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Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: Myths and Realities

At the time of writing, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) members are asked to vote for a motion that, if endorsed, would pave the way for a discussion about the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign against Israel. This article is not a defense of the motion, which I wholeheartedly support, but is a contribution to what I hope will be a sustained discussion over the year about BDS itself.

In 2002, Palestinian civil society launched a call for citizens around the world to boycott and divest from Israel until it recognizes Palestinian human rights, namely: an end to the occupation and siege of Arab lands; respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees; and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. In 2004, Palestinian academics and intellectuals launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott. The campaign was endorsed by Palestinian academic, cultural and other organizations, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinians Universities’ Professors and Employees, which is the representative organization for higher education staff in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Since then, the campaign has become a global movement. The number of countries where there are campaigns to support BDS continues to increase yearly and currently includes the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy, South Africa, India, and Pakistan.

BDS can take several forms but of particular interest to members of AMEWS is the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Unsurprisingly, supporters of Israel have been very vocal in condemning the academic boycott, often resorting to its mischaracterization. Foremost, they have claimed that the boycott is racist. In response, it is essential to emphasize that the academic boycott does not target Israelis as individuals but rather Israeli institutions and their official representatives. Moreover, it is not a call to boycott Israel indefinitely but until it ends its systematic violations of international law. 

A number of other arguments have been put forward to delegitimize BDS, often by people who claim to support Palestinian rights or peace in Israel/Palestine. Here I attempt to debunk those myths and explain why BDS in general, including the academic boycott, is a legitimate means of ensuring justice in Israel/Palestine—without which, there will never be true peace.

Myth #1: BDS Prevents Dialogue and Is Therefore Contrary to Peace-making

BDS represents a radical departure from traditional, liberal peace-making paradigms, based on dialogue and cooperation. BDS has emerged because of the failure of the liberal peace-building paradigm embodied in the Oslo peace process. More than 20 years of the Oslo process has not ended Israel’s occupation and annexation of Palestinian land (and has even enabled more land grabs) and not achieved a just solution for Palestinian refugees, let alone ended violent conflict in Israel/Palestine.

BDS recognizes that a large part of that failure has been the result of the disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians as well as the failure of the Oslo process to recognize Palestinian rights granted through international law and rights conventions. Israel, either with US complicity or active participation, has forced the Palestinians to negotiate and trade their human rights in the name of ‘peace’. Meanwhile, the international community has failed, time and again, to hold Israel to account for its numerous violations of international law, which include land confiscation, settlement building, home demolitions, blockade and siege, detentions without trial, torture and war crimes. The Palestinian Authority has been repeatedly pressured by the US and the EU not to seek membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to protect Israel from accountability. Whilst the ICC accepted in January 2015 to investigate war crimes in Palestinian territories, this has come at a huge price for Palestinians in the OPT, with Israel suspending the transfer of more than $100 million of Palestinian tax revenues and the US threatening to suspend aid.

Against this back-drop, BDS represents a new paradigm for peace, opening up new spaces of dialogue based on rights and justice.

Myth #2: BDS Unfairly Targets Israeli Universities, Who Are at the Forefront of Supporting Peace

Any efforts by Israeli universities to support peace are overshadowed by their complicity in Israel’s decades-long occupation and violation of Palestinian rights. Universities are involved in research and development of weapons technology that is used to enforce Israel’s colonial policies against Palestinians. For example, Technion University has developed a remote-controlled ‘D9’ bulldozer used by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian homes; Bar Ilan University has participated in joint research with the Israeli army to develop artificial intelligence for unmanned combat vehicles that have been used in Israel’s various assaults against the Gaza Strip; private weapons technology firms, such as Elbit, are involved in co-advising Israeli PhD students studying in science and engineering and the Inderdisciplinary Center in Herzliya was responsible for developing the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’, or doctrine of disproportionate force, which was used in the 2014 war on Gaza. Israeli universities are also involved in military training.

Several major Israeli universities publicly expressed their support for the IDF during ‘Operation Protective Edge’, whilst punishing opposition to the war on university campuses. In general, Israeli universities offer free tuition and other academic benefits to Israelis who serve in the IDF, which necessarily discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not conscripted to the army. 

Whilst there are courageous individuals in Israeli universities that oppose Israel’s colonial policies, they are in a minority, often intimidated and censored for their opinions, and their opposition has not led to a change in the policies of their institutions. Far from isolating those individuals, BDS is in solidarity with them.

Myth #3: BDS is A Violation of Free Expression and Academic Freedom

BDS does not prevent academics employed by Israeli universities from attending international conferences, publishing their research or meeting with colleagues from institutions in other parts of the world. The BDS guidelines request that we do not allow Israeli academic institutions to operate as ‘business as usual’ whilst they continue to be complicit with their government’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights. Specifically, we are asked to respect the following:

  • not attending conferences hosted by Israeli institutions and/or funded by the State of Israel;
  • not giving lectures at Israeli institutions;
  • not conducting joint research with Israeli institutions;
  • not sponsoring student visits to Israeli institutions;
  • not reviewing academic grant proposals for Israeli grant-giving bodies;
  • not reviewing articles for academic journals based in Israeli institutions.
  • The only individuals targeted by BDS are those acting in an official capacity as representatives of academic institutions or academics acting as representatives of the State of Israel.

Meanwhile, it is opponents of BDS that are trying to shut down free expression by intimidating those who support it or even by preventing discussion of BDS. In 2011, Israel banned its citizens from calling for boycotts of Israeli goods, services, or organizations.

Moreover, it is important to highlight that Israel’s colonial policies are a significant obstacle to Palestinian academic freedoms and rights to education. Since 1967, Israel has periodically shut down Palestinian universities for months on end and targeted them in military operations. During Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, educational facilities in the Gaza Strip were bombed and several West Bank universities were raided by the Israeli authorities, causing damage to and destruction of university property. Because of Israel’s 10-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian students there have been prevented from travelling to West Bank universities and vice versa. Palestinian academics and students in Gaza have limited opportunities to travel internationally for education or conferences because they can only exit through the Rafah crossing, which is only open for limited periods, and have difficulties obtaining visas for onward travel. Palestinians in the West Bank are obliged to travel overland to Jordan to catch an international flight, adding a further day to travel plans and ’48 and Jerusalemite Palestinians face humiliating ‘security’ procedures at Ben Gurion airport. Unsurprisingly, it is unusual to meet Palestinian academics at international conferences, including the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting.

Myth #4: BDS Unfairly Targets Israel

Some claim that Israel is being unfairly targeted when there are many more egregious violators of human rights in the world. Israel has already been singled out by the levels of international impunity that it enjoys, unlike other violators of human rights. It is also singled out by the US to receive hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, whilst the EU has included Israel as the only non-European country eligible to apply for academic and scientific funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.

Some also claim that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are also violating Palestinian human rights. Unlike Israel, Hamas has been punished by Western governments through their boycott of the Hamas government and their complicity in Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Rights violations by the PA are part of its role in policing Israel’s occupation (otherwise known as ‘security cooperation’). Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power, bears primary responsibility for human rights violations in the OPT.

Myth #5: Boycotts and Sanctions Do Not Work

On the contrary, civil society boycotts, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and the anti-South African apartheid movement of the 1980s, have a history of bringing huge moral pressure to bear on governments and other organizations to address unjust situations. The global BDS movement not only pressures Israel but other governments that enable Israel to continue its unlawful behavior, not least amongst them, the United States. In addition, the boycott is also tactical because of the huge degree of internationalization of Israeli academic institutions.

Finally, we are morally obliged to respect the call to boycott Israel because it emanates from the victims of Israeli violations. As Desmond Tutu has famously said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’. As a feminist, I side with the oppressed against the oppressor. If civil societies in any other part of the world called for a boycott of institutions complicit in their oppression, including my own, I would equally consider their call.

[This article is reprinted from an article appearing in the February 2015 edition of the e-bulletin of the Association for Middle East Women's Studies.]

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