Academic boycotts of Israel

Academic boycotts of Israel

Several proposals have been made by academics and organisations in the United Kingdom to boycott Israeli universities and academics. The goal of proposed academic boycotts is to isolate Israel in order to force a change in Israel's policies towards the Palestinians which opponents claim to be discriminatory or oppressive.

The academic boycotts of Israel have been inspired by the historic academic boycotts of South Africa which were an attempt to pressure South Africa to end its policies of Apartheid.

The proposals have been opposed by many scholars and politicians. They have been called "profoundly unjust" and relying on a "false" analogy with South Africa. One critical statement has said that the boycotters apply "different standards" to Israel than other countries, that the boycott is "counterproductive and retrograde" and that the campaign is antisemitic and comparable to Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in the 1930s. [ [ ADL Slams British Academic Boycott Policy] , Anti-Defamation League, 26 May 2006, accessed 16 May 2008.] [ [ Lecturers call for Israel boycott] , British Broadcasting Corporation, 30 May 2006, accessed September 16 2006] Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt [,,1800987,00.html Israeli university boycott: how a campaign backfired] , The Guardian, June 20 2006, accessed September 17 2006] [ The New York Sun, May 6, 2005. [] ] [ Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz in The Times Online June 13, 2007 [] ] [ Times Higher Education, June 2, 2006 [] ]

Guardian open letter, 2002

The idea of an academic boycott against Israelis first emerged on April 06, 2002 in an open letter to "The Guardian" initiated by Steven and Hilary Rose, professors in biology at the Open University and social policy at the University of Bradford respectively, who called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel. [Andy Beckett and Ewen MacAskill. [,3604,858363,00.html British academic boycott of Israel gathers pace] , The Guardian, December 12 2002, accessed September 16 2006] It read:

By July 2002, the open letter had gained over 700 signatories, including those of ten Israeli academics.Suzanne Goldenberg, Will Woodward, [,4273,4456883,00.html Israeli boycott divides academics] , "Guardian", July 8 2002]

In response to the open letter, Leonid Ryzhik, a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Chicago, led a rival web-based petition that condemned the original's "unjustly righteous tone" and warned that the boycott has a "broader risk of very disruptive repercussions for a wide range of international scientific and cultural contacts". By July 2002, the counter petition has gathered almost 1000 signatories.


Proposed academic boycotts of Israel have been the subject of contentious debate. Some issues that have been highlighted are:cite news | author=Andy Beckett | url=,2763,858360,00.html | title=It's water on stone - in the end the stone wears out | publisher=The Guardian | date=2002-12-12 | accessdate=2006-09-16]
* Are academic boycotts of Israel ethically justified?
* Would they be an effective and positive agent of change?
* Are there overriding issues of academic freedom?
* Are the proposals a cover for anti-Semitism?
* Is Israel being unjustly singled out?

A prominent Palestinian academic, president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, has argued against academic boycotts of Israel, telling Associated Press "If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals... If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach." He acknowledges, however, that his view is a minority one amongst Palestinian academics. cite news | title=Palestinian university president comes out against boycott of Israeli academics | publisher=AP | date=2006-06-18]

Comparisons to academic boycotts of South Africa

The academic boycott of South Africa is frequently invoked as a model for more recent efforts to organize academic boycotts of Israel.

Some invoke the comparison to claim that an academic boycott of Israel should not be controversial based a misconception that the academic boycott of South Africa was uncontroversial and straightforward. The reality, at the time, was very different. The effort was the subject of significant criticism and contentious debate from diverse segments. Andrew Beckett writes, in the Guardian, on this frequent mistaken comparison: "In truth, boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection, have their controversies and injustices."

Other, such as Hillary and Stephen Rose in Nature, make the comparison and argue for an academic boycott of Israel based on a belief that the academic boycott of South Africa was effective in ending apartheid. George Fink responds to this claim in a letter to Nature:

Accusations of Antisemitism

Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz argue that despite a small number of Jews who have supported boycotts, the boycotts themselves are antisemitic, using their anti-Zionism as a cover for "Jew hatred." They compare the boycotts to the 1222 Canterbury Council sharply limiting Christian contact with Jews, and Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in the 1930s, as well as Arab League attempts to economically isolate Israel and refrain from purchasing "anything Jewish." [ Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz in The Times Online June 13, 2007 [] ]

Harvard President Larry Summers "blasted" the boycotts as "antisemitic":

“ [T] here is much that should be, indeed that must be, debated regarding Israeli policy...But the academic boycott resolution passed by the British professors union in the way that it singles out Israel is in my judgment anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent.” [ [ Harvard Crimson June 05, 2006] ]

Summers had previously argued that a proposed boycott was antisemitic "in effect, if not intent". This position was criticized by Judith Butler, in an article entitled "No, it's not anti-semitic". [ [ Judith Butler, "No, it's not anti-semitic"] , "London Review of Books", 21 August 2003, accessed 23 June 2003.]

Mona Baker, Miriam Shlesinger and Gideon Toury

Mona Baker, an Egyptian professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester in England and a signatory of the 2002 open letter, decided in early June 2002 to remove two Israeli academics — Dr. Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University, a former chair of Amnesty International, Israel; and Professor Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University — from the editorial boards of the journals "Translator" and "Translation Studies Abstracts" that Baker and her husband publish.Goldenberg, Suzanne. [,4273,4456883,00.html "Israeli boycott divides academics"] , "The Guardian", July 8, 2002.]

Manfred Gerstenfeld claims that Baker offered to allow the academics to remain on the board only on condition that they leave and sever all ties with Israel. Baker claims to have never made any such statements. Her views are articulated on her [ web site] .

Mona Baker's email to Prof Toury read::Dear Gideon, I have been agonising for weeks over an important decision: to ask you and Miriam, respectively, to resign from the boards of the Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts. I have already asked Miriam and she refused. I have 'unappointed' her as she puts it, and if you decide to do the same I will have to officially unappoint you too.:I do not expect you to feel happy about this, and I very much regret hurting your feelings and Miriam's. My decision is political, not personal.:As far as I am concerned, I will always regard and treat you both as friends, on a personal level, but I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances.

Prof Toury replied::I would appreciate it if the announcement made it clear that 'he' (that is, I) was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli.

In response to a barrage of negative mail, critical media attention, and a denunciation from Tony Blair, Mona Baker told a reporter from the "Daily Telegraph":

This is my interpretation of the boycott statement that I've signed and I've tried to make that clear but it doesn't seem to be getting through. I am not actually boycotting Israelis, I am boycotting Israeli institutions. I am convinced that long after this is all over, as it was with the Jews in the Holocaust, people will start admitting that they should have done something, that it was deplorable and that academia was cowardly if it hadn't moved on this.

She also clarified her position on her web site(see [ here] ).

Association of University Teachers

On April 22 2005, the Council of Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott two Israeli universities: Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University. The motions [cite web| |url= |title=Report to members from the AUT national council |accessdate=2005-05-22] to AUT Council were prompted by the call for a boycott from nearly 60 Palestinian academics and others. [cite web| date=2004-07-07 |url= |title=Palestinian academics call for international academic boycott of Israel |publisher= [ Birzeit University] |accessdate=2005-05-22] The AUT Council voted to boycott Bar-Ilan because it runs courses at colleges in the West Bank (referring to Ariel College) and "is thus directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories contrary to United Nations resolutions". It boycotted Haifa because it was alleged that the university had wrongly disciplined a lecturer. The action against the lecturer was supposedly for supporting a student who wrote about attacks on Palestinians during the founding of the state of Israel. Some aspects of the student's research had been falsified (see this page) and the University denied having disciplined the lecturer. [cite web|date=2008-05-15 |url= |title=The University of Haifa Response to the AUT Decision |publisher= [ University of Haifa] |accessdate=2008-05-15] Union members claimed that Staff and students [of Israeli universities] who seek to research Israel's history in full are often "victimised". [ [ BBC 20 April 2005] ]

Condemnation and backlash

The AUT's decision was immediately condemned by Jewish groups and many members of the AUT. Critics of the boycott within and outside the AUT noted that at the meeting at which the boycott motion was passed the leadership cut short the debate citing a lack of time. Specifically, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Union of Jewish Students accused the AUT of purposely holding the vote during Passover, when many Jewish members could not be present. [cite web|date=2005-05-24 |url=,,1490444,00.html | title=Second Opinion | publisher=The Guardian | accessdate=2008-05-16]

The presidents of Jerusalem-based al-Quds University and Hebrew University issued a joint statement condemning the boycott effort as unproductive towards ending the "shared tragedy" but rather could prolong it:

One of the university presidents, Sari Nusseibeh of al-Quds University, continued: "If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals [...] If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach." He acknowledges, however, that his view is a minority one amongst Palestinian academics. [ [ Palestinian university president comes out against boycott of Israeli academics] (AP, Haaretz) June 18, 2006] [ [,7340,L-3264160,00.html Palestinian academic opposes Israel boycott] (AP, YnetNews) June 18, 2006]

Israel's embassy in London issued a statement criticizing the AUT's vote as a "distorted decision that ignores the British public's opinion", and condemning the resolutions for being "as perverse in their content as in the way they were debated and adopted."Fact|date=February 2008 Zvi Ravner, Israel’s deputy ambassador in London, also noted that " [t] he last time that Jews were boycotted in universities was in 1930s Germany."cite news | author=BBC News | title=Academics back Israeli boycotts | url= | date=2005-04-22] cite news | author=Rick Kelly | title=Britain: lecturers’ union boycotts two Israeli universities | url= | publisher=World Socialist Website | date= 2005-05-02]

Abraham Foxman, speaking for the Anti-Defamation League, issued a statement condemning the "misguided and ill-timed decision to boycott academics from the only country in the Middle East where universities enjoy political independence."Fact|date=February 2007 The British National Postgraduate Committee also voted to oppose the boycott. Project officer Andre Oboler said that the boycott "runs contrary to our objective, which is to advance in the public interest the education of postgraduate students within the UK". [Judy Siegel, "Leading UK group comes out against proposed academic boycott of Israel", "Jerusalem Post", 15 April 2005, 05.]

Cancellation of boycott

After the backlash and condemnation - both internal and external - members of the AUT, headed by Open University lecturer and Engage founder Jon Pike - gathered enough signatures to call a special meeting on the subject. The meeting was held on May 26, 2005, at Friends Meeting House in London. Supporters of rival positions gathered on the streets outside this meeting. Pro-boycott demonstrators called for the AUT to maintain its course against what they described as ""unbelievable pressure", while anti-boycott demonstrators suggested that the decision had been influenced by anti-Semitism , and argued that the AUT's integrity was being threatened by a group of "leftwing extremists". [Matthew Taylor, "Storm blows union off course: Can lecturers unite now the vote to isolate Israeli universities has been overturned?", "The Guardian", 31 March 2005, 22.] At the meeting the AUT membership decided to cancel the boycott of both Israeli universities. Reasons cited for the decision were: the damage to academic freedom, the hampering of dialogue and peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians, and that boycotting Israel alone could not be justified. [cite web|date=2005-05-26 |url=,9959,1493084,00.html |title=Academics vote against Israeli boycott |publisher=The Guardian |accessdate=2005-05-22]

National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

In May 2006, on the last day of its final conference, National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) passed motion 198C, a call to boycott Israeli academics who did not vocally speak out against their government.

The following portions of the resolution are quoted by Brian Klugcite news|last=Klug|first=Brian|url=|title=Spare us the analogies|date=2006-05-30|accessdate=2006-09-16|publisher=The Guardian] :
*"The conference invites members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals, and to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies."
*"The conference notes continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices. It recalls its motion of solidarity last year for the AUT resolution to exercise moral and professional responsibility."

The resolution was dismissed by the AUT, the union into which the NATFHE was merging into. [ [ "NATFHE motion on proposed boycott of Israeli academics – an AUT statement"] , Association of University Teachers, May 30, 2006, accessed July 9, 2006.]


A group of eight Nobel laureates denounced the policy before it was passed, suggesting that it would limit academic freedom. [Steve Farrar, [ Laureates denounce action against Israel] , The Times, May 26 2006, accessed September 16 2006] Frank Wilczek of MIT was critical of the measure: "The primary value of the scientific community is pursuit of understanding through free and open discourse. The clarity of that beacon to humanity should not be compromised for transient political concerns."

Brian Klug makes this criticism of the NATFHE motion::"In short, the intention of the Natfhe motion - what it seeks and why - is obscure. But even if the policy and rationale were clear and unambiguous, there is a deeper problem with motions of this sort that prevents them from attracting a broad base of support: they rely on the false (or limited) analogy implied by the word 'apartheid'. This is not to say that there are no points of comparison, for there are - just as there are in a host of other countries where minority ethnic and national groups are oppressed. Nor is it even to say that the suffering experienced by Palestinians is less than that endured by 'non-whites' in South Africa: it may or may not be (although I am not sure how to do the sums). But as I have argued elsewhere: 'The validity of the analogy does not depend on a catalogue of atrocities, however appalling'."

The Association of Jewish Sixthformers (AJ6) issued a press release expressing dismay and concern "about the affects sic of any boycott on Jewish and Israeli Sixthformers." Specifically, AJ6 pointed to "partnerships and exchange visits with Israeli schools and colleges may be under threat", that "Jewish students who study in Israel during their Gap Years are worried that teachers may refuse to provide them with references for these programmes."The Association of Jewish Sixthformers “dismayed” by NATFHE boycott, AJ6 Press Release]

The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement which condemned the motion explaining::"It is profoundly unjust for academics in the only democratic country in the Middle East -- the only country where scholarship and debate are permitted to freely flourish -- to be held to an ideological test and the threat of being blacklisted because of their views. No one would expect a British or American professor to have to withstand such scrutiny of their political views. Yet, when it comes to Israel a different standard applies". [ [ ADL Slams British Academic Boycott Policy] , Anti-Defamation League, 26 May 2006, accessed 16 May 2008.]

The British government, through Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Lord Triesman, issued a statement that the motion was "counterproductive and retrograde" although the British Government recognized "the independence of the NATFHE." [ [ Lecturers call for Israel boycott] , British Broadcasting Corporation, 30 May 2006, accessed September 16 2006]

Paul Mackney, the general secretary of NATFHE, was sent over 15,000 messages from boycott opponents.Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt [,,1800987,00.html Israeli university boycott: how a campaign backfired] , The Guardian, June 20 2006, accessed September 17 2006]

Response to criticism

Mackney, the general secretary of NATFHE and who opposed the motion as passed, is quoted after the fact by the Guardian::"The ironic thing, is if we had put this to delegates a couple of weeks ago, before the international pro-Israeli lobby started this massive campaign emailing delegates and trying to deny us our democratic right to discuss whatever we like, it probably wouldn't have passed. People feel bullied, and what we have seen is a hardening of attitudes. All they achieved was making the delegates determined to debate and pass the motion."

Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt, reporting for the Guardian, conducted an analysis of "whether the campaigns against such boycotts are actually motivated by concerns for academic freedom, or whether they are using the universalist ideal to stifle critical discussion of Israel." They describe their findings this way::"Through discussions with anti-boycott campaigners and a trace of the most common emails (not necessarily abusive) sent to the union and handed over by Natfhe, we found the vast majority of the tens of thousands of emails originated not with groups fighting for academic freedom, but with lobby groups and thinktanks that regularly work to delegitimise criticisms of Israel."

University and College Union

On May 30, 2007, the congress of the University and College Union (created by the merger of AUT and NATFHE) voted (by 158 votes to 99) on Motion 30, which called for the UCU to circulate a boycott request by Palestinian trade unions to all branches for information and discussion. It called on lecturers to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions." [cite news | url=,,2099044,00.html| title='We will isolate them| author=Matthew Taylor, Suzanne Goldenberg and Rory McCarthy | date=2007-06-09 | publisher=The Guardian]

cquote2|Motion 30 as amended:
*Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.
*Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.
*Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.
*Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.
*Congress instructs the NEC to
**circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
**encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
**organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
**issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.
**actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinian educational institutions and to help set up nationally sponsored programmes for teacher exchanges, sabbatical placements, and research.
cite web | url= | title=CIRCULAR UCU/31 | date=2007-07-04 | author=University and College Union]

In September 2007, delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference voted to condemn the UCU's "perverse" decision. They called for University and College Union members to reject the proposal and continue to engage in "the fullest possible dialogue" with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. cite web | url= | title=academic-boycott-of-israel-condemned-by-liberal-democrats | publisher=Liberal Democrats]

Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, Columbia University said, saying, "As the president of an academic institution dedicated in large part to the preparation of teachers, I believe that universities and all centers of learning must be allowed to function as safe havens for freedom of discussion, debate and intellectual inquiry, standing apart from national and international politics and partisan strife. Only thus can they continue to produce scholarship that informs the policies and laws of democratic societies and stand as islands of hope in a frequently polarized world. ... Teachers College welcomes dialogue with Israeli scholars and universities and stands with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in expressing solidarity with them by inviting UCU to boycott us, as well."cite web |url= | title=President Fuhrman Responds to Proposed Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions | date=2007-06-19 | publisher=Teachers College, Columbia University]

Japanese physicist Shin-ichi Kurokawa of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan, wrote to the general secretary of UCU. He said the proposed boycott "clearly violates" Statute 5 of the International Council of Science. cite web | url= | title=JAPANESE PHYSICIST EXPRESSES STRONG OPPOSITION TO THE BOYCOTT | author=Shin-ichi Kurokawa | date=2007-07-28 | publisher=Scholars for Peace in the Middle East]

On 28th September 2007, UCU issued a press release stating that they had received legal advice that "an academic boycott of Israel would be unlawful and cannot be implemented". They had therefore decided to call off the tour. [ [ UCU press release] ]

ee also

* Economic and political boycotts of Israel
* Sanctions against Iranian scientists
* Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
* Disinvestment from Israel

External links

* [ Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel]
* [ Engage: A group campaigning against a boycott of Israel]
* [ The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain] by Ronnie Fraser, "Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs"


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