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Tel Aviv University
Anat Biletzki (philosophy, TAU) adressing a conference on boycotting Israel

Anat Biletzki,
Professor of Philosophy,
Tel Aviv University

I am Israeli. I work in an Israeli university. When the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s call for boycott came out, formulated by my friends in Palestine, I was struck by the irony of the fact that they and I, having worked together in the past on bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, were now split on this most central issue—split both in principle and in praxis.

Let me first try to state my position on academic boycotts in particular and on economic sanctions in general. In principle, anything that can be done to promote the demise of evil and to defeat any form of injustice is commendable. Still, the proverbial ends justifying the means is not to be countenanced: whatever is done must, in principle, not propagate more harm or more injustice. Academic freedom, while perhaps not sacrosanct, is high up on the ladder of priorities that must guide us in assessing the harm done by academic boycott. On the other hand, economic sanctions, in general, do not automatically offend our values concerning those harmed by such sanctions (though there is a point to be made about the helpless victims fired from a plant that is closed due to sanctions, not to mention the obviously innocent victims harmed by sanctions against poor countries, such as Iraq or Cuba). However, given Israel’s well-being—in terms of power, economy, international support, and so on—general economic sanctions would, if adopted widely, be a just and effective measure for pressuring it to cease the occupation of Palestine. This does not, however, carry through to the question of academic boycott, which, in turn, would not on its own be either just or effective. Baruch Kimmerling of Hebrew University has said, “I can understand and even support an academic boycott in the framework of a total and global economic, political, and cultural boycott till Israel will withdraw to the 1967 lines.”1 This does not entail support for an academic boycott on its own, and indeed, given the principles expounded in the AAUP report to which I truly ascribe, one might claim that an academic boycott even within a framework of total sanctions is wrong in principle.

In essence and in almost every detail, I can endorse, from my local Israeli perspective, the AAUP report.2 More so, the analogy with South Africa—including the gradation of opinion about academic boycott there—is precisely in tune with the discussion on Israel-Palestine. Let me add, however, that beyond the analytical and principled discussion that emphasizes the parallels between Israel-Palestine and South Africa, there are two differences between these cases. First, notwithstanding the selfcongratulatory claim that the global sanctions on South Africa were the catalyst to the end of apartheid, local activists consistently make the point that those sanctions were pertinent and effective only in connection with other elements of the campaign (such as armed struggle). Second, and most important, the sanctions on South Africa could work because they were realizable as global sanctions. Strategically, rather than tactically, a mode of action is worth considering only if it can be implemented. It is my firm belief that the possibility of recruiting the whole world to sanction or boycott the state of Israel in the manner South Africa was boycotted is nonexistent. The reasons for this impossibility may be unsavory: the automatic charge of anti-Semitism, which is sure to be heard; the power of Jewish lobbies around the world; the mythology of Jewish victimhood; and so on. But the fact that these reasons are distasteful will not make a worldwide movement for sanctions against Israel any more likely.

The AAUP report points to the tactical weakness, even the danger, of academic boycotts. Here, again, in addition to my principled agreement with the report, I also would point to the local boycott of Israeli universities as one harboring a great weakness and an even greater danger. Clearly, there is an obvious injustice in collective punishment and, more specifically, in harming academics who are committed to the Palestinian cause (I always ask my Palestinian friends if they would wish a certain professor to be denied tenure because our American and British friends refuse to provide letters of recommendation). Furthermore, not only is there palpable evidence in Israel today that a boycott against academics—or intellectuals, artists, or other agents of culture—would not be taken to heart by the general populace, there is also a clear indication that the powers that be would use such a boycott to continue their single-minded dismantling of those areas of public life—academic, intellectual, artistic, and cultural—that they perceive as a threat to their agenda of occupation and its corollaries.

The AAUP report is cognizant of the “tension between a principled defense of academic freedom and the practical requirements for action.” But there is another, related tension to address here—that between a principled call for sanctions and the practical detriments of certain actions. This inner tension, which I referred to above as ironic, can best be described by the oft-abused concept of “dialogue.” In these dire times, when dialogue has become a construct that raises easy money (“students for dialogue,” “parents in dialogue,” “teachers by dialogue,” and so on), one can be apprehensive about being manipulated into a dialogue that is not equal or authentic. Worse, such a dialogue can easily be perceived as collaboration with the occupation. The call for an academic boycott seems to be suspicious of all dialogue. It behooves us to insist on academic dialogue as authentic dialogue—always geared toward putting an end to the occupation.

In a tone of apology, and proper disclosure, let me add that I look at the issue of academic boycott “from the ground.” Does “from the ground” belie a principled position? Does it demand a pragmatic stance to take the place of an ethical one? Do I, thereby, adopt a certain realpolitik over ideological consistency? Does this stance favor the political discussion over the one on human rights? Does one, in deciding on such a perspective, find oneself with strange bedfellows? Does a local perspective, voiced from a local ground, compromise the universal aspects of the discussion that I—always ideally—subscribe to? These are the questions that I have tried to relate to. They are questions that put us—as Israeli academics—in a paradoxical situation if we try to consistently fit actions to principles. More concretely, when asked by academic friends abroad if they should come to Israel when invited, I say yes; but lest you be viewed, by your visit, as supporting Israel and its occupation of Palestine, do not forget to make a public statement of your position.

On a positive note, then, we must, as academics, never forget our political agenda: the eradication of evil. And the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the epitome of evil.We must constantly, as academics, identify with Palestinian teachers and students in conditions of severe repression.We must constantly, as academics, criticize the acquiescence of others in Israel to the occupation. And we must constantly, as academics, call for condemnation of the occupation. ¨


1. Kimmerling’s comment comes from an April 30, 2005, discussion on the Listserv ALEF-Academic Left, http://list.haifa.ac.il/mailman/private/alef/2005-April/003038.html.

2. I was surprised, however, by the words “as a way of protesting against what some see as the Israeli occupation’s denial of rights to Palestinians”; why the qualification “what some see”? There is no denying the Israeli occupation’s denial of rights to Palestinians, though there may be argument as to its reasons or justifications.

The individual papers published in this special section of Academe are reflections on the AAUP report On Academic Boycotts, which appears on pages 39–43. The papers were prepared for a conference on academic boycotts that was to have been held in February 2006 at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Although the conference was canceled, the AAUP resolved to publish the papers so as to present the viewpoints that would have been debated at the conference. All conference invitees were invited to submit their papers for publication; some chose not to do so, as Joan Wallach Scott explains in the introduction that follows. The publication of this issue of Academe and these papers was supported by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Ernst Benjamin and Joan Wallach Scott, both members of the subcommittee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure that organized the conference, edited the papers. The opinions expressed in the papers are those of the authors and do not represent the views or policies of the AAUP.


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