . .’ Again, plans to convert a college in the occupied territories into a university met the following response from more than 1000 Israeli academics, in an even more explicit expression of their profound disagreement with the government: ‘The Israeli academia has flourished so far due to it being a part of a free, democratic society, with close ties to the academic communities of democracies around the world . . . The continuing occupation and settlements policies destroy the democratic foundation of the state of Israel. Democracy is the essence of the academic establishment, and we therefore see it as our duty to stop the attempt to recruit the Israeli academia in the service of the occupation effort.’
Bear in mind that the 1000 signatories of this statement are among those that BRICUP wants us to boycott.
But even if BRICUP’s assertion about the silence of university faculty were true, while that silence would be extremely regrettable, exactly what principle would be being breached? Clearly the silence would not be a violation of accepted professional norms. It is not part of the professional duty of academics to oppose the actions of their governments, however justified that opposition may be. We might hope that the UK’s university teachers would have spoken out against the invasion of Iraq – and many of them did – but we could not reasonably call for a boycott of those who didn’t, nor accuse them of ‘complicity’ (one of BRICUP’s favourite accusations) in the invasion. Still less would it be appropriate to use the fact that many academics failed to speak against the invasion as a reason for a boycott of all UK universities. Since like cases must be treated alike, we have here a strong argument for opposing BRICUP’s academic boycott of Israel, or so one would think – but this naive view fails to take account of the fact that BRICUP holds universities in Israel to a quite different standard from those elsewhere.
BRICUP and Israeli Arms
When BRICUP starts to talk about individual universities its aims become clearer, as does the consequence of its refusal to specify the ‘important principles’ whose violation might justify an academic boycott. For example:
The universities are not isolated from this integration into the occupation, nor do they struggle to stay clear of its contamination. Haifa’s Technion is entwined with Israel’s armaments industry, and provides it with much of its technically trained recruits. (Commitment4p, 2015)
The implication is that it is improper for a university to supply recruits to the armaments industry. But why is that improper? There are armaments industries in many countries (Wikipedia lists 45, from Argentina to Vietnam), and given the technical sophistication required in manufacturing modern armaments, it is obvious that many of these industries must have links with (be ‘entwined with’) universities in their own countries or recruit graduates from them. We personally may find links between universities and defence, or between universities and the armaments industry, distasteful, but again, which important principle is – according to BRICUP – being violated? Such links with the armaments industry certainly don’t violate professional norms. If they did, a large number of universities in the world (including those in the UK) would be liable to academic boycotts – unless, of course, what is entirely legitimate for all universities elsewhere is illegitimate for universities in Israel.
The statement continues: ‘Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, . . . has created special technology to detect tunnels that Palestinians use to break the illegal siege on Gaza.’ (Commitment4p, 2015) But this is a disingenuous attempt by the authors to confuse the tunnels below the Gaza/Egypt border with those below the Gaza/Israel border. As Egypt maintains a blockade of Gaza, the former are indeed used for smuggling, but the latter have a quite different purpose: to infiltrate the border in order to target Israelis nearby. It was through a tunnel of this sort that the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted before being imprisoned in Gaza for more than five years without access to the Red Cross. During the war in 2014 the Israeli army discovered over 30 similar tunnels, which were being used to hide munitions, including rockets, and military personnel, and which may have been intended to facilitate a mass casualty terrorist attack. The technology developed by the Technion, therefore, is not to counteract a ‘siege’ but rather for the legitimate defence of the state.
The next complaint shows BRICUP’s true aims: ‘Tel Aviv University is built over the site of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis.’ (Commitment4p, 2015) The rhetorical term ‘ethnically cleansed’ does no justice to a very complicated history; the reasons why many Arabs left their villages in the nascent State of Israel during or just before the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 constitute a hugely contested topic which is beyond the scope of this article. The crucial point is that Tel Aviv University was built inside the territory that the UN – although it knew very well about the presence within it of many Arab villages – allocated to the Jewish State when Palestine was partitioned in 1947, as the British mandate was coming to an end. A legitimate state is entitled to build universities wherever it chooses within its borders, just as it is entitled (indeed obliged) to defend its citizens from military attack.
BRICUP’s complaints about the siting of Tel Aviv University, and its complaints about the involvement of the Technion in the defence industry, reveal that while it purports to act on behalf of Palestinian universities and against the occupation of Palestinian territory, it actually rejects the validity of the UN’s partition of mandatory Palestine and thus denies the legitimacy of the State of Israel. That is why, in BRICUP’s view, Israel’s academics must be treated as outlaws who should not benefit from the ‘Principle of Universality’ that applies to academics of all other nationalities. It is also why BRICUP feels entitled to demand a standard of conduct from Israeli universities that goes far beyond what is expected of universities elsewhere. The true, though unspoken, basis of its complaint against Israel’s academics is not what they do (or fail to do), but that they are Israelis – citizens of a country that BRICUP apparently believes should not exist.
We recall that Omar Barghouti, who was one of the founders of the BDS movement and who features prominently in BRICUP publications, said in 2013: ‘Definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.’ (Barghouti, 2013)
BRICUP and Israeli Academics
BRICUP likes to claim that the boycott it wants to impose is directed not against individual academics but against the institutions in which they work. ‘There is one key point about the Commitment that needs to be emphasised – it is not a commitment to sever contacts with individual Israeli academics. It follows the call for supportive action from Palestinian civil society in that it exclusively targets institutions.’ (Commitment4p, 2015)
Let’s pretend that this distinction between academics and their universities can be maintained in practice. Let’s pretend that, when Israeli academics fail to gain promotion because their colleagues overseas refuse to referee their applications, they are comforted to know that the refusal is directed not against them personally but against their institutions. Suspending disbelief in this way, I’ll examine BRICUP’s claim that it doesn’t want contacts with Israeli academics to be severed. (The word ‘contacts’ includes, of course, such routine activities as the presentation of research at other universities.) Here are two reports of what occurred when Israeli scholars tried recently to lecture at English-speaking universities:
On Tuesday afternoon [3 November 2015] an Israeli academic was shouted down by two dozen protesters as he tried to begin a lecture before about 100 students and faculty at the University of Minnesota. The speaker was Moshe Halbertal, a professor at NYU Law School and a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University . . .
The lecture . . . was delayed half an hour as one by one the protesters stood up to shout denunciations of Israel and were escorted from the hall by university police . . . Outside the hall, the protesters chanted so loudly that it was difficult to hear Halbertal, much less to concentrate on what he was saying, until 45 minutes after the lecture was to have begun . . .
The lecture was entitled, ‘Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare’ . . . When he was finally able to speak, Halbertal argued that in fighting ‘asymmetric wars’ (typically, wars between professional militaries and insurgencies or resistance movements) professional combatants should err on the side of protecting non-combatants from casualties, even when they thereby increase risks to themselves or to their cause. (Carpenter, 2015)
Closer to home, on 19 January 2016 a meeting organised jointly by the Israel Societies of Kings College London (KCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE) in the Norfolk Building at KCL was disrupted when protestors forced their way into the building, breaking a window in the process. The invited speaker was Ami Ayalon, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). Ayalon had been Head of the Israel Security Agency between 1995 and 2000, and in 2003 had launched, together with the Palestinian Professor Sari Nusseibeh, a peace initiative called ‘The People’s Voice’ in support of a two-state future for Israel/Palestine. The following account of what happened when Ayalon was speaking is taken from the official report by the Head of Administration and College Secretary of KCL (Creagh 2016):
The protestors began to chant and bang on the wall and doors to the room, and they also banged chairs on the floor . . . At this stage, protestors outside the building were chanting and banging on the windows and entry doors to the building . . . Multiple manual alarm call points were activated inside the Norfolk Building and the adjacent building which manifested in a series of fire alarms going on and off during the event. A maintenance manager later ascertained that a total of 7 had been activated . . . Growing concern for the safety of staff, students and the speaker led the King’s security manager to instruct the control room to call the Police . . . The continual activation of the fire alarm led King’s staff to close the event approximately 20 minutes earlier than scheduled because of safety concerns . . .
BRICUP’s pamphlet Why Boycott Israel’s Universities? claims that ‘None of the boycotters wants to stop talking to Israeli academics. We are always happy to talk, to debate, to discuss with Israeli colleagues and do so at all opportunities.’ (BRICUP, 2007) It goes on: ‘The boycott is aimed at institutions, not individuals. It applies to individual academics only in so far as they are acting on behalf of or as officials or representatives of Israeli academic institutions, or of Israeli higher education at the national level.’ (BRICUP , 2007)
I have therefore searched carefully for a statement either by BRICUP or by PACBI about these two events – which are representative of many such disruptions – but have failed to find one. Astonishingly, the recent events at KCL’s Norfolk Building, less than one kilometre from BRICUP’s address, are not mentioned in the BRICUP Newsletter of either January or February 2016. I am tempted to point out that public silence is complicity.
Even so, the boycotters might want to claim that they are not responsible for their supporters reacting violently to the ‘provocation’ they suffer when scholars from Israel are invited to speak at universities in the US or the UK. My reply to their claim would be: Our civilisation has worked for the past two centuries to establish the principle that discrimination on the grounds of gender, skin colour, religion, citizenship, sexual preference and the like are impermissible – in short, that individuals should be judged by what they do and not by who they are. For the most part, such discrimination is now understood to be improper. If you choose to reverse the progress of these two centuries, and persuade your followers that it is acceptable to discriminate against one group of people because of their ‘wrong’ citizenship, it is you who are responsible for the consequences of your propaganda.
Meanwhile, the cultural wing of PACBI has been arranging its own programme of disruption of performances by Israeli actors, dancers and musicians, both in the UK and elsewhere. For example, protestors interrupted a concert by the Israel Philharmonic at the BBC Proms in 2011 and performances by the Habima Theatre in London and the Batsheva Dance Company in Edinburgh in 2012. The supposed justification for this kind of disruption is given in the 1100-word ‘BDS guidelines for assessing whether events or products are in violation of the Palestinian cultural boycott of Israel’ (PACBI, 2014). The first of the five guidelines states:
As a general overriding rule, Israeli cultural institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence or actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights.
But even the PACBI guidelines do not contrive to justify the disruption of concerts given last year by the Jerusalem Quartet in London and elsewhere, since the Quartet is not an ‘Israeli cultural institution’ (Guideline 1), is not ‘a cultural PRODUCT commissioned by an official Israeli body’ (Guideline 2), is not ‘a cultural EVENT/ACTIVITY partially or fully sponsored by an official Israeli body or a complicit institution’ (Guideline 3), is not a ‘Normalization Project’ (Guideline 4) and is not a ‘Fact-finding mission [or] study tour that receive[s] funding from Israel, its complicit institutions, or its international lobby groups’ (Guideline 5).
Never mind: PACBI can still find an excuse to impose a boycott in violation of the guidelines. As young men, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet served (as is normal practice) as conscripts in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and since then they have been designated ‘distinguished IDF musicians’. PACBI regards the musicians’ national service as sufficient justification for its campaign to disrupt the Quartet’s concerts (PACBI, 2015). Given that most young Israeli males do national service in the IDF, this can serve as a useful all-purpose excuse for boycotting any Israeli man, whether his activities fall within the guidelines or not. Once again we see that PACBI/BRICUP view Israel as an illegitimate state, and service in its defence forces is for them an adequate reason to impose a boycott.
My final example concerns the reggae singer Matisyahu, who was invited to perform at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival near Valencia in August 2015. A local BDS group, BDS País Valencià, complained about his being invited, and so the organisers of the festival demanded that, before appearing, Matisyahu issue a statement recognising ‘the right of the Palestinian people to have their own State.’ He refused, saying ‘The festival organisers contacted me because they were getting pressure from the BDS movement . . . I support peace and compassion for all people. My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music. Music has the power to transcend the intellect, ideas, and politics, and it can unite people in the process. The festival kept insisting that I clarify my personal views, which felt like clear pressure to agree with the BDS political agenda.’ (JHRW, 2015)
The festival organisers then cancelled the invitation to Matisyahu to perform. No other performers were required to describe their political views as a condition of appearing at the festival.
Interestingly, this action too fails to conform with the PACBI guidelines, as Matisyahu is not affiliated with any Israeli cultural organisation. In fact Matisyahu is not an Israeli, he is American – an American Jew. No less interesting, after the festival’s organisers backed down and agreed to re-invite him, was their explanation of why they had previously withdrawn the invitation:
Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community . . . Rototom Sunsplash admits that it made a mistake, due to the boycott and the campaign of pressure, coercion and threats employed by the BDS País Valencià because it was perceived that the normal functioning of the festival could be threatened. All of which prevented the organisation from reasoning clearly as to how to deal with the situation properly. (Sunsplash, 2015)
This article is about the academic (and to a lesser extent the cultural) boycott of Israel, and not about the disastrous, and deteriorating, situation in Israel/Palestine. It ought not to be necessary for me to say anything here about my views of that situation. But I know from my own experience that supporters of the academic boycott like to make personal points rather than to address the issues, and in particular that they like to accuse their opponents of being lackeys of the Israeli government. I shall therefore state again that I oppose both the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government towards the Palestinians and the occupation of their territories. In contrast to PACBI and BRICUP, however, I do not believe in imposing my views on others by force, I don’t believe in requiring people to pass a test of political orthodoxy before they are allowed to practise their profession, and I don’t believe in punishing academics and artists for the misdeeds of their government.
Omar Barghouti, ‘Strategies for Change’, Dag Hammarskjöld Program Vimeo Channel, 23 September 2013, at 5.55 minutes. https://vimeo.com/75201955
Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins, Denis Noble and Michael Yudkin, ‘Is a scientific boycott ever justified?’ Nature, Vol. 421, pp. 314, 2003.
BRICUP, ‘Why Boycott Israeli Universities?’ (BRICUP: British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, 2007). http://www.bricup.org.uk/documents/WhyBoycottIsraeliUniversities.pdf
Dan Carpenter, ‘Israeli academic shouted down in lecture at University of Minnesota’, The Washington Post, 4 November 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/04/israeli-academic-shouted-down-in-lecture-at-university-of-minnesota/
Commitment4p, ‘A Commitment by UK Scholars to Human Rights in Palestine’, 27 October 2015. http://www.commitment4p.com/
Ian Creagh, ‘Investigation Report – Events of 19 January 2016’, King’s College London, 2016. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/docs/Investigation-Report—19-January-2016.pdf
Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW), ‘More Shocking BDS Behaviour: Matisyahu’s official statement’, 19 August 2015. http://jhrw.com/2015/08/more-shocking-bds-behaviour-matisyahus-official-statement/
PACBI, ‘Guidelines for Applying the International Academic Boycott of Israel’, 1 Oct 2009. http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1107
PACBI, ‘Guidelines for Applying the International Academic Boycott of Israel (Revised)’, July 2014. http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1047
PACBI, ‘Protesters disrupt Jerusalem Quartet concert in Lisbon’, 17 Dec 2015. http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=2766
David Rodin and Michael Yudkin, ‘Academic Boycotts’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 19, pp. 465-485, 2011.
Rototom Sunsplash, ‘Full statement from Rototom Sunsplash festival’, Times of Israel, 19 August 2015. http://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/full-statement-from-rototom-sunsplash-festival/