Is the academic boycott of Israel a violation of academic freedom?

A decision to rescind an invitation to Israeli academics to a conference in South Africa, revived a tactic of the anti-apartheid struggle. Is it effective?

London. Image credit Alisdare Hickson via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Since 2004 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has called on the international community to boycott Israeli universities as a way to pressure Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land and cease the violation of the human rights of Palestinians. In December 2018 a conference was held at Stellenbosch University in South Africa titled “Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma.” Various scholars and practitioners conducting research on collective trauma, the work of truth commissions around the world, reconciliation in societies affected by political turbulence and war, and peace building in various contexts, convened to engage with the theoretical, conceptual, and practical aspects of these topics.

The first iteration of the conference program listed a symposium titled “Can we empathize with the narratives of our enemy? Encountering collective narratives of the ‘other’ in the Israeli-Palestinian context,” at which several Israeli scholars were to make academic presentations. Citing the academic boycott, several South African activists objected to the symposium, stating that it was paradoxical to discuss peace and reconciliation while at the same time as Israel continued to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem and wage regular military attacks in the Gaza Strip. The symposium was cancelled and replaced with one titled Palestinian Suffering: Why the Boycott Against Israel Matters,at which activists argued for an academic boycott of Israel and why such a boycott was especially necessary at the conference.

First, the conference was on reconciliation, an activity that is rendered impossible in the context of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and related human rights violations by Israel. Second, the conference took place in South Africa, a society with a rich history of protest, that was isolated during the apartheid era, and whose academic institutions had at the time been subject to boycott themselves. Thus, an academic boycott of Israel, including individual Israeli academics, was considered a logical extension of the academic boycott of South Africa. Third, the protest against the Israeli delegation was based on the assumption that academic freedom is not an unfettered right but one that exists in the context of other rights, and that could in the case of the conference be trumped by a human rights imperative.

The fourth was the argument against “normalization” of the conflict, which regards the two opposing sides—Israel and the Palestinians—as locked in a human drama in which each has an equally valid reason for their position and in which each is bestowed equal moral and ethical stature. Acceptance of normalization either ignores oppression or accepts that it must be lived with, thus conferring its “normal” status.

The outcry

The response to the cancellation of the Israeli symposium was vociferous and resulted in an international outcry citing the violation of academic freedom. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), which acts as the main Jewish religious authority in the country, stated that the withdrawal was “contrary to good academic standards and attempts at reconciliation.”

Wendy Kahn, the spokesperson for the SAJBD, expressed “outrage” at the withdrawal and stated that the boycott activists were engaging in “bullying tactics,” to which the organizers “caved in.” She also rejected the idea that the delegates voluntarily withdrew and stated that the decision to exclude them from the conference program was made without their knowledge or agreement. She referred to the protestors as “extremist, fringe groups,” and regarded the decision to rescind the invitation of the Israeli delegation as “a disgrace and an embarrassment” to Stellenbosch University. Kahn stated that the “banned academics”confirmed that they were removed from the conference program “because of threats to disrupt the event.” She did not provide details about who issued these threats, nor did she provide details of the content of the threats. Professor Shifra Sagy of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, a member of the canceled Israeli delegation, stated that the activists protesting the Israeli presence had “threatened to blow up the conference” if she and her colleagues participated. The Israel Academia Monitor also stated that “BDS activists threatened to ‘blow up’ (the) conference if Israeli activists took part in it.” Yet, nowhere in the public statements of those protesting the Israeli delegation at the conference was any intention expressed of disrupting the event either violently or non-violently.

Citing discrimination on the basis of his national origin, another member of the Israeli delegation, Professor Arie Nadler of Tel Aviv University stated it is “a hollow venture when certain people cannot speak in public because of their gender, nationality, color, or religion. This is discrimination of the most violent kind.” The narrative of fear and its association with violence at the conference was clearly prominent, but again no information exists that any threat was ever issued by groups or individuals protesting the presence of the Israeli academics.

An article in Israel Hayom, a popular newspaper in Israel that supports the country’s right-wing parties, was titled “South African university conference caves to BDS, disinvited Israelis.” It conveyed the impression that the decision to ask the delegates to withdraw was not made for principled reasons but to acquiesce to an activist movement whose presence was ostensibly potentially physically threatening. Ben Gurion University rector Chaim Hames cited the incident as the “… latest ‘victory’ in South Africa for the Boycott Israel crowd, for whom intimidation and threats have long been the tools of choice.” He stated that the real victims were the South African people, and values such as intellectual honesty and academic freedom. Professor Hames further stated that the comparison between Apartheid South Africa and Israel “does violence to the millions of black and coloured South Africans who suffered under decades of Pass Laws, separate beaches, ‘Bantu education’ requirements and a thousand more violations of civil rights and of basic human dignity on a daily basis.”

His view was that the conference would be “much the poorer, morally and intellectually, for not having Israeli academics there.”

Stellenbosch University Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the conference chair, indicated that she wished to shield Stellenbosch University from protests and ensure that the conference would not be derailed by the incident. She stated “we believe in academic freedom, and we believe in the right to boycott, given the role that this played in our own struggle against Apartheid. But I also know that our conference was not the appropriate vehicle for the application of the boycott.” Gobodo-Madikizela appeared to convey a sense of sympathy for the Palestinian struggle without necessarily committing herself to the academic boycott of Israel.

South African Jewish Report (SAJR), a weekly newspaper aimed at the local Jewish community, claimed that Stellenbosch University’s administration made the decision to rescind the invitation of the Israeli delegation. It quoted a Facebook post by a local commentator, Brenda Stern, who stated “once again, SA [South Africa] bows to BDS hate and loses an opportunity to contribute to peace and reconciliation…” The emphasis was on the university itself for ostensibly stifling academic freedom, even though no conference-related decisions were under the purview of any university administrator, but were in fact the responsibility of the conference organizers.

The SAJBD’s Kahn accused Stellenbosch University of betraying the values of academic freedom and diversity. The assumption was that the university had betrayed its own principles by permitting the cancellation of the symposium of the Israeli delegation. In response, Stellenbosch University’s rector, Professor Wim De Villiers, stated on the university’s website that “the most disappointing outcome of this sequence of events is the absence of robust debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the conference.” The university issued a statement expressing concern that academic freedom was curtailed by canceling the original symposium.

The activists protesting the Israeli presence at the Stellenbosch conference argued that human rights should trump the notion of academic freedom. To argue that academic freedom should be unfettered and that academics should be able to participate in meetings, symposia, and conferences regardless of their political context and backgrounds reflects the view that scholarship is apolitical or at least politically neutral. On the other hand, if there is acceptance of the fact that scholarship can be influenced, abetted, and restrained by political systems, then the academy may be more accurately viewed in the context of geopolitical dynamics. Universities exist and function as a consequence of history and political dynamics in their respective societies, and to a large extent reflect the political challenges with which states constantly engage. Israeli academic institutions form part of the state apparatus, constitute a key component of the ideological construction of the state, and support Israel’s hegemonic political-military establishment. In this way they are implicated in Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinian rights, even though some individual academics may take a principled stance in favor of human rights.

Nonetheless, there is a clear tension between the call for an academic boycott and academic freedom. Academic freedom is part of a liberal philosophical framework that promotes the unfettered flow of ideas. An academic boycott seeks to limit this freedom in the pursuit of a political ideal, namely, the achievement of political and social rights for Palestinians. The traditional view of academic freedom suggests that any academic boycott is always a violation of academic freedom as it asks academicians and scholars to withhold collaboration, scholarly discussion, and conference participation with their counterparts who work in countries that are the target of boycotts. However, the academy is not above politics and scholarship is influenced, facilitated, and restrained by political systems. The academy is thus a political space where some wield power while others do not. To this extent, universities and academic conferences exist and function as a consequence of historical and political forces and reflect the political challenges of the day.

Further Reading

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.