The Academic Boycott Against Israel and How to Fight It

, September 1, 2003

No. 12, 

The first major academic boycott attempt against Israel was initiated last year by British Professors Steven and Hilary Rose, both Jews. They claimed Israeli academics were the only non-European Union member scholars eligible for its grants, and because of Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians, these should be suspended.

On April 6, 2002, an open letter was published in the British daily The Guardian. It called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel at European or national levels until the Israeli government was prepared to abide by UN resolutions and open “serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.”1

Initially, about 120 people signed the petition, 90 of which were from the United Kingdom. By April 11, several hundred signatures had been collected, including from 10 Israeli academics – two from Hebrew University, three from Haifa University, and five from Tel Aviv University.

A few weeks later a similar initiative began in Australia, which secured 90 signatories. The initiators there were John Docker, a Jewish Australian author from the Australian National University, and Ghassan Hage, a Christian Lebanese anthropology lecturer at Sydney University.2

Following the Rose petition, a second incident soon developed in the United Kingdom, which garnered more media attention. Egyptian-born Mona Baker – a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) – dismissed two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of two journals she owned and edited. Due to the many protests, UMIST was forced to hold an inquiry into the matter.

The investigation found Professor Baker innocent as her journals were not under the university’s auspices. John Garside, UMIST’s vice chancellor, welcomed the outcome of the inquiry, but added that the Israeli professors would have been reinstated if the journals had been subject to the university’s jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, the UMIST ruling was seen as a victory for the boycotters.3

In the United States a sizable effort developed to convince universities to divest their holdings in Israeli securities. It was unsuccessful, yet perturbing given the following it attracted. By October 2002, petitions for divestment had been circulated at more than 50 U.S. campuses. At the University of California, more than 7,000 students and faculty members signed their support for the movement.4

Toward the end of 2002, a number of proposals were made at French universities for various types of boycotts against Israel. Particular publicity was given to the Pierre and Marie Curie campus of Paris 6 University. On December 16, 2002, the school’s administrative council adopted a petition expressing its opposition to the renewal of the association agreement between the European Union and Israel. Twenty-two members voted for the motion, four were against, six abstained and one refused to participate in the vote.5

 

The Jewish Reactions

These boycott initiatives took the Israeli academic world and Jewish organizations in the diaspora by surprise. They improvised without coordinating activities. In response to the open letter in The Guardian individual academics wrote letters to the press.

One important initiative came from the Hebrew University. It built a website calling for support of academics opposed to the boycott and attracted many signatories from all over the world. By June 2003, 15,000 academics had signed the anti-boycott petition. Similar initiatives were also taken elsewhere, including in Australia6 and the U.S.7

Some prominent scholars declared their personal support for Israel, most notably Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British brain researcher and head of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. She announced her intention to lead a delegation of top British scientists to Israel, Jordan and Egypt in mid-March 2003 in what she called “a positive response to ongoing boycott efforts.”8

Another initiative against the boycott was the establishment of the International Academic Friends of Israel (IAFI). This organization – headed by Andrew R. Marks, chairman of the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biology at Columbia University – seeks “to host and support international scientific meetings in Israel; bring Israeli and global academic and scientific leaders together in other forums; promote worldwide understanding and appreciation of Israeli scientific and academic achievements and create research fellowships in the U.S. for Israeli and Palestinian students.”9 Besides American scholars, its board members include academics from France, Israel, Italy and Switzerland.

 

France and Italy

After the motion supporting the boycott against Israel by Paris 6 university was announced, the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF) organized a demonstration against it on January 6, 2003. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said: “The French University is the only major institution which has not repented its mistakes under the Vichy regime. In this context the boycott [of Israeli universities] by Paris 6 seems even more shameful.”10 He added that the Israeli universities are “the heart of the peace.”

The attitude of Paris 6 University was condemned by French Education Minister, Luc Ferry and the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. After the public protests the university canceled its motion. Another Paris campus – Paris 7 – ruled a similar motion out of order. It claimed the university was not entitled to debate political or religious issues.11

In Italy – where only a few academics signed the Rose boycott call – there were several negative reactions of university heads toward the initiators. Maurizio Rispoli, rector of Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, declared that boycott appeals by these academics were personal and did not reflect the positions of the university.

He added: “The agreements of teaching and scientific collaboration with academic institutions are continuously expanded independent of the political orientation of governments of each state in the conviction that scientific communities must contribute to distributing knowledge and discoveries but also maintain the values of liberty, tolerance and respect between people.”12 The leading Italian weekly, Panorama, published an article on the boycott entitled ‘Winds of anti-Semitism at Ca’ Foscari.’13

 

Has the Boycott Initiative Failed?

At the end of June this author conducted an Internet search for the word ‘boycott’ on www.google.com. There were more than 850,000 references on this search engine. Among the first 50, two concerned Israel, and were not specifically aimed at the academic community. Others referred to boycotts against France as well as companies such as Nestle, Esso and Delta Airlines etc. The sites mentioned are arranged according to the frequency of users. Can one thus say that the worst part of the academic boycott is behind us?

Several Israeli academics and American Jewish leaders have told this author that in their view the academic boycott against Israel has failed. They point out that not one major academic institution or organization has supported it; no American university has decided to divest Israeli shares, and the Paris 6 University had to retract its anti-Israel motion. Furthermore, there were many more academics throughout the world who signed petitions against the boycott of Israel than those who signed for it.

Despite these facts, such a conclusion is superficial for a number of reasons. As recent as May 2003, a motion supporting an academic boycott against Israel got as much as a third of the votes at the conference of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) – one of the two teachers’ unions in higher education in the United Kingdom.14

Furthermore, it is mistaken to compare the boycott actions against Israel with, for instance, those against France. The American politicians who attacked France did so on the spur of the moment and had no previous record of animosity against France. The widespread American boycott against France emerged rapidly and may disappear just as quickly. On the other hand, some of those who advocate the boycott against Israel are longtime enemies. For them, the boycott is just one among many actions undertaken against Israel. If one effort fails, they will try another, especially since they do not incur any risks. Israel and the Jews focus on defense and hardly ever attack.

 

Lack of Research

In view of the multitude of academic boycott actions against Israel, it is surprising that neither Israeli academia nor the Jewish defense organizations have undertaken any significant research on major aspects of these efforts.

Such research is particularly important, because new attacks may emerge rapidly. If strategic understanding of the enemies’ motivations and modus operandi is lacking, vulnerability to future onslaughts remains high.

Several major questions require more detailed analysis including:

  1. What are the main manifestations of the academic boycott and related issues?
  2. How does the academic boycott relate to the wider issue of anti-Semitism?
  3. What actions have been undertaken to counter the boycott?
  4. Who are the main actors to have reacted against the boycott and what did they do?
  5. How could the Jewish world and Israel have responded more effectively and how should future responses be organized?

 

Research carried out by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the World Jewish Congress has provided initial answers to some of these questions, though more study remains to be done. Some findings are presented below.

 

The Main Aspects of the Academic Boycott

The main aspects of the academic boycott and related issues may be described as follows:

  1. Trying to prevent Israeli academics from obtaining grants. This was the major aim of the scholars who published the boycott call in The Guardian.
  2. Inciting academic institutions to sever relations with Israeli institutions and academics. These attempts were strongest in France and the United Kingdom.
  3. Convincing academics not to visit Israel.
  4. Trying to prevent publication of articles by Israeli scholars. A number of cases have been publicized. One of the most ironic of these concerns a pro-Palestinian Israeli scholar at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheva, whose article was rejected by a left-wing academic journal.15
  5. Refusing to review work of Israeli scholars. Israeli universities often ask scholars abroad to review the work of Israeli academics with a view to promotion. Hebrew University experts told this author that they have faced three cases of refusal to do so. One concerned a Jewish scholar abroad who wrote an anti-Semitic refusal letter.
  6. Promoting divestment of Israeli securities by university foundations. This is a particularly American phenomenon.
  7. Expelling Jewish organizations from the campus. The one well-known case concerns the Hillel organization at Concordia University, Montreal.16
  8. Boycotting unofficially. Not all boycott activities are official. Several Israeli academics told this author that some colleagues with whom they have had long-term contacts have severed these without explanation.
  9. Making life intolerable for Jewish and Israeli students at university. One of several extreme cases concerns the Free University of Brussels where pro-Israeli students have been threatened with death. Creating a hostile environment for Jews seems to have occurred in several places and is not limited to universities.17 A French book, The Lost Territories of the Republic,18 investigates multiple violence against Jewish school children in France, mainly by Maghrebian children over a period dating back many years.
  10. Hampering the career of pro-Israel academics on Western campuses.

 

 

The Relationship to Anti-Semitism

A second important question concerns the anti-Semitic aspects of the academic boycott against Israel. This has to be seen against the background of the boycott’s relation to various phenomena in Western society concerning the Jews and Israel. The first of these is the major immigration of Arabs and other Moslems to Western countries and the radicalization of significant elements of that community. This is often accompanied by anti-Semitic hate propaganda. In the academic world one finds many such Arab radicals in mid-Eastern and Islamic studies, one of the main disciplines promoting anti-Semitism at universities. Arab student unions are other major propagators of hatred.

A second relevant factor is the permeation of the Palestinian narrative into Western society, especially its left-wing elements. The third is the widespread latent anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, which has been largely ignored for years.

An additional problem is the fact that on several occasions, Jews have been at the forefront of the attacks against Israel. So far, Hilary and Steven Rose have seemingly benefited from their boycott actions, receiving much publicity, including an uncritical interview in The Jerusalem Post.19

Yet another important aspect is that the academic boycott does not relate only to general phenomena in society. It is also an expression of the specific problems of many Western universities where major anti-societal forces have developed over the decades. The boycott actions against Israel have brought further proof that a substantial number of ‘tenured radicals’ have permeated academia where they try to undermine society rather than to objectively engage in the pursuit of knowledge.

 

Fighting the Boycott

Within the framework of researching the academic boycott issue, a more systematic analysis is required of the actions undertaken against it. These can be categorized as follows:

  1. Assembling a list of signatories against the anti-Israel measures.
  2. Trying to use personal contacts to influence the universities where the enemies of Israel teach.
  3. Convincing well-known personalities to condemn them: one example is the speech by Laurence Summers, president of Harvard University, who said that many anti-Israel actions on campus are expressions of anti-Semitism.20 Another is an article in the French daily Le Monde, attacking the boycott action at Paris 6, by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a Jewish French Nobel prizewinner and former professor at that university. It was entitled, “I’m ashamed,” and said inter alia “I’m ashamed of those colleagues who dare to express abhorrence about other colleagues because of their nationality. I’m ashamed of those colleagues who in the case of a painful conflict, where two people suffer cruelly and daily, choose to demonize one of the two parties rather than trying to bring them closer to each other.”21
  4. Encouraging editors of scientific journals to condemn the boycott: the editors of the world’s leading general science magazines Science22 and Nature23 are examples of those who came out against the boycott.
  5. Organizing protest demonstrations.
  6. Urging academics to come to Israel to show their support for the country.

 

 

Who Has Been Fighting the Boycott?

A fourth important issue for analysis is to determine who the major actors are in the fight against the boycott. Jewish student organizations are usually in the forefront of this battle. In France the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France (UEJF) has been particularly active, as has Hillel in the U.S. and Canada.

Jewish defense organizations have also played a role. They fought the boycott on a one-by-one basis, but have not analyzed it in detail as a complex worldwide problem.

Individual university lecturers compose the third group of defenders. We should laud their work. Sometimes however, mistakes have been made. Many of their reactions are apologetic rather than principled. They point out that one should not blame Israeli universities, as many academics collaborate with Palestinians and are anti-Sharon. While that may be true, it is irrelevant to the issue at stake, which is that the boycotters attempt to make academia discriminate on the basis of nationality.

A fourth group of reactions have come from universities. One example has already been mentioned: Hebrew University created a central address to deal with the academic boycott under the responsibility of the Dean of the faculty of Social Sciences, Nachman Ben-Yehuda.

There are other institutions as well which have been involved in the defense battle. For instance, the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities collected support letters from other national academies and international academic organizations.

 

What Needs to be Improved?

The final question is what operational conclusions can be drawn? There is a need for an increased capacity to foresee problems, or at least develop a better way of dealing quickly with emerging unforeseen problems. The case study of the academic boycott teaches us that there were few early warning signs of such actions and their rapid development in various western countries. This leads to a number of conclusions.

Firstly, more detailed research on the boycott issues must be undertaken in order to obtain a better understanding. Secondly, those attacked must pool forces and start monitoring events on an ongoing basis more effectively than has been done so far. In the course of our research we have discovered several cases of academic anti-Israel discrimination which were unknown to the university authorities to which these academics belong.

Thirdly, ways to encourage and involve Israel’s friends in taking positive actions must be investigated. The IAFI initiative is one example of this. The potential exists to turn the boycott from a threat into an opportunity, but that requires much more thought and work than has been invested so far.

Fourthly, Israel and the Jews must stop acting only defensively and instead become proactive. The Western academic world supposedly operates according to certain rules and images. The image which has been created that the best academics get promoted the fastest and that the most worthy articles are published in the best journals is utopian. Allan Bloom has exposed the political character of many academic decisions in his book The Closing of the American Mind.24 The academic freedom of speech also frequently guarantees the rights of those promoting hate speech, which outside academia is often forbidden.

The actions initiated by Steven and Hilary Rose blatantly break these rules. The signatories of the motion explicitly promote the politicization of universities. Several academics have indicated to this author that if they can damage a boycotter of Israel they will not hesitate to do so, as they believe that people who have introduced racism into academia do not merit equal treatment.

If the boycott actions were to succeed these would lead to counteractions; once these multiplied, the present academic system would collapse. The signatories of the various boycott petitions thus not only initiated a discriminatory action against Israeli fellow academics and the State of Israel, but also proved they are enemies of the academic community at large.

 

The Wilkie Case

This might have been considered a farfetched concept a few months ago. Some proof for it came at the end of June when it was publicized that Andrew Wilkie, Nuffield Professor of Pathology at Oxford University, had refused Israeli student Amit Duvshani employment in his laboratory. In his June 23, 2003 e-mail – which was widely circulated on the Internet by opponents of the boycott – Wilkie wrote:

Thank you for contacting me, but I don’t think this would work. I have a huge problem with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because the Palestinians wish to live in their own country.

I am sure that you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army. As you may be aware, I am not the only U.K. scientist with these views but I’m sure you will find another suitable lab if you look around.

Apparently many protests were made to Oxford University within a few days. IAFI published a press release in which Andrew Marks said that “Professor Wilkie’s blatant discrimination against a scientist based on his nationality is a dangerous threat to academic and scientific freedom.”25

Oxford University reacted swiftly and on June 27 published a press release condemning Wilkie’s conduct and announcing an investigation into the matter. This was accompanied by a personal apology from Wilkie. On July 4, the university stated that it had referred the Wilkie case to its disciplinary panel for academic staff. Wilkie thereafter had 28 days to respond in writing to the charges laid against him. In the interim, he will not be allowed to participate in the selection of any staff member or students.26

Only time will tell whether the Wilkie case is indeed a turning point in the academic boycott against Israel. What is certain however, is that the approach which turned Wilkie from the accuser into the accused – within a few days – can be replicated and refined in future similar cases.

*     *     *

Notes

1. “Protest against call for European boycott of academic and cultural ties with Israel,” The Guardian, Original Press Release, April 6, 2002, www.euroisrael.huji.ac.il/original.html.
2. Patrick Lawnham, “Academics split on Israel sanctions,” The Australian, May 22, 2002.
3. Polly Curtis, “Umist professor escapes disciplinary action,” The Guardian, January 30, 2003.
4. “A Campus War over Israel,” Time, October 7, 2002.
5. Press Release of Pierre and Marie-Curie University.
6. www.geocities.com/academic_freedom_aus/list.html
7. www.anti-boycott-petition.org
8. Sue Fishkoff, “UK scientist to lead ‘anti-boycott’ mission,” The Jerusalem Post, March 5, 2003.
9. www.iafi-israel.org. “What is IAFI?” International Academic Friends of Israel.
10. X. T. “Claude Lanzmann appelle au ‘boycott des boycotteurs,” Le Monde, January 6, 2003. [French]
11. Philip Carmel, “Critics, rally force Paris school, to back off Israel boycott threat,” JTA, January 9, 2003.
12. Sara D’Ascenzo, “Boicottiamo I prof Israeliani: sostengono Sharon,” Corriere Del Veneto, February 8, 2003. [Italian]
13. Silvia Grilli, “Venti di antisemitismo a Ca’ Foscari,” Panorama, February 13, 2003. [Italian]
14. Will Woodward, “Lecturers reject call to boycott Israel,” The Guardian, May 10, 2003.
15. Edward Alexander, “The academic boycott of Israel: Back to 1933?” The Jerusalem Post, January 2, 2003.
16. Bram Eisenthal, “Pro-Arab body at Montreal school shuts campus Hillel over Israel flier,” JTA, December 5, 2002.
17. Sharon Sadeh, “Death threats against pro-Israel activists on Brussels campus,” Ha’aretz, December 21, 2002.
18. Emmanuel Brenner, Les Territoires perdus de la Republique (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2002). [French]
19. Ori Golan, “A conscientious objector,” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, January 17, 2003.
20. Laurence H. Summers (www.acj.org), “Address at Morning Prayers,” September 17, 2002.
21. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, “J’ai honte,” Le Monde, January 4, 2003. [French]
22. Donald Kennedy, “When Science and Politics Don’t Mix,” Science, Vol. 296, June 7, 2002.
23. “Don’t Boycott Israel’s Scientists,” Editorial, Nature, Vol. 417, May 2002.
24. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
25. www.iafi-israel.org; “Update from the Academic Friends of Israel Regarding Oxford University’s response to Professor Andrew Wilkie’s Denial of Position to Israeli Scientist Based on Nationality”: Press Release, June 27, 2003. New York: International Academic Friends of Israel.
26. Luke Layfield, “Oxford ‘appalled’ as professor inflames boycott row,” The Guardian, July 4, 2003.

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.