Commentary | Hyde Park: McGill profs defend call for boycott

Four members of the Arts Faculty criticized (The Daily, 12 February) those who had signed an open letter appearing in Le Devoir at the end of January that called for a global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction   movement to express solidarity with others peacefully protesting Israeli government actions that violated international human rights and, most recently, included direct attacks on academic institutions in Gaza.

We are among those who signed the College and University Workers United (CUWU) letter in Le Devoir, and would emphasize that our call is for an academic boycott directed against institutions, not individuals. Israeli institutions take part in blocking information and cutting off discussion and debate through their discriminatory admissions, language, and travel policies. As well, these institutions have built on land usurped from Palestinians on the West Bank and thereby take part in the UN-condemned practice of settlement building. Many individual Israeli academics support a boycott and recognize that outside pressure is essential if Israel is to be made accountable and end its “aggression.” We offer that support.

The McGill writers call our parallel to apartheid South Africa a “facile…misleading and pernicious…demonization of Israel…[that] does nothing to foster any serious and credible peace process.” Using invective neither advances their argument, rebuts ours, or acknowledges how those who experienced the apartheid system in South Africa, including the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, have documented the parallels between it and current Israeli policies of separation of and discrimination against Palestinians.

The four further claim that academic boycotts have proven to be either illegal or foundered for lack of support. If so, and the boycott movement is inexorably doomed to failure, why don’t they just ignore it and let it die its natural death? Or could it be that the boycott movement is actually gaining strength? How else interpret the immediate call for a retaliatory boycott of Hampshire College by Alan Dershowitz within days, if not hours, of his learning that this esteemed institute in Massachusetts had voted for divestment?

The Daily letter writers also employ a common diversionary tactic when they go after those who criticize Israeli government policies and support a boycott by accusing them of being “one-sided” in their analysis, failing to mention missiles aimed from Gaza into southern Israel, Hezbollah, other Arab states, or Iran. No doubt, there are different points of departure for a debate. While the McGill four chose to begin with the rocket fire from Gaza and Israel’s need for security, those in CUWU point to the Israeli occupation and blockade as “root causes” of the crisis, noting that those who are occupied have the right to resist even if we do not always agree with their chosen methods of resistance.

Unfortunately, diverting attention from these root causes leads to erroneous thinking that “security” comprises merely the cessation of rocket fire into Israel and fails to recognize that authentic security requires the ability – if not the right – of Palestinians to walk streets safely, have gainful employment, and provide the basic necessities for one’s family. Moreover, without security for all, finding a just and lasting peace between two viable states will not be possible. Our McGill colleagues are all social scientists; surely they must recognize that “terrorism” can be practiced by individuals, groups, and states. Many, including those in CUWU, now find that Israeli state terrorism has become integral to its occupation policy and must be addressed directly.

Calling for a boycott on Israeli institutions is not a “zero-sum” activity, nor does it require any ranking of world disasters. Many of us do give attention to ongoing global horrors in Myanmar, the Sudan, and the Congo, to mention but a few, but this is not relevant to calling for an academic boycott in Israel.

Israel has brought the world’s attention – and international reactions of various kinds – to itself through its recent assault on Gaza and the casualties it inflicted, actions in which the Canadian government was complicit. Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace organization, and others note that an economic boycott is a “non-violent act, enabling all citizens to express their views through their available means.” Those calling for a boycott in the letter in Le Devoir acted in this spirit, motivated, too, by some words of Abraham Lincoln: “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.”

The authors of this Hyde Park are members of the McGill Faculty and are affiliated with CUWU, the group that placed the ad in Le Devoir. You can reach them through