- Academic Freedom and the Boycott of Israeli Universities:On the Necessity of Angry Knowledge
I should begin this essay by declaring my own background in the discussion. I am a long-time activist in Palestine solidarity, having been a founding member of both the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign in 2001 and of Academics for Palestine, an Irish group working for the academic boycott, [End Page 264] in 2014. I have moved from a position of doubt and unease in regard to the academic boycott to one of commitment to it.
What is the history or background of the boycott movement? It is a subset of the wider campaign for “BDS” or “boycott, divestment and sanctions”—that is, in favor of boycotting Israeli institutions, divesting from Israeli companies, and sanctioning the state until it ceases the Occupation, accepts its obligations to the Palestinian people, and acknowledges its responsibilities vis-à-vis the refugees of 1948 and 1967.
Various ineffective and controversial attempts were made in the United Kingdom as far back as 2002 to instigate boycott of Israeli scholars or institutions. However, the modern BDS campaign has its origin in the call issued in 2005 by a wide array of organizations in Palestinian civil society. The broader context of the call was the collapse of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s and the second intifada, which began in September 2000. The recognition of Oslo’s flaws, and the awareness that these flaws stemmed in part from the corruption and failure of the Palestinian leadership (embodied in such senior figures in Fatah as Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas), was matched by the realization that violent action by guerrilla groups, secular or Islamist, was neither militarily effective nor politically sustainable in the face of Israeli civilian casualties. More specifically, the BDS call was deliberately issued exactly a year after the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the West Bank Wall, or “separation barrier.” The Advisory Opinion placed obligations on the governments of third countries, but as soon as it became apparent that these governments were not going to take any action regarding the wall, the necessity of civil society action was clear.
In other words, the BDS campaign derives from the realization that politics traditionally conceived had failed Palestinian society and indeed— insofar as the Oslo process installed security apparatuses while not adding to the security of the Palestinian population, and insofar as it did not prevent the expansion of settlement activity and other iniquitous elements of the Occupation—that the “peace process” was actually functioning (as it does to this day) as a fig leaf for further Israeli conquest.
The new action was to come from “civil society” and to appeal to both the Palestinian people and international opinion over the heads of the outmoded, corrupt, and comprador Palestinian political elite. On July 9, 2005, the call went out from “representatives of Palestinian civil society” to “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era” (Lim 2012, 24). This pressure was to be maintained until Israel honored [End Page 265] its obligation to recognize “the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination,” and meet its obligations under international law by ceasing its occupation and colonization of Arab lands and by dismantling the Wall; by according Palestinian citizens of Israel full legal equality; and by respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees under UN Resolution 194.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the BDS initiative has been the most...