By John Chalcraft, a lecturer on government at the London School of Economics and Michael Yudkin, a biochemistry professor at Oxford University, co-wrote this article with Denis Noble, a professor of physiology at Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 30/05/07):
Yes, John Chalcraft: An international, non-violent movement supporting divestment, sanctions and boycott of Israel is gathering strength. The question for British academics is whether they too should refuse to do business as usual with Israeli academic institutions. At stake is not the boycott of individual Israelis, nor some political test, but the withdrawal of institutional collaboration – in relation to funding, visits, conferences, joint publication and the like – with Israeli universities.
Academics will be unimpressed by the erroneous claim that Israeli universities have seriously opposed Israeli violations. No Israeli academic institution has ever taken a public stand against Israel’s 40-year military occupation. On the contrary, the Israeli academy has long provided intellectual, linguistic, logistical, technical, scientific and human support for an occupation in direct violation of international law.
Moreover, Israeli universities have never seriously opposed the infrastructural degradation of Palestinian education, the killing and injuring of students, or the checkpoints, border controls, land seizure and the illegal separation wall, which heavily restrict Palestinian academic and educational activity.
The movement for boycott is in no way anti-semitic. It includes Jews and non-Jews, and stands against racist prejudice of all kinds. The boycott is motivated by opposition to systematic discrimination.
More challenging is the argument that the boycott is counterproductive, compared to dialogue and collaboration. The example of South Africa, however, teaches otherwise. The international boycott movement had a tremendous impact in breaking down apartheid. Crucially, Israel now, like South Africa then, considers itself part of the west. When western civil society says enough is enough, Israelis, not to mention western governments, will take notice.
Is it unfair to single Israel out? It is not clear that there are other heavily militarised, nuclear-armed, expansionist apartheid states with extensive illegal settlement, land seizure and wall-building activity. There are certainly other violators of international law, and the case for boycotting each must be made on its merits. That does not weaken the case for a nonviolent, international movement regarding Israel. To say that it does is simply special pleading.
As for academic freedom, it should be remembered that the situation has long involved the denial of Palestinians’ academic freedom. The point of the boycott, which will certainly involve forms of institutional disruption, is to end this vicious discrimination and the massive and structural violation of academic freedom involved. The boycott, moreover, will encourage and give protection to Israeli academics critical of academic complicity and occupation, and stands in solidarity with Palestinians whose freedoms have long been repressed.
No, Michael Yudkin: The proposal to boycott Israel’s universities discriminates against Israeli academics and undermines the principle of academic universality, important to scholars and scientists everywhere. The best-known statement of that principle is found in the statutes of the International Council for Science, the authoritative international voice of science. This forbids discrimination among scientists “on the basis of such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender or age”.
In other words, scientists should not suffer discrimination because of features irrelevant to their own practice of science. Country of residence is one such feature. No wonder the council issued a condemnation in 2002 of an earlier attempt to boycott Israeli academics.
Since the advance of science depends, crucially, on scientists being able to communicate freely with colleagues, it is self-defeating to exclude a whole national group. To punish people – for that is what a boycott amounts to – for actions for which they are not responsible is repugnant: it amounts to treating them in the same way as a hijacker treats his hostages.
The principle of universality does not apply only to science. The advances that our generation and its predecessors have made in our treatment of convicts or prisoners of war, in our distaste for extreme inequalities of wealth, in our abhorrence of discrimination on grounds of sex, race or sexual orientation – all these have been promoted by the work of scholars in the humanities and the social sciences. Academics in these fields, like those in science, progress by exchanging ideas with colleagues regardless of where they live.
Those who propose this boycott should be obliged to explain why their case is so exceptional as to make it worth jettisoning all the advantages that derive from the principle of universality. They should also be obliged to explain why their arguments apply uniquely to Israel, and not, for example, to China, given the repression of Tibet, or to Russia, given the war against the Chechens.
The motion makes a feeble gesture towards an explanation by alleging “complicity” of Israeli academia in the occupation of the West Bank. In fact there is widespread opposition among Israeli academics, who are prominent in all major anti-occupation organisations.
We invite the boycotters to produce lists of Russian and Chinese academics who publicly oppose the policies of their governments to their own occupied territories and have kept their jobs (and liberty); alternatively, they can admit that their motion is based on a discriminatory dislike – or worse – of Israel, and that a boycott would be a collective punishment of all who commit the “offence” of working in Israeli universities.