What Has Happened to Us? CUNY’s Doctoral Students’ Council Boycotts Israeli Universities

What has happened to us? That was the question Ari Shavit asked on April 1 in Haaretz. And, for a different reason, that was the question I was asking myself as I left the Graduate Center of the City University of New York late last Friday after my colleagues at the Doctoral Students’ Council voted in favour of boycotting Israeli universities. 42 voted in favour, 19 against, and nine (myself included) abstained. It was also a question I asked myself when I received an email the following day calling me “Nazi scum.”

I replied explaining that those who voted in favour of the resolution were not in any way Nazis, and that, for the record, I was among the 28 who either voted against or abstained. I then received an apologetic reply: “you are obviously a good person and I’m ashamed to have attacked you.” By virtue of voting the way this individual wanted, I went from being “Nazi scum” to being “a good person.” I later discovered that some of my other colleagues had received similar emails. Instead of engaging in intellectual discussion and debate, some of those opposed to the resolution simply opted to throw around insulting epithets.

But before discussing what happened last Friday at the Graduate Center, let us first turn to Shavit’s article, which begins by referencing an incident in 1984 during which four Palestinians, armed with knives, hijacked a bus from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. In the course of the rescue operation, two of the terrorists were killed and two were captured alive before being executed by Shabak operatives. The result, Shavit writes, was public outrage in Israel.

Last month, B’Tselem released a video showing an IDF soldier shoot and kill a disarmed and wounded Palestinian terrorist who had sought to carry out a stabbing attack in Hebron. The video clearly shows the would-be stabber on the ground, disarmed, wounded and subsequently shot by a soldier. He was summarily executed. Instead of public outrage, this time there was overwhelming public support for the soldier. The video also shows other soldiers in the vicinity completely unfazed by one of their own ignoring military ethics and illegally executing a disarmed and neutralized Palestinian. Shavit is right to ask, “what has happened to us?” 2017 will mark the 50th year of the occupation. Half a century of occupation has certainly taken its toll. As Shavit writes, the worry is that “after 68 years in which the Jewish state succeeded in sustaining itself (under tough conditions) as a liberal democracy, it is liable to be absorbed into the rest of the Middle East and become an inseparable part of it.”

There has certainly been a radicalization in Israel on a political and social level. And so I could understand why some of my colleagues at the DSC had authored a resolution calling for the academic boycott of Israeli universities. They must have felt some urgent and desperate need to show solidarity with the Palestinians in the current, unpromising political climate. Yet, I was uneasy from the moment I read the resolution, which called on the DSC to “endorse the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions for as long as the Israeli state continues to violate Palestinian rights under international law.”

I would have been far less uneasy had those in favour of the resolution proved that “Israeli academic institutions,” in their entirety, are complicit and directly aiding the violation of “Palestinian rights under international law.” As expected, during the debate that preceded the vote on the resolution, not one person even attempted to show any concrete evidence of the complicity of “Israeli academic institutions.” Thus, the message was that they ought to be boycotted solely by virtue of being located in Israel. Perhaps this should have been no surprise, since one of the writers of the resolution had previously called the terrorist Samir Kuntar a martyr after being killed last December.

In any case, the implementation of a boycott of Israeli universities must be justified on stronger grounds than the mere fact that Israeli universities are located in Israel. It would have to target specific centres, institutes, and departments that have proven and direct links to the on-going occupation, or universities that are located in the settlements.

Likewise, one could certainly make the case that Ariel University, located in a settlement, should be the object of boycott. Indeed, in 2011, 165 academics from various universities in Israel boycotted Ariel University. Last month, Uri Ram, the new president of the Israeli Sociological Association (ISA) announced a call to boycott Ariel University. He noted that “while we surely accept the state of Israel as fully legitimate we do not accept as such the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the denial of basic rights from Palestinians for 50 years or so cannot go on unnoticed by the sociological association.” Ironically, Uri Ram and some 1,000 members of the ISA would find themselves boycotted by over-eager supporters of a blanket boycott of all Israeli universities. What message are we trying to send to Israeli academics? That they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t?

The arguments put forward last Friday in support of boycotting all Israeli universities were so weak, shallow, and unconvincing that after my colleagues passed the resolution, I could only ask myself what had happened to us. How could otherwise intelligent and rigorous academics waive the need for argumentation and proof? Supporters of the boycott merely listed the ways in which Palestinians have been marginalized, but neglected to demonstrate the purported complicity of academics in Israel. When opponents argued that the resolution would restrict the freedom of academics in Israel, supporters countered that the academic freedom of Palestinians is already restricted. It did not matter that academics in Israel have little to do with the restriction of the academic freedom of Palestinians.

One supporter read a statement by a Palestinian-American who, in 2015, had been banned from entering Palestine. Many Palestinian-Americans have been banned from going home, we were told, but as deplorable as that may be, at no point did the statement connect this experience with academics in Israel. Another supporter called upon the DSC to “make an intervention so a Palestinian’s history can be heard.” Similarly, another declared that the resolution was “about raising the discussion of Palestinian oppression.” Yet another supporter noted that “boycotts are one of the few ways that they [Palestinians] can fight.” It bears mentioning again that hardly any of the supporters of the resolution seemed interested in even trying to demonstrate the complicity of Israeli academics and their universities. Because they provide no other reasons, one can only conclude that it is enough that universities be in Israel for them to be boycotted.

This comes as no surprise to me, since the only book written expressly to make the case for the academic boycott of Israel, Ashley Dawson and Bill Mullen’s edited collection Against Apartheid (2015), similarly manages to take 258 pages to not make the case for a blanket academic boycott. More worryingly, in his contribution in Against Apartheid, Joseph Massad implicitly rejects not only the two-state solution, but also the continued existence of Israel itself. How different were the supporters of the academic boycott resolution? Uri Ram and the ISA might be boycotting Ariel University because it is beyond the Green Line and thus illegitimate, but, on Friday evening, 42 of my colleagues voted to boycott Uri Ram and other Israeli academics within the Green Line because they were still seen as illegitimate. Yes, what has happened to us?

About the Author
Adi S. Bharat is a student of literature, society, and politics, whose research interests include twentieth and twenty-first century French literature, far-right politics in France, and religious and ethnic minorities in France.
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