An Open Letter of Support for Student Union for Representation and Justice at San Diego State University February 2014 Dear Members of Student Union for Representation...
A. On BDS in General:
What is a boycott?
A boycott is a non-violent instrument that aims both to express moral or political disapproval of the prolonged and ongoing conduct of a person or institution that injures others. It involves the withdrawal of material and moral support to the person or institution boycotted so long as they persist in the conduct being boycotted. As such an instrument, it is generally called for and applied by those to whom no other means of action is available. In that, it differs from sanctions, which are usually applied by governments against other governments, or by an institution against one or more of its members. It differs from divestment, in that divestment can only be applied by an institution or other body that has substantial holdings in the economy of the country being targeted or in corporations that collaborate with its conduct.
Under what circumstances should a boycott be used?
A boycott is not a generalizable political instrument but a tactic used under specific circumstances:
a) The country or corporation aimed at must be vulnerable economically or culturally to sanctions or boycott as a result of its connections with, or dependence on, the nations whose publics boycott it. A boycott of the EU, US or China would probably be politically futile because economically ineffectual, much as we might desire it in principle. A boycott of Caterpillar would be difficult for most private citizens to enact, given that we do not often purchase bulldozers.
b) There must be a relatively open public sphere in the nation boycotted in order for their public to influence their leaders. Hence a boycott of a dictatorship is usually ineffectual, as sanctions were on Iraq, where people who had no influence on their government were the ones who suffered.
c) The boycotted nation’s public must care about the opinion of those boycotting them. This is particularly the case with Israel, as it was with South Africa, since their populations largely wish to be counted among “civilized” or “democratic” western nations.
d) The boycott must have clear goals that are realizable by the nation boycotted, like conforming to international law and humanitarian norms, ending an occupation or blockade, dismantling a racist or apartheid system, negotiating in good faith, etc.
e) A boycott should be applied sparingly, when other channels for influencing the nation’s behavior have been exhausted (as with S Africa during the Reagan administration’s sympathetic policy of “constructive engagement”). A boycott of Sudan would be superfluous, given that the US government is already on record as declaring the conflict in Darfur a genocide, and given that the ICC has indicted President Bashir for crimes against humanity.
f) A boycott should be based on non-violent principles and is implicitly a rejection of the resort to violence by those engaging in it.
Can a boycott by citizens against a whole nation really be effective?
Numerous South African anti-apartheid activists, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela, have stated that the international campaign of boycott and divestment against the apartheid regime was an important factor in bringing down that system through negotiation rather than violence. Though ideally a boycott would bring to an end every form of external support to the country being boycotted, it may fall short of that goal and still have real material effectiveness. Any drop in investment or exports has palpable effects on an economy. Furthermore, the public expression of moral and political distaste has direct effects on the people of the boycotted country, undermining their morale and their will to support the policies that have led to disapproval and isolation. While the initial response may be defiant, as the effects of a boycott begin to mount, the privileges gained by systems of apartheid and discrimination cease to be worth the cost.
B. Boycotting Israel
Why boycott Israel?
Israel is distinguished from other nations in the following ways that justify a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign:
a) Israel is the largest recipient of US aid and weapons, receiving currently about $3 billion per year. It uses US weapons and aid in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including not only the use of weapons like white phosphorous or cluster bombs against civilians, as in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and in Gaza in 2009, but also such daily offenses as collective punishment, systematic torture, and, indeed, the extended occupation of Palestinian territory.
b) Israel has violated more United Nations resolutions than any other country in the world, and has been consistently protected by the US’s Security Council veto power from any attempt to enforce those resolutions.
c) Israel is institutionally racist. It engages in ethnic cleansing or “population transfer” and policies that conform to international definitions of apartheid for the sake of territorial expansion. In practical terms, “Jewishness” is a racial identification in Israel. Israel defines “Jewishness” partially in genetic terms: a person is legally Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish, regardless of place of birth or religious belief. Its “Basic Law” recognizes two categories, citizenship (ezrahut), which is available to Jews and non-Jews, and “nationality” (le’om), which is only available to those of Jewish descent. It is nationality that guarantees innumerable discriminatory laws that benefit Jewish Israelis and disadvantage Arabs. Zionism is a program of supposed or purported racial purity and territorial acquisition. It is a nineteenth century nationalist ideology, analogous to the 19th century US ideology of Manifest Destiny, as a program for territorial acquisition by the white “Christian nation.” Insofar as it underlies a racially discriminatory system of rule, Zionism should not be accepted by the rest of the world as a legitimate form of social organization.
d) Criticism and open discussion of Israel in the US is suppressed, and critics are aggressively silenced and censored. Public servants and politicians who criticize Israel are subject to virtual witch-hunts by what Charles Freeman has described as “a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East” and whose tactics “include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.” Academics who attempt criticism of Israel face similar campaigns of distortion, intimidation, and threats of termination, and/or denial or loss of tenure. Israel is the ONLY country that cannot be criticized openly in the US and on university campuses without dire consequences. A boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign is a logical response to censorship and a nonviolent form of opposition to the lock-down on open discussion of Israel and Palestine in the United States.
Isn’t a boycott of Israel discriminatory and even anti-semitic?
A boycott is always selective: as discussed above, it can only be effective under certain circumstances, to most if not all of which Israel conforms. While it is often argued that a boycott of Israel is anti-semitic, that is not the case. The practices of discrimination, occupation, ethnic cleansing, illegal settlement and territorial expansion are not based on Judaism but on the political philosophy of Zionism and on the ultimate claim to the whole territory of “Greater Israel” (Eretz Israel) that has no basis in international law, political history or even in most versions of Jewish religious or cultural tradition. Zionism is a political movement that is by no means supported by all Jews, many of whom support and advocate for boycott, divestment and sanctions and the end of Zionism itself. Indeed, what is really anti-semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.
Isn’t the boycott of Israel very one-sided? Why do you not condemn equally violence against Israelis and condemn or even boycott Hamas?
Boycott is a non-violent instrument and implicitly and explicitly represents a principled choice for the tactics of non-violence. ACBI is also a response to the call by over 50 institutions of Palestinian society—trades unions, professional organizations of academics, physicians, engineers, and journalists, NGOs and cultural and women’s groups—who seek a non-violent means to ending the occupation and gaining Palestinian sovereignty. [See http://www.pacbi.org/campaign_statement.htm%5D] These groups have been made virtually invisible in public discourse by the continual emphasis in the US press on Palestinian violence. At the same time, we reject the implication that there is parity between the violence inflicted by Palestinians on Israel and the enormous, state-organized and systematic violence inflicted by Israel on a daily basis upon the Palestinian people for over 60 years.
If Americans are appalled at injustice and violence toward another people and by military occupation, should they not first and foremost boycott themselves, in light of the actions of the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Self-boycott would be a hard thing to achieve. But that aside, the situation is in fact different in the United States (and in Britain, for example). Not only those active in this campaign, but millions of US citizens vigorously protested US militarism in the Middle East. Those protests evidently contributed to the election of Obama, a fact often interpreted as meaning that the US population has desired and voted for a change of approach. We are still waiting to see anything like such a massive protest against the conduct of the Israeli government and military after 60 years of occupation. It has been reported that between 80 and 85% of Israelis supported the latest assault on Gaza and a majority of Israelis returned Benjamin Netanyahu to power, with the support of the fascistic Avigdor Liebermann, in the latest elections. Beneath the two-state rhetoric, Netenyahu refuses even to recognize the Palestinians’ right to a separate, sovereign state. However, the main point is that boycott is a tactic towards an end, not a moral absolute. It is unlikely that a boycott of the US, by even a large number of countries, would have an appreciable impact. Israel, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on US contributions, economic, military, and academic/cultural. Accordingly, as with South Africa, pressure of this kind would have a rapid and palpable impact. It is such an impact that we hope to have.
Won’t a boycott of Israel merely isolate and weaken those individuals and groups within Israel that promote peace and dialogue with Palestinians? Should we not rather give our positive support to them instead?
Israelis who genuinely oppose the occupation should endorse the PACBI call also, as some indeed have. In actual fact, however, an insignificant number of Israelis have stood out against the occupation or the Gaza offensive. On the contrary, Israeli society as a whole appears to be growing less and less open to taking the practical steps that could lead to a peaceful solution to the conflict. Decades of refraining from putting pressure on Israel have merely seen the expansion of the settlements and the deterioration of the situation for Palestinians. We therefore take our position on the basis of Palestinian civil society’s needs, not in the first place according to the needs and desires of Israelis of any persuasion. Israelis, and especially those who support Palestinian aspirations, should not expect to dictate the terms of Palestinians’ struggle against their colonialism.
C. The Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
Who are USACBI? Who founded the movement? Was it one person or a group? Where was it founded?
U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) is a group of scholars, initially mostly from California, though several have worked or do work in Palestine, and all of us have a long-standing concern with the fate of the Palestinian people. The initial group of about 15 members is currently expanding to create a network that embraces cultural workers and academics in the United States as a whole. It has no geographical headquarters and functions primarily as a virtual community with local meetings. The Call has now been endorsed by over 300 academics, 50 cultural workers and over 25 organizations in the United States, as well as over 50 international endorsers.
Was USACBI inspired by other similar movements, such as the one in Britain?
The initiative was in the first place impelled by Israel’s latest brutal assault on Gaza and by our determination to say enough is enough. We have been galvanized by events in British institutions, but our initiative began before news of those events appeared. We are responding to the call of Palestinian civil society movements and to the call of over 500 Israeli citizens for a boycott of Israel. They are our principal and primary inspiration. [See http://palsolidarity.org/2009/01/3794; http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/news/article706; and http://www.pacbi.org/campaign_statement.htm%5D]
What precise goals do you have for the movement, and how successful do you think it will be?
Our goals are clearly stated in our Press Release < http://usacbi.wordpress.com/press-release/>. In keeping with the call from Palestinian social movements, and in the context of the international call for divestment from and economic sanctions on Israel, we seek to implement an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions until such times as Israel brings its conduct into line with international law and humanitarian norms. The specific demands are outlined in the Press Release. We are also realists. We understand that the implementation of an academic or economic boycott will be a slow and difficult process in this country. We believe, nonetheless, that in face of the extraordinary stranglehold on the media that sympathizers of Israel have maintained over the decades, merely to make the notion of ending Israel’s impunity and its “special relationship” with the US speakable and discussable in public would constitute a major achievement. That is, therefore, our interim aim. In the course of that endeavor, we hope to make a full and unhindered discussion possible on US campuses of the history of Israel’s occupation of all Palestinian land, including 1948 Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank, as well as its occupation of Lebanese and Syrian territory, collective punishment of Palestinians, illegal settlements of occupied land, continued ethnic cleansing of Palestine before and and since 1948, closure and destruction of Palestinian schools, universities and civic and economic infrastructure,. We believe that such debate, rather than the demonization of an oppressed people, is more likely to lead to a non-violent resolution of this long-lasting conflict and to the end of a violent occupation that the United States has for too long uncritically supported.
Why don’t we take direct action against the Israeli government since the government—and not Israel’s academic establishment—is responsible for serious wrongs committed against the Palestinians?
Israeli universities are in fact governmental institutions. Many are directly involved in furnishing the ideological justification and technical means for the Occupation to continue. Several have benefited materially from the Occupation by building on confiscated Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Not a single Israeli academic institution has petitioned the Israeli government to protect Palestinian rights to education or to cease interference with and destruction of Palestinian schools and colleges. Furthermore, just as the boycott of sporting activities was extremely effective as a means of expressing revulsion at the institutions of South African apartheid, Israel’s academic institutions are a major conduit of Israeli communication and propaganda to the world: they convey a sense of the “normality” of Israel’s democratic society, of its civilized values, of its contributions to the world of learning. A boycott of academic institutions is the strongest message possible that Israel cannot claim normality and ask to be considered in the fold of democratic societies while maintaining an apartheid state and a brutal occupation. Nor can institutions that benefit directly and materially from those conditions, and which contribute to maintaining them by military, demographic, geographic and technical research, be allowed to present themselves as innocent non-participants.
Does the academic boycott of Israel restrict academic freedom?
No. Israeli professors are not prevented by the academic boycott from expressing any opinion or belief. They are not constrained from presenting findings at conferences. No academic in the world is prevented by the academic boycott of Israel from communicating with individual Israeli counterparts. The opposite is true. Supporting the academic boycott is an exercise of academic freedom by scholars around the world (including in Israel) who are motivated by principles of justice.
The assertion that the academic boycott restricts academic freedom is a fraudulent accusation promoted by defenders of the Israeli apartheid regime. The academic boycott of Israel is an integral part of the BDS strategy.
It is Israel — not those who participate in the academic boycott of Israel — that denies academic freedom and more fundamental freedoms to Palestinians. This is done through a variety of regulations and policies, such as giving priority of admission to soldiers and limiting transportation and residential opportunities of Palestinians. The most extreme denial of academic freedom to the Palestinian people results from the bombing of schools and universities as occurred in the 2009 Israeli assault of Gaza. For more information, see ”The Economy of the Occupation A Socioeconomic Bulletin, Acadmemic Boycott of Israel”
Does the cultural boycott of Israel impede artistic freedom?
No. Artists express themselves through their art, and they have the option of refraining from normalizing with a country that practices apartheid, or performing there in implicit support of discrimination.
There is no transcending politics. All art is political, and can be either on the side of the oppressed, as illustrated for example by Remi Kanazi’s ”Normalize this” and ”This poem will not end apartheid,” or on the side of the oppressor. Israeli cultural institutions are complicit in their government’s policies. They receive state funding to present performances abroad, acting as ambassadors of Israel, and have been largely silent in the face of Israeli aggression, including Israel’s brutal attack of Gaza 2008-9.
In 2005, in confirmation of the unique ability of art to project a false image of normalcy, the Israeli government launched its “Brand Israel” campaign, with the goal of salvaging its deteriorating image abroad. Promoted by institutions throughout Israel and internationally, the Brand Israel campaign uses artists, musicians, and other cultural workers to obscure Israel’s violations of international law. In 2009, Arye Mekel of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a reporter, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits…This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” “Brand Israel” makes it clear that the Israeli government is using culture for propaganda purposes. Hence the cultural boycott we advocate is fundamentally a boycott of an official propaganda campaign designed to whitewash Israel’s crimes.
Would it not be more effective to engage with Israeli academics and encourage exchange and debate about the issues?
In fact we do encourage exchange and debate: it is not supporters of the boycott of Israel who have sought to close down free inquiry into and teaching about the real conditions of Palestinians or the history of the Zionist enterprise. We value such free inquiry and open debate highly. However, it would be naive to think that further debate and exchange with those directly and knowingly benefiting from the oppressive status quo will bring an end to the apartheid system that reigns in Israel/Palestine. To take only the decade of the Oslo Accords, when Israel had committed to ending and dismantling settlements and to negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, that period has in fact seen only the deterioration of conditions for Palestinians in every sphere and the expansion of settlements, check-points and demolitions. Exchange and debate have unfortunately only furnished a cover for continuing expropriation. Nevertheless, the boycott proposal aims specifically at institutions, not at individuals, even those most privileged by the Occupation. While hopefully a successful boycott would directly impact the material conditions and facilities of Israeli academics, Jewish and Arab, it does not seek to silence, censor, or deny rights of travel to any scholar, nor to dictate the beliefs or opinions they wish to express. This boycott aims at the practice of institutions and their representatives, not at the individual scholar, student or artist. Indeed, PACBI’s call is principled in this respect: it affirms the absolute right of individuals to academic freedom and holds institutions responsible to protecting those rights irrespective of nationality, race or religion. It targets institutional behavior rather than the individual right to opinion. In doing so, it sets an important and consistent standard for institutional protection of academic freedom as a universal, not a nationally or ethnically determined right.
What good can come out of an academic and cultural boycott of Israel? Why do it?
Much of our inspiration for a boycott campaign comes from the lessons we have learned from the strategies used to end apartheid in South Africa. Salim Vally, a South African academic makes the case for the important effects of boycott under South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid:
The university in South Africa played a critical role in reproducing the structural inequalities and injustices that were found in that society. Universities in South Africa—including the “liberal” ones—were closely linked to the state: they received much of their funding from the state; they provided the “scientific,” commercial, and intellectual bases for the state to continue functioning; and they were the prime knowledge producers for the state and its bureaucracy. Moreover, a large number of academics were directly linked to the state, furthered the apartheid agenda at universities, conducted research on specific issues as the state required, and even spied on other academics and students. … It also provided some of the basis for the security forces’ military operations against neighboring countries and liberation movements.
The Israeli university is not that much different from what the South African one was. Israeli universities and a number of individual Israeli academics play key roles in providing the intellectual support for the Israeli state and its endeavors. Certain Israeli universities have very strong links to the military establishment, particularly through their provision of postgraduate degrees to the military. A number of Israeli academics provide the practical and ideological support necessary for the maintenance of the occupation and even for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, extrajudicial killings, racial segregation, and land expropriation. Above all, Israeli universities are intricately involved with the infrastructure of the Israeli “knowledge economy”, its production of and research in security and information technologies and military hard- and software, all of which have “dual use” in civilian and military spheres. They are, in other words, crucial to both Israel’s export industry and its apparatus of repression and occupation. In the main, Israeli institutions of higher learning, according to the testimonies of a number of Israeli academics, are certainly not consistent with the principle that “[i]nstitutions of higher education are conducted for the common good . . . [which] depends on the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The “common good”—whether “common” includes only Israelis or both Israel and Palestinians—is not served when universities and individual academics support racism, ethnic cleansing, and the continued violation of international law.
What are some ways, as a university professor, that I could support an academic/cultural boycott?
American and European academics can decline to take part in academic activities inside Israel and refuse to deal with Israeli academic institutions by not participating in joint research, conferences, study abroad programs, or other officially sanctioned collaborative activity. Academics in these countries might also build momentum behind existing international efforts to overturn restrictions on foreign passport holders living and working in the Palestinian areas by helping to organize various events at Palestinian universities or by applying to work at these institutions in a temporary or permanent capacity. This would be a particularly powerful and constructive form of organized public condemnation, because it would add to the isolation of academic institutions in Israel, actively confront and draw attention to the government’s draconian policies, and put Israeli, European, and American academics face-to-face with each other and with the appalling conditions in which Palestinians—academics included—are forced to live. Academics can also support and participate in campus movements for institutional divestment from Israel, work with student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine on joint campaigns, and draw attention to the ways in which Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies, which potentially affect Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian American students, make Study Abroad Programs in Israel on their face discriminatory and contrary to academic non-discrimination policies.
What are some ways, as a student, that I could support an academic/cultural boycott?
Depending on the levels of awareness at their campuses, students could begin by raising a petition to their administrations to support Palestinian institutions morally and materially by, for example, condemning Israeli destruction of Palestinian educational institutions and interference with freedom of movement and assembly; making fellowships available to Palestinian students; sending educational materials to Palestinian institutions. Students could organize against Study Abroad Programs in Israel (see above), organize teach-ins on Palestine, prepare for and arrange debates with Zionist students to draw public attention to the issues. As a longer term goal, students can work to push their universities to divest from Israel. See: http://alawda.rso.wisc.edu/statementofpurpose.htm
What are some examples of activities that would violate an academic/cultural boycott? E.g., would an invitation to an Israeli colleague to give a seminar talk on my campus cross the line? What about calling her or him on the phone?
“The academic boycott is not aimed at individual academics on the basis of nationality, but rather complicit institutions and their official representatives. A seminar talk in partnership with or sponsored by an Israeli institution is subject to boycott. Free of complicit institutional sponsorship or funding, Israeli academic talks are not subject to boycott. By itself, a phone conversation with an Israeli academic does not violate the boycott. However, institutional partnership is subject to boycott; therefore we urge academics, in exercise of their own academic freedoms, to refuse all collaboration with complicit institutions [and their official representatives].
In fact, we work in solidarity with many of the growing number of Israeli academics who have endorsed the call for boycott. ACBI is an inclusive tactic targeting institutions and projects complicit in oppression; it is not a goal in and of itself. When the three core demands by Palestinian civil society are met, the academic and cultural boycott will end.