Is an Academic Boycott Effective? Ask Israeli Leaders

[this post originally appeared on Savage Minds. It was written in the context of the 2014-2016 campaign]

by I. ben Alek*

“Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products. In order to export, you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because, if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts.”

—Then President of Israel Shimon Peres, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, May 18th, 2012.

How can an academic boycott of Israeli institutions be effective? While debating the issue at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, several colleagues insisted it could not be effective. This was a central criticism they had of the Statement of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. After all, critics said, a potential AAA boycott resolution would only be boycotting some hundred or less anthropologists that work or study at Israeli institutions of higher education. Further, they argued, many of these scholars are on the left side of the Israeli political spectrum, and are finding little room to maneuver at a time when Israeli leaders are fanning the militarization of public opinion. Isn’t it counterproductive to undermine their position, as well as that of other dissident scholars, living and working there? A statement against boycott of Israeli academic institutions signed by some four hundred anthropologists claims also that such a boycott would “collectively punish” academics for the decisions of their government, and further that “A boycott of anthropologists and academic institutions plays into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate.”

Such arguments miss the point of how an academic boycott works. The call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions is not aimed at scholars, but is a political engagement aimed chiefly at Israel’s leaders. On this measure, there is no doubt that it works: the message of the growing coalition of BDS campaigns is clearly getting through to leading Israeli politicians, and for good historical reasons.

First, it is necessary to repeat that there is no call for a “boycott of anthropologists” (nor of philosophers, nor of physicists, nor of doctors, etc.).  The statement by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions does not posit that it is the special role of anthropologists to boycott other anthropologists. Rather, it clearly states that a boycott is being called, as part of a broader international alliance, on Israeli institutions themselves due to their well-documented complicity with the on-going occupation and the Israeli state’s denial of academic freedom to Palestinian academic institutions. Even if one has concerns about implementing the distinction between institutions and individuals, the phrasing of the call for boycott is clear on this point.

Now, does a boycott of Israeli academic institutions “play into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate”? To answer, it is only necessary to look at the reactions and statements of Israeli leaders, more and more dismayed by the growing critique of the state’s continuing colonialism. Boycotts and other BDS measures send a signal to Israeli leaders like Shimon Peres (generally considered a centrist figure) and even to someone like Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing extremist. More than any other civil society recourse, BDS campaigns place enormous pressure on Israeli leaders and their supporters among world powers to change “the current political stalemate.”

So much so that even an extremist like Lieberman has noticed. Anyone who knows Israeli politics would certainly classify Lieberman among “those supporting the current political stalemate.” Yet Lieberman surprised many observers a few months ago when he worried aloud that Israel could face the same fate as Russia did, with mounting isolation, boycotts and sanctions: “We must internalize this. When diplomatic relations deteriorate, you see what happens to the economy.”

Israeli leaders are internalizing the message. Lieberman, Foreign Minister at the time, evenoversaw an in-depth report on the worsening state of Israel’s relations with other countries in early 2015, which warned of the multiple measures being taken against Israel, including academic boycotts. If an academic boycott of Israeli institutions “plays into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate,” why would Lieberman, of all people, include it in his ministry’s official report? Further, just a week ago, the current President, Reuven Rivlin, hosted an “emergency discussion” with several heads of Israeli academic institutions to bring attention to the importance of academic boycott, which he called a “strategic threat.” As Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man put it in his report on the discussion, “By allocating significant resources to fighting it and describing BDS as a strategic threat, however, the Israeli government is now telling us that boycott might actually be more effective than previously thought.” Two years ago already, journalist Larry Derfner catalogued a long series of opinion-makers and politicians, from Thomas Friedman to Benjamin Netanyahu, who were reacting to BDS campaigns, many of them explicitly blaming the current political stalemate for its strength. The evidence is abundantly clear: the call for academic boycott in no way plays into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate. If anything, it strengthens political voices who call for change.

Israeli sensitivity to this kind of international criticism is a result of a very long history, one which helps to explain the current stalemate. Israel’s colonial apparatus, both within and beyond the Green Line, depends on securing sufficient assent from world powers. From its inception, Israel has paid a great deal of attention to debates about its actions. After the armistice of 1949, for example, Israeli leaders were especially worried about how the state might gain recognition from world powers and the UN without allowing the return of 750,000 Palestinian refugees, forced to flee or directly expelled from their homes by Zionist military forces during the War of 1948. (The historian Benny Morris has even suggested that, during that war, Zionist military officials and politicians were careful what was recorded in documents, already sensing that these might be used to judge their actions.) Israeli leaders managed this feat with little criticism, and the return of Palestinian refugees remains an open question today.

The lack of international criticism is crucial also to explaining the settlements and continuing occupation of territories conquered in 1967, especially in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the immediate aftermath of the war, leading Labor Zionist politicians—now generally remembered as liberals—initiated the first settlements in the Old City of Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shimon Peres, was key to formulating these settlement initiatives. Like other Labor Zionist leaders, he worried about international criticism as the first settlements were established. Very little came.

Anyone who today wonders why a two-state solution is always deferred to the future can look back to these liberal beginnings of settlement for a partial answer. Today, more than 500,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, gradually built up, not without protest or setbacks, but essentially with the acquiescence of world powers. With little pressure from the outside, Israeli politicians have not had sufficient reason to rein in the state’s colonial expansion. The dissent of Israeli citizens has never been enough to stop it.

Current geopolitical conditions have led to a chilling reality, given the strength of Israeli military might versus the precarity of Palestinians. Certainly, there are many Israeli citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, who work tirelessly to protest and dampen the deadly consequences of this imbalance. Yet, the three incursions into Gaza since 2008 show how much lethal force will be applied to Palestinian populations and how little dissident Israeli citizens can do to stem it. Consider a recent UN OCHA report about the magnitude of civilian displacement during the 2014 war: “At the height of the conflict, some 500,000 Palestinians were internally displaced.” That’s two-thirds the number estimated to have been exiled in 1948! What circumstances are in the offing—war against Iran?, a more conservative US president?, Isis in the West Bank?—that will allow military strategists and their repetitive minions to ascribe ever greater “instability” to the Middle East, and provide the conditions for even more destructive attacks on Palestinians? Perhaps Israeli military action will produce another long line of fleeing Palestinian refugees. Perhaps even more horrifying futures are possible.

How do we create the international conditions to prevent such futures? How can we act in ways that will not be ignored by Israeli leaders and their allies among world powers? These are important questions, and they are largely ignored by opponents of an academic boycott.

Where is the evidence that asking for time and more “dialogue” or “nuance” has worked? Where is the evidence for the effectiveness of that recourse? Certainly not during last summer’s war on Gaza, nor at any point since 1947. How much more destruction to Palestinian life and welfare are we to witness before we look to generate a powerful collective statement?

The call for academic boycott generates a critical signal to which Israeli politicians are very sensitive. Those who support the call for boycott are not the only ones who have noticed:John Kerry himself has been quoted using the specter of boycott and sanctions in an effort to prod the current Israeli leadership to consider limited concessions.

No one is arguing that an AAA boycott resolution, or that of another scholarly society, will by itself change international conditions. But every such measure concretely—not only symbolically—builds towards that end. These efforts multiply. Each one sends a signal that can progressively get harder to ignore. It is impossible to know in advance which will tip the scales and lead to a massive shift in how Israeli politicians, and those who elect them, calculate the effects of the state’s actions. But every moment of generating that signal, of generating substantial criticism, is effective in of itself.

To speak of ineffectiveness is to ignore the ways that the political engagement works.

*I. ben Alek is a pseudonym for an anthropologist and long-time student of Israeli politics