Why an academic boycott of Israel won’t work

The proposed academic boycott of Israel has succeeded in one sphere – attracting a lot of headlines, many of which have ironically been created by the response of the Israeli government or Jewish communities around the world, rather than the pro-boycotters themselves.

But in terms of impact on the academic and scientific community, there has been almost no significance, other than isolated cases of individuals not attending a conference held in Israel or refusing to work with an academic colleague from an Israeli university.

On the contrary, the past five years has witnessed a significant increase in cooperative scientific projects between Israeli scientists and universities and their international colleagues.

Take the case of BIRAX, the British-Israel scientific cooperation programme, a project which invests seed money in bringing Israeli and UK researchers together in the fields of regenerative medicine and water research.

This programme would probably never have been initiated in the first place if the two governments and their respective science attachés did not feel it necessary to make a clear point that science is stronger than politics and that, regardless of what the British – or any other European government – may feel about Israel's policies vis-à-vis the West Bank and the Palestinians (of which they are highly critical), this cannot be allowed to infringe upon important scientific collaboration which is of benefit to humankind as a whole.

If there is one community which has been impacted negatively, it is – ironically – the critical community of scholars inside Israel. How often have I, as dean of a large humanities and social science faculty, home to a small, but influential, group of scholars who are highly critical of Israel's continued policies of occupation, been interviewed on the media and immediately questioned about the so-called faculty who are supposed to have actively supported and promoted boycott from within?

The only problem is that, despite one case which occurred back in 2007 when a faculty member did write a supportive op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, for which he has been consistently criticised and attacked ever since, not a single member of faculty, even the most critical, have ever made any such statements.

The majority continue to be critical of Israel's policies and at the same time strongly oppose any form of boycott, if only because of its discriminatory nature and the fact that it does absolutely nothing to further the cause of peace or the end of Occupation.

Clampdown on dissent

But in the present climate of extreme right-wing governments who are doing their utmost to silence voices of dissent and to clamp down on freedom of speech and academic freedom, even on university campuses, nothing serves them better than to use the calls for boycott as a means of attacking all those who would disagree with them.

Two years ago the government went as far as using a highly politicised Council for Higher Education, backed by the right-wing minister of education – who has since been replaced by an even more right-wing and reactionary minister following the 2015 elections – in an attempt to shut down an excellent and dynamic political science department on the false grounds of scientific mediocrity, when in effect what it was concerned about were the critical voices and views of some of the faculty members of that department.

Now, with the upsurge in boycott debates around the world, it has become acceptable for Israeli policy-makers to avoid all discussions of the real hard core issues of Israel's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, to counter-attack the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement and boycott supporters around the world with the label of anti-semitism, and to use the increasingly polemical debate as a means of attacking and attempting to silence any critical voices – the voices of those who would normally cooperate with their Palestinian academic colleagues, those who create spaces of dialogue and true debate on campus – by associating them with the country's enemies.

The number of right-wing non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, such as the student movement Im Tirtzu or the Academic Monitor organisation and its website, which are funded by private sources and which devote their time to a McCarthyistic witch hunt of any faculty member who is vaguely critical of the State, is damaging to academic freedom in Israel.

They have caused far more damage to Israel's academic reputation in the world than the hot air of the different academic associations or students unions who, at the most, recommend to their members to cease cooperation with their Israeli colleagues – the vast majority of whom pay no attention to such recommendations anyway.

In some cases their bullish, anti-democratic behaviour – disrupting an Israeli speaker or lecturer on campus or demonstrating noisily outside a conference which deals with topics relating to Israel – has shown many of the pro-BDS lobby to be little more than thuggish rabble rousers, for whom the real issues at stake (and there are important issues out there) are of little significance and for whom many of the facts are blurred behind a political agenda of delegitimisation – singling out one country and one people whom, based on their past history of persecution and oppression, may perhaps be forgiven sometimes for developing a renewed paranoia and hysteria about a world spurred on by a new anti-semitism.

Ironically for the boycott lobby, their activities have forced foreign governments and leaders of almost all major universities and scientific associations to come out strongly in favour of scientific ties with Israel, a public position which they would probably have preferred to remain silent about were it not for the need to combat this blatant political and discriminatory form of action on the part of the political radicals.

Weakening liberal voices

It is to be expected that in the coming year there will be even more boycott debates on campuses and among student unions around the world.

It is equally expected that Israel's scientific collaboration with their colleagues and with the world's top scientific institutions in North America, Europe and the growing academic market of Asia, will continue to strengthen, as universities seek one thing only – the best researchers who, in a world of privatised higher education, have the best possibility of obtaining the most prestigious research grants and working with the top scholars.

It is also to be expected that the pro-boycott statements will only serve to further weaken the liberal voices of critical scholars as they find themselves under attack from a government and right-wing NGOs who are only too happy to have a reason to avoid discussing the issues of Occupation and Palestinian rights.

While this author is on record as being critical of the way in which anti-semitism has now become the clarion call for all those opposed to BDS and academic boycotts, the pro-boycotters should also be aware that their unbalanced, oppressive debate of the topic has opened the door for many whose sole purpose is to delegitimise Israel and to sell a messages of racism and ethnic hatred, such that the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and one which, at the end of the day, will only serve to prevent Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and debate from continuing to take place on campus, one of the few spaces where such dialogue has taken place and brought about limited mutual understanding until now.

The world will continue to do scientific business with Israeli universities and academics in all fields of science. This is definitely not South Africa where the world collectively boycotted the country and its institutions.

There are far more institutions, scientists and governments ready to take the place of the few individuals who will actively boycott, whose hot air far outweighs their scientific impact, while they only serve to even further weaken any chances of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.

Professor David Newman is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. The views expressed are his alone.