Intellectual Isolationism, Academic Boycotts and the Politicisation of Thought

Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is an unjustifiable, baseless and immoral campaign. A particularly repugnant aspect of this ‘movement’ is academic boycott, founded on fallacious and warped logic, false analogy, false correlation and specious causation. The BDS manifesto is one of Bias, Dis-enlightenment and Spin. It is ill-informed, medieval and an amplifier of ‘dark thinking’.

Anna and Max Webb Building, Bar Ilan
Anna and Max Webb Building, Bar Ilan (picture: Steve Nimmons)

Israeli academic excellence is pervasive. Bar-Ilan, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Haifa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science are internationally renowned.

Technological and scientific inquiry in Israel is world-leading, research and development spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product amongst the highest in the world. Israeli scientists in domestic and international research institutes lead groundbreaking work, making notable contributions to knowledge across diverse domains.

Israel ranks fourth in the world in scientific activity as measured by the number of scientific publications per million citizens. Israel’s percentage of the total number of scientific articles published worldwide is almost 10 times higher than its percentage of the world’s population. [source: Wikipedia – Economy of Israel]

Nobel Prize winning thinking from Robert Aumann on Economics and Game Theory, Dan Shechtman’s discovery of Quasicrystals, Ada Yonath’s work on the structure of ribosome, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko’s discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation and Daniel Kahneman’s work on decision theory, behavioural economics and hedonic psychology are the tip of an enviable iceberg.

To side-line Ciechanover and Hershko’s discoveries (with far reaching implications in the development and progression of diseases such as: cancer, muscular and neurological disorders, immune and inflammatory responses) would be intellectual and morally indefensible. Yet ‘this’ is a clear danger of the promotion of academic boycott as legitimate protest.

A few months ago, I visited Bar Ilan, the Anna and Max Webb psychology building(s), the Computer Science Department and the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials. The motivations of the academics I met were universal and clear:

  • Primacy of research
  • Quality of scientific method
  • Contribution to knowledge
  • Academic rigour
  • Ethics
  • Societal benefit

I spoke at length to representatives from the psychology department about research and community care. The importance of community facilities at the university, providing access to first-class services for underprivileged families must not be underestimated. Ethical research is a central tenet.

I challenge the BDS movement and particularly the movement for academic boycott to justify their attempts to isolate intellectual endeavour and to recognise the apolitical and ethical research and service provision aimed at improving life-chances of all Israeli citizens (as I witnessed first hand at Bar Ilan).

Warped Logic, False Analogy

I utterly reject the BDS movement’s ‘apartheid analogy’ (which attempts to portray the Arab / Israeli conflict as that of one-sided colonial aggression and subjugation). It is a nonsense and attempts to do three things:

  • To reframe the conflict in historical terms where one side has a moral monopoly
  • To rally the intellectually lazy using false correlation and causation
  • To drive foreign intellectuals and middle-classes away from Israel’s defence by delegitimizing such as ‘socially unacceptable’ and ‘politically incorrect’ or unfashionable

Spin and superficiality in the BDS movement’s agenda requires robust challenge. In an attempt to ‘understand’ their thinking I recommend studying BRICUP’s (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) paper ‘Why Boycott Israeli Universities?

Fallacious logic is applied from the outset:

… it is the quite disproportionate contribution that Israel makes in many areas of research that favours the academic boycott as a way of tilting the internal Israeli debate back towards dialogue and away from repression [source: BRICUP]

This suggests that Israeli institutions and academics should face sanction become of their success and commitment to scientific research. The volume and quality of this research should be side-lined in favour of the application of political pressure based on false analogy and illogical conclusion. There is of course much more ‘in play’ here than philosophical debate. The paper suggests that:

Boycott is an act of solidarity which rests fundamentally on the power of moral persuasion.

Solidarity is clearly needed to make boycott effective, but its requirement to ‘rest fundamentally on the power of moral persuasion’ is its undoing. The BDS movement attempts to portray academic boycott as moral, but there is no credible argument as to why academic endeavour in Israel is in any way immoral. Given that morally conservative elements are involved across the Middle East (and to some extent therefore in the BDS movement), it is telling that social morality and scientific ethics are only discussed (or really maligned) in the context of an anti-Israel political narrative. What (for example) is the BDS movement’s position on ‘right to choose’, pro-life, genetics and stem cell research, vivisection, cloning and genetic modification, euthanasia or sexual equality?

They are at pains to conflate academia, politics, ‘homeland security’ and the perpetuation of anti-Semitism:

Anti-Semitism needs no particular facts to sustain itself. However without doubt the objective evidence of Israeli greed for land and the mistreatment of Palestinians in both the Occupied Territories and in Israel itself will work as its recruiting sergeant.

Their silence on the suppression of women’s rights (and worse), the responsibility of Palestinian academics in the fight against violence, anti-Semitism and the annihilation narrative of Iran and its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies is telling. The wildly asymmetric nature of the BDS argument is a clear indicator of its anti-Israel bias, Machiavellianism and ultimately its moral bankruptcy. This and its inability to reconcile and therefore present a cogent argument against the repression of intellectual dissent (for example in Iran) renders BDS a quintessential ‘lame duck’ in the mind of the subjective thinker.

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a technology entrepreneur and writer with interests in Innovation and Digital Transformation in Defence, Security and Policing.