Intellectual boycott

Print edition : February 07, 2014

A Palestinian protester throws a stone at Israeli troops at a protest against the Jewish settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank village of Silwad, near Ramallah January 10, 2014, when Israel announced plans to build 1,400 new homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. This happened days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region to push peace talks, in which settlements represent a major hurdle. Photo: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

John Kerry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on January 2 during the former's recent visit to the country. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AP

America’s largest academic association votes to boycott Israel’s academic institutions and draws the ire of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the country.

EVEN AS THE BARACK OBAMA administration is trying to get a recalcitrant Israeli government to give some meaningful concessions to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), the beleaguered Palestinians got a strong endorsement for their just cause from the American Studies Association (ASA). America’s oldest and largest academic association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, it passed a resolution in the second week of December agreeing to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which Palestinian civil society had called for. An overwhelming number of ASA members voted in favour of the boycott. The ASA has more than 5,000 members. “This stance in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is historic and signals a new era of engagement with colonised populations,” Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, told the website Common Dreams. The ASA has described its decision as “an ethical stance” which “represents the principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom”.

The veteran American activist and scholar Angela Davis, who is also a member of the ASA, said the decision had long been overdue and accused Israel of practising apartheid in occupied Palestine. “If we have learned the most important lesson promulgated by Dr Martin Luther King, that justice is always indivisible, it should be clear that a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue,” she said. The ASA resolution highlights the role played by the U.S. “in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements and the Wall in violation of international law”. The resolution also criticises America’s support “for the systematic discrimination against Palestinians” that has had a devastating impact on their overall well-being.

Palestinian civil society leaders have been calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for a long time. The first call by the campaign, known as BDS, was issued on July 9, 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opined that the separation wall that Israel was building was illegal. The BDS has been pointing out that Israel is implementing policies that are very similar to those that existed in apartheid South Africa. International sanctions and boycott had played a crucial role in the demise of the racist regime in South Africa. The BDS specifically calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967; an end to Israel’s system of racial discrimination; and the inherent right of return for Palestinian refugees to their original homes. Many academic associations in Europe, including in Britain, have already passed resolutions boycotting exchanges with Israeli institutions of higher learning. South African academic institutions have also joined in the boycott, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government officially endorsed the BDS in December 2012. The BDS is firmly of the view that only economic sanctions can make Israel fulfil its obligations under international law.

But the U.S. and Western European countries such as Germany continue to give billions of dollars to Israel. And Israel makes additional billions by selling its defence hardware to countries like India and China. In 2012, Israeli military sales crossed $7 billion, and the country is among the world’s top 10 exporters of defence hardware despite its small size. India recently went ahead and bought Barak surface-to-air precision missiles from an Israeli firm which was earlier blacklisted by the government.

A documentary film, called The Lab, claims that the four million Palestinians in the occupied territories are nothing more than guinea pigs for Israel’s defence industry. Yotam Feldman, the director of the film, says that Israel has turned the occupied territories into a laboratory for refining, testing and showcasing its military hardware. Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben Gurion University, has supported Feldman’s conclusions. He told the Al Jazeera network that the Israeli arms industry advertises this fact in its sales brochures, which stress the expertise and experience the country has gained in the “occupation” and the many wars it has waged against its neighbours.

The biggest surge in the Israeli arms trade came after “Operation Cast Lead” against the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. That military operation led to the death of more than 1,400 Palestinians and earned Israel international opprobrium. Jeff Halper, another expert on the subject, has said that the phenomenal growth of the Israeli arms industry will be a powerful disincentive for Israel to disengage completely from the occupied territories. Former Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak recently revealed that one in 10 Israelis was economically dependent on the arms industry. Barak was in charge during the last full-scale Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the BDS movement as a “strategic threat” to the country. The powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. is working overtime to demonise and belittle all those trying to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Pro-Israeli lobby groups are putting pressure on American universities to derecognise the ASA. Two universities, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg, have cancelled their institutional membership of the ASA after the decision to boycott academic exchanges with Israel was taken. New York University (NYU) is under tremendous pressure to follow suit. The former Harvard University president Larry Summers, an unabashed admirer of Zionism, went to the extent of characterising the ASA resolution as “anti-Semitic” and urged top American universities to deny funding for their faculty to participate in ASA meetings.

Prominent academics who voted in favour of the ASA resolution are being bombarded with hate messages and threats. There is a strong student movement on American university campuses, called the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The SJP’s activism was a key factor in shaping the strong stance adopted by the ASA on Israel. An influential Zionist organisation in the U.S., the David Project, blamed the SJP for being a part of the “pervasive negativity towards Israel on key leading American university and college campuses, which could erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state”. Another group, the Anti-Defamation League, put the SJP among the top 10 anti-Israeli groups in America.

A former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, demanded that legal action should be contemplated against those seeking to morally isolate his country. Oren cited the 1977 U.S. law that deems “illegal” any move by U.S. companies “to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did” as an illustration and suggested that the U.S. Congress pass a similar law to punish those demanding action against Israel. The U.S. Congress is dominated by pro-Israeli legislators, cutting across party lines, and has bent over backwards to appease the powerful pro-Israeli lobby. The bipartisan Israeli Allies Caucus in the U.S. Congress has already condemned the ASA resolution. As the veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has observed, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are Israeli-occupied territories like Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, in their scholarly book The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, provide evidence and arguments to show that American foreign policy in West Asia is virtually dictated by Israel. A recent opinion poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians doubt the Obama administration’s ability to broker a meaningful peace deal between the P.A. and Israel. Even as the latest round of talks began in late 2013, Israel saw it fit to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank.

The supporters of Israel, meanwhile, have shown scant regard for concepts like academic freedom. Many prominent American academics specialising on West Asia have lost their jobs for being critical of Israel’s expansionist and racist policies. Others have had to apologise and backtrack on their stance to keep their positions and go up the academic ladder. Roger Waters, the frontman for the legendary pop group Pink Floyd, has been labelled an anti-Semite. In an interview, Waters had described Israel as a “racist apartheid regime” and cited the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians by the Jewish state. Waters had also refused to perform in Israel, adding his name to the growing list of prominent artists who have decided to boycott Israel until it provides justice to Palestinians. The world-renowned British theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking is another personality who has heeded the Palestinian people’s call for a boycott of Israel. Hawking declined to attend a conference in Israel, citing political reasons. He had been personally invited by Israeli President Shimon Peres to attend the conference.

Supporters of the boycott have marshalled a lot of facts to argue their case. They point out that the U.S. State Department itself has spoken about the “institutional discrimination” that is being faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have stressed that Israel maintains a “two-tier system” in the West Bank. These include the discriminatory control and distribution of water resources and the forced transfer of populations. The U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has cited several instances of Israel violating prohibitions against “racial segregation and apartheid”. Millions of its Palestinian citizens are being denied basic civil rights. Israeli Arab citizens are not permitted to marry among their brethren in the occupied territories. In the occupied territories, the growth of illegal Israeli settlements continues unabated along with the inhuman blockade and military attacks on Gaza.