choice is to do nothing or
try to bring about change
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose
July 15, 2002
Why we launched the boycott of Israeli institutions
The carnage in the Middle East continues; today a suicide bomber,
tomorrow an Israeli strike on Palestinians with helicopters, missiles
and tanks. The Israelis continue to invade Palestinian towns and
expand illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Ariel Sharon
refuses to negotiate while "violence" (ie Palestinian
resistance) continues. Our own government sheds crocodile tears
at the loss of life while inviting a prime minister accused of war
crimes to lunch and providing his military with F16 spare parts.
Yet every rational person knows that the only prospect of a just
and lasting peace lies in Israel's recognition of the legitimacy
of a Palestinian state and the Arab world's acceptance of a secure
Israel behind its 1967 borders. That is what every peace plan proposes.
But how to get from here to there? Is there anything that ordinary
citizens, that is civil society, can do to bring pressure to bear
to compel our governments and international institutions to move
the peace process forward?
One of the nonviolent weapons open to civil society to express
its moral outrage is the boycott. Internationally this has been
most successful against apartheid South Africa. It took many years
but ultimately shamed governments and multinational corporations
into isolating this iniquitous regime. The boycott called last year
by Palestinian solidarity movements was against Israeli products.
This too moves slowly, but only a couple of weeks ago it secured
a ban on the sale of settlement-produced goods illegally labelled
"made in Israel".
The international academic, cultural and sporting communities had
played a major part in isolating South Africa and we have increasingly
learned of individuals who thought that cooperating with Israeli
institutions was like collaborating with the apartheid regime. A
writer refused to have her play acted in Israel, a musician turns
down an invitation to perform or an academic to attend a conference.
It was these individual ethical refusals which led us to make the
restricted call for a moratorium on European research and academic
collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government
opened serious peace negotiations. We noted that Israel, a Middle
Eastern state, was accepted as an integral part of the European
scientific community while its neighbours were not. We canvassed
a draft of the letter among colleagues in the UK and other European
countries, and within days signatures of support came flowing in.
When the letter was published in the Guardian in April, it had
over 120 names on it. A matching letter was published in France;
its website now carries more than a thousand names. Another call
was published in Italy, another in Australia. The Association of
University Teachers adopted the moratorium call; the lecturers'
union, Natfhe, an even stronger resolution. In similar vein an advertisement
signed by Jewish Americans appeared in the New York Times calling
for US disinvestment from Israel until peace negotiations were opened.
What is self-evident is that a cultural and economic boycott is
slowly assembling. It is not one monolithic entity. It varies from
the very modest resistance suggested in our initial letter, such
as personally refusing to take part in collaborative research with
Israeli institutions, to more public gestures of opposition. Such
acts are painful, even though the target is institutional, actions
often mean a breach with longstanding colleagues. It is thus important
that the boycott is coupled with positive support for those Israeli
refuseniks who continue to oppose the actions of their elected government.
It is this that makes suggestions, such as that by Jonathan Freedland
in last week's Guardian, that the boycott is in some way comparable
to that imposed by Nazi Germany on Jewish shops, so grotesquely
hyperbolic. It matches the many hate emails that those who have
endorsed the boycott have received, accusing them of anti-semitism
or even Holocaust denial. If the supporters of the Israeli government
cannot distinguish between being opposed to Israeli state policy
and being anti-semitic, it is scarcely surprising that real anti-semites
conflate the two.
Faced with this growing international movement, some have cried
foul. Does the boycott not risk endangering those fragile academic
links between Israelis and Palestinians that do exist? Yet these
are in far greater danger as a result of the restrictions on movement
which the Israeli government places on Palestinian researchers,
and the repeated attempts to close down Palestinian universities.
And no Palestinian has voiced this concern; on the contrary many
among their academic community, such as those at the University
at Bir Zeit, have endorsed the boycott call as helping to draw attention
to the brutal restrictions on their academic freedom to teach, study
The exaggerated attention to the "academic freedom" issues
raised by the unilateral removal from an editorial board of two
Israeli academics by one signatory to the boycott call is like focusing
on a potential local mote to avoid the flagrant international beam.
This sudden institutional preoccupation with academic freedom is
not without historical interest.
During the height of the student movement of the late 1960s, university
lecturer Robin Blackburn was sacked for a post-hoc endorsement of
students who removed the London School of Economics gates. There
was a resounding silence at this breach of his right to free speech.
But it is strange to hear academic freedom invoked as an abstraction
in a university world where much research is funded by corporate
industrial interests, and where a biological research topic can
be closed by a patent agreement. Only a couple of weeks ago two
Harvard post-doctoral researchers were threatened with jail for
sending cloned material from the lab in which they were working
to one to which they were moving.
Unlike some of those whistle blowers who have called attention
to the hazards of genetic engineering, no one is likely to lose
their jobs as a result of being boycotted. At worst they risk isolation
from the international academic research community. Those who have
been threatened with dismissal, and worse, for supporting the boycott
are those few courageous Israelis who have endorsed the call.
The choice today for civil society - and academics and researchers
are part of civil society - is to remain silent and do nothing or
to try to bring pressure to bear. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's statement
of support for the boycott closed with this quote from Martin Luther
King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about
things that matter."
Hilary Rose is professor of social policy at Bradford University;
Steven Rose is professor of biology at the Open University. They
codrafted the Israel academic moratorium call.