SOAS Israeli academic boycott – is it justified and effective?

By Sarah Isal, student of War Studies and Philosophy at King’s College London.

Clearly, the Israel-Palestine conflict fuels a lot of Saturday night fever of harassing, yet passionate debate, over the same old song: who’s the bad guy? To make a sixty-seven yearlong story short: intolerance. TADA! So, is the School of Oriental and African Studies’ (SOAS) Israeli academic boycott justified? No. Is it effective? Even less so. Take a deep breath.

Let’s agree on the premise that all reasonable students should share: the Palestinian cause is of great importance and must raise awareness in all universities and beyond.

However, the boycott of Israel in universities is a desolating move. Instead of creating a passage to coexistence, it annihilates all hope for a viable solution. I am pro-Palestinian, as I believe that Palestinians deserve a land on which enlightened principles of liberty, equality and democracy will prevail; but I am also a Zionist, because I believe in a Jewish state, where peace will, at last, stretch out its unwavering arm. Both are not incompatible. Boycotting Israel introduces in universities a false Cornelian dilemma that forces the academic community to either utterly undermine Israel legitimacy or agree upon all the allegations made by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Launched in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian civil societies, the goal of BDS is mainly to isolate Israel through an economic boycott. Nevertheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself unambiguously declared that his government does not support the boycott of Israel, making a clear-cut distinction between Israel’s borders and its settlement in Palestinian territories[1].

Israel and boycott have been age long fellows even before the creation of the State of Israel in the May 1948 United Nations vote. In December 1945, the newly formed League of Arab States aimed to nip any Jewish ambitions in the bud of the essential Palestinian state by enforcing economic pressures. That’s prevention. Nowadays, boycott finds its justification in the comparison made between the pre-1994 South Africa and the Palestinian faith in Israel and particularly in Gaza and the West Bank. Very often, the word ‘apartheid’ is used to mirror the discriminations that Palestinians face. Some funky mathematicians came up with the equation that Jews equal Nazis. And it knocked me down. Again, two cardinal distinctions need to be made: the discriminations inside the Israeli borders (may they be controversial) and in the settlement policies by the Israeli government. The former case is simple: Arabs benefit from the Israeli citizenship by having equal rights defined by the Israeli Basic Laws. In fact, there exist around 21 Arab political parties that have recently created a non-precedented coalition that propelled them to become the third-largest political faction in Israel[2].

What truly differs, however, are the respective civic duties (e.g. no mandatory military service for obvious reasons). Of course, and unfortunately, there are discriminations perpetuated by Israelis. They are reprehensive and condemned by the law. However, they do not reflect the majority view of Israeli society. When Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian, was murdered in June 2014 in retaliation for the assassination of three Israeli teens, the Israeli society and politicians like Tzipi Livni called this crime a ‘terrorist act’. Israel does posses its own devils but they are called extremists. On the other hand, the culprits of the murder of the Israelis were celebrated as heroes and received Palestinian popular support, strongly encouraged by Hamas spokesmen Fawzi Barhoum and Sami Abu Zuhri.

The situation concerning the settlements is far more complex. Unilaterally condemned by the international community, the Israeli occupation is seen as illegal and harmful to the peace process. The main argument of this association is the separation that exists between the Palestinians living in Gaza and in the West Bank with the rest of the country. The construction of an Israel-Gaza barrier is chastised, and is often being accused to trap Palestinians in ‘no-ceiling concentration camps’. Nonetheless, the comparison with an apartheid regime is inaccurate. First of all, the barrier is no less than a security frontier that delineates two distinct state authorities:  the Israeli one and the Palestinian one (i.e. Fatah, Hamas). It is a protection wall that prevents illegal immigration to Israel. The same barrier exists between Mexico and the United States (i.e. 554.1 km of triple layered-fencing and a vehicle fence). So far, no Schengen-like agreement has been reached between Israel and the Palestinian authority and transcending the borders requires passing through checkpoints (e.g. between Gaza and Egypt). Since the construction of the wall in 1994, the terrorist attacks in Israel have plummeted, especially suicide bombings that have been close to eliminated. In 2007, Israel experienced nine months without a suicide bombing inside its borders for the first time since 2000. Moreover, since 2013, Israel facilitates economic talks in order to strengthen Palestinian authority in their struggle against Hamas. The number of work permits has skyrocketed from 33,000 to 48,000 and the age of eligibility for receiving the permit was lowered to 24-years-old.

But the academic boycott goes beyond economic and geographical issues. In 2004, Palestinian academics and intellectuals launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. They claim that the ‘Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to the Israeli occupation or, at the very least, have been complicit through their silence.’[3] This trend to politicise science jeopardizes the pilgrimage for peace that scholars and students have been attempting to faithfully preserve in universities. Impeding on the work of Israeli scholars because of their nationality seems to be a targeted autodafé of academic thinking and undermines the International Council for Science (ICSU), whose aim is the international cooperation in the advancement of science (i.e. more than 12 Nobel Memorial Prizes in Economic Sciences are held by Israelis). Universities are places where freedom of speech, intellectual inquiry and debates should not be high jacked by international politics. In June 2002, Mona Baker a professor of translation studies at Manchester University, England, fired two Israeli scholars on the sole ground of their nationality, saying that she refused to be associated by all means with Israeli ‘representatives’.

The encounter of cultures sitting around the table of tolerance is the solution to the conflict. Universities and especially the Anglo-Saxon ones are kaleidoscopes of skin colours, religious beliefs, political utopia and culinary diversity. Let the Israeli society meet the Palestinian society on Trafalgar square, where a few months ago, the French and the Britons gathered to declare their eternal support of the freedom of expression.  Bring Humus and everybody will share the pita bread. That’s what “friends” means in French (Oh, sweet GCSE!) ‘amis’, the ones who share bread.

Boycotters of all countries! You are up in arms for the wrong fight in choosing censorship rather than peace. Boycott is a time-consuming, non-effective and friendship-breaking tool. We are all tired of the situation in the Middle East, Palestinians as well as Israelis. Let’s raise awareness for the generation of decision makers to come; give them no choice but to understand that Israel cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people anymore, that being pro-Palestinian is not incompatible with the right for Jews to have a nation and that anti-Zionism is a semantic mascarade for anti-Semitism.







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