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The academic boycott debate

I mean it very specifically. It took place tonight. I was there. Here's my report. Also below.

On Wednesday November 28, 2007 I was in the audience for a debate on the question of whether Israel should be subjected to an academic boycott. In the midst of the farce of the Annapolis talks, it was refreshing that the terms of debate at least seemed to have some semblance of sanity. The disconnect between the discussion of Annapolis talks - from which Gaza's 1.3 million starving, terrorized people seem to have disappeared altogether and the Palestinian refugees, Palestinians inside Israel and the millions living under occupation in the West Bank are inconveniences - and the reality of daily brutality, torture, and murder, is hard to take even for those of us who are not suffering any of it. It's dehumanizing to have to listen to a debate, while Gaza is being starved, about whether Palestinians can guarantee Israeli security.

But a big, public debate at a packed auditorium on a North American campus, with four professors (none Palestinian, admittedly) and moderated by a mainstream (CBC) television/radio personality, about the legitimacy of using the academic boycott, was almost refreshing. Parts of it were refreshing. So refreshing that I'm sure it served as a reminder, to those who shut them down, of why these debates are so rarely allowed to occur.

Held at Ryerson University in Toronto, the debate was moderated by Suhanna Meharchand of the CBC and featured four professors, three of whom were from Ryerson itself. Two professors, John Caruana (Philosophy) and Stuart Murray (English), presented arguments against an academic boycott. Two others, Alan Sears (Sociology) and Salim Vally (Politics – based in South Africa but in Toronto as a visiting scholar) presented in favor of the boycott. Before offering my own thoughts, I will try to summarize their four (15-minute) presentations.

The four debaters

John Caruana's presentation had three main points. Acknowledging Israeli human rights violations, he said that the case of Israel/Palestine lacked consensus on who was to blame. There was consensus in South Africa and in Nazi Germany that these were horrible regimes. But there was no such consensus on Israel's regime, and the conflict was much more complex. But even if there was consensus (Caruana did not state his position on Israel's regime, but he later said that comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa was a “gross oversimplification”), Caruana argued, the boycott tactic could still be the wrong one, because it would punish academics who were dissident and trying to criticize or change the regime's policies. The boycott could thus have a perverse effect, punishing the very people with whom anti-apartheid activists should be working with. Finally, there were many regimes that did many bad things – from Iran's treatment of homosexuals to Sudan's treatment of Darfur or the South, to Britain's treatment of the Irish, to Canada's treatment of First Nations. If these regimes were not to be boycotted, neither should Israel's. If consistency could not be achieved, then anti-apartheid activists must not be acting according to ethical principles – something else, perhaps anti-semitism, might be at work. Caruana alluded to anti-semitism but suggested it was too simplistic to blame all anti-apartheid activism on anti-semitism.

Stuart Murray's central point was that academic freedom was both fundamental and poorly understood. Murray's presentation had a stronger critique of Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians than Caruana. There was a catalogue of horrors, he said, and he understood the impulse to want to act against them, and he supported action against them. But academic freedom ought to be above this. The academy ought not to be used in a politicized fashion to punish groups of individuals. Once that door was opened, Murray argued, the academy would no longer be a safe place to debate and discuss and hold dissident and minority positions. The majority would decide for everyone and political correctness would rule the day. Murray intimated several times in the presentation that he would be in favor of an economic boycott against Israel, but not an academic boycott. The reason students sought an academic boycott might come from a healthy impulse against human rights violations, but it misunderstood the importance of academic freedom. Why? Partly because the culture has debased the word freedom – when everyone from Bush to Oprah uses freedom, Murray said, what does it mean. And partly because the academy itself is increasingly a captive of corporate interests. Who can blame students for not understanding the sacredness of academic freedom? The use of phrases like “apartheid” was also unhelpful, Murray argued, and he reiterated Caruana's point that a boycott would isolate the dissidents who were critical of the regime.

Alan Sears began by referring to Caruana and Murray's presentations and the fear of “silencing” that they both expressed. Sears suggested that it was Palestinians, their voices, their experience, their politics and movements, that were silenced by our media and in our academy. He said that the academy has traditionally been a bastion of elite and powerful, white and male, and ideologies that served them. Academic freedom, if it was to have meaning, would have to include the excluded – and in this context, that meant the Palestinians. This was why, Sears said, that as a proponent of academic freedom he felt an academic boycott against Israel was necessary. For Palestinians to have a chance of academic freedom or any other kind of freedom, it was necessary for Israel to change, and for Israel to change, pressure will have to be exerted on it. The Palestinian movements themselves have called on internationals to create that pressure in the form of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, of which the academic boycott is only one part. And the academic boycott, contrary to Caruana and Murray's statements, was not a boycott against Israeli academics, but of Israeli academic institutions. It was a boycott of institution-to-institution ties (for more on this question, see this fine piece on the distinction between a boycott of individuals and a boycott of institutions: Not a boycott of Israelis because they are Israeli, but a refusal to collaborate with official programs between institutions, refusal to attend conferences in Israel, and so on. This was a specific pressure tactic to try to force a change of policy. Sears opened by celebrating the open debate and stating his hope that the openness could introduce some real information about Palestinian life, history, movements, and the realities of Israel's occupation. He said it was a testament to how closed the debate had been that in all his years of speaking out – against war, against homophobia, for action on HIV/AIDS, going back to the 1980s – he had never been commended for being “brave” the way he had been before his participation in this debate. He said he was a proponent of academic freedom and indeed, he was counting on it to protect him from the consequences of participating in this debate (a joke which drew some uncomfortable laughter).

Salim Vally began with a joke, assuring Sears that there would be international solidarity for his academic freedom if anything were to happen to him as a result of the debate. Vally spoke from his experience in South Africa, where he had experience in the academy under apartheid and after apartheid. He had suffered from apartheid and had also suffered directly from the boycotts that were applied – but he was part of the movement demanding such boycotts and would not have had it any other way. Working people, poor people, suffered more and sacrificed more in the fight against apartheid than anyone else, he said, and academic freedom was no more sacred than their freedoms. There was nothing sacred or special about academic freedom that made it transcend other freedoms. Academic freedom anyway came with a duty to respect the freedoms of others. Vally pointed out the inconsistency of the statement signed by Sheldon Levy, Ryerson University President, who condemned the academic boycott (along with most other University Presidents in Ontario). Here were these Presidents protesting the hypothetical loss of freedom that might come from some academics refusing to associate with Israeli institutions – but they had never raised any protest to the real, brutal violations of academic freedom, and every other kind, against Palestinian students, teachers, professors and researchers caused by Israel. Palestinian universities were regularly shut down. Teachers and students were detained, tortured, bombed, killed. Checkpoints prevented people from getting to school (starvation and malnutrition probably also have adverse effects on education). Vally said that the real challenge for Ryerson wasn't even this question of boycott. It was just this question – does Palestinian academic freedom matter at all? Because if Ryerson could reach the level where it did, that would be major progress.

Some awkward questions

A question period followed. Several questioners asked Murray and Caruana if they disagreed with Israel's destruction of Palestinian academic freedom but opposed the boycott, what would they do to help Palestinian freedom? Murray suggested an economic boycott but that an academic boycott would shut down debate. Another questioner suggested that Murray and Caruana exaggerated dissidence in Israel, given that Tanya Reinhart and Ilan Pappe had left Israel because it had become intolerable for them (Pappe had also been effectively boycotted by the Israeli academy). Murray answered that there were many Israeli groups that would be isolated by a boycott – B'tselem, Peace Now, Gush Shalom, and others. Sears reminded the audience that the boycott call was against institutions, not individuals. Caruana answered that institutions were made up of individuals, who would suffer from the boycott. He also compared the boycott campaign to the invasion of Afghanistan – it was a vengeful impulse, not a constructive one, and we do not want to become what we oppose.

A politics professor from Ryerson told an anecdote from the audience about his trip to Israel/Palestine to try to set up a project to train Palestinians in governance - “we thought that was a no-brainer”, he said, “since these would be the people who will eventually run a Palestinian state.” The Canadian International Development Agency, that would have funded the project, felt differently. Still, the professor had learned a lot at the conference he attended – both Americans and Israelis explained the dynamics of the Camp David conference in 2000. The Americans themselves admitted they were totally partial towards Israel. “I would have liked to have heard from the Palestinian negotiators,” he said by way of conclusion, “but they weren't allowed in. So much for academic freedom.”

Another Canadian professor, from a different southern Ontario University (Wilfrid Laurier), suggested that both Caruana and Murray were advocating political passivity. “You (Caruana) seem to be saying that since everyone commits crimes and we can't boycott everyone, we should boycott no one. You (Murray) ask 'who are we to speak?', the implicit assumption being we have no right to speak. In both cases you are advocating doing nothing.”

The most amusing moment came when a member of the audience mentioned the interference in Finkelstein's tenure process at DePaul University and how “pro-Palestinian” academics were made to suffer for their views. Did anyone on the panel know, she asked, of an academic being fired or denied tenure for being too pro-Israel? All four panelists looked at each other, stumped. Suhanna Meherchand turned to them and to the audience, asking: “Does anyone know of such a case?” Caruana suggested that no, there was no such case because Canada had academic freedom.

Vally's concluding remarks addressed the argument about “singling out Israel”: “Did the world boycott Pol Pot during apartheid? No. Pol Pot was worse than apartheid! It would not have worked! But South Africa, like Israel, wants to present itself as part of the West, and that is why it will work.” It wasn't just principles, but strategic considerations, that suggested the BDS strategy. Sears argued similarly that Israel/Palestine was a situation where movements on the ground have called for BDS, and that was the main reason to call it.

Why they shut down debates

Now to my own evaluation of the event. As readers probably know, I went to the event sympathetic to Sears and Vally's perspectives, and I think they made a lot more sense. I have tried, however, to present Caruana's and Murray's views faithfully. I believe that a defense of apartheid depends on avoiding open debates, and so the more of these kinds of debates that can be held, the better. There was something special about people's reactions, as if a taboo had been broken and simple questions that could not be asked and simple thoughts that could not be thought could now be.

If I could have asked a question, I think I would have asked it to Murray. He had argued against using slogans like “apartheid” because they obscured clear thinking. But had he not made “academic freedom” into such an empty slogan? If corporatization could debase academic freedom, how much more could racism and militarism do so? And if academic freedom had been so debased, if the university had become a tool of occupation and domination, would he then be in favor of an academic boycott?

What impressed me about the anti-boycott debaters was how much they conceded. Perhaps they knew it would not play well to a student constituency, but they did not use the “war on terror” frame at all, though Caruana did invoke Islamophobia and hinted at anti-semitism. Instead, they drew attention away from facts and towards more abstract principles. Caruana did so in a crude manner, using the British in Ireland and Canada against indigenous peoples as examples, but renaming them such that the British were “Plutonians” and the Irish “Rockians”, and the Canadians the “Costickans” and the indigenous the “First Inhabitants”. These were, he said, a “thought experiment”, but they functioned as poorly disguised cases to prove that if Israel should be boycotted, so too should Britain and Canada (both campaigns that would certainly be worth evaluating for their chances of success and supporting on principle at least, in my view). The principles, however, were inconsistent – ironic, given Caruana's accusation of inconsistency against boycott proponents. Remember, the entire debate had been set off by the President of the University signing a statement against the boycott and for academic freedom – for Israelis. But this President had not protested against the vast violations of academic freedom against Palestinians. Do Palestinians have academic freedom, Vally asked? Do Palestinians exist? It is easier to assume they do not and carry on than to have to come out and say that no, they do not, or that others are more important. A debate like this, on a day of sham negotiations, forces the discussion into the open, and a lot of it can't seem to hold up under scrutiny. So here's to more such.


Any audio recording made of the debate?

Great post. Very thought provoking read.

The argument that a boycott unfairly "singles out Israel" is one that annoys me.

The one variant of it that I have some respect for is one that I recall Chomsky making "Why not boycott the US?". This variant still bugs me but partly because I don't feel I have a satisfying response to it.

Anyway, why not an academic boycott of the US?

As with Israel, we are complicit in US crimes. As with Israel, our complicity not only hurts, often fatally, millions of people whom we are trained to forget, but also puts our own lives in danger. [It is almost funny how people who ask "Why single out Israel?" ignore how dangerous the Israeli Occupation is for everyone. One would think 9/11 and the war in Iraq would have knocked the blindfolds off.]

My response is that yes, there should be a academic boycott of the US, unless someone can show that another type of boycott would be more effective. It should make concrete demands - like ending the war in Iraq for starters.. However, building up support for it has to begin somewhere, why not begin with Israel, which is more vulnerable to it.

Why, for example, should union organizers not focus on workplaces where they can get best results before moving on to more challenging ones. Would we call them unfair or unprincipled for refusing to begin by taking on every employer in the country and doom their efforts from the outset?

That is my reply, but maybe you have a better one.


Boycott Israel for what it is doing to the Palestinians certainly. A very important cause. BUT as important is the boycott of Israel for what it is having US do in support of its atrocities in the occupied territories! We are being FORCED to participate in those atrocities through our government.

BTW, I thought when we said "NEVER AGAIN!", it was endorsed by EVERYBODY! I did not know that the Ultra-Zionists were keeping their fingers crossed behind their back when this vow was made.

Sorry for all the caps! I am very outraged by all of this.

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