Against Academic Boycotts of Israel

Mrak Hall (Wikimedia Commons).

Mrak Hall (Wikimedia Commons).

In October of 2018, University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold refused to give a student a letter of recommendation when he found out that she intended to study in Israel. The story went viral, garnering national attention for the professor and the school and sparking discussions on college campuses across the country about the nature of anti-Semitism and academic boycotts of Israel.

In response, over 100 civil rights, education, religious, faculty and student organizations called for a UC-wide response on the validity of academic boycotts of Israel. On Dec.13, 2018, all ten UC Chancellors released a joint statement opposing academic boycotts of Israel and Palestine.

Academic boycotts of Israel arise out of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (“BDS”) Movement. The movement has existed for as long as the state of Israel has been recognized internationally, and grew out of the Arab League boycott of Israel in 1950 after Israel’s War of Independence. According to the movement’s website, BDS “works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Ultimately, the movement is meant to bring activists from around the world together to cripple the Israeli economy and to bring about statehood for Palestine. Operating under the belief that Israeli educational institutions are “major, willing and persistent accomplices” in carrying out Israel’s “regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid,” the organizers of the BDS Movement stand in support of Palestinians by calling on academic institutions to join in on boycotts and place “real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation.” Beyond sending students to live and study in Israel where they will interact with Israelis and contribute to the local economy, universities do business with Israeli companies. Academic boycotts of Israel are the symbolic show of opposition against Israeli institutions while the divestment from business deals with Israeli companies more tangibly target what makes Israel strong.

Unlike the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which utilizes education to promote a just resolution to the conflict, BDS offers no policy proposals or direct actions people can take that benefit Palestinian people that do not also target Israeli people. BDS is a tool used by those who reject Israel’s right to statehood to simplify a multi-faceted and complex issue for purely political purposes. The academic boycotts of Israel are another attempt by BDS to change the political landscape of Israel’s relationships internationally as the U.S. and other countries continue to support Israel’s statehood. This is not to say that criticism of Israel is bad—Israel is an undoubtedly flawed country, just as all countries are, and people should engage in constructive criticism of the state’s policies. However, it is important to note that criticism of the only Jewish state often turns anti-Semitic. Any time a claim against Israel seeks to delegitimize, demonize, or hold the state to double standards, the criticism can no longer be considered constructive and must be seen for what it is—anti-Semitism. BDS engages in anti-Semitic rhetoric and ignores Israel’s efforts to bring about a two-state solution. Academic boycotts of Israel seek to punish Israel for actions no other countries are criticized for rather than promote the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Academic boycotts of Israel unfairly single out Israeli academics who are contributing to their fields and are doing amazing things, such as finding new ways to cure incurable cancers. Beyond this, they limit cooperation between Israeli and American institutions, which prevents America from benefiting from Israeli innovations, like the atmospheric water generator that produces water from air—Israel sent this to California to help in the Camp Fire relief efforts. Students who attend schools participating in academic boycotts of Israel are unable to supplement their coursework with practical experience. Israeli and Palestinian professors have a unique view of the world that students are unable to experience at their home institution—exposure to new ideas is why students decided to study abroad. Academic boycotts of Israel limit student development as students are unable to experience different cultures for themselves and make their own judgements of the world. For example, legal scholars disagree on the legal definition of “occupation” and whether Israel is actually committing any international crimes like the BDS Movement asserts. Were students unable to interact with Israeli institutions, they may never know this debate, and blindly believe the one-sided assertions. Instead of giving students the opportunity to think critically, administrations and professors that engage in the BDS Movement decide that the campus must comply with their opinions. Important discussions are halted on campus and abroad, limiting the free exchange of ideas and the educations students receive.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with universities participating in academic boycotts of Israel—students are not allowed to develop their own opinions, and discussions of larger, multifaceted political conflicts are stopped. The marketplace of ideas is stifled and education is limited as one side of the argument looms over the campus, preventing challenging discourse from arising. Academic boycotts of Israel are inevitably linked to political issues and we should avoid boycotts so as to allow students to learn, free of our own political opinions. By keeping personal politics out of education, we can promote a free exchange of ideas and have a more informed population, able to draw their own conclusions from the facts presented to them.