The value of academic boycott

On the relationship between BDS and academia

Israel is a colonial settler state. This is very hard to contest regardless of the history – religious or secular – of the Zionist movement. In response to this settler colonial occupation of unceded Palestinian land, in 2005 a group of academics, intellectuals, and activists in Palestine launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which (as its name suggests) aims to put political and economic pressure on the State of Israel in order to end its occupation – harking back to the similar boycott movement against South African apartheid. One of the main affiliates of BDS is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which launched in 2004. The campaign aims to boycott cultural and academic Israeli institutions “until Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid,” according to its website.

BDS and Montreal
McGill’s own complicity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quite obvious if examined. The university underwent weapons research for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that directly contributes to Palestinian oppression and Israeli apartheid. According to an article published on McGill’s website on September 14, 2012, McGill has signed memoranda of understanding with multiple universities in Israel. One of these is Technion University, which conducts arms research that furthers Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and has the highest number of graduates enlisted in the IDF in comparison to other Israeli universities, according to a report published by Tadamon! in October 2010.

It is hard for many professors to speak out in favour of academic boycott of Israel at McGill given the University’s standing toward the state, but underground support does exist. Paul Di Stefano, educator, researcher, activist, and a member of Tadamon!, wrote in an email to The Daily that, “There is a lot of support for BDS among activist collectives in Montreal. We see this collaboration during Israeli Apartheid Week where different groups, focusing on different issues, come together to organize a week dedicated to exposing Israeli apartheid.” Tadamon! is a “Montreal-based collective which works in solidarity with struggles for self-determination, equality, and justice in the ‘Middle East’ and in diaspora communities in Montreal and beyond,” according to its website.

In another email to The Daily, Michelle Hartman, associate professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies, asserted, “One thing that we have seen recently, however, is [that] more and more scholarly and student associations, unions, and other groups, are supporting the Palestinian call for BDS and this is inspiring.” On the topic of activism in Montreal, she wrote: “Locally in Montreal there are groups like BDS Quebec working on specific issues, like drawing attention to companies like SodaStream [which operates within the occupied West Bank]. There are also a number of professors and other workers at local universities and CEGEPs who meet in a group called College and University Workers United (CUWU), one of whose aims is to support BDS locally and beyond.”

Human rights or academic freedom?
“If we do not apply or support the boycott, we are advocating normalization and, with normalization, Palestinians will always lose. Normalization is all about accepting the humanity of Israelis, while denying the Palestinians their own. This framework also improperly casts the relationship as symmetrical when it is, quite obviously, not,” Di Stefano said.

In her article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom,” published in Radical Philosophy, Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, warns that, “When academic freedom becomes a question of abstract right alone, we miss the opportunity to consider how academic freedom debates more generally – and here I would include both pro- and anti-boycott debates – deflect from the broader political problem of how to address the destruction of infrastructure, civil society, cultural and intellectual life under the conditions of the Occupation.” Butler’s words should be heeded, and people should never forget the intersectionality of the conflict itself when discussing issues of boycott and divestment. Yet, what is more important to remember is that academia is also dissent if utilized as such, and can have a tremendous effect as a result.

Ethics of a boycott
The academic boycott of Israel is underway, it is alive, and it is growing. That is not the question. The question being debated at the moment is if the boycott is ethical. Noam Chomsky, professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and well-known pro-Palestinian activist, has come out against the boycott, stating that academics should concentrate on their own state’s complicity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (for example, as of 2010, 28 U.S. tax-exempt institutions raised $33.4 million in funding for illegal settlements in the West Bank) as opposed to boycotting other academics.

Typically, people who disagree with the academic boycott cite the hindrance of freedom of education, and discrimination, as reasons not to endorse it. According to a January 2014 Jerusalem Post article, as many as 92 American universities have rejected the academic boycott of Israel, in response to the recognition of the boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA). The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called the ASA’s measure “discriminatory and unjustified,” while Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, issued a statement shortly after the decision stating that “such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom […].” Prominent institutions that have rejected the boycott include Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, New York University, Yale, and Dartmouth. The U.S. Congress has also put forth a bill that “would strip American academic institutions of federal funding if they choose to boycott Israel,” according to Al-Jazeera.

“The fact that Palestinians are denied basic rights as well as academic freedom due to Israel’s military occupation is lost on [those arguing against a boycott]. And [the argument’s] privileging of academic freedom as a value above all other freedoms is antithetical to the very foundation of human rights,” writes Butler. Anti-boycott academics who want more academic freedom should be considering the academic freedom of Palestinians as well, since, according to Butler’s article, many students in the West Bank cannot get to their universities and classes on time because they are stopped at Israeli checkpoints, and sometimes have their universities shut down for a full semester. Students in Gaza are unable to reach universities in the West Bank due to the Israeli blockade, and are left with only one opportunity for higher education: the local university run by Hamas. When anti-boycott academics argue for the free transfer of education across borders, they do not take into account the reality that exists for most Palestinian students. As Di Stefano writes, “Palestinian academics are restricted from moving about freely, there is de facto segregation and underfunding of Palestinian schools in Israel, a deeply problematic vetting of Palestinian curriculum, and obvious limits to Palestinian students’ freedom of movement and ability to access education due to the system of checkpoints.”

Unfortunately, the question of ethics shall remain even after this article is published, though many like it continue to be written. Although a boycott might seem to be the worst way to solve the problem for many, it is only one of many solutions activists have for the conflict in light of the asymmetrical (U.S.-brokered) Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace’ talks. For Hartman, it remains a question of educating oneself and others about BDS and the conflict, which might lead to more support from the wider McGill community. As she writes, “A boycott is a powerful tool, and one which can be effective to bring international attention and pressure on Israel to end the occupation and colonization of Palestine, grant all people of the land equal rights, and respect and promote the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”