Academics fortify boycott of Israel

Pro-Palestine protesters march in Houston, Texas, May 15, 2021. PHOTO: Taidgh Barron
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Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted in late March to pass a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) that has been targeting Israel for its mistreatment of Palestinians. Over a thousand MESA members voted for the referendum. As Noura Erakat, Palestinian-American activist, human rights attorney, and Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University puts it, “This victory is an important one — indeed, an historic one. May it contribute to the liberation of Palestinians everywhere.”

The grass-roots BDS movement was launched in the early 2000s to fight the Israeli government’s deadly military occupation and theft of Palestinian land. Palestinian-led, it has become an international movement that, as its charter states, “Upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.”

Many academic associations around the world have joined in boycotts of Israel. According to Wikipedia, “the current campaign for an academic boycott of Israel was launched in 2004 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).” This campaign stresses the “boycott” aspect of BDS and works within the overall movement.

Most people don’t know that Israel’s military systematically raids Palestinian universities under the pretense of countering “terrorist activities.” It has imprisoned and killed students participating in peaceful demonstrations and randomly closed universities. Recently, the military began to control the subjects taught at the universities. And a new governmental procedure allows the military to restrict entry of visiting professors who teach subjects not approved, because “they are not relevant to Palestinians.”

Academic boycotts very specifically target Israeli universities and individual scholars, because all Israeli universities agree with the apartheid occupation — and several collaborate with the armed forces to develop tools and methods of oppression. The goal is to isolate Israel internationally to force a change in its segregationist (apartheid) policies towards Palestinians.

Such boycotts can take several forms: a university severing collaboration with an Israeli university; individuals rejecting funding, promotion or cooperation with an Israeli university, or not attending conferences in Israel; academic presses halting publication of works by Israeli scholars; individual scholars rejecting collaboration with Israeli counterparts. All can be effective.

It is the effectiveness of the campaign that has led to massive push-back by backers of Israel. Pro-Israeli forces routinely denounce defenders of academic boycotts, and the larger BDS movement for being “anti-Semitic” and “threatening the free flow of ideas.” They strive to get laws passed against any pro-Palestinian activity. In the U.S., 35 states have passed anti-BDS laws.

However, there is a silver lining. Despite having bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, attempts to pass anti-BDS bills have failed to become federal law in the United States. And as of Spring 2022, no western country has criminalized BDS or academic boycotts of Israel.

This is, in part, due to the support the Palestinian rights movement has internationally. Undoubtedly, determined, wide-ranging, grass-roots organizing is the way forward for Palestinian rights.

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