My old-fashioned liberalism raises its fists combatively at the words “academic boycott”, words I can only utter with the face of one sucking on a lemon. It would never have occurred to me that a cessation of conversation, a walking away, a final judgement could be a good thing.
Except, some Palestinians and Israelis have called for it, and after years of devil’s advocacy against pro- and anti-boycott activists, academics, students, and observers, I’m pretty much persuaded.
I never had any argument with the idea that Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the Occupation: that some of them have (proportionally tiny) departments where a genuine conversation about Zionism does take place is no more a justification of the institutions in question than pointing out that Guantanamo inmates occasionally have a view of the sea. But I didn’t buy the idea that it’s always best to do something rather than nothing: what will boycott actually achieve, I wondered, other than isolating some potential voices for change?
Putting aside most of the well-rehearsed arguments on both sides, that for boycott hinges for me on two claims. Firstly, academic institutions in Israel are, it is asserted by boycotters, in some way susceptible to change that sets them apart from, say, Saudi or North Korean institutions. Meanwhile, the argument for boycott also depends on demonstrating that engagement with them is not the probable agent of this change, and in fact works to make such change less likely rather than more likely.
It is Israel’s self-projection as the front-line of Western Modernity in a clash of civilisations that makes the first claim compelling (and part of the reason why, for example, there is more high-profile critique of Israel than, say, Saudi Arabia in the first place). Of course, many Israeli institutions have high academic standards and are capable of producing world-class research which benefits and has benefited humanity. Israeli academics are integrated into knowledge exchanges with global academia founded on a system of peer-review. Of course this system’s (a)morality, founded on the depersonalised rigour of critique and counter-critique, does not require that institutions distance themselves from the violence much of their work produces, so long as it is sufficiently rational.
In any case, the prospect of being isolated from this system may unnerve university administrators and academics, for whom the global academy is a source of legitimacy. Such isolation may indeed provoke professors of engineering, chemistry, history, archaeology and so on to consider the applications of their work or the validity of the discourses upon which their work and that of their colleagues is based, and reassess their relationship with the specific violence of Occupation. If there is any hope of change within Israeli academic discourse, then this hope should animate us.
But if these institutions are in fact susceptible to change, then surely it is worth engaging with them to make this change more likely, encouraging dissident voices as they challenge their students and colleagues? I don’t think so. An engineering lecturer whose work contributes to equipping the IDF is not somehow pointed towards radical self-criticism by the engagement of other engineers within his or her discipline, and certainly not by the presence of a motivated anti-Zionist social scientist the other side of campus.
Within the disciplines in which structural critique is more prominent - principally the humanities, social sciences and philosophy - could a a majority of fellow Israeli scholars not be prompted towards such self-critique through debate? Indeed, is not the dissidence of those Israeli academics who already expose the fatal delusions of Israeli discourse also the product of the Israeli academy? If so, the boycott argument fails. Alas, it is a hard case to make. More likely, where dissidents are active in the academy they are active against an overwhelming institutional and national consensus which preserves them almost as curiosities, supposed evidence of genuine pluralism and a legal-rational basis for public policy which is manifestly absent in Israel and the territories it controls. While they may do considerable good in their own teacher-pupil relations and through their research, in institutional terms they are arguably a fig leaf concealing the hegemony of a discourse structurally oriented towards the perpetuation of violence. Thus they should be encouraged as individuals and together, but we need not accept that their legitimacy as intellectuals stems in any way from the Israeli academy which employs them.
Importantly, the boycott argument has consistently advocated engagement with Israeli academics on an individual basis, thus it is not a cessation of conversation. However boycott is a refusal to accept the authenticating seal of approval of any Israeli institution the lion-share of whose research and human output serves to reinforce the discourses, technologies and policies of violence which we must resist.