- The last four years have seen the promotion of boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel in a number of countries. There have also been verbal or even physical aggressions and discrimination against Israelis and Jews. The fact that the anti- Israeli boycott campaigners do not propose boycotts of the crime-inciting Palestinian universities indicates strongly discriminatory and even racist attitudes.
- Each academic boycott campaign could provoke a counterboycott, unless the boycotted are exceptionally weak. Boycotts also provide a further argument for external intervention in the academic world, both political and otherwise. The David Project’s documentary on the intimidation of pro-Israeli students at Columbia University has shown that some universities’ misdeeds can be effectively exposed by a small outside actor without major financial resources.
- Israeli universities must play a larger role in fighting both anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli discrimination on worldwide campuses. Collaborating with the Israeli government, Diaspora organizations, academic institutions, and private activists may yield the best results. Such task forces’ main aim should not be to defend Israel but to turn the accusers into the accused.
What do Concordia University in Montreal, San Francisco State University, the University of California at Irvine, Columbia University, SOAS in London, the recently merged British academic teachers’ unions AUT and NATFHE, and MAUP University in Kiev have in common? Over the past few years they have become major names associated with verbal and even physical aggressions and discrimination against Israelis and Jews. Many other academic institutions in several countries could be added to this list.
At the very start of the current academic year, another group emerged to promote anti-Israeli discrimination. In September 2006, sixty-one Irish academics sent a letter to the Irish Times calling for a moratorium on support to Israeli academic institutions at both national and European levels.1 Soon thereafter the student government at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus passed a resolution calling on the University’s Board of Regents to vote to divest from Israel.2 There was also an appeal for divestment at Wayne State University (WSU). Thereupon, WSU president Irvin D. Reid came out with a statement saying: “Wayne State opposes divestiture and has no intention of divesting itself of stocks in companies doing business with Israel or any other legitimate state.”
He added: “We encourage our students to use their right to free speech, but accusations, acrimony and demands such as divestiture are counter to the intelligent dialogue and free discourse for which this university stands.”3
Boycott and Academic Freedom
Since the academic campaigns against Israel began in 2002, tens of thousands of academics worldwide have signed petitions opposing the boycott of Israel. They far outnumber those who support the boycott. Only a limited number of Israel’s supporters would have to publicly take discriminatory positions against boycotters and their allies to create a substantial disturbance of international academic life. In some professions where the anti-Israeli forces are strong worldwide, such as in Middle Eastern studies or linguistics, pro-Israelis might encounter difficulties. In others such as psychoanalysis or medicine, the anti-Israelis would be handicapped.
Unless the boycotted are exceptionally weak, each academic boycott could provoke a counterboycott. The Israeli academic world is quite strong with its several Nobel Prize winners and many top scholars. From a cycle of boycotts of Israeli academics and counterboycotts, the university world at large can only lose.
Boycotts would further harm the cause of academic freedom at a time when there are already several reasons to limit it. Its abuse by academic ideologues and propagandists is a major argument against the prevailing near-absolute academic freedom. At present, academics can say what they want, it is difficult to fire tenured teachers, and there is no government interference in university affairs.
Yet there are increasingly teachers in academia who promote hate, bias, or manifest lies rather than seeking to advance knowledge. Responsibility is a precondition for academic freedom, but there are now many cases where it is lacking.
Can Universities Reform Themselves?
Academic boycotts are likely to have other impacts as well. The academic world has been aiming at self-governance and trying to minimize outside interference. The many distortions in the academic and administrative fields raise doubt as to whether universities are capable of reforming themselves. Boycott campaigns add another strong argument for external intervention in the academic world.
Many politicians condemned the 2002 British anti- Israeli boycott campaign and a few French imitations of it. In 2006, the Report of the UK All-Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism concluded that “calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange.4
Damaging Columbia University’s Image
How effective even small outside groups can be in damaging the image of major academic institutions was demonstrated at Columbia University. Although there were many complaints about the ongoing intimidation of pro-Israeli students by teachers in its MEALAC (Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures) Department, the administration did not react.
Finally a small nonacademic grassroots group, the David Project, documented some of the abuses in a film called Columbia Unbecoming. Its revelations generated major negative publicity for Columbia and forced its administration to undertake an internal inquiry. However much the investigators covered up, they had to admit that the grievance procedure was faulty.5 The Columbia affair also frightened other university administrations that somebody might “do a Columbia on them.”
The David Project has shown that a university’s misdeeds can be effectively exposed by a small outside actor without major financial resources. Because of this precedent, it now suffices at other universities to collect testimonies on a teacher’s misdeeds with a tape recorder. These can then be publicly exposed with an investment of a few dollars.
Another conclusion to be drawn from the success of the David Project’s exposure of Columbia is that if it had been undertaken by a more powerful group, the university would have been in much greater trouble. Other universities should take this into account when failing to act against misbehavior on their campus.
Had the Columbia inquiry not produced at least some minor results, the next step would probably have been outside pressure on major donors to stop supporting the school. This is yet another aspect of how the seemingly closed academic world can be dented by outsiders.
Failed Censorship in the Netherlands
Boycotts are only one type of anti-Israeli action on campus. The methods used by the boycotters are applied in many other areas. The motivations can be diverse. A university administration’s attempt to silence a prominent scholar in the Netherlands shows how matters can boomerang for those who want to suppress the truth.
In June 2006, administrators at Utrecht University in the Netherlands refused to publish Prof. Pieter van der Horst’s analysis of Islamic anti-Semitism to be mentioned in his farewell lecture. In a meeting that the university’s rector called with a committee of three other professors, several arguments were given. These included that if Van der Horst did not remove the references to Islamic anti-Semitism he might be threatened by violent Muslims, a claim for which the university has never provided evidence. He felt intimidated and did not include the contested remarks in his lecture.
This attempt to distort academic freedom, even though Van der Horst’s contentions about Islamic anti-Semitism were valid, led to widespread public attention for a lecture that otherwise would most likely have gone unnoticed. Deleted passages were published by several Dutch papers. An editorial in the national daily, Volkskrant, concluded that if Van der Horst’s claim about the rector justifying censorship for fear of intimidation by Muslims was true, the rector should be rebuked.6
Van der Horst published his view of what had happened in the Wall Street Journal.7 The case now drew international attention as well. The Israeli Academy of Sciences has invited Van der Horst to come and lecture in Israel. The text of the invitation said there would be no attempt to influence the content of his lecture, “as is usual in the academic world.” A copy of the invitation was sent to the rector of Utrecht University and the other members of the committee who had tried to put pressure on Van der Horst.
This case has become a paradigm for how attempts to suppress truth in universities can backfire. Van der Horst’s facts and views on Muslim anti-Semitism are now widely known in the Netherlands. It also became another case where a university could not hide its misbehavior behind closed doors.8
Whom to Boycott?
The subject of academic boycotts should also be analyzed more scientifically. One would expect that human rights-oriented academics would focus their boycott campaigns on those universities where teachers and/or student unions call for criminal acts. A rational scientific approach would be to establish a list of institutions to boycott according to the severity of the criminal incitement on their campuses.
As the right to life is a prime human right, heading the target list of those to boycott should be universities that employ teachers or admit students who call for genocide or mass murder. Next in line would be those where suicide bombing is encouraged. These would be followed by campuses where murder on a smaller scale is promoted. Below these on the list would be universities that teach systematic discrimination and defamation.
Universities are often ranked according to scholarship. A more complete view of the academic world would also rank them according to crime incitement. Many institutions in the Muslim and Arab Middle East would place high on such a list.
Many anti-Israeli boycotters cite Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians as the official reason for their campaigns. Analyzing crime incitement at Palestinian universities sheds light on the true motives of the boycotters.
One example of genocidal incitement by a Palestinian academic is a statement in 2004 by Dr. Ahmed Abu Halabiyah, rector of advanced studies at the Islamic University of Gaza. He said:
The Jews are the Jews….They do not have any moderates or any advocates of peace. They are all liars. They must be butchered and must be killed….The Jews are like a spring – as long as you step on it with your foot it doesn’t move. But if you lift your foot from the spring, it hurts you and punishes you….It is forbidden to have mercy in your hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land, make war on them anywhere that you find yourself. Any place that you meet them, kill them.9
Halabiyah made this statement on official Palestinian Authority TV as part of a Friday sermon. This genocidal call, then, issued from the governmental, academic, and religious spheres of the Palestinian Authority and its civil society.
Al-Najah and Birzeit Universities
A second example comes from Nablus’s Al-Najah University. An exhibition there in September 2001 included a reenactment of a Jerusalem suicide bombing. Associated Press reported:
Wearing a military uniform and a black mask, a Palestinian set off a fake explosion in a replica of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, where a suicide bomber killed himself and 15 other people…. The exhibit at Al-Najah University in Nablus was put on by students who support the militant Islamic movement Hamas, which carried out the Jerusalem attack. Support for Hamas traditionally runs high at the university, which is a hotbed for Palestinian militants and has produced a number of suicide bombers…. In another part of the exhibit, visitors looked through dark windows to see mannequins dressed as suicide bombers. Each had Islam’s holy book, the Quran, in one hand, and an automatic rifle in the other. Real suicide bombers often assume this pose in videos they make before staging attacks.10
This university’s student union favors suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Terrorist organizations have also held rallies on its campus that feature demonstrations of how suicide bombers murder Israelis and blow up Israeli passenger buses.
A third example of a Palestinian university where there has been major crime incitement is Birzeit University near Ramallah. At the end of 2003, elections were held for the student government council. The campaign featured models of exploding Israeli buses. In the debate, the Hamas candidate asked the Fatah candidate: “Hamas activists in this university killed 135 Zionists. How many did Fatah activists from Bir Zeit kill?” Needless to say, the “Zionists” are largely Israeli civilians.11
It should also be noted that Hebrew University, where many Arab students also study, was the target of a Palestinian terror attack on 31 July 2002 that killed nine people and wounded eighty-five. Hamas, which in 2006 became the largest political force in the Palestinian territories, claimed responsibility for the act. Those favoring a boycott of Israel did not condemn the attack.12
There are also some Western universities that have employed or given a platform to inciters of crime.13 Israeli universities, for their part, score very low as far as incitement to crime is concerned. They do not employ academics or have student unions that promote genocide or murder. The fact that the anti-Israeli boycott campaigners do not boycott the crime-inciting Palestinian universities thus manifests strongly discriminatory behavior.
Anti-Semitism and Academic Freedom
Some may rate academic freedom so high as a value that they oppose boycotting even those institutions where the most hideous crimes are encouraged. From this point of view, boycotting Israeli universities or academics is also highly discriminatory. The onus is thus on the boycotters to prove that they are not racists.
The boycott and divestment campaigns prove that in many universities, academic freedom is cleverly abused to protect incitement, bias, and misbehavior. This is one more among the many reasons why campuses should be subject to greater external scrutiny.
For instance, online campus watches should be encouraged. A frequent Pavlovian response from the university world is to call such active monitoring McCarthyism. That, however, should be exposed for what it is: an attempt to stifle a normal type of criticism that exists in all other sectors of civil society. Campus watches have nothing in common with McCarthyism, which took place in a government framework that had the possibility to impose penalties.
The development of the anti-Israeli boycott and divestment campaigns also requires assessing the effectiveness of Israeli academic reactions to the threats. A closely linked question is what strategy to adopt in future for combating Israel’s enemies in the academic world.
Universities are places of knowledge and wisdom. Does that also apply when they themselves are under threat? When analyzing its reactions over the past few years, one can only conclude that Israeli academia has not shown great skill in fighting the boycott.
The first anti-Israeli boycott action was launched in the United Kingdom in April 2002. It consisted of collecting signatures from academics all over the world in support of a boycott. In Israel, Hebrew University reacted first, in a way that at the time was probably the most effective. Some scholars opened a website asking academics to come out against the anti-Israeli boycott. The idea was simple: for each supporter of the boycott, to enlist many more scholars who opposed it. Concurrently, efforts were made to convince well-known personalities to condemn the boycott or visit Israel to show solidarity.
Yet another approach consisted of Israeli and pro-Israeli academics publishing articles against the boycotters. Their arguments often combined apologetic, moral, utilitarian, and principled elements. Some noted that much domestic criticism of current Israeli policy comes from within the Israeli academic world. This is an apologetic argument that is irrelevant to the key issue of anti-Israeli discrimination.
Some academics also made the moral point that an academic boycott against Israel ignores ongoing terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. Others emphasized the utilitarian claim that a boycott could damage continued academic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. And some maintained that a one-sided perspective contravenes academic standards of truth-seeking. Although correct, this principled argument has a somewhat pathetic tone. Usually anti-Israeli ideologists on campus are not truth-seekers. They see their university positions as a platform for promoting extremist interests.
The pro-Israeli academics who initially argued against the boycotters were professionals in their scholarly fields. As advocates of their cause, they were largely amateurs. Few stressed only principles or accused the accusers in their writings.14
Professionals at Arguing
Top lawyers handle these matters better. Alan Dershowitz wrote succinctly: “Any moral person who is aware of the true facts would not sign a petition singling out Israel for divestiture. Those who signed it are either misinformed or malignant. There is no third alternative.”15
When he spoke at Columbia University in February 2005, Dershowitz accused the institution: “This is the most unbalanced university that I have come across when it comes to all sides of the Middle East conflict being presented…. I have never seen a university with as much faculty silence.” He added that faculty members in Columbia’s MEALAC Department encourage Islamic terrorism. Dershowitz announced that if the investigatory committee published a biased report, he would help organize an independent committee that would include Nobel Prize winners.16
Occasionally an individual, in this particular case unknown, has a brainwave on how to pierce an anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish action with little effort. In July 2006, over a thousand professors signed a petition on American college campuses to condemn Israel’s “aggression against Lebanon and Gaza.” One person signed the petition, which was further circulated, with the name “Mr H. Nasrallah, Joseph Goebbels Chair in Communications, Duke.”17
In 2002, when a rapid reaction was needed, collecting as many signatures as possible against the boycott was a practical response. In the long run, however, it lacked sophistication. Even worse, neither the Israeli government nor academia understood that the anti-Israeli efforts were there to stay.
For several years, the heads of Israeli academia did not believe that the boycott issue would return. This author convinced then-minister Natan Sharansky to invite the presidents of the Israeli universities and the Academy of Sciences to a meeting on the subject, which finally took place in autumn 2004. But these senior representatives of the academic world said little of significance there, and no action followed. One of their concerns was not boycotts by their enemies but interference in their affairs by the Israeli government, the meeting having been called by a minister.
This reinforces the impression that something is wrong with the process of utilizing knowledge and intellect in the academic world. If university administrations cannot, over a lengthy period, identify the threats against themselves and devise an intelligent response, perhaps academics’ analytical capabilities have value only as far as the past is concerned.
Israeli universities woke up again only in 2005 when the AUT’s initial acceptance of a boycott resolution in the UK revived the boycott campaign. Now the threats were concrete, and Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities finally took action. When pro-Israeli British academics mobilized, the motion was reversed. Legal threats against the AUT by Israeli universities seem to have been effective as well.18
Where to Go from Here?
The anti-Israeli discrimination issue on campus has developed over the past years in many directions even though it has not had much success. There were efforts to prevent Israeli academics from obtaining grants, incite academic institutions to sever relations with Israeli ones and scholars, convince academics not to visit Israel, and thwart the publication of articles by Israeli scholars. There were also refusals to review work of Israeli academics and to give recommendations to students who wanted to study in Israel or allow them credits for their activity there.
In addition, there were unofficial or concealed boycotts such as foreign academics severing relations with Israelis with whom they had maintained contacts for years. Attacks on Jews and Israel in the world’s universities take many forms. A workable strategy must be based on an early evaluation of threats. There is no standard model for the best defense. Case studies need to be done that analyze each attack and its key components. Questions to be asked include how the anti-Israeli action manifests itself, who is behind it, what anti-Semitic elements it includes, and whether anybody has already reacted against it. Once these facts are clear the next step is to design a strategy and mobilize allies.
The attacked are both Israeli universities and pro-Israelis on foreign campuses. Some of the latter have suffered severe consequences for expressing their views, including the loss of academic positions. Collaborating with the Israeli government, Diaspora organizations, academic institutions, and private activists may yield the best results. Such task forces’ main aim should not be to defend Israel but to turn the accusers into the accused.
* * *
* This article is based on a presentation at the Conference on Academic Freedom and the Politics of Boycotts, Bar-Ilan University, January 2006. The full presentation will be published in the conference proceedings edited by Gerald Steinberg.
1. Haviv Rettig, “Irish Academics Call to Boycott Israel,” Jerusalem Post, 24 September 2006.
2. Kelly Fraser, “Dearborn Student Gov’t Demands Divestment,” Michigan Daily, 4 October 2006.
3. “Free Speech OK, but WSU Won’t Divest,” Detroit Free Press, 13 October 2006.
4. See Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, (London, The Stationery Office Ltd., 2006) 38-42.
5. Noah Liben, “The Columbia University’s Report on Its Middle Eastern Department’s Problems: A Methodological Paradigm for Obscuring Structural Flaws,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 18, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2006): 151-59.
6. “Academische vrijheid,” Volkskrant, 21 June 2006. [Dutch]
7. Pieter W. van der Horst, “Tying Down Academic Freedom,” Wall Street Journal, 30 June 2006.
8. For an analysis of the Van der Horst case, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Hem Mefachadim,” Makor Rishon, 21 July 2006. [Hebrew]
9. Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook, “Kill a Jew – Go to Heaven: The Perception of the Jew in Palestinian Society,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2005): 127.
10. Associated Press, “Gruesome Exhibit Marks Anniversary of Uprising,” 24 September 2001.
11. Mohammed Daraghmeh, “Hamas, Fatah Compete over Killing Israelis in Campaign for Student Council Seats,” Associated Press, SFGate.com, 10 December 2003, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/ article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2003/12/10/international1552EST0 714.DTL&type=printable.
12. www.israel-mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2002/7/ Terrorist%20bombing%20at%20Hebrew%20University%20caf eteria%20-.
13. Jonathan Kay, “Hating Israel Is Part of Campus Culture,” National Post, 25 September 2002.
14. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Academic Boycott against Israel,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2003): 9-70.
15. Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 207.
16. Jacob Gersham, “Dershowitz Says Faculty Members Work to Encourage Islamic Terrorism,” New York Sun, 8 February 2005.
17. Jacob Laksin, “Petition for Genocide,” FrontPageMagazine, 28 July 2006.
18. Ronnie Fraser, “The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 36, 1 September 2005.