UK to Israeli Profs: Class Dismissed

The weird movement to boycott Israeli academics


Ilan Pappe, a historian at Haifa University in Israel, has a message to foreign universities: Don't hire me.

An anti-Zionist who believes in the dissolution of the Jewish state, Pappe lends his moral support to the movement calling for a boycott of Israeli academics. The goal is to put pressure on the government to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. "It will affect me as a member of the academy," he says, "a very small price to pay if it succeeds."

The boycott effort picked up steam again this May in Britain, where it has the most support. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) will vote on a measure to support a boycott at their annual conference on Monday. And some British academics have signed on as individuals. In May, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Richard Seaford, a professor at the University of Exeter, declined an offer to write for an Israeli journal due to his support for the boycott. The Association of University Teachers (AUT) also signed onto the boycott in 2005, but later backed off.

In general, the boycott is a reaction to Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians. Pappe sees the boycott as similar to the movement on American universities to divest from companies that do any business with Israel. "It touches upon the cultural self-image of Israelis," he says, "which is no less important to them than their economic standard of living."

But on a more direct level, academics in Britain have responded to some specific instances regarding the Israeli academy. When the AUT considered a resolution for a boycott, its advocates alleged that Hebrew University seized Palestinian land. Pappe was the subject of controversy at Haifa University in 2002 and faced termination when the accuracy of a student's paper came into question. Pro-Palestine advocates within the AUT cited the threat to Pappe's job as a reason for a boycott, but Pappe continues to teach at Haifa to this day.

The May vote by the NATFHE has set off alarm bells in the halls of the American Israel lobby and petitions against the boycott were circulated by email.

Even among the usual suspects in the pro-Palestinian sectors of the American-based intelligentsia, the movement has little support.

"A blanket boycott of Israeli academics is wrong," says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan and an outspoken critic of the Israeli government. "As a class, they have not done anything wrong. They are mostly critical of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. They teach and interact with Arabs. The analogy to Apartheid just does not hold."

New York University professor and prominent Israel critic Tony Judt would not support a boycott of Israeli academics unless a critical mass of Israeli academics themselves supported it. Scottish-reared, California-based radical journalist Alexander Cockburn stands against the boycott even though his political newsletter, Counterpunch, has published authors in support of it. He believes it would be hypocritical of him to be personally in favor of such a boycott while rallying against the censorship of left wing intellectuals. "I'm generally against boycotts," Cockburn says.

But in Britain, people like Jacqueline Rose, a writer and teacher at Queen Mary (University of London) have no problem with the hypocrisy. Among other reasons, she has stated in the progressive press that an academic boycott is necessary because international bodies have not impeded Israel's alleged crimes.

British academics, says Judt (himself a British ex-pat), "have always been well to the left of the mainstream and live in a culture where that mainstream is much better informed—and more critical—about Israel than it is here in the U.S."

Yet if Britons were so well informed about injustice and more critical of bad-acting states, then why aren't groups like the NATFHE also calling for a boycott of American academics for their government's occupation of Iraq or of academics from the numerous Arab states with abysmal human rights records? Chinese engineers banned for the colonization of Tibet? British literature professors boycotted for the repression in Northern Ireland?

However Monday's vote goes, it's unlikely the boycott movement will make it across the pond. In the U.S., unlike in Britain, there is a consensus among academics that even if a government's actions are contemptible, the nation's intellectuals should not be held responsible.

"I do not see the movement for a boycott as growing," says Cole. "I think this is a rear guard action by people who have several times been defeated."