Boycotting the Israeli academy
Israel's ongoing siege of Gaza has provoked an international outcry and organizing in support of Palestinian rights. Among the responses is a movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel in a variety of ways. This strategy takes as its inspiration the international movement to end apartheid in South Africa.
David Lloyd is a founding member of the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (US-ACBI), established in January, and a professor of English at the University of Southern California. Lloyd spoke to about academic boycotts and academic freedom.
HOW DID US-ACBI get started?
WE WERE responding to the 2004 call by a group of academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. In the wake of Israel's Gaza offensive, a group of supporters of Palestinian solidarity activists in California put out a nationwide call for a US-ACBI.
The Israeli military was engaging in deliberate attacks on Palestinian schools and universities in Gaza, so this assault acted as a catalyst for a few individuals to respond. Since that time, the group has grown and become a national committee. So the impetus came from California, but the boycott has spread more widely.
WHAT ARE the goals of the boycott?
THE IDEAL goal is for all U.S. academic institutions to cease all moral and material support to Israeli academic and cultural institutions. However, we realize we are a long way from achieving the ideal goal. Our intermediary goal is to use the call for a boycott to educate the public about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the role of Israeli academic institutions in sustaining and enabling the occupation.
Almost all Israeli universities are state institutions, and are integrated into the security and military apparatus and the Israeli knowledge economy that supplies the technical systems and the demographic and geographical data that permit the daily work and the expansion of the occupation. They are part of the state apparatus.
During the recent assault on Gaza, and, indeed, throughout the course of the occupation, only about 100 Israeli academics, according to Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé, protested the bombardment or have opposed Israeli state policy. Not a single Israeli academic institution has protested. The universities are embedded in supporting the occupation.
That's why we are calling for no academic cooperation with Israeli institutions, because it amounts to collaboration with the occupation.
WHAT ARE the targets of the boycott?
THE PALESTINIAN ACBI call is very clear: The academic boycott targets Israeli institutions without infringing on the rights of individual academics to hold and voice their opinions. We are asking supporters of the boycott not to extend support to institutions that are responsible for the destruction of Palestinian institutions and to hold them responsible for destroying Palestinian academic freedom.
ACBI holds academic institutions in Israel and the U.S. to the accepted standard of extending the rights of academic freedom to all scholars and students, no matter where they are, their race, gender, religion, sexuality and so forth.
Palestinian institutions, academics and scholars have been systematically targeted; their rights to freedom of movement, research and study infringed on a daily and extended basis; their right to memory and access to the international scholarly world deliberately restricted. This destruction of Palestinian scholarly life is an intrinsic element of the occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights.
At the same time, Israeli institutions are responsible for supporting the occupation in multiple ways through their academic research. For example, they provide the government with demographic studies necessary for population transfer or for the construction of the separation wall, as well as hydraulic surveys that contribute to exploiting the water aquifer on Palestinian lands.
WHAT IS the current focus of US-ACBI's campaign?
ONE MAJOR campaign we are working on is the Education Abroad Program (EAP) at the University of California (UC) system. There is a study abroad program to Israel that was suspended as a consequence of a State Department advisory. California Scholars for Academic Freedom, some of whose members are also endorsers of US-ACBI, is calling on the UC system not to reinstate the EAP to Israel.
We oppose the EAP because the immigration policies of the Israeli government are inherently racist. The U.S. State Department has a travel advisory for visitors to Israel, not so much for security concerns, but because travelers of Arab decent are likely to be detained for questioning and may be barred from entry, especially Palestinians, Syrians and Iranians. These policies are on their face discriminatory and potentially in breach of the non-discrimination policies of UC, and indeed, of universities and colleges generally.
Our argument is that the UC system shouldn't contravene its own non-discrimination policies by reinstating the EAP. We hope that the campaign can extend to other university systems and continue to be a means of educating the ways in which Israel is a constitutively racist state.
IS THERE any connection between the academic boycott of Israel and academic freedom?
THE CALIFORNIA Scholars for Academic Freedom originated as a response to the so-called "dirty thirty" smear campaign launched by a former UCLA student. This student, who is an associate of David Horowitz, "outed" 30 academics as "radical leftists" in a smear campaign against progressive teachers.
Horowitz and his supporters are engaged in an insidious campaign to censor professors. For instance, he has proposed a student "bill of rights" to be adopted at every university in the U.S., which would have the effect of permitting political monitoring of the classroom.
Recently, Prof. Bill Robinson at UC Santa Barbara has been under official investigation for distributing "controversial" materials to his students about the Gaza offensive. He is in part accused of introducing material not advertised in the course syllabus. Adhering strictly to the syllabus is one of the positions of Horowitz's student bill of rights, even though it interferes with the flexibility to teach in relation to current events and with the ability to demonstrate the relevance of teaching material to the present.
Another claim against Robinson is anti-Semitism. Various Zionist lobbies, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), are seeking to define all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. In doing so, they are interfering directly with the free speech of academics and freedom of public debate in general.
This immense pressure is intended to prevent and close down public debate about Israel, despite the fact that U.S. political and financial support enables the ongoing occupation and is probably one of the most important foreign policy issues confronting this country.
HOW DO academic limitations affect the debate on U.S. foreign policy?
DURING THE Gaza offensive, the U.S. Senate passed a statement drafted by AIPAC, which was demonstrably false in many respects. It stated that Hamas broke the ceasefire, even though it was widely known that Israel had broken the ceasefire on November 4 and planned the offensive six months prior to the December assault.
It didn't mention that Israel's blockade of Gaza throughout the ceasefire was itself a breach of international law and de facto an act of war. It failed to mention that throughout the ceasefire, Hamas had succeeded in almost entirely preventing rocket attacks on Israel.
The Zionist lockdown of political and media discourse on Israel is such that it is almost impossible to have a free and open discussion of U.S. policy in the Middle East--whether in Congress or in the mainstream media.
We are left with only one recourse: to appeal to U.S. civil society at large to defend the right to criticize Israeli state policy and to educate the public about the facts of the occupation. In a sense, it has been the closure of the discourse on Israel that has forced us to react by joining the call for a nonviolent BDS campaign.
HOW DOES ACBI connect with the larger struggle against Israeli apartheid?
FEW OF us have any illusions that academic institutions will change overnight. We would love to have an impact on promoting the divestment of university funds from Israel, as Hampshire College recently did.
What we do know is that we can create teachable moments through our activities and force Zionists to justify Israel's racism and the apartheid system that the occupation has put in place. We can educate more people about what we're spending $3 billion in taxes each year on, about how all that money is being used.