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'No' to an academic boycott of Israel

By Philip Mendes - posted Thursday, 21 July 2005

In May 2005, the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott two Israeli universities - Haifa and Bar-Ilan. This decision has since been rescinded. Nevertheless, the AUT debate remains significant as a case example of the broader international campaign against Israel.

This campaign - which dates back to the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 - is not about ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, or about challenging specific Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Nor has it anything to do with the specific activities of Israeli universities. Rather the sole aim is to paint Israel as an allegedly racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist, and to transform Israel into an international pariah similar to South Africa under the former apartheid regime. The method used is one of racial or ethnic stereotyping based on labelling all Israeli Jews - and all Israeli academics in particular - as an oppressor people.

UK academics are represented by two organisations: the Association of University Teachers (AUT) which has 48,000 members and represents the older universities, and the University and College Lecturer’s Union (NAFTHE) which has 67,000 members and represents the newer tertiary institutions.


On April 22, 2005, the AUT voted (via a narrow majority) in favour of boycotting two Israeli universities based on the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The motions accused Haifa University of restricting academic freedom in regard to the treatment of prominent anti-Zionist academic Ilan Pappe, and criticised Bar Ilan University for its role in supervising degree programs at the College of Judea and Samaria, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The AUT council also decided that it would distribute calls for a general cultural and academic boycott of Israel to all its branches, but that “conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies” would be exempted.

Opponents criticised both the context and the content of the motions:

  • the vote was taken on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover which meant that most Jewish members were not able to participate;
  • the AUT Executive prevented the opponents of the proposal from putting their side of the debate claiming that they had run out of time;
  • the proposal breached university legislation concerning anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws;
  • the specific targeting of Haifa and Bar-Ilan was a tactical and disingenuous manoeuvre by the pro-boycott activists. Their real agenda is to boycott all of Israeli academia;
  • while the boycott proponents claimed to be opponents of racism, they were actually using the methods of racism and specifically anti-Semitism to demonise all Israelis. And any boycott was likely to be extended to include local Jewish academics and any Jews who defended Israel; and 
  • the offer to exempt “good” Israeli academics who condemned the policies of their own country and conformed to a test of political orthodoxy was an obvious example of McCarthyism. It also taps into a long history of radical Left anti-Semitism whereby a small number of unrepresentative token Jews (some would call them “Uncle Toms”) are opportunistically encouraged to exploit their own religious and cultural origins in order to vilify their own people. The radical Left would never employ such techniques against other historically oppressed groups.

The key opposition within the AUT came from a group called "Engage", consisting of Left-wing Jews and non-Jews led by academics Jon Pike and David Hirsh. Members of Engage endorse a two-state solution based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, and the promotion of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians. Engage played the major role in organising a petition signed by 25 members of the AUT Council requesting a special meeting of the council to be held on May 26. This meeting revoked the boycott motions by a two-to-one majority. The AUT then declared its commitment to “providing practical solidarity to Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and academics”.

Deconstructing the claims of the boycotters

The key arguments of the boycott proponents can be summarised as follows:

  1. Israel is the worst human rights abuser in the world, and is committing genocide against the Palestinians. These alleged crimes justify the discriminatory singling out of Israeli academics on national and ethnic grounds;
  2. Israel is a racist state similar to South Africa under apartheid;
  3. Israeli academics are actively complicit in these crimes; and 
  4. Haifa University has allegedly persecuted and victimised anti-Zionist academic Ilan Pappe and other staff and students who seek to conduct critical research on the founding of the state of Israel. And Bar-Ilan has allegedly played a major role in validating the Israeli establishment of academic institutions on occupied Palestinian land.

A balanced response would note the following:

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on human rights and other moral and ethical grounds. But equally the Palestinians are not solely defenceless and innocent victims. There are moderates and extremists on both sides of the conflict. There is no evidence that Israel is acting more severely than other countries engaged in national and ethnic conflicts. If anything, Israeli actions are far less brutal than the behaviour of China in Tibet, the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, and formerly Vietnam, the UK in Iraq and formerly Northern Ireland, Indonesia in Aceh and formerly East Timor, and Russia in Chechnya. This is to say nothing of the persecution of minority racial or religious groups within Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran, Rwanda and elsewhere. But no proposals have been made to boycott all academics within these countries, nor is there any plan to boycott Palestinian or Arab academics who endorse suicide bombings and other violent attacks on Israeli civilians.

Israel is a comprehensive nation state formed on a democratic basis, and consisting of a range of social groups and classes. While the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has some superficial similarities with apartheid in South Africa, the analogy cannot reasonably be applied to Green Line Israel given the civil and political rights enjoyed by its Arab citizens. Moreover Israel does not involve a small white population exploiting a much larger black majority. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a race-based conflict.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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