The Academic Boycott: Isolating Individuals and Burning Bridges

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is going to the polls to decide whether Israeli academics will become personae non gratae in their organization. Proponents claim their very carefully crafted resolution does not target individuals but that they seek to boycott institutions for their alleged complicity in Israeli crimes. The impact of the larger academic boycott, however, belies the words of the AAA document. In practice, the impact of the boycott is almost entirely personal. The academic boycott punishes individuals – denying them the opportunity to participate in scholarly activities, withholding job opportunities, applying obscene editorial standards to manuscripts, and even regulating what Israeli academics can and can’t say with regard to Israeli society and history. Individuals are punished based on their nationality and (presumed) political beliefs; they and their ideas are systematically excluded from academic discourse

Regardless of the carefully worded AAA boycott document, here are four personal examples of how the boycott is playing out on the ground:

  1. The colleague whose manuscript was rejected because she deals with inequality among multiple Israeli minority groups (Mizrachim, new immigrants, Palestinian-Israelis and others). The reviewer’s comment (accepted by the editor) was that anyone dealing with inequality in Israel must deal only with discrimination against Palestinians. Aside from the violation of publishing ethics (reviewers should “declare all potential conflicting interests, seeking advice from the journal if they are unsure whether something constitutes a relevant interest,” and “not allow their reviews to be influenced by the origins of a manuscript, by the nationality, religious or political beliefs, gender or other characteristics of the authors, or by commercial considerations”), boycott advocates are mandating what can and can’t be researched, and by extension, what can and can’t be published. When a scholar (particularly a young scholar) is denied access to publication, their entire career is threatened.
  2. A recently graduated PhD, who specializes in studying spatial inequality, was seeking a post-doctoral position in England. His inquiry was met with a warning that most of the members of the relevant faculty were boycotting Israelis and he would likely feel unwelcomed. Even the responding professor felt it necessary to warn the student that he opposed Israel’s policies and demanded of the graduate that if he researched inequality, the topic must be inequality between Israelis and Palestinians. The graduate was not representing an institution, yet here boycott advocates deny the individual the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas, deny them the opportunity to define their own research agenda and deny them future academic positions.
  3. A PhD student active in the young professionals committee of her academic society in Europe was asked to define her position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the committee, implying that her continued involvement is contingent on passing their (ad hoc) ethical criteria. Simultaneously she was informed that the chairperson, an explicit BDS supporter, would not participate in activities if she was involved. They (hypocritically) noted that the problem was not with her as an individual, but with her institutional affiliation. Committee members have also introduced a new professional “manifesto” that, while couched in general language, was written in such a way that would clearly disqualify her as a committee member. It is clear to the student that the committee members are working rapidly to figure out a way to exclude her involvement without violating current organizational laws and ethical norms.
  4. I invited a British specialist in participatory policy-making processes to share his knowledge of how to better integrate local residents into policy making. He was interested but was also concerned that his participation would be interpreted as support for Israel’s policies. Although the goal of the workshop was to empower local actors (Jewish and Arab citizens alike), the content and the intent of my workshop was less important than the venue. Of course, my intention in working with colleagues abroad is not to secure their support for my country’s policies, but rather to harness their expertise to help justly resolve our problems.

In all of these stories, the target was the individual – not the institution.

And individuals are responding to the academic boycott in novel ways – but none that I know of are changing their opinions, at least not in the way that boycott advocates suggest they will. If anything, it is hardening opinions regarding the potential for progressive voices abroad to be partners in our struggle for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or for fighting burgeoning intolerance and racism in Israeli society.

For some of my colleagues, BDS has buttressed their claim that anti-Semitism is rampant throughout American and European academia. For others, BDS is causing them to adapt and look for scholarly venues elsewhere. Some are drifting away from the more “critical” social sciences, which have become too intolerant for their work, and placing their research elsewhere. Where we don’t find potential partners in BDS-supporting faculties, we find partners elsewhere. We have been catalyzed to diversify our connections – looking to countries other than those in Europe and North America. Other Israeli scholars have started, unfortunately, to hide their nationality.

By effectively silencing voices in the academic arena, boycott proponents have already created a hostile environment where intellectual curiosity and tolerance are supposed to dominate. In academic gatherings where boycotters reign, or in journals that subscribe to BDS principles, dialogue and nuance have been stymied. And with the systematic exclusion of particular voices, scholarly discourse has been turned into an anti-Israel echo chamber. Production of knowledge in the absence of diversity of opinion is nothing but propaganda, and that is exactly what the academic boycott is creating and offering to future generations.

But one of the biggest tragedies of BDS (which will gain traction with the proposed AAA boycott) is that it is effectively severing the ties between one of Israel’s last progressive communities (university students and researchers) and their potential allies abroad. Even those organizations and institutions who have championed bridging Israelis and Palestinians, who cultivate a future generation of leaders for coexistence, or who teach students a diversity of opinions are targeted by the boycott. This is happening at a time when, both in Israel and Palestine, we are witnessing a growing culture of violence and intolerance. Now more than ever, Israelis and Palestinians need allies who can inspire, encourage, and even coerce the parties to find a common ground and a common future. Unfortunately, the AAA boycott won’t help. If anything, it pushes us in the opposite direction.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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