Monday, March 11, 2019

The Limits of the Academic Boycott of Israel

The Limits of the Academic Boycott of Israel

A few months ago, I got into a brief argument with someone on Facebook. The argument was mostly civil (except for another person who decided to jump in and, instead of arguing with me, resorted to name-calling), but it ended with, “Well, we just have to agree to disagree” kind of ending, which is fine, except that I would like to argue more (and better) for my view. (Two close and dear friends of mine [a married couple] who live in Beirut advised me, when I saw them there in January, to post a blog on what happened and to use the occasion to defend my views. I am acting on their advice, so thank you for that, May and Khalil.)

First, here’s what happened: I was on Facebook when I saw that someone had posted a video of a speaker at the American University of Beirut whose talk was momentarily shouted down (I’ll reveal his name in a bit); the video was of the audience members shouting him down. Eventually, I was told, he was able to speak, so that the shouting down was not fully effective. When I saw the video on Facebook, I commented that such actions are terrible and that speakers should be given the right to speak, especially since members of the university should respect the university’s decision (or the decision of whichever part of the university invited the speaker) to invite the person to speak (I have already posted a blog on this issue). I was told that the speaker had connections with Israel, specifically with the Hebrew University, and so it was right that he be prevented from speaking, given the academic boycott against Israeli academic institutions, which itself is part of the larger BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel. Finally, I was told that if I insist on his right to speak, I am in effect going against the academic boycott of Israel.

Throughout the back and forth, I didn’t know who the speaker was. I actually didn’t care, because I thought that no matter who he was, he should be able to speak, period. Of course, after thinking about it, I was a bit puzzled, because given that the reason for the resistance to him speaking was that he taught or worked at the Hebrew University, and given that if he did, he could not have entered Lebanese soil because no one who visits Israel is allowed in Lebanon (unless they change their passport or there is no Israeli stamp on the one they use to enter Lebanon), I was puzzled as to how he could have entered the country to speak at the AUB. (Note that part of the Hebrew University is on occupied land in east Jerusalem—land occupied in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. I mention this because it is one example of how Israeli universities have collaborated with their various governments to entrench the occupation and other vile policies, though whether intentionally or not is irrelevant.)

In any case, it turned out that the speaker, who was none other than the famous political philosopher Jeff McMahan, never worked at Hebrew University, and was merely an unpaid advisor for its Center for Moral and Political Philosophy. This raises the question: If someone who has never worked at or for an Israeli academic institution is a permissible target of the academic boycott, has the net been thrown too wide to be acceptable? And if someone defends the right of McMahan to speak once he has been invited, like I did, can they be legitimately accused of being against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions? That is, might one not be able to be for the boycott but still disagree with its scope? Surely the answer is yes. I will claim that individuals should never be the targets of the boycott, even if they are Israelis or have worked at Israeli institutions—indeed, even if they are Zionists or across-the-board Israeli apologists.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of the BDS movement do not call on us to divest from, boycott, or sanction individuals, but to do so against companies and institutions ( Indeed, after an incident with George Galloway, the BDS movement had this to say on its website in 2013: “In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views. Of course, any individual is free to decide who they do and do not engage with” (

In any case, my point in this post is not to debate the merits or demerits of the BDS movement, let alone boycott movements in general. I will assume that the BDS movement is right to be doing what it is doing, and I want to ask about the scope of this movement: should it, in the case of academics, target institutions and individuals?

For the record, I am a supporter of the BDS movement; I have, among a few other things, discouraged colleagues from attending conferences in Israel, and I refuse to review articles for Israeli journals, making sure to tell them why. These are my meager attempts at supporting the academic boycott. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is morally abhorrent, and its list of moral crimes against Palestinians covers individuals, institutions, and Palestinian society. That is, Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are not limited to actions against individual Palestinians, such as imprisoning them and shooting them, but extends to undermining the very fabric of their social and political life, including their universities and educational institutions. To my mind, Israel aims to reduce the Palestinians to the same status as that of Native Americans in the United States: not a complete wipe out, but a weakening to the point where they become voiceless, utterly helpless, mired in economic mal-being, and forgotten. Moreover, not only have Israeli academic institutions done little to protest the plight of their Palestinian counterparts, they have actively abetted the actions of their state by, for example, hosting departments and centers for archeological and demographic studies with the clear political aim of arguing that the land has always been Jewish and of finding ways to maintain a particular demographic balance, respectively (for additional examples, see; see also Therefore, targeting such institutions for exclusion seems morally sound, especially since other means have proven futile given the wide and deep support that Israel has in the United States and the international community. So whether one supports the boycott because one thinks it is effective, because it is the fair thing to do, or because one simply does not want to engage with such institutions, the boycott is justified.

However, I disagree that the boycott should extend to individual academics. This stance was taken by my friend and colleague Mohammed Abed in a paper that he presented in 2006 (“Philosophical Arguments for a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”—to my knowledge, the paper was not published), but I will quote from a modified version of the paper which was published in Dissent (Fall 2007, 83-87), titled “In Defense of Academic Boycotts,” whose main points I accept and wish to reiterate and add to.

Abed argues that the boycott should target academic institutions (for reasons that I will not go into). Instead, we should work to halt all academic activity that takes place in Israeli universities, and to move that activity to Palestinians areas. This is all good and fine. But why not also halt work with individual academics who work at or with Israeli academic institutions?

First, not all academics who work with or at Israeli institutions (henceforth, “Israeli academics” for short) are politically or morally compromised as far as Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are concerned. Many of them are critical of these policies, some are anti-Zionists, etc. Of course, the reply now would be, “All right. The boycott does not extend to them, only to those who are morally and politically compromised.” But then we run into the serious problem of how we determine who is which. I do not mean to refer to the difficulty of accessing their CVs or finding their publications. The difficulty is deeper: because there is a diversity of views about what counts as an acceptable solution or remedies to the conflict among the supporters of the Palestinians, and because various individuals hold different views of what counts as a morally good resolution of the conflict, we will have a difficult time drawing the line between the “good” academics and the “bad” academics. Some support a two-state solution. Is that compromised because it does not give the Palestinians back all their ancestral homeland? Some support a bi-national state. Is that morally compromised because it maintains the state along ethno-religious lines? Some (e.g., I) support a secular state for both people. Is that compromised because it does not address the desire for the state to be specifically Jewish and/or Palestinian? Thus, not boycotting individuals allows us to not have to subject each individual to some sort of “litmus test” (as Abed put it in the presentation version of his paper), task not only time-consuming but one that will not garner universal agreement among the boycott supporters.

Second, by not boycotting Israeli individual academics, we allow for the proper give-and-take that is the stuff of academic discourse. Given that the Palestinian cause is just, such give-and-take would open the door for Israeli academics to help the cause by working from the inside of their institutions. Not boycotting individuals allows us to talk to them, which in turn increases the chances of having them go back and influence their institutions. In other words, working with Israeli academics increases the chance of having them change their minds about various issues, big or small, connected with the conflict. Having Israeli academics return to their institutions and work from the inside helps increase the chance of their institutions making an impact on Israeli policy. As Abed puts it, Israeli academics are influential in this respect because “First, they are the individuals best placed to pressure academic institutions into taking an official stand against the government’s appalling treatment of the Palestinians” (“In Defense of Academic Boycotts,” 86), and “Second, academics are well-respected members of society and thus in a good position to influence public opinion on important issues” (“In Defense,” 86).

Third, and connected to the above point, we need Israeli academics to visit the Arab world, to come to Arab universities, to engage with Arab audiences, especially with Palestinians, in the Palestinian areas, and at Palestinian universities. This allows for a direct contact between both sides and allows Israelis to see Arabs for what they are and to shed many of their stereotypes about them (and vice versa). Some will be upset by this suggestion and scream that this implies normalization with Israel. But I reply that it does not have to: Arab states need not have full and comprehensive peace treaties with Israel in order to allow their academics to enter their countries. Visa exceptions can be made for them.

Fourth, I have argued in another post that universities have an obligation to their students and to their members in general to expose them to views contrary to what the university’s values or dominant discourse is. In the case of universities on Arab campuses, this means inviting, every now and then, someone with a Zionist point of view and have a discussion with them about their beliefs (as presented in a talk, a lecture, a workshop, etc.). This would allow the members of the hosting university to keep their beliefs fresh and alive (this is Mill speaking) and it would allow testing them against what is being presented. And, connected to the above points, it would open up the possibility that the speaker might modify their own views. Of course, we need to exercise moral common sense: If Benjamin Netanyahu retires into an academic position somewhere, this does not mean he should be invited to speak. His policies, political past, and lack of actual academic credentials (though he did write a book on terrorism) would disqualify him from being an invitee (not to mention that his views are not going to change).

Fifth, engaging with individuals allows everyone to keep abreast of what people are writing and thinking regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It would contribute to a pool of knowledge that we can all use and benefit from to advance our thinking and research on this issue.

Sixth, boycotting individuals runs the risk of being charged with a form or racism or anti-Semitism, since it might be perceived as targeting people for who they are instead of for what they believe. (Again, if we reply, “Well then, let’s boycott them for what they believe,” we run into the political litmus test.) Although we cannot be responsible for other people’s perceptions, this issue does raise the question of whether boycotting Israeli academics is done on the proper ground or for the proper reasons. If it is not for who they are that the boycott is, and if we cannot boycott them on the basis of their beliefs (given the problems with the litmus test), on what grounds are we boycotting them? Here, one might argue that they represent their institutions and that this is sufficient ground for boycotting them.

This brings me to the seventh and final reason against boycotting individuals, namely, that the reason that academics represent their institutions is not plausible, because, simply, describing the relationship between academics and their institutions as one of representation is not true, except in a banal sense of “representation” that means “works there” or “the institution is the person’s affiliation.” Normally, academics present their own views on various issues, and as a matter of fact, in all universities (ideally) and in most (actually) universities, there is respect of freedom of thought, belief, and expression. This is one of the main bases of universities. But it is one which would be at odds with understanding academics as representing their institutions in any strong sense. Thus, academics do not represent their universities in the sense that they speak on their behalf. (There could be other pernicious notions of “representation” that I am neglecting; if so, I invite the reader to supply them in the comments section.)

I have provided various reasons for why the academic boycott of Israel should not target Israeli individuals. To my mind, the boycott should target the institutions themselves: no more exchange programs with Israeli universities, no more study trips to Israel, no joint research with Israeli universities, no conferences on Israeli campuses, and so on. But Israeli academics should not be the target.

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