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Reflections on Academic Sanctions

In the last few weeks, following the recent military attack on Gaza, we have seen an increase in calls for boycott of Israeli institutions in general, and academic institutions in particular.  A general boycott strategy can be useful indeed in mobilizing solidarity with Palestinians and undermining support for Israeli war crimes internationally and within the country.  The argument that academics should not be exempted from such boycott makes sense as well.  But it also raises a question: what are the specific aims of the academic boycott campaign?  In other words, beyond the question of boycott in general, are there SPECIFIC aims in the ACADEMIC field that make it a useful and legitimate weapon in the struggle against the Israeli occupation and the dispossession of Palestinians?

Do Israeli academic institutions and staff members have special relationship to their state and its oppressive practices?  Is this relationship different from the relations between academic institutions in the USA, UK, Europe, China, and Russia and their respective states?  There is little evidence for that, with one notable exception: the discipline of Middle Eastern Studies.  It started out in the 1920s as an attempt to forge understanding and cooperation between the people of the ‘Orient’ (Jews and Arabs alike), led by progressive German-Jewish intellectuals who played an active role in the quest for a bi-national alternative to Arab and Jewish nationalism.  But, in the late 1930s it was hijacked by new ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’ experts, who subordinated the discipline to the military-political needs of the organized Jewish community (see Gil Eyal’s book The Disenchantment of the Orient, Stanford, 2006).  In the last two decades the discipline has moved more in line with global trends in the field, though it is still dominated by its Orientalist legacy.  Beyond such specific cases, to be an academic in Israel feels pretty much the same — structurally and personally — as being an academic in the USA, South Africa, and elsewhere in fairly well-resourced countries.

So, academics in Israel do not have any special relation to the state apparatus that their counterparts elsewhere do not have, and, perhaps, this is precisely the problem.  They feel an integral part of the global academic community.  This feeling is central to their professional identity and contributes to a prevalent sense of complacency.  They are not particularly progressive or reactionary as individuals, they are not more or less evil than South African academics under apartheid or today, and they are not different from other academic communities.  But, the conditions under which they live are different.  And, this is the challenge for any political campaign: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy (and the threat of disrupting this normality and withdrawing this legitimacy) in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances.

The main problem here is the long-term success of the Israeli strategy of ‘externalizing’ the Palestinian issue.  This has been consistently the case: from the ethnic cleansing of 1948, through the suspension of the post-1967 occupied territories in an eternal limbo of non-annexation and non-liberation, all the way to the various post-Oslo disengagement plans that leave Palestine inside the boundaries of Israeli control while Palestinians remain outside the boundaries of citizenship and rights.  While the occupation is still the paramount reality in the daily lives of Palestinians, it has become invisible to the majority of Israelis (academics included), who neither see it nor feel its presence in their daily lives.  They do not understand what they have to do with the conditions of life of people who live in foreign territories.  In this sense, Israeli Jews are different from white South Africans, whose daily lives under apartheid made it impossible for them to ignore the presence of large numbers of black people around, in the workplaces, in the streets, and even within their households.  The reality of apartheid was fully visible to all white South Africans, regardless of their social and political positions, and therefore the relationship between ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ (in the form of sanctions) was fairly obvious.  How can this relationship be made similarly visible to Israeli academics?

Three things should be kept in mind: (1) persuasion alone would not work, and there is need for external pressure; (2) external pressure would work only if it is linked to clear targets that are visible and understood by the target audience (in other words, the relations between crime and punishment, carrot and stick, positive and negative reinforcement, must be clear), and (3) the implementation of external pressure, and the monitoring of its effects, must be mediated through the work of internal forces.

What does this mean?  First, sanctions should target people for specific practices for which they bear personal responsibility, rather than for general practices in which they are not directly involved.  Second, the targets should be realistic.  In other words, affected individuals and institutions should have the power and capacity to change the practices in question, if they so choose.  Third, the identification of targets, nature of sanctions, and decisions regarding imposition/removal of sanctions should be done in cooperation between internal and external activists.

Concretely, what form might this take?  Let’s start with the last point.  In all major Israeli universities progressive student groups operate, including an ‘Arab student committee’.  These committees were founded and led (historically) by student activists linked to the Communist Party and other radical movements.  Some of their leaders became prominent political and intellectual activists: Sabri Jiryis, Issam Makhoul, and Azmi Bishara are well-known examples.  These committees continue to be active today, and they usually work with other progressive organizations of Jewish and Palestinian students.  These forces are based internally, are familiar with the circumstances of each place, and are best positioned — together with progressive academics within each institution — to identify the specific issues facing them.  These may range from discrimination in residences allocation, curriculum issues, the presence of security-military academic programmes and institutions, the role played by security forces within the university, censorship, and so on.

In alliance with international solidarity organizations, action committees could be formed locally to identify a list of concrete demands at each institution.  This could be done at the overall university level or at lower levels.  An example of such a demand: The School of Law at Tel Aviv University must terminate the employment of war criminal colonel/lawyer Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, who played an active role in planning the execution of war crimes in Gaza in such a way that would shield perpetrators from possible prosecution.  If the School rejects this demand, it would be subject to sanctions (precise nature of which to be determined as appropriate).

What are the advantages of this approach?  It would come from within, though with external assistance; it would lead to forging international links of solidarity and activism; it would avoid the charge of being an external imposition; and, most importantly, it would give local people specific and realistic targets, with clear logic, on which they could work together as an educational and mobilizing tool.  The campaign can succeed — no guarantees of course — because it is within the power of the targeted institutions to change their policies.  Similar targets could be formulated for all institutions, with critical input by local activists.  They are also best positioned to monitor progress and suggest further steps (cancel sanctions, increase, keep, modify).

The problem with the general academic boycott as it has been discussed over the last few years is that it is punitive, externally imposed, and does not encourage people to work directly for change within their own institutions and take responsibility for their own environment — in other words, to work for change to be effected through their own efforts and within their powers.  Preventing a war criminal from being hired, in contrast, is a concrete and realistic goal.  It is not on the grandiose scale of dismantling settlements or implementing the right of return of refugees (about which most people can do little except sign a couple of petitions and attend demonstrations with zero impact), but it is linked to people’s daily lives and activities.

This argument is a call for smart, focused sanctions that get people involved at local levels and provide them with concrete targets to achieve.  It does not use the term academic boycott, because it is too broad and does not engage people in concrete action with tangible results.  Without necessarily challenging the calls made by Palestinian and international organizations, this approach offers an alternative perspective of how work can be done from within — with both Palestinian and Jewish Israelis based at institutions within pre-1967 Israel.  They are the ones who should identify targets, decide on sanctions, where and how to impose and under what conditions to lift them, subject to debate and agreement with Palestinian and international organizations.  The relationship with external organizations is important in order to balance local concerns with global inputs.

There are three additional dimensions to be considered briefly here.  First, sanctions should be applied to practices rather than opinions.  Sharvit-Baruch is targeted because of her active involvement in the commission of war crimes, not because of her legal opinions (for US audiences, this is the difference between an Alan Dershowitz with despicable views and a John Yoo with despicable practices.  The former falls within the boundaries of legitimate academic debate, the latter does not).

Second, almost everyone agrees that institutions should be targeted rather than individuals, but the distinction cannot always be strictly maintained.  In the example above, the Tel Aviv School of Law School would be selected as a target because of an individual.

Third, the question of whom to exempt from sanctions is no longer relevant.  The question rather is whom to include in the sanctions, with choices made strategically in order to maximize impact, heighten the visibility of oppression, and bring the issues to the consciousness of Israeli-Jews in the most effective manner.  By making focused choices this strategy may run the risk of letting some guilty individuals and institutions off the hook, but its impact would be all the more powerful as a result, precisely because it would not be seen as mindlessly punitive in nature.

Finally, for this strategy to succeed it must be based on regular exchange of information between activists at different locations, and good coordination between them.  This means it would require much more than occasionally signing a radical-sounding petition and letting the matter rest there.  Israeli-based activists are subject to enormous pressure internally, and the only way they could sustain a campaign to change society from within is through maintaining a constant exchange of information, solidarity, and a flow of moral and material assistance from the outside.  Palestinian activists are in need of even more external exchange and assistance.  It is only in dialogue between all the relevant constituencies that the campaign can move forward.


Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born academic based in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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