Why I support the academic boycott of Israel




I belong to two academic institutions both of which issued public statements in 2007 opposing all academic boycotts:

With great respect for these two institutions, I disagree. I explain below why I believe that academic boycotts may, in some circumstances, be justifiable, and in particular why they are justifiable when applied to Israel. The 2015 ‘commitment’ in the Guardian is signed by 18 academics from UCL and four fellows of the British Academy; I’m proud to be a member of both these groups, and would like to urge other colleagues to add their names.  For more on this commitment, click here.

Academic boycotts in general

Nobody objects to commercial and sporting boycotts, which are generally accepted as a legitimate means to a political end. They are only to be used, of course, in pathological cases where other means have failed, so they are not part of normal, healthy international relations. But apparently academic boycotts are different. Why?

  • The UCL argument is that academic boycotts conflict with ‘freedom of inquiry’, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘academic freedom’.
  • The British Academy claims that academic boycotts interfere with ‘freedom of opinion and expression’, scholars’ ‘ability to exercise their bona fide academic freedoms’, and ‘the free circulation of scientists and scientific ideas’, and that they also ‘impose unjust punishment’.

The ‘unjust punishment’ argument applies to all boycotts, so it is not relevant here. The other arguments suffer from two serious weaknesses:

  • Academic boycotts would not, in fact, have any of these supposed effects bar one: limiting the free circulation of scientists (but not of their ideas). Even under a complete international academic boycott, the researchers in the targeted country would still be able to research and publish as freely as before. Instead of demonstrating that academic boycotts would have these effects, and how, the statements merely imply an association; but argument by association is not worthy of serious academics. Click here for a more detailed statement of this objection.
  • The statements ignore the case for academic boycotts. Like all boycotts, they are the lesser of two evils. Even warfare is generally accepted as justified in some cases as the lesser of two evils. Why are academic boycotts different?

Click here for a longer and more thorough discussion of the issues.

The case of Israel in particular

Both of these condemnations of academic boycotts were triggered by the move towards an academic boycott of Israel taken by the lecturers’ union, the University and College Union. On June 8 2007 the executive committee agreed to debate the pros and cons of such a boycott, and since then this and other unions have continued the debate. According to both UCL and the British Academy, this debate is unnecessary because academic boycotts are always wrong, so there can never be any case for them. For those of us who believe they may, sometimes, be the lesser of two evils, the debate is important. After considering the arguments, no doubt different people will come to different conclusions, but a debate is important.

My view is that the behaviour of Israel does, in fact, justify an academic boycott because the evils targeted by the boycott are greater than the boycott itself. My main argument is that the state of Israel is fundamentally objectionable as a racist state created at the expense of the region’s indigenous population. (This point was made particularly forcefully as early as 1947, before Israel was created, in an article in The American Magazine by King Abdullah, grandfather of the present King of Jordan).  As a democracy, the state shares the responsibility with all its citizens, including the academics.

This is why:

Why only Israel?

  • Some defenders of Israel ask why Israel should receive this kind of attention when so many other states deserve serious criticism. My personal answer is that Israel is unique among offending states for the following reasons:
  • It receives blind and unconditional moral support from the governments of the USA and the UK, and massive financial and military support from the USA.
  • The unfair treatment of Palestinian Muslims by Israel (and the West in general) is an affront to Muslims world-wide which is easily used as an argument in recruiting terrorists.
  • Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land has taken place recently (within my lifetime) and still continues.
  • Click here for a detailed analysis, by the (Israeli) Coalition of Women for Peace, of the commercial companies that support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
  • Click here for a much more detailed discussion of this question by a Canadian Jew.
  • (2011) The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a website.

Supporting Palestine

Alongside the boycott of Israel, a number of organisations are trying to present the Palestinians in a more positive light than they often receive. Here’s a small selection which I would like to grow:




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